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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October 11, 2006

Last week, Ross Mayfield from SocialText came by the online persuasion class I’m taking this quarter (more on that class soon) and, as a parting comment, told us about SlideShare, a new web service that embeds slideshows in web sites a la YouTube. While slideshows are, as a rule, less exciting than 15-year-old emo kids with video responses to acquisition rumors announcements, I still think there’s a lot of potential here.

First, we have the academic side – every quarter I see great presentations created for the classes that I tutor (often I’ve seen the PowerPoint deck evolve from “I don’t know what my topic really is…” to the finishing touches right before the students’ final presentations) and these presentations are often shown once or twice, then never again. While many students don’t have the time or inclination to turn these presentations into videos or flash files, getting them to upload these files to a server so they could ‘live on’ after the class (perhaps all the presentations from a class could be tagged with the class name and quarter) would make sure that they would be seen outside the relatively limited scope of their class.

Also, for very basic presentations, SlideShare is a nice alternative to a PowerPoint viewer, with the added bonus that it can be embedded in a web page – presenting can be as simple as opening a browser. Of course, for multimedia presentations the software is far from ideal, but if text and bullets are your thing, it might fit the bill.

Finally, I’m excited to see how SlideShare evolves in the coming months to incorporate audio into their software – this would be one step closer to allowing presentations to live on after conferences, or provide a recap to conference attendees who were interested in the topic but might have missed some slides. Similar software – such as Microsoft Producer – exists, but SlideShare has a far lower barrier of entry, cost, and easy redistribution.

Please let me know if you’re interested in checking out SlideShare – I have a couple of invites for the beta and would love to hear more about other uses that you might think of for it.

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On Speaking: Being Heard

August 24, 2006

Part of what I like to write about is public speaking; when college is in session, I work as an Oral Comm tutor, and even when I’m not working in that capacity, my ‘oral comm ears’ are always on. Starting today, I’ll try and write a new public speaking post every Wednesday.

Can you hear me in the back?

The topic I’d like to start with is volume – Human 1.0 unfortunately comes unequipped with an automatic volume control, and judging the correct volume (whether using a microphone or not) can make or break a presentation. Today I’ll cover approaches to being heard without a microphone (I’ll hopefully enlist the help of some podcasters when writing the future article about working with microphones).

Microphones can be a great boost to your voice – they can help project it in huge auditoriums, or record it for posterity. Two catches, however: there are situations where the microphone is completely inappropriate (smaller rooms, informal presentations), and microphones cannot make your voice stronger – just louder. Thus, I think any speaker benefits from learning how to handle a microphone-less situation – so when the microphone comes on, it’s a boost rather than a crutch.

Presenting without a microphone, the burden of volume falls entirely on the speaker and the space. I’ve found the best way to approach the situation is to imagine your voice as actual sound waves coming from your body outwards (as many people can attest, I often use somewhat cheesy but, in my humble opinion, effective physical metaphors). Now, find the back of the room – and when you talk, make sure your voice projects not just to the wall, but all the way back too. This is a quick way of adjusting to different room sizes which scales pretty well for medium-sized speaking venues, and I find the visual element of imagining the bouncing waves is helpful.

Now, most speakers I’ve worked with speak too quietly rather than too loudly – only to be told by someone (someone critiquing their rehearsal, or even a rude audience member) to speak louder! which of course works for about two sentences, before they fall back into their not-loud-enough previous tone. When working with this, I’ve found it’s far easier to scale down than it is to scale up, and trying to work upwards will lead to endless frustration. Instead, find a space to make some noise, and go all out – without screaming or shouting, see how strong you can make the sound waves. Now, take it down a notch – and then another. Going from 110% to 100% isn’t so hard; it’s the 70 to 100% jump that really strains. Try arriving a bit early at your venue and seeing if you find the sweet spot by starting a little louder than you’d think, and toning it down until it feels right.

Since we usually don’t spend our time talking at such a loud volume, many times the exercise above runs into a blocking problem – the muscles we use to project are out of practice, and need a day at the gym. If you can, find a friend that sings, and watch how they use their diaphragm as an impulse to their voice. Even if the actual technique is not something that can be captured in a day, if you can internalize the section of the body that the sound is beginning from, you can try to replicate that in volume exercises.

Great, so we’re speaking at the right volume – but staying there ’till the end of the sentence is as important as getting there at the beginning. How many speakers have you heard Start Off Strong only to fade out by the end of the sentence? (apologies for overcute font sizing)

We’re usually dealing with a mountain of cognitive processes while speaking in public – am I standing in the right place? Am I making eye contact? What’s coming up next? How much time do I have left? We tend to trail off for two main reasons: we’re out of breath, and we’re thinking about what’s already coming next. Breathing and pace warrant their own article (to be written, soon) but they have an impact on volume, too. Make sure you’re getting the air you need to start off each sentence, and if you need to recharge halfway through, take that half a second to do so. And while it’s great to have the next phrase in mind as you wrap up the current one, don’t drop the current sentence just because the next one is waiting. You can combine both of these tips into one – if you take a breath right before the crucial sentence-closing turn of phrase, you’ll help drive your point, and do it at a clear volume.

Finally, there are speakers whose volume problems don’t come from projecting incorrectly or using their head voice – instead, it comes from shyness or fear of public speaking (we’ve all heard the “People are more afraid of public speaking than death” line) – I’ll make sure upcoming articles tackle this issue of shyness for the glossophobes out there.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, and please let me know if you find the tips helpful – or if you’ve found they don’t work at all! ‘Till next Wednesday – in the meantime, also make sure to check out the public speaking tips at lifehack.org for some more general tips.

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