10 tips for effective verbal presentations
1. Have a clear message
What is it that you’re trying to communicate? If your message is not clear to you, it will not be clear to your audience. Much like watching a film without a plot, your audience will get bored and disengage. Identify your key message, structure your presentation around it and deliver a coherent story.
2. Start with your main message and use it to hook your audience
You are most likely to have your audience’s attention when you first speak, so try to deliver your key message in the first three sentences and give them an incentive to keep listening. Grab their attention using the most spectacular, impressive or thought-provoking thing that you can honestly say about your message. Avoid vague introductions describing general background information. Consider who your audience is and why they should be interested. If you don’t know, your audience probably won’t either and will quickly lose interest.
3. Tell them what you will tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them
Repeating yourself may sound a little strange but structuring your presentation this way will help your audience to remember important points. Start with your message, then use the body of the talk to convince your audience that it is valid. The end of a presentation is another key attention point, so finish by summarising the message you have delivered. This is what your audience is most likely to remember, so make it count.
4. Don’t overload your audience
Carefully consider how much information is appropriate to deliver in the time you have. If your audience gets lost they will stop listening or misunderstand your message. How complex is your information? What does your audience already know? You probably know more about the topic than your audience, especially if you are delivering specialist information to a general audience. A reader can go back and check information, but a listener at a live presentation cannot. Give your audience time to process and, if you are delivering a lot of complex information, it’s a good idea to provide regular summaries.
5. Practise but don’t script or read
Practising out loud will help you to plan what you want to say and identify parts of the presentation where you are likely to get lost or tongue-tied. However, reading or reciting a memorised script is not engaging so, plan your structure and key points, but avoid scripting. Practise with a friend who can give you feedback.
6. Don’t put your audience to sleep
If your presentation comes across as repetitive or condescending your audience will lose interest. Alternate between general points and specific examples to ensure clarity without being boring. Consider using props, demonstrations or slides featuring keywords, images or diagrams – but make sure they are simple, illustrative and relevant to your key message. Avoid overloading your audience with multiple modes of delivery at once; if they are reading or trying to understand a diagram, they will not be paying full attention to what you say. Keep slide content to a minimum and allow reading or processing time. Also avoid reading from slides yourself; this is far less engaging than speaking to your audience.
7. Always finish on time
It’s unprofessional to speak longer than your allocated time so practise timing your presentation, keeping in mind that we read faster than we speak. It’s better to finish early than late, so always factor this in as an insurance policy against potential delays or disruptions. It’s better to say less and have your audience understand you, than to risk confusing them by rushing. You can plan ahead about what to leave out if time becomes an issue; but never skip your conclusion!
8. Appear confident – fake it if necessary
Public speaking can be daunting, and it’s okay to be nervous, but it’s also important to appear confident. Being prepared and practising will help. If you do make a mistake, don’t accentuate it or waste time by apologising; correct yourself and move on. Be aware of your body language and make eye contact. Avoid fidgeting or indirect language such as ‘um’. Pauses can be used to give you time to breathe and your audience time to process.
9. Know your audience – be personal and polite
Who will be in your audience? Use words or terms they will understand, be conversational and don’t use unnecessarily complex language. If you need to use a specialist term, make sure you explain it. Choose examples your audience will relate to and beware of jokes that can be misunderstood and potentially disengage or ostracise your audience. Use language like ‘you’, ‘we’ and ‘I’ to make your presentation more personal and engaging. Asking questions – real or rhetorical – will also help keep your audience’s attention.
10. Respond to questions politely and honestly
Keep in mind that this advice is in no way exhaustive and always keep in mind that conventions will vary across industries, disciplines, professions and workplaces.Respond to questions with confidence, but do not lie. It’s okay to politely acknowledge that you don’t have an answer by saying something like, ‘That’s a really good question, but it’s beyond the scope of the research I’ve done so far’. You may choose to speculate, but always answer honestly and accurately.
These tips are based on the teachings of Emeritus Professor David Lindsay and colleagues at The University of Western Australia, with special thanks to Professor Graeme Martin and Dr Penny Hawken.
Your taskReflect on Trina’s presentation tips and consider what other advice you would offer for giving an effective presentation or pitch.Are there any special considerations associated with your workplace, audience or field of work that may influence your presentation style?
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