Making Effective Presentations: Introduction

The key to effective presentations lies in careful preparation. You need to know about your audience and their expectations; you need to identify your own objectives (do you intend to inform or persuade your audience?); you need to sequence your information in a logical way and you need to know the best ways to create and keep the audience’s interest. You should also have your audio-visual aids ready and in the right sequence and should check that the equipment is in working order.

Your audience

Before you start to think about the content of your presentation, look at what you know about the audience. Ask yourself:

  1. Why they are attending.
  2. What they want to know.
  3. How much information they have already.
  4. What technical language they use or are familiar with.

If you were presenting information about road safety, your approach to an audience of parents would be quite different from your approach to an audience of policemen. Parents would be concerned primarily with protecting their children. They would be looking for advice and information on safe practices. The police, on the other hand, would be far more interested in statistics, on looking for those responsible for road accidents, on the relationship between traffic regulations and safety.

Presentations for information

If you have information to give an audience, you must decide on the most logical sequence for the material. In your introduction you should state your name, your company or organization and your credentials and the purpose of your talk:

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Mary Green and I’m a consultant with the Insight Corporation. I have ten year’s experience in the field of X and the purpose of my talk today is give you the results of our recent research into Y.

It is important in the first stage of the presentation to give the audience some signposts and some approximate times. This is rather like having an agenda for a meeting; the audience knows what to expect and finds it easier to follow:

My presentation today will take about fifteen minutes and falls into three stages. First I will remind you briefly of the background to the research. Next I will spend about eight minutes outlining the results and I will conclude by talking for two or three minutes about the implications of these findings. There will be another ten minutes available at the end of my talk for you to ask questions.

As you reach the end of each stage of your presentation it is a good idea to signal this:
That concludes the background information…

and to briefly summarize the main points of that section,
and, as you can see, there are two main points to bear in mind: the effects of early research on current practices and the gaps in our knowledge that were identified.

You should then signal your move to the next stage:
Now I want to turn to the results of our recent research.

Presentations to Persuade

As with information presentations, you should give a clear introduction to yourself and your topic. However, in addition to organizing your talk in a logical fashion, you need to build up a convincing argument. You should concentrate on:

  1. The benefits of your standpoint.
  2. Compare these with the disadvantages of other approaches.
  3. Lead up to the conclusion that what you offer is a better alternative.

In my presentation today I am going to show you how our new product can save you between 15% and 20% of your annual energy costs… Until now, comparable products have required a high initial outlay. In contrast our prices are 30% lower than our competitors’… From what you have seen today, I am sure you will agree that what we offer not only allows the biggest per annum savings at a considerably lower price than comparable products, but that it also comes with a cast-iron warranty and an excellent after sales package.

Capturing and keeping the audience’s interest

To capture your audience’s interest, you need a lively introduction with a ‘hook’; that is to say a way of making the audience want to know more. Some ways of doing this are:

  1. Identify a problem you know they would like solved.
  2. “Trail” some new and interesting information that you are going to unveil.
  3. Ask rhetorical questions (questions to which you don’t expect an answer: what exactly went wrong? where does that leave us? how can we interpret this?).

Once you have the audience’s attention, you should ensure you keep it by:

  1. making clear, brief points
  2. using simple visual aids to highlight specific points (these should be vivid and with only minimal information)
  3. using humor if it is appropriate to your topic
  4. summarizing key points.

Body Language

Remember that a message is conveyed not only by words but also by facial expression, posture, gestures. People say that as much of 75 percent of a message is conveyed by body language. If you are nervous, you will betray this in your body language, perhaps by pacing or repeating some gesture like touching your ear or fingering your clothing. All this can be distracting for your audience, so you might need to practice in front of a mirror or a video camera. Aim for a clear, steady gaze and look at individuals in the audience from time to time. Don’t pace or fidget or tap your toe. Try to match your facial expressions to the tone of your subject. If you find you are becoming nervous, pause for a second and take a sip of water to give you time to recover.

Dealing with questions

Questions at the end of the presentation are of four main kinds:

  1. Questions you can answer on the spot.
  2. Questions that require further information you don’t have with you.
  3. Questions you wish to avoid.
  4. Aggressive questions.

The first kind is no problem and you will deal with them as efficiently as you can. For the second kind, you should acknowledge the question as useful/important/interesting and offer to send the information on, or provide another source of information, if the questioner gives you an address after the presentation. For questions you wish to avoid, you should find some formula for politely declining to answer:

  1. That’s really too complicated an issue to discuss right now.
  2. That’s beyond my brief for today.
  3. I’m not really the best person to deal with that question.

If someone in the audience is asking aggressive questions, then acknowledge their anger and politely decline to get involved:

I can see you are upset/angry/disturbed by this, but this not the time to engage in an argument.


For a teaching lesson plan for this lesson see:
Effective Presentations Lesson Plan

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