Number. 42 © CDTL 2003
Effective Presentations: Remember Your Audience
Kevin S. Carlson, Ph.D.
Educational Development Specialist, CDTL

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.

Be clear

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.
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