You’ve been asked to give a presentation to your department. Your mind is racing. What do you do first? If you immediately go to your computer and open MS PowerPoint to begin brainstorming, you’ve chosen the least effective path to success. Instead, the answers to three distinct questions will start you toward creating a great presentation. Take the time, first, to decide the goals of your presentation. Next, identify your audience and determine their needs. Finally, choose the most appropriate way to communicate your message.
What is your goal?
Perhaps you need to inform your audience about some important matter that impacts their work, like the timeline of a new project. Do you need to persuade
them to take a particular action? Be clear what that goal is. There’s an old saying that, if you don’t know your destination, any road will take you there. Within any organization, your ability to speak in front of others has an impact on your success. One of your chief goals, then, should be to present to your peers with precision, clarity, and focus. Don’t risk a fumble.
What does your audience want or need?
The first rule of speaking—to any size audience—is to be interesting. You should take into account what your listeners want and need to know, but be selective. Fewer points are always better than many points, so make three to five points instead of eight or ten. Include only those points that support both your audience’s needs and your primary goals for presenting in the first place.
What is the best way to communicate the message you’ve chosen?
My hope is that you won’t open PowerPoint before you’ve begun the thought process outlined above. Knowing what you want to accomplish, and understanding what your audience can really use, you can now decide the most appropriate way to present your ideas and information to them. If you work in one of those environments where everyone uses PowerPoint, whether they need to or not, maybe it's time to buck the trend.
The form your presentation takes should support both your goals and the needs of your audience; you have a few options to consider. First, you can simply deliver a talk about the topic. This was an effective communication tool long before computers, overhead projectors, or even blackboards came along. If the information you’re discussing doesn’t require supporting visuals, consider leaving them out.
Many presenters still use flip charts or whiteboards. This has the potential advantage of making your delivery more interactive. If you decide PowerPoint is necessary, include images or charts that illustrate your message. For some audiences, you need to show data, and PowerPoint excels in this area. But bulleted lists, PowerPoint’s best-known feature, are usually a distraction, both to you and to your audience. Unfortunately, many presenters use the text onscreen as a crutch, and this lessens their own importance to their audience. Also, when your audience is looking at you while you speak, they take in your message with two senses. If you focus their visual sense on an overhead slide, you split their attention, and they will hear less of what you say.
In summary, choose your form of presentation based on how well it supports your goals and on its ability to convey useful, relevant information. I hope you’re now going to your desk to pull out pen and paper to begin a thoughtful planning process, instead of rushing there to “create a PowerPoint.”