On Speaking: The One-Week Later Test

December 5, 2006

Whenever I’m meeting with a student who’s preparing for a presentation – be it for a class or for a pitch to businesspeople – one of my first questions is if you ran into an audience member one week from your presentation, and they’ve forgotten about your presentation except one idea, what should that idea be?

As we prepare presentations – and all the assorted multimedia accessories that accompany them – it’s easy to lose focus of the main message we’re trying to communicate in the first place. 10 or 15 minute presentations (especially academic ones) might state their purpose early on (“what I argue is that…”) only to then bury that core nugget in an information avalanche. The next time the idea is even mentioned is when the conclusion rolls around – a rescue operation is attempted: “and as stated in the introduction, I’ve argued that…”. This kind of framing is a sure sign that the presentation isn’t communicating a core idea effectively.

I’ve seen the same thing happen with idea pitches to project competitions or investors – the core idea behind a venture is stated in the first 20 seconds, and then only mentioned at the end, while in the middle are details of implementation or strategy that – while important – are meaningless unless they are used to reinforce the idea or story that drives the pitch in the first place.

Fixing this problem – in either the academic or business domain – involves a simple realization: every piece of your presentation – audio, visual, rhetorical, etc – should revolve around your core idea. If you’re showing a video, ask yourself: how does this video help the audience understand the focus of my presentation? It may not be an immediate connection, so additional comments from you before or after might be necessary, but the connection should be clear by the time you’ve moved on the next stage.

All this may seem like “overdoing it” or beating the audience over the head with the same idea. In fact, it may come off this way to your audience – but not if each piece of information and multimedia you add to your presentation enhances your audience’s understanding of that core idea.

So, next time you’re getting ready to put together a presentation, stop for a minute and think: what would I want my audience – who will often be subjected to several other presentations in the week following yours – to take away weeks and possibly months later?

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