Five tips for audience-friendly presentations

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The audience is the whole point of a presentation. This seems an obvious statement, but when we’re wrapped up in the development and delivery of a presentation it’s easy to focus on the information we have to tell and how we feel about giving the presentation rather than what the audience wants (or needs) to hear from us and how best to convey that information to them.

Giving some thought to your audience’s needs will help you structure and deliver a presentation that minimises distractions and maximises you message. Here are five ways you can make your presentation more audience-friendly.

  1. Let your audience know at the start if they can access a copy of your presentation.

Do you have handouts? Are the slides available somewhere after the presentation? Is there a companion report or publication? Can the audience contact you?

These may seem trivial details, but could mean the difference between your audience being focussed on what you’re saying and your audience missing your point completely because they are busy rummaging through their bag for a spare pen or frantically looking  over their neighbour’s shoulder to see if they managed to copy the third dot point on the previous slide.

  1. Give your audience a framework for your presentation.

I had a wonderful chemistry lecturer who started each and every lecture by saying: ‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to tell you, then I’ll tell you, then I’ll tell you what I told you.’ It turns out he wasn’t only interested in making sure we were up on acids and bases, but also how to talk about them. While the finer points of my chemical knowledge may have faded over the years, this advice for structuring a presentation has served me well on more occasions that I can count. So…

  • Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Always use an overview slide to start your presentation, so your audience knows broadly what you’re covering and how all the material you’re going to present fits together.
  • Tell them. Make sure your content reflects your overview with clear signposts (such as headings) so your audience knows where they are up to in your presentation.
  • Tell them what you told them. Recap the material you covered in a conclusion that mirrors (but does not have to exactly replicate) your overview.

By doing this you are not only providing a structure for your presentation (that both you and your audience can follow), but you’re also reiterating your key points so they stick (hopefully!) in your audience’s mind.

  1. Don’t read off the slides.

This is a big one. If you’re going to put your whole presentation, word for word, on the slides then stand there and read it, you might as well just give everyone a handout at the start and not bother presenting.

To avoid the temptation of reading your presentation, keep your slides concise. Slides containing just key points, concepts and illustrations are easier to read than those crammed full of word. Fewer words means you can use an appropriate text size (you really don’t want to go smaller than 20–24 pt) so these words can be read, even from the back of the room. Just putting up your key points also means that your audience doesn’t have to trawl through tightly packed words to determine the critical information on that slide.

The biggest benefit of not reading your slides (although it may not seem like a benefit if you are a reluctant presenter) is that you are now free to look at your audience as you present. This will make them feel part of the presentation, so they are likely to be more engaged, and will also give you the opportunity to gauge their reception of your presentation as you go.

  1. Don’t get carried away with or rely too heavily on the tech.

At the end of the day, bells and whistles are just distractions – great if you have no content and you’re trying to hide the fact, but not so effective as a means for conveying information.

One of the worst examples is use of excessive animations and transitions on slides. We’ve all been at presentations where headings fly in from the side like spinning tops, then fade out to the next slide – often before we’ve had a chance to take that material in. Ideally, your audience will be thinking about the point you just made, not wondering where and how the next point will appear.

Linking to external websites, applications and databases is also fraught with danger, because there is always a chance it’s not going to work – particularly if you’re presenting in an IT environment that is not yours. If these demonstrations are essential for your presentation, always have a Plan B in place. It’s a waste of everyone’s time if half of your presentation is taken up by you trying to log into a database or run an application. ‘It worked when I tried it earlier’ is not going to keep people engaged.

  1. Be aware of your timing.

Respect the time limit you are given. There’s generally a very good reason for it. There may be other speakers before or after you. Your audience might have other commitments that you are not aware of. The venue might be booked by another party at the conclusion of your presentation. Even if you don’t take notice of the timing, there’s a good chance your audience will – particularly if you’re at a conference where there are other presentations to get to. Don’t run the risk of half your audience missing your big finish because they’ve already left.

Having said this, be prepared to lengthen or shorten your presentation if necessary. It’s always handing to have some extra material (if not slides) handy that you can draw on if you finish early or questions are few and far between. Similarly, if the speaking schedule is running late, consider abridging your presentation. This doesn’t mean you should cut out important information, but perhaps be prepared to go into it in less detail or providing external resources (or your contact details) so people can get more detailed information after your presentation.