Three tests to see if your presentation’s working

Keeping everyone gripped with bananas

This blog post is all about the value of being clear.

Recently, I’ve been doing some work on helping colleagues get work out to audiences, both academic and non-academic.

Being able to communicate effectively is a central skill for all parts of an academic’s work these days: teaching, research and leadership/admin.

As such, it gives me pause to reflect on how we can check with ourselves about whether we’re on the right track, since the key issue is typically one of clarity.

Communicating is a necessarily loss-y process. What I think has to be turned into what I say/do, which then have to be received by my audience and turned back into something they might think: each step is imperfect. That’s as true for a discussion at home about the laundry as it is for a presentation you might do for work.

And I’ll focus here on presentations because they are the set-pieces, when you are very overtly trying to put ideas into the minds of others.

So, how to check? Three questions to ask yourself:

Is the core message clear? Whatever you present on, there needs to be a point to it. So do you know what the point is and have you put that front and centre?

For me, I like to start presentations not with an overview of the structure of my talk, but with the core message. It’s not a murder-mystery, where we find out what’s actually been going on at the end, so push your core idea out directly and unadorned right at the top. That way, the rest of the presentation keeps speaking back to that, everyone (including you) can see why you’re talking about what you’re talking about, and if anyone does lose attention as you go then they still got the key bit.

If you don’t know what you’re trying to say, then you’ll want to find something sharpish. Personally, I find this is also a good exercise for deciding whether to make a contribution in a discussion, given that there’s already plenty of people out there who talk without saying anything. Be useful in your participation.

Are you sticking to the brief? Whatever the situation, there are expectations or rules about your presentation, so work to them.

Most obviously, this includes keeping to time. You should never have to say you’ll trying to keep to time, because a) you will be keeping to time, and b) saying that simply wastes time, likely making the problem worse. If you’re not sure how long you’ve got, err on brevity and save time for Q&A, because that’s where you can say stuff that your audience actively wants to hear, rather than what you think they want to hear. If you’re not sure how long your presentation takes, practise and assume the real thing will be a bit longer than that.

But it also includes keeping to the subject. Think about what the purpose of the presentation might be and what the needs of your audience might be: work to those, rather than starting from “what would I like to talk about”. Again, brevity is good if it allows more time for discussion.

Finally, are you practically clear? Think again about the loss-iness of communication: are you sticking barriers in the way?

You know those presentations you go to where someone puts up a slide and says “you probably can’t read it” or “don’t worry about all this”: that’s really annoying, right? Either the content is important – in which case make it legible – or it’s not – in which case remove it. Include as little as possible and as much as necessary: this is part of having a clear core message.

Likewise, cut the guff: try to talk plainly and directly as much as possible. Think about what jargon or technical terms your audience will understand and that your presentation demands. This doesn’t mean be simplistic, but rather than your choice of words conveys clearly the message.

And speak to your audience. This is about actually trying to engage them in the moment: making eye contact, reading their reactions for (mis)understanding, adapting to them. It’s one of the trickiest elements here, precisely because you can’t practise this alone: try watching other people and how they succeed/fail in this.

If you can be confident you’ve cleared these three tests then you’re on your way to better communication.

And that’s the big gain of being clear.