Over the years, I have sat through hundreds of talks. One of the
clearest realisations that I have come to is the fact that effective
presentations were able to connect with the audience while the ineffective
ones never established such a connection. This was especially evident
when I had to explicitly grade my own students’ presentations
back in the United States. Those who received high marks constructed
their presentations with the audience in mind. Those who received
poor marks seemed ‘trapped inside their own heads’ and
seemed bent on trying to impress me with how much they read and
memorised as an ‘expert’, while forgetting that the
real purpose of a presentation is to inform and educate the audience
about their topic.
In this brief article, several important points in planning your
presentation will be highlighted in relation to this crucial element
of taking your audience’s perspective.
Oftentimes, students write their speech from their own perspective,
reflecting what they have just learned about the topic. They become
immersed in the jargon of the topic; they have become minor experts
in that field. The problem is that the audience—i.e. the instructor
and your fellow students—have not read the same things that
you have. Hence, this fact necessitates that the presentation be
delivered in a fashion that is clear to everyone.
Among the simplest things to do here is to briefly define any
unique terms. Academic fields can be cluttered with specific terms.
Frequently, these terms have specific meaning only within very limited
contexts, and even then different people can use the same term in
different ways. Your audience needs to know exactly what you mean
by the terms you use. Define the terms upon the first usage of them—you’ll
lose your audience very early if you don’t.
The basic rule for clarity is to take the audience’s perspective
and explain things from their stance, rather than telling what you
know per se. You need to explain what you know to others—in
a way that they can understand. Practising your presentation in
front of friends can really help you improve this.
Flow and structure
Remember that your audience is very vulnerable. Listening to a
presentation is not like reading—you can’t go back to
see the previous page again or re-read an unclear sentence. Because
of this, you need to take special care that your audience clearly
sees the interconnectedness and logical flow of your ideas and the
parts of your presentation. Many of us leave this implicit and think
that it should be clear to all why we present things in a certain
order. However, the audience must be told this—they must be
told why you are moving to a new topic and how it is related to
the preceding one. It is my experience that audiences are frequently
lost at these transition points.
Things that help the audience see the structure and flow include:
- presenting an outline of your talk at the beginning, not only
to list the topics, but also to help your audience to see the
‘whole picture’ and see how parts interrelate; and
- clearly stating transitions—summarise the main idea of
the previous section and announce the next section in relation
to how it relates to the previous.