Presentation Breakdown: Dissecting a Successful Presentation

Dissecting a Successful Presentation

What exactly is a presentation, and why is it so important?

What is a presentation?

When you think of a presentation, a few examples leap to mind right away. You might think about an entrepreneur presenting his business plan to potential investors, or maybe you might recall the last time your company's CEO gave a webcast presentation to the entire company all at one time. These examples are certainly important presentations, but there are so many more instances--and they all have their own purpose, audience, objectives, time frames and requirements--that before we start talking about how to give an effective presentation, we need to spend a few minutes thinking about what a presentation is.

Let's say, for example, that you are looking for a new job at Herb's Garden. After submitting your application, Herb will call you back and schedule an interview to see if you are true Herb's Garden material. The interview is a presentation in which you are trying to convince the hiring manager that you are the best candidate for the job. The hiring manager, at the same time, is trying to convince you that Herb's Garden is the best place to work, that they have the best combination of pay, benefits, and work environment of any area employer.

Let's say Herb doesn't convince you that you want to work for him, and instead you decide to start your own landscape design company. You will have to ask potential investors for start-up money, and you may have to take out loans from the bank. Then, you will have to join the Chamber of Commerce and the gardeners association of your choice, where you will network and schmooze with potential clients. All of these activities are presentations in which you are promoting your business and convincing others to loan you money, buy your product, or let you schedule a meeting for a formal sales presentation.

Once your business is well-established, you will eventually be able to let it function on its own and you will start looking at other sectors of your life. One day, when you are picking up your children at school, you might notice that your children's school gym is in desperate need of repair. You might start lobbying for a renovation, and eventually, you might find yourself in front of the school board during the strictly monitored public access time. In three minutes, you will have to state your case and the reasons why the school board should take more time to consider the renovation further.

All of these situations are presentations, and they all have different objectives, audiences, time constraints, and purposes.

The purpose of a presentation

Although there are huge variations in types of presentations, they all have some similar characteristics. In general, most presentations seek to communicate information or to persuade. Presentations that seek to communicate--like the weekly status meeting for an ongoing project--often also have an element of persuasion. For example, your project may have fallen a week behind schedule. In the weekly meeting, you will explain the delay, why it happened, and what you are doing to correct it, but you will also want to persuade your listeners that the delay was unavoidable, that it is completely necessary to the long-term health of the project, and that they should be confident that the project as a whole will be completed on time and will be of the highest quality.

In order to convince your audience, you will use a variety of rhetorical tools, which we will discuss later.

Components of a presentation

Before we get into rhetoric, we need to take a moment to think about the other basic elements every kind of presentation has in common, from the job interview to the all-hands meeting where you address all 20,000 members of your multinational company at once.

The first and most-critical element of any presentation is the audience. If you focus on your audience first, and make sure that you meet their needs, everything else will fall into place much more easily. The other components of every presentation are you (the presenter) and your tools. Your tools may include such things visual aids like PowerPoint presentations, slides, posters, products, etc.

Why is this important?
  • Presenting effectively will increase your odds of selling your idea--whether that idea involves convincing the town council to install new speed bumps on your road or convincing your boss to give you a raise.
  • If you have fear of public speaking--which a majority of the population does, having a plan in place for your presentation can help you feel more confident and prepared, helping to ease the fears.

Your audience (which can be your peers, potential clients, supervisors, and friends) will thank you for being a better speaker.

Understand the Situation

What has happened or needs to happen?

Most people have heard of a rhetorical question--it's when a speaker asks a question for the purpose of setting up a logical argument, not because he expects an answer. A related concept is the rhetorical situation. The rhetorical situation does not refer to the situation you're in: which might be that you have to put together a presentation for your board of directors tomorrow morning and your boss only gave you 12 hours notice. That's your professional situation. The rhetorical situation is a very simple question: why are you speaking? What has happened or needs to happen?

For example, let's say you work in a manufacturing facility that produces microchips. You are responsible for all the safety systems. Yesterday, one of your systems incorrectly detected a hazardous gas leak, which forced the plant to evacuate for two hours. Manufacturing stopped, tools went idle, and it took several hours after clearing the alarm to get all the systems working properly again. Millions of dollars were lost because of a failure in your department. Now you have to explain to the plant manager and the rest of upper management why the system failed and what you are going to do to prevent it from happening again.

In this scenario, what has happened is the false alarm and the massive productivity loss. What needs to happen as a result of the meeting is:

  • You need to not get fired.
  • Management must understand the major factors that contributed to the incident.
  • The whole team needs to walk away with an understanding of their part in preventing a similar event from occurring again.

Those three elements sum up the rhetorical situation for this one case. Any time you are called on to give any form of presentation, you can ask yourself a similar what has happened/what needs to happen question.

Understanding the rhetorical situation will help you focus your presentation on the essentials. When your presentation is well-focused, the result will be a far more effective meeting with less wasted time. If you come to a presentation without an understanding of the rhetorical situation, you run the risk of missing the whole point and leaving the central issue unaddressed.

Returning to our microchip plant scenario, it would be fairly easy for a stressed-out department manager to show up to the meeting without considering the basic questions of what happened/what needs to happen. He could waste this time blaming other people and saying, "It's not my fault." Although we are friendly meeting attendees, we certainly understand that millions of dollars of loss demand more productive answers. In this scenario, our department manager might come across to his supervisors as out of control or panicky--he would certainly not be able to convey the image of calm confidence that is essential to resolving the problem, calming everyone down, and, of course, keeping his job.

Why are you speaking?

Once you understand what has happened and what needs to happen, the next related question is, why are you speaking? Okay, this would seem to be pretty obvious. You are speaking because it's your job. The department head always gives this presentation on Mondays (or whatever the occasion is). However, have you ever sat in a meeting room for two hours and left wondering what the point was? The probable cause is a speaker who did not consider his purpose or ponder why he was speaking.

If you are a teacher, you are speaking to convey information to your students. If you are giving a sales pitch, you are speaking to persuade your clients to buy whatever it is you're selling. If you are giving an annual all-hands meeting, you are speaking to inform and motivate. Once you start thinking about all the reasons why people speak in public and give presentations, you will realize that for many different kinds of presentations, there is some element of persuasion involved. Our beleaguered department head at the microchip factory is trying to persuade upper management that he is competent to fix the problem, and that his department is capable of preventing it from happening again. During the annual all-hands, the president of the company is trying to persuade the staff to buy into the company's future by sharing a corporate vision and convincing them to persevere through difficult times (or not to become too complacent during good times).

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Effective Presentations course?
Remembering that persuasion plays a part in most presentations will help keep you focused on conveying your information in the most lively and useful way possible.

Where will you be speaking?

The particulars of how you convey this information will depend on the physical setup for your presentation. There are nearly limitless venues for presentations, so avoid the mental trap of thinking only about the same space you always use: the classroom, the conference room on the third floor, the spare office at the end of the hall. Many of the most persuasive speakers of all time had no rooms (think of Moses, John the Baptist, or Jesus). These people relied on their message and the power of their voice. They mostly spoke outside, wherever they found people. And you might find yourself speaking outside sometimes also, a situation that has a huge impact on how well you can be heard, the physical space around you, and the distractions you have to compete with.

For example, let's say you are a minister who usually speaks inside a church, but one of your couples asks you to officiate their beach wedding. You agree, but once you arrive, you realize that you will be marrying the couple only 20 feet from the surf. The family and friends are gathered about 20 feet away from you, which would be fine in a church with a roof to reflect the sound, but with no roof, your voice will have a hard time competing with the ocean breeze and the sound of the waves. To make things more interesting, tourists and vacationers stroll between the dearly beloved and the waves, sometimes playing football in the water. These are a lot of distractions to cope with, and in this case, the minister has about two options: get really loud and compelling in order to compete with all the other activity and interest going on around him, or realize it's a losing battle, focus on just the couple before him, and get through the ceremony as fast as he can before the wedding party breaks into a fight with the drunken tourists who keep trying to sneak into the wedding photos.

The purpose of describing this scenario is to illustrate that we often become so accustomed to a single physical space that our whole presentation style adapts to that one location. Before you even start planning your presentation, make sure you understand the physical space where you will be presenting it: the school board meeting room, the high school football field, or the 12-person meeting room with which you are so familiar. Within this space, will there be several other items of interest competing for your audience's attention? Will there be a lot of distractions? If so, either try to think of ways to quiet the competition, or plan to keep your message short enough to get the point across before you lose your audience entirely.

Is there any opportunity for audience interaction?


One of the best ways to keep an audience engaged in a presentation is to make sure they play a part. We all remember this from high school: there was the class where the teacher spent the whole time talking to a chalkboard without ever stopping to ask for questions, or to look at the class. Had he turned around, he would have seen a good third of the students asleep on their desks and the other two thirds drawing on their notebooks or making origami.

From our education, we also remember the classes that kept us actively involved in the process. The teachers posed questions, waited for responses, and then asked if we had questions before they moved to the next topic.

The same concepts apply to any presentation: the more the audience is involved, the better. You can't usually give adults homework the night before a presentation, but you can draw on the experience they already have. You can ask them questions. You can ask them what they expect to get out of the meeting. You can ask for suggestions, for help, advice, past experiences. You can also pause for Q&A before you move from one topic to the next. Not only does this keep the individual person in the audience involved in what you're saying, it also changes the speaker around so the rest of the audience is not listening to a single voice the entire time. Bringing your audience in broadens the range of viewpoints and expertise that are brought to the table, improving the process for everyone.

Clearly, not every rhetorical situation lends itself to all kinds of audience participation. A small department meeting has limitless opportunities, but a presentation to the school board has few. However, accounting for the level of participation that is appropriate to both the rhetorical situation and the physical space will help you make sure your audience is a central element in your presentation.

That leads to the next point in our discussion: audience analysis.

Speaker, know thy audience.

You will hear so much about audience during this class that you may end hearing it in your sleep. Whether you are giving a presentation, writing a newspaper article, singing a song in a pub, or performing at the Met, there is absolutely no element that is more critical to human communication than understanding who your audience is. Is it a hiring manager, the School Board, the Town Council, or upper management at your company? What motivates them? What are their goals and objectives, and what will absolutely shut them down?

As they say, there is a time and a place for everything--the key is understanding what "thing" is right for this time and place. You can begin to arrive at that understanding by asking a few simple questions.

What does the audience already know?

First of all, think about what your audience already knows about this subject. Their level of expertise will determine the way you present your information. For example, if you are a guest speaker at a school, and your topic is the space program, the way you structure your presentation will need to be very different if you are talking to a group of first graders, a group of high school freshmen in the honors science program, or a group of at-risk seniors who have no understanding of physics. Presenting highly technical information to the first graders would bore them to tears. Presenting it to the at-risk teens would waste a good opportunity to reach someone with some fascinating fun facts, but giving your freshman honors students the "fun" version might seem like pandering.

Bottom line: understand who you're talking to so that you can maximize your opportunity.

What do they need to know?

Once you have a fairly good idea of what your audience already knows about the topic, then you can refine what they need to know. To do this, let's return to our discussion of the rhetorical situation, and the question of what has happened/what needs to happen. Just take a few minutes thinking about how much information they need to get to "what needs to happen."

In the previous scenario of the department head at the microchip company, what needed to happen was that our department head needed to not get fired, Management had to understand the major factors that contributed to the incident, and the whole team needed to walk away with an understanding of their part in preventing a similar event from occurring again.

To do this, our department manager will need to make a list of all the key factors that contributed to the incident and explain them to management. The management team does not need an excruciating level of detail, just a general understanding.

What are their motivations and priorities?

In order to make the whole presentation more meaningful to the audience, it is extremely helpful to understand what their motivations and priorities are. As with the other topics we have discussed in this section, there is no one-size-fits all way to approach an audience. Understanding their wants and needs will help you present your information in a way that is meaningful to them.

Let's say you sell one product: photocopiers. You might go around the country giving sales presentations to groups of 10-15 people, explaining the merits of your one photocopier. There may be 25 reasons why you should buy that one photocopier, but you will soon learn that any single group of people will only care about five of those reasons, because those reasons match their particular goals. Your prospective client could be focused on cost-cutting and would want to focus on how much less expensive your product is than your competitor's model. Or, they may have a culture of quality at every level, and would rather hear about the machine's reliability and performance.

Understanding what your audience wants and needs will help you find the right way to frame your presentation so that it resonates with them. And if we haven't made it clear by now, the presentation is all about them.

How do they feel about you and your idea?

It has happened before: people get so excited about one of their ideas. If they are surrounded by like-minded people much of the time, they can develop idea insulation. Then, when they go to speak to a group of people with different backgrounds, goals and objectives, they are often surprised to realize that their concepts just don't fly as well as they thought they would. This speaker often arrives expecting to give a pep-talk and unity message, not realizing the he has walked into the lion's den. If he's very savvy, the speaker in this position reads attitude and body language quickly and adapts on his feet. If he is not paying attention, it can turn into a very unpleasant day, possibly involving the throwing of week-old vegetables.

With a bit of research, a presenter can get a pretty good idea about how his audience feels about him and his idea before he walks into the meeting room, and can tailor his message as necessary to spend more time on persuasion and addressing objections. The easiest way to get a sense of what to expect of the audience is just to ask a few members of the group.

If you are presenting to a group you don't know well, consider talking to your major point of contact to simply ask, "Do you have any sense about how the group feels about this idea?"

If you are working with a group you already know, chances are you already know how they feel about you--it's a good idea to take those feelings into consideration when planning your presentation. Although you can't change who you are, you can be aware of the issues your audience may have and be prepared to address them.

Why are they there?

Another good clue to your audience's predetermined view of your idea can be why they are attending this presentation in the first place. In other words, did they choose to give up their Saturday afternoon to hear you speak about gardening, or is this a mandatory meeting they couldn't get out of? The reason for their presence will greatly impact their mood and attitude, and the kinds of strategies you will have to use to reach them.

In the case of the Saturday afternoon gardeners, their attention is already yours, but the pressure is on to make sure they get as much out of the experience as they expect. To do this, again, a little research is in order. If you know some of the attendees, you can ask them what they're expecting. If you have an email list, you can send out a proposed agenda ahead of time and ask for additions and special requests. Don't make the audience think you don't know what you want to discuss, but do let them know you are flexible and you want to make the experience useful for them.

In the case of the mandatory meeting the audience couldn't get out of, don't assume you can just put something together at the last minute because you have a captive audience. The captive audience can be very difficult to reach--but if you don't make the effort, then the net effect is negative feelings and an hour of ineffective time. To try to reach them, start by putting yourself in their shoes, and try to remember a time when you had pressing deadlines and had to be somewhere you did not want to be. Then make sure you have reviewed all the guidelines given here to make your presentation as focused and targeted as possible. With this group especially, it is critical to respect their time limits.

How much time will they give you?

Remember, no matter why people come to the meeting, they always have competing commitments.

Before you begin the nitty-gritty of planning the presentation, make sure you understand how much time you will have. The level of detail you can provide will vary greatly depending on whether you have two hours or five minutes to speak. For extremely short presentations (for example, a strictly-enforced three-minute limit for public access mic time at a School Board meeting) simply outline your central points (we'll discuss this later in this training) with a goal of getting the group to schedule more time for you at a later date.

Then, when you get more time, think about how much information you can effectively present in the given amount of time. Avoid throwing more information at people than they can readily digest. When time is short, stick to the high-level view. When you have more time, develop the ideas more fully and incorporate more audience participation.

When you reach a point where you are developing a series of meetings--like a semester-long course, all these same principles still apply, the organization just has to be taken one level further.

Whatever amount of time you have, make sure you respect the time limit. No matter who your audience is or why they are attending your meeting, they always have competing commitments and obligations. In a lively meeting, conversation and debate may make the meeting last longer than expected. That kind of interaction is exactly what a healthy presentation should look like, so don't cut it short (unless another group needs your meeting space), but do provide an opportunity for people to escape gracefully if they have another appointment they need to rush off to. This can be as simple as taking a minute to recap at the end of the appointed time, and letting the antsy people know that if they need to leave, now is the time.