Getting your Message Across while Presenting
When you’re booked to give a talk, there is one question you should always ask yourself beforehand (and well beforehand) “What is the primary message/impression I want people to walk away with?”
And if there is no such message, should you be giving a talk at all? What is its purpose?
Sometimes, people are asked to give a talk as a matter of form, because they are in charge of the organisation involved, or for some other reason. It is then up to the speaker to determine or create a message which would be useful to get across, at this opportunity.
This situation should indeed be viewed as an opportunity; an opportunity to communicate some of your vision, not merely an obstacle to be avoided or endured.
It is best if the primary message of the talk can be verbalised, i.e. summed up in a sentence, or at most a paragraph. You then have a clear idea of your ‘aim’. The verbalised statement of the purpose of a lecture or talk is often known as its ‘aim’.
(The pre-amble to all of the following, i.e. something like “The purpose of the talk is to communicate that…” should be taken as read here.)
- “Sales, at this time, are best improved by concentrating on repeat custom.”
- “Our price cutting offers are, in fact, better than our competitors’; we need to get that message out there.”
- “Our product has a technical niche which no other product can satisfy, so we should take full advantage of the fact.”
- “This software is easy to use, but involves a steep initial learning curve.”
- “Despite government cuts there are still grants available.”
And so on. Having determined the central, most important, message of your talk, you can now, quite reasonably give some thought on how to convey it.
It is amazing, though, how many talks are given, for which these two steps have evidently been reversed. The presentation has been planned, and then a theme has emerged; or perhaps no such theme has, but the talk still somehow exists, but for what purpose? For a purpose which is rather amorphous and non-verbal.
Given a clear ‘aim’ it is certainly much easier, and more fruitful, to plan and structure what you are going to say. You can clearly see what you’re attempting to achieve at each step.
A typical presentation is structured as follows:
(1) Introduction – This should either state or demonstrate the aim of the talk. If this does not state the aim explicitly (and there are sometimes valid reasons why it does not) then you should do so, as a post-script to the introduction.
(2) Body of the talk – Essentially justifications/reasons for, and ramifications of, the message: case studies, practical considerations and so on.
(3) Summary – Here we re-state the aim in the light of the foregoing discussion.
(4) Questions (with assessment/feedback).
One can see that the aim is critical at each stage, just as it should be.
The characteristics of the introduction have been covered in a previous post ‘Starting to Talk’: let’s skip on to step (4).
The ‘Questions’ stage is often quite brief and peremptory. And usually one-way, the audience voice their uncertainties, and the speaker tries to field these concerns.
But it doesn’t actually have to be all one way. You can have some questions ready to throw in yourself (“What would happen if…? questions are usually best). The purpose of these questions is so that you can determine to what extent your message has been successfully communicated.
In a teaching situation, there should in theory, always be an assessment phase at the end of a session, to determine how much the students have learned. This is essentially the same thing, but included as part of the questions. Why? Well simply because the above structure is what people expect, and they would be a little surprised to be given a short test on your presentation immediately afterwards.
The most important thing about a talk is your own vision and/or special knowledge of the field. In order to make sure you can convey this knowledge and perception well, you need to keep the ‘aim’ in sharp focus.