Practical Advice for Making Powerful Presentations

What if your career depended on how well you made a presentation? …would you survive?

If you find yourself having to deliver difficult news, convince an audience to support your ideas or make a complicated topic easy to understand – I think you’ll find this post helpful.

The following is a Q&A with my friend Dr. Shane Gunderson, author of the textbook Dimensions of Public Speaking: Connecting with the Audience.

While the questions are focused on helping scientists become better communicators, the answers will be valuable to anyone who makes presentations as part of their job.

1. There is a big push to encourage more scientists to engage in public outreach. How can a researcher remain faithful to his/her hard work, while simplifying it so that non-technical people can make sense of it – and be inspired?

Here are a few tips that will help you grab the attention of your audience from the very beginning of a presentation or speech:

  • Relate a true story: a true story stimulates interest by creating common ground between audience and the persons in the story.
  • Share a hypothetical story: a story told to an audience with an imaginary scenario that illustrates a point
  • Ask a rhetorical question: a question posed to an audience for which no answer is expected; it is a well-known way of making a statement
  • Ask an overt response question: a question asked to an audience to elicit a direct, immediate reply – i.e. ask for the audience to raise their hands to answer your question
  • Make a provocative statement: an opening statement serving or tending to provoke, excite, or stimulate
  • Cite a quotation: an opening using a quotation usually said by a famous person serving or tending to provoke, excite, or stimulate

In order to plan your speech and messages for your intended non-technical audience, you need to do a situational analysis in addition to a demographic analysis. Audience size, the physical setting for the speech, and the audience’s disposition or views toward the topic, your own views regarding the topic, and the occasion are all elements of situational audience analysis. Generalizing about the audience as a group is necessary, but you must also segment the intended audience.

Audiences are diverse, and a public speaker must account for this diversity. Let’s say you were giving a classroom speech on how to quit smoking. You plan to begin the speech by asking, “How many of you smoke cigarettes?” If only three students out of a classroom audience of 30 raise their hands, you have to adapt your presentation to reach both smokers and non-smokers. When planning your talk, you should segment or divide your audience into subgroups. Errors are made when you aren’t prepared to adapt your speech topic to at least two distinct groups. When you survey the audience and see that most of the group does not smoke, you can say, “For those of you who smoke, my speech will provide valuable tips on how to stop smoking. For those of you who do not smoke, you will learn tips on how to convince your loved ones how to quit smoking.”

2. There has been a good deal of talk about ‘storytelling’ as an effective way to communicate complex topics more effectively. What advice do you have for a scientist who wants to give it a try?

Speakers shouldn’t be afraid to show their emotions. If the technical content consists of emotionless examples, you should humanize the speech with stories of happiness, joy, sadness, defeat, victory or injustice. When narrating, you make decisions about gestures, facial expressions, and vocal variety. If your example is about an injustice then show an angry facial expression. Narrative speeches inspire, build anticipation, and heighten appreciation of the occasion and moment.

3. There are many scientific topics that are controversial in one way or another. Stem cells, drones, climate change, evolution, vaccines…just to name a few. How can a scientist prepare to deliver a compelling presentation on a delicate topic?

Avoid beginning a speech on a controversial topic by making too strong an assertion in the introduction. You should tell a story and develop the background of a problem in the audiences’ mind first. Address an audiences’ need for a change in the current situation. Then, after giving the audience examples, anecdotes, statistics and other support materials, you can urge the audience to support your point of view. If you say in the introduction, “Today, I am going to convince you to support a woman’s right to choose” then the audience may become immediately hostile. But when you share examples and statistics first, this can help you find common ground with your audience. Sharing emotional stories can also help you connect.

4. When it comes to PowerPoint slides, many scientists and engineers adhere to the ‘cram as much as you can on each slide’ rule, which isn’t very effective. What are some of the ‘real rules’ they can follow that will help them create visuals with impact?

Two of the most common mistakes by public speakers are using visual presentation content is showing actual website screens and showing videos from websites.

The first problem happens when you’re using a browser in the middle of a speech to access a webpage. Typically, you will appear clumsy when typing the homepage address and searching the website for the correct page. Instead, try using a screen capture; then place the key visual content on the slide. Presenting from an actual website will confuse your audience because there are usually too many words and they will be small and hard to see.

The second mistake is the use of video streaming. Have you ever forgotten to test the computer before speaking, discovering that it will not play at all – or plays incorrectly. You appear clumsy and ill prepared when trying to find the exact segment that supports your main point. The audience then sits here while you rewind, then fast forward, raise the volume and then lower the volume. Then they watch as you become embarrassed and apologize mid-presentation. These situations will cause the audience to lose confidence in you.

When using a PowerPoint presentation, you should create slides with one background color. The headlines and body copy of each slide should be consistent in all slides. Do not use more than two font colors. Fonts should be easy to read and consistent in type, color, and size on each slide of the entire presentation. Paragraphs should not be used. Clauses are better than a complete sentence in a slide.

Another common mistake is to show a bibliography at the end of a presentation. If you show sources at the end, the audience will not know where these references were stated and their information shared during your presentation. You should always provide a citation in the slide where the information is shown.

5. Do you have any other advice you’d like to share?

There are good pauses and bad pauses in speeches. The first example of a good pause occurs prior to beginning your speech, when you first pause and look at the faces in your audience before speaking. Allow yourself to smile and pause for 10 seconds before beginning your introduction. This will make you appear poised and confident. Keep in mind that the audience’s perception of you is constantly developing whenever they see you in the room – not just when you’re speaking. Don’t be afraid to smile at the audience as you walk to the podium.

Another kind of good pause gives the audience a chance to digest what you have said. As you complete the supporting points for your first main point, pause briefly so you can think of what you are going to say next. This also allows the audience to process what you have just told them. Pauses also let listeners know when you have finished one thought and are ready to go to the next.

Pauses can also be used effectively to emphasize an important statement or allow audiences to feel sorrow about a sad statement you made. Some people increase their vocal pace until the conclusion, at which point, they make a bold statement or reveal an important lesson. After the buildup, pause for 10 seconds, show only a facial expression to create an emotional effect, and then utter the important final sentence supporting your main point.

There are bad pauses too, the ones that happen when you lose your place while reading a manuscript, forget your memorized lines or skip an important point. You may even pause because you’re nervous. When this happens, you will lose some credibility with the audience. You might even lose their interest. Bad pauses happen when you stand silently or using sounds such as “um,” “uh,” and “er,” which are a telltale sign that you’ve lost your place or forgotten what’s next.

So pauses can both help and hurt you.



Dimensions of Public Speaking: Connecting with the Audience is published by Connect for Education, an independent publisher of web textbooks for college courses in performing arts and communications.

Information about the book is available online. You can also engage on Twitter @DPublicSpeaking.

Dr. Shane Gunderson currently teaches Public Speaking at three colleges and universities. He earned his Master of Public Administration and Ph.D. in Comparative Studies at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida. In the last eight years, he has taught more than 100-course sections using face to face, blended, and online teaching modalities, Angel, Blackboard, ecollege, WebCT learning management systems, and Pearson’s online homework, tutorial & assessment systems. He is currently a part-time professor at Miami-Dade College, DeVry University, and Florida International University in Miami, Florida. He has taught courses in Career Development, Federal Government, Public Speaking, Intercultural Communication, Interpersonal Communication, Political Communication, Social Environment, and Fundamentals of Speech. He has specialized faculty training in developing Global Learning courses. As the author and subject-matter expert for Dimensions of Public Speaking: Connecting with the Audience he emphasizes enabling students to develop speeches closely related to their career goals.

(This piece was originally published on May 23, 2014)

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