Ten tips for presenting like a pro

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September 2018

By Gerard Atkinson

At ARTD, we use a weekly professional development and training program to learn about the latest developments in evaluation, share insights from recent work, and build our core skills.

As part of our preparations for the AES 2018 International Evaluation Conference, taking place on 17-21 September in Launceston, Tasmania, I ran a training session with my colleagues on how to prepare, construct and deliver effective and engaging presentations. Here are my top tips.

  1. Prepare your thinking. Preparation is entirely different to rehearsal, and takes place before you even start making your slides. Effective preparation is about identifying what you want to talk about, doing your research, and building a framework for delivering your presentation. Rehearsal, though important, comes much later.
  2. Create an objective statement. To start, develop a single sentence that frames your rationale and scope. A good statement articulates the given time period, what the presentation will achieve, and a call to action.  For example, for our recent lunchtime learning, my objective statement was: “Over the next 50 minutes, I want to cover the key elements of creating and delivering a compelling presentation, to inspire you to go make your own.”
  3. Do your research. This includes understanding the audience you will be presenting to, such as the level of knowledge, the number of people, the level of seniority; the venue you will be presenting in, such as the room size and layout, available technology, and the time of day; and the topic of the presentation.
  4. Develop a presentation framework. Start building the structure of your presentation as a list or storyboard. There are many different frameworks and formats out there. My personal favourite adapts traditional storytelling techniques by following a format of “Open-Body-Close”. It’s a simple framework but can be adapted to presentations of nearly all formats and lengths.
    • The opening section is designed to engage an audience and preview the talk.
    • The body section, which can be repeated for each key point of your presentation, states the point, supports it, and links it with the next point.
    • The closing section reinforces engagement, reviews the topics covered, and provides a call to action.
  5. Kill the deck (if you can). Slides distract. If you can remove a slide, do it. Slides should be used to reinforce and augment the point you are trying to make. Photos and (well-designed) charts do this best, followed by diagrams. If you need to use bullet points or text, keep it short and avoid reading them out verbatim.
  6. Use speaker notes. Scripts can be useful in laying out in exact terms what you want to say in a presentation, but they make it hard to be engaging. Actors train for years to be able to take a script and make it look natural. Instead, use speaker notes, which are a shorthand version of a script. These give you prompts for what you want to say, but enable a more natural style of speaking.
  7. Develop useful handouts. Done well, your slides will not be able to convey the content of your talk on their own. This means that they shouldn’t be used as handouts. Instead, a handout should be a practical resource that turns the key points of your talk into tools that the audience can use later. Importantly, distribute handouts out after the talk to avoid distractions in the room.  
  8. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Rehearsal is about replicating your environment as closely as possible. Find a room, set it up as you will on the day, and rehearse the talk as if it were the real thing. It’ll help you get a feel for your timing and flow and boost your confidence. If you can get some sympathetic co-workers to sit in and give feedback, even better. Repeat this process. The more times you can run through the presentation ahead of time, the more comfortable you will be with the material.
  9. Present with credibility. Credibility is a combination of confidence, character, and charisma. Confidence comes from research and rehearsal. Character and charisma come from the way you deliver your presentation. Some easy ways to build credibility are to use open body language to engage with the audience, and to vary the way you use your voice (tone, volume, tempo). Both go a long way in engaging the audience and carrying them along with you throughout your presentation.
  10. Handle Q&As at the end. Question and answer sessions are often the scariest parts of a presentation because they can be hard to predict. Prior research can help you anticipate and prepare for some of the questions you might be asked. It’s best to keep questions until the end of the presentation, as this helps keeps things on track.  To handle Q&As:
    • Ask: Take a step forward while asking the audience if they have any questions.
    • Select: Select questioners by gesturing to them with an open palm (rather than pointing) or their name, if you know it.  
    • Listen: Give questioners total concentration, eye contact, and actively listen to their question.
    • Repeat: Pause, then repeat or rephrase the question to the whole group to show you understand what they’re asking. This also helps when there’s no roving microphone.
    • Answer: Give others eye contact while answering.

This year, ARTD is sending a large contingent that will present eight talks and two pre-conference workshops at the AES18 conference. I’ll be presenting three papers in three different formats – a traditional talk, a facilitated brainstorming workshop, and an Ignite presentation. I hope these tips can help you prepare, construct and deliver your own presentations with confidence and I look forward to seeing many more presentations at AES18 in September.