A successful principled presentation is the offspring of 60 percent
planning and development prior to the event, 20 percent delivery
proficiency, and 20 percent environmental and situation-specific
factors, such as the setting, the audience, technology glitches,
and so on.
What can go wrong at the planning phase?
Planning involves translating upfront research and reflection
regarding the intended purpose of your presentation, as well as
features of your audience and speaking environment into a
presentation structure and approach. Some common problems that
emerge from incomplete or inaccurate planning include the
Wrong goals for a presentation. Have you ever
tried to achieve goals in a presentation that would have been
better achieved by other instructional methods? Your sponsor may
impose outcome presentation goals that are better obtained with a
hands-on session. For example, presentations are useful to
communicate knowledge but fall short for skill building or
motivational outcomes. When you are faced with inappropriate
requests from sponsors, respond by offering other more appropriate
training alternatives. My colleague Chopeta Lyons has a great
response to clients with ill-advised requests: "Yes, I can do that.
But I would be remiss if I did not tell you" (and she continues to
explain why their approach won't be as effective as an
Goals don't fit audience or timeframe. Are your
goals too ambitious (or too watered down) for the time allotted and
the audience? Are there too many slides for a one-hour
presentation? Or is your presentation underdeveloped, with too
little meat for the time frame and audience?
Irrelevant goals. Will your presentation goals be
relevant to the audience's context or background? Irrelevant
presentation goals got me fired! I was commissioned by a medical
equipment manufacturer to teach a one-day session on the psychology
of learning and evidence-based training methods. The audience was
field staff, primarily salespeople who also had collateral training
duties. I had asked them to bring a sample lesson with them,
thinking that reviewing their samples would make the session
relevant. When I asked for a show of hands as to who had brought a
lesson with them, guess what? Not one! The presentation bombed
completely. Those folks had not the slightest interest in learning
psychology or training techniques. I soon abandoned my presentation
plan and asked the participants to meet in groups and list their
main training challenges. My goal was to respond to their agenda
rather than force mine. But this activity resulted in lists of
complaints about how the central training staff (my sponsors) made
their lives miserable. Things went downhill from there. It was a
classic no-win situation that could have been avoided with better
upfront analysis and planning.
As you reflect on your goals and audience, consider an organizing
framework as well as what kinds of activities you may want to
include. Once you have a high-level plan, it's time to start
developing the core elements of an effective presentation: slides
and handouts. This puts you in the development phase.
What can go wrong at the development phase?
Now your presentation plan comes to life. You are creating slides,
writing handouts, and jotting down talking points. Development is
the incarnation of your planning phase. At this stage you will
confront many questions. How many slides should you produce? Should
you have a handout? If yes, what type? What kinds of presenter
notes should you develop? Here's some common development missteps.
Death by PowerPoint. How many slides should you
develop for your presentation? Presentations such as classroom
lectures or webinars are paced by the presenter - not the learners.
Consequently, presentations run a greater risk of causing mental
overload than self-paced media such as books or asynchronous
e-learning. Too many complex slides can overload. Alternatively,
too few slides can fail to sustain attention due to lack of visual
interest and stagnation. I know of no evidence supporting any
specific metric for numbers of slides. In my own presentations I
average one slide per minute. So for an hour conference session,
I'll typically develop 55 - 65 slides. This does not mean I show
one slide every minute. During a short activity a single slide
might remain in place for several minutes. During an explanation, I
might have six slides for one topic and two for another. In
contrast, I've heard really great keynote presentations based on
maybe 10 or 12 slides. You will need to consider the complexity of
the topic, and the background and size of your audience as well as
the delivery media and setting. A keynote for 500 will benefit from
a different solution than a smaller presentation for 15.
No visual interest. The worst case? No visuals at
all. There are no slides, or the slides are walls of words. There
are a few talented speakers who can command and sustain attention
through their voice alone. But for the purpose of learning, even a
talented speaker can get a better result by using effective
visuals. Be visual from the start. I recommend a title slide that
uses a visual to generate interest, arouse curiosity, and convey
the purpose of the session.
Handouts. By handout I refer to a physical,
usually print-based, guide given to participants at the start of a
presentation. Until recently, most handouts were printouts of the
presentation slides. In the last few years, many conference
organizers have requested different formats. For example, rather
than pages of slides, they request a brief text summary,
references, and a job aid to help attendees apply the ideas of the
presentation after the event.
There is no single best handout, but I do feel that handouts of
slides alone are not optimal. Slides alone will encourage note
taking and in many situations lead to split attention. Slides alone
are incomplete and don't usually make good references. Rather than
slides alone, define your handout based on the goals, constraints,
and audience features you defined during planning.
What can go wrong at the delivery phase?
Imagine that you have invested sufficient time and effort to
planning and developing. You have a solid presentation. However, at
show time it's up to the speaker to make it come alive. What can go
wrong the day and hour of the event?
Death by speaker introduction. Well-intended event
hosts can take up to 15 minutes of your allotted speaking time with
various housekeeping, acknowledgement, and marketing duties as well
as with a lengthy speaker introduction often read word for word. I
usually ask my host to let me make my own introduction and try to
limit them to less than a minute. Keep your personal introduction
very succinct. No one is that interested at the start of a
presentation about your organization, its products, your detailed
educational history, your grandchildren, and so on. I recommend
just a single slide to establish your credibility and enthusiasm
for the topic. As the presentation evolves, you can insert
information about yourself and in that way evolve a more natural
relationship throughout your session.
Audience confusion. Will your attendees
immediately get what the presentation is about, what it might
accomplish, or how it will be organized? If not, they have no
framework, and no basis for deciding if it's relevant to their
needs. Confusion may be the result of a divagating presentation
with insufficient structure or failure to communicate the structure
to the audience.
Technical glitches. You know the saying: What can
go wrong will. Technology can let you down. First, I recommend
using your own computer and double checking that your computer has
the needed capacity and software for your presentation. Bring an
extra copy of your presentation on a memory stick as a backup.
Second, insist on a rehearsal prior to the event. Test everything.
Third, don't include unreliable technology as part of your event.
Even to this day I shy away from drawing on the Internet as a
critical part of my presentation. Connectivity in the presentation
room may be poor or the Internet may go down. At a minimum, have a
backup of essential screen captures. Fourth, always have a plan B
for critical elements of your presentation. If a multimedia
presentation fails, go to backup screen captures or substitute a
different multimedia presentation. When giving virtual classroom
sessions, I always send the event producer a copy of my slides and
make a paper copy for myself. That way if you lose connectivity
(it's happened to me more than once), you can ask the sponsor to
load the slides and continue your presentation referencing a paper
Derailment. Have you ever been thrown off your
presentation plan? It's easy to deviate from your plan during the
actual presentation. Maundering speakers and audience questions are
two common culprits. Disciplined planning and development should
help. I usually print out thumbnails of my slides and write time
guidelines in them. For example, I mark the slide where I should be
at half my time. I believe in inviting audience questions during
the presentation in most cases. It's part of being a good host. And
it helps you see where you are or are not connecting. The trick is
to use your responses to audience questions to forward your
presentation agenda by adding an example, clarifying, or briefly
discussing a different facet of your topic. Often you can use
audience questions to jump start your next point.
The inflexible speaker. The most common problem is
time - often too little time for your agenda. I always have some
optional slides as part of my presentation. If I get questions or
an activity takes longer than anticipated, I skip them. I do try to
stick to 80 percent plus of my agenda, which has usually been
published ahead and presented as part of the introduction. But good
planning leaves your presentation scalable - you can skip some of
the detail without shortchanging your agenda.
No social presence. You know all of this stuff
already. If you can arrive early, take advantage of the wait time
to meet and greet your attendees. Smile. It's simple, but speakers
are often nervous or concentrating on their performance and forget
to smile and look the audience in the eye. Use a conversational
approach. Don't read a script. Build up passion for your topics -
it will come through in your voice, words, and body language.
Finally, never "take on" an audience member who voices a
disagreement with your topics. Always thank them for their
contribution and respond with either a clarification or a
noncommittal statement such as "Well, that's another way to look at
it," or "Hmm, it would be interesting to test out that idea."
Note: This article is excerpted from
Evidence-Based Training Methods: A Guide for Training
Professionals by Ruth Colvin Clark.
Ruth Colvin Clark is determined to bridge the gap between academic
research and practitioner application in instructional methods. A
specialist in instructional design and workforce learning, she
holds a doctorate in instructional psychology and served as
training manager for Southern California Edison before founding her
own company, Clark Training & Consulting. Clark was president
of the International Society for
Performance Improvement and received their Thomas Gilbert
Distinguished Professional Achievement Award in 2006.
2011 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.