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Making the Most of Presentations

Whenever possible, I use a presentation to convey information to even a small audience -- customers, peers, co-workers, etc -- as they are not just for conferences anymore. The software packages avail...


August 1, 2003
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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Whenever possible, I use a presentation to convey information to even a small audience — customers, peers, co-workers, etc — as they are not just for conferences anymore. The software packages available today can help make a quick, effective presentation that ensures the point is understood… or it can confuse your audience. Which you do depends upon how you write the presentation, and on how you present what you have written.

When to use a computer

When should you use a computer-based presentation? Whenever you need to convey information or concepts to more than one person, or when you need to repeat the same material. The advantages of a presentation, as opposed to a written report, is the ease with which you can focus the audience’s attention on your point and the use of repetition to ensure your main points are comprehended. A written report is a passive document, requiring the reader to actively extract the information. A presentation is active (even when viewed privately), using visual techniques to put your points across to the viewer.

When to use animation

Animation is a major feature of presentations — when should you use it? There is a very simple rule about when and where to use animation, font changes, graphics, etc: use them only when they enhance the understanding of the point you are making. It is certainly possible to make letters and numbers zoom around the screen, as well as dance and sparkle. However, it may not help the technical manager understand the results of your data analysis. Any visual technique should improve the transfer of information from you to the audience. I will not review the specific program features, but here are some reasons to use animation:

Highlight: Any slide generally has one or two key pieces of information. Before you go to the next slide, you should be sure the audience understands what they are. You can highlight your main point(s) by bolding key words, animating one line on a graph, finishing with a summary table or several other techniques.

Alert: Let your audience know that you are moving to a new idea or topic.

Amuse/Surprise: A presenter’s worst enemies are boredom and distraction. An amusing graphic or surprising effect can keep an audience’s attention on you — as long as you do not do this too often. You do not want the audience missing your point because they are too busy guessing what clever trick you will use next.

Templates & style checkers

Two of the most powerful tools in presentation software are the templates and the style checker. Templates have a unified style of background graphic, font, colour scheme and alignment (generally, you change these at your peril). This helps to ensure that your audience is not subjected to confusing styles and clashing colours. The style checker looks for poorly formatted slides: too much text, small fonts, too many styles. I know I have been guilty of trying to fit just a little too much information on a slide. A slide that is unreadable for any reason is wasted — it might just as well not have been included.

Themes

Another trick is to use themes in your presentation. Most software encourages this automatically with the templates, as discussed above. You can also use themes in other ways. Material presented in a consistent manner is easier to follow. Use a common format for graphs — if you have been using line charts, avoid switching to exploded pie charts or some other drastic change. If you use animations, use similar ones on each slide. You do not need to demonstrate every one in a single presentation. I will often use a theme for my graphics, keeping a similar style or type of graphic whenever I do use one. Also, I find using too active an animation on text to be distracting: flying letters or zooming sentences do not enhance comprehension. A subtle appearance, dissolve effect or colour change draws attention, without distracting from the message.

Once my presentation is ready, I like to practice to make myself comfortable with my material. Some people are comfortable without any practice — use whichever technique works for you. Always remember when you are standing in front of your audience, that they are there to hear you, and they would be as nervous in front of a group as you are.

Dan Davies is the application manager at Degussa Canada in bleaching & water chemicals. He can be reached at dan.davies@degussa.com#text2#