Speaking to an Audience

Communicate Complex Ideas Successfully

© iStockphoto/Sean_Warren

Speaking to an audience can be fun and exciting.

However, lack of preparation or not clearly defining the presentation's goals and its audience can make even the best-intended presentation a complete disaster.

Preparation – The Key to Successful Speaking...

To ensure your presentation is effective, first determine your objective. Ask yourself:

  • Why am I giving the presentation?
  • What do I want the audience to take away from the presentation?

Second, determine your audience. Their familiarity with the presentation topic will determine the level at which you present your speech.

How to Structure Your Presentation

Once you have determined your presentation's objective and overall goal, as well as the audience, it's time to structure your presentation. You will need to start this process by determining the length of the presentation.

Take the allotted time and break it into smaller segments, with each segment tackling a specific task (all of which reflect the overall objective of the presentation). For example, the fist segment should be the presentation introduction. In this segment, you should give an overview of your presentation, or a short summary of your speech, explaining the topic, why you are covering this topic, and what you hope to accomplish.

The next segment should tackle the first item on your agenda, with the following segment tackling the following item on your agenda, and so on.

Once you have developed the introduction and outlined the following segments, spend some time thinking about the conclusion of the presentation. The introduction of the presentation and the conclusion of the presentation are the most important parts and should have the strongest impact.

Achieving Clarity and Impact

Keep your presentation short and simple. Your audience will not remember every point of your presentation, so highlight the most important parts. The longer the presentation, the higher the risk of boredom.

When in doubt, use the "tell 'em" structure:

  • Tell them what you are going to tell them (For instance, "In this presentation I will show you.").
  • Tell them the key points, expanding and illustrating each one, clearly and concisely.
  • Tell them what you have told them (For instance, "In closing." or "In summary.") and conclude.

Reinforce Your Message With Visual Aids

Next, consider the use of visual aids. Slide projectors, data projectors, video machines and computers should be tested out beforehand to make sure they are operating correctly and that you know how to use them.

Make sure you do not cram too much information onto any single visual. A good rule of thumb to follow is to keep each visual to six lines or less. Also, make sure any type or graphics are large enough the audience can see it clearly (from all seats) and make sure the colors used are easy on the eyes, taking into account the lighting.

A sad fact is that much of your authority will be judged by the quality of your slides – you need to make sure that their design supports the style of your message.

Overheads should be clearly marked and arranged in order beforehand. Flip charts should be prepared in advance when possible. When used during the presentation to take notes, make print large enough for all participants to see.

When using these various visuals, do not turn your back to the audience. Position yourself so you can use the visuals while facing your audience.

Arranging the Room

If possible, visit the room in which you will make the presentation well in advance. Determine seating (circle seating encourages interaction, rows of seats discourages interaction, etc.) and determine how the visual aids you choose will work. Consider lighting, space, even the temperature of the room. Consider placing notepads and pencils at each seat if participants need to take notes. Or, you may want to have glasses at each seat with a few pitchers of water if the presentation is going to last more than half of an hour. If you do this, make sure you allow time for bathroom breaks.

While you do not need to memorize your entire presentation, make yourself very, very familiar with it through several practice runs. Rehearse the presentation in its entirety as often as you can before delivering it to a live audience. The more you rehearse, the more confident you will be and the more fluent you will seem to your audience – if you know your subject matter and have adequately prepared, you will be able to deliver your message loud and clear.

When in doubt or nervous, stay focused on your purpose – helping your audience understand your message. Direct your thoughts to the subject at hand. The audience has come to hear your presentation and you will succeed!

Tips and Techniques

Tips to help make your presentation a smashing success:

  • Avoid too many statistics and confusing information in your presentation. Instead, put this information in a handout for participants to refer to at a later date.
  • If you forget your words, pause for a moment and remember your objective. While the words may not come right back to you, this will help keep you on track and may even help you to think of additional thoughts and ideas your audience will benefit from hearing.
  • Visualize yourself succeeding.
  • Begin by breathing.
  • Before the presentation, focus on the needs of the audience.
  • Take a public speaking course at a local college or university. These are oftentimes offered as night courses and are usually very inexpensive, while providing you with important skills that will enhance your confidence in this area.
  • Videotape yourself going through the presentation. All you need to do this is a video camera and a tripod. Then, run through the video and make changes according to your thoughts on the taped presentation.

Many of these points are summarized in our Presentation Planning Checklist  .

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