Presenting Information

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Presenting Information

This was a collaborative project created for Dr. Lilia Pavlovsky’s Fall 2014 online course, Competitive Intelligence, at Rutgers University.

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Six Principles For Becoming A Better Presenter

By Andrew Lawrence

“We love presentations. We love them because they translate information into inspiration. They transform audiences into movements. They give ideas a chance to turn the world upside down.”  

Is the above quote from Nancy Duarte the way most of us feel about presentations?  When I think about presentations the first though that comes to mind is usually “death by PowerPoint” after all, this is the way the Army and most of my academic experience have conditioned me. I think most of us would admit we cringe when we hear the word presentation.

The reality is, in our multimedia and visually saturated world, people have come to expect more from presentations. TED, Vimeo, and YouTube have created audiences that more design savvy and who expect more from presentations than the standard “death by PowerPoint.”  It is critical in today’s information driven world to develop skills share information and convey knowledge that transcends the humble written word.

When it comes to presenting CI and business information the many clients expect more than a lengthy written report. CI clients want information packaged in such a way as to be able to make informed decisions in as little time as possible. The information professional must not only develop the skills necessary to present information, but we must also be able to share these skills with those using our services.

In the last fifteen years as an Army officer and military chaplain I have learned a great deal and honed my communication and presentation skills. The following are six of the key things I have learned through my study and experience.

1.  It’s All About The Audience.

One of the first principles we learn in communications’ classes is “know your audience”.  The key to a speech or a presentation is knowing who‘s sitting in front of you.  Only when you know your audience can you connect with them.  Knowing our audience means knowing what motivates them and what kind of information they are looking for. The fundamental skill I teach my students at the Army Chaplain School in their block on staff officer skills is “know your commander”. Learn how they process and assimilate information.  Do they prefer charts or executive summaries? Are they more cognitive and affective in their decision making?  Knowing the audience determines how you will communicate the information.
 
Images from: http://www.duarte.com/book/slideology/

2.  B.L.U.F.  – Always Put The “Bottom Line Up Front.”

This is one of the key principles when communicating in the military, and I dare say in any business or organizational setting.  It is based on the premise that you put the most important information or point at the beginning of the presentation or document. Is there a decision to be made, or action to be taken? It’s about highlighting what’s most important. Too often presenters cram too much into a presentation. The B.L.U.F. is about embracing constraint and focusing on your most important point or idea. 

3.  Create Ideas, Not Slides

All too often presenters begin a presentation by opening their presentation software and creating their slides. All of the literature I have read on presentations agrees on one thing: begin with the idea first! As Nancy Duarte writes, “the applications are simply containers for ideas and assets not, not the means to generate them.” In the military staff officers are often guilty of going directly to PowerPoint when conducting mission analysis. This is so prevalent that Gen H.R. McMaster banned its use by his staff because he felt it led to poor analysis and thinking (see We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint from NYT). To McMaster PowerPoint  can be “ dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

There are a number of ways to create ideas and find inspiration:  brainstorming with a white board or pad of paper, capturing ideas on sticky notes, using mind-maps, or developing story-boards.

  • MindMaps—Allow information to flow and ideas to be generated easily and are especially helpful for visual thinkers. “Once you’ve generated an enormous amount of ideas, identify a manful that meet the objective of the vision or concept you’re trying to communicate.” 
  • Sticky Notes—“Sticky notes allow ideas to be captured, sorted, and re-arranged as needed. ”  Sticky notes make it easy to capture ideas and create a logical flow.  When using sticky notes put only ONE idea or concept per note and write them with a Sharpie as this makes them easier to read. 
  • Story Boards—While used most by writers and others in the media and arts industries this method can can be helpful in transforming ideas into a cohesive story. The idea with storyboarding is to sketch out in figures what you want to represent in words, concepts or ideas. 
  • Collaborate—”Don’t rely solely on your own words to get your point across.”  If you work as part of a team one of the best ways to generate ideas and attain clarity is to collaborate. 

Regardless of the method each of these is about capturing ideas that can later translate to an effective outline for the presentation. In the case of CI information the type of information requested will drive this creative process. Our job is to analyze the information and then present that analysis using the most effective means. 

4.  Think Like A Designer.

“If your ideas matter—if your business plans, your research results,  or your cause is worth spreading—then design and presentationsmatter.”  

In his book Presentation Zen Design Garr Reynolds emphasizes the importance of design in presentations, just as “designers need to be aware of the end user and how best to solve (or prevent) a problem from the user’s point of view” presenters can leverage basic design ideas to better communicate from the “audience point of view.” Ultimately design is about applying rules and structure (Form) to our presentations. “If you have the form, you can exercise great freedom. If you have no form you make it harder on yourself—and harder on the audience.

In 10 Tips on how to think like a designer Garr Reynolds offers a summary of the qualities of good design, which, “regardless of your profession can be applied in your own work.”  For Reynolds and Duarte good design is a part of good presentations, the goal of which is to” support our message in a manner for our audience to understand our message in the clearest way possible.”

5.  Don’t Confuse Slides With Documents.

One of the fundamental errors many presenters make is confusing the presentation with a document. The key here is “before you decide to display data onscreen, you need to be clear on its purpose.” Dr Stephen M. Kosslyn in his writing on presentations and use of graphs points out, “different data and goals require different visual formats.”

Some things are best conveyed with longer documents that provide the audience with the context necessary to understand the graphic or data, while others can be conveyed through a visual image or a word.  The ultimate goal here is simplicity; “do only what is necessary to convey what is essential.”

There are four principles to keep in mind when presenting data:

  • Signal vs. noise—the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) principle found radio communications is one way Reynolds explains presenting data, where “we think of visual noise as anything that gets in the way of seeing the data—the signal—onscreen in the most direct, clearest way possible.” Information Visualization speaks of this as the “Data-to-ink ratio” where you want to maximize to the greatest extent possible the information while maintaining clarity in understanding the data.
  • Restrain—“Include as much as necessary, but no more”.  Avoid visual clutter—footers, logos and other decorative items that create “noise”.  Restraint requires an understanding of what information or level of detail may be inappropriate for projection on a screen.
  • Reduce—“Many qualitative displays may become more effective if you simply reduce the nonessential.” This principle forces the presenter to continually ask: “Is this essential?”
  • Emphasize—“Point to what is important”. With respect to charts and graphs, this means effective use of contrast and color combined with a simple declarative statement about the data. 

Keeping the above in mind will help you to present information with clarity.


Finally, consider using a mix of slides and handouts and know when to use documents. Printed presentation products tend to invert the Data-to-ink ratio and provide less content and clarity. “Visuals projected onscreen in support of a live talk are very different from material created for print to be read and analyzed.” To this end both Susan Duarte introduces a “third medium—Slidedocs—that combine visuals and text for maximum understanding.”

This presentation from Nancy Duarte along with free templates can be downloaded at Duarte.com.

6.  Become A Storyteller.

This is perhaps one of the most important aspects in presenting information is the ability to become a Storyteller.  In fact, this is so important that almost every writer on the subject mentions it as an essential. Storytellers are able to create purpose and focus and audiences love a good story—we are visual and aural people—long before the written word pictures and stories were used to pass on information and culture. “The typical bullet point-filled slide fails to take advantage of an audience’s great capacity to understand visuals while also listening to presenter’s words—people cannot read loads of text and listen to someone speak at the same time.”

Storytelling is where all of the preceding points come together. You can have a great story but it will be lost on the audience if your slides have too much information. Likewise, you can employ all of the principles above and if you can’t tell a story or connect with the audience your information will get lost.

The primary principle here is your story is worth telling. Related to that is choosing a persona based on your primary objective—to educate, entertain, inform, or inspire.  Perhaps one of the best examples of this in the business sector was former Apple CEO and Founder, Steve Jobs.  The following video from the 2007 launch of the iPhone is a classic example of storytelling–watch as Jobs connects with his audience and uses simple slides to tell the story. It really is worth watching and it incorporates most of the principles I have listed above.

Bringing It All Together

Perhaps one of the best examples of presenting in the business sector was former Apple CEO and Founder, Steve Jobs.  The following video from the 2007 launch of the iPhone is a great example of a presentation that brings all of these principles together–watch as Jobs connects with his audience and uses simple slides to draw them in and tell the Apple story. It is worth watching in its entirety, but in the first few minutes you can see how Jobs has connected with his audience and has sold the IDEA that has changed the world. 

Some Other Resources

The above just scratches the surface of what it takes to design, build and deliver great presentations. I encourage you to look at some of following resources on if you are interested in in learning more.

11 Presentation Lessons You Can Still Learn From Steve Jobs from Forbes.com

Nancy Duarte  @ Duarte.com provides a number of free resources.  The Diagrammer visualization system contains free diagrams for presentations. Her book Resonate is available for FREE

Presentation Zen is the Blog site of Garr Reynolds Blog

Top Ten Slide Tips by Garr Reynolds @garrreynolds.com

PowerPoint Backgrounds is a set of free PowerPoint backgrounds from Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points

TED: Ideas worth spreading can be a great site to learn from some of the best presenters and story tellers in the world.

9 Tips For More Powerful Business Presentations from Forbes.com

Five Tips to Make PowerPoint Business Presentations More Effective

Five Presentation Mistakes Everyone Makes by Nancy Duarte from HBR.org

How to Give a Killer Presentation  and Presentation Tools That Go Beyond “Next Slide Please” from HBR.org

Create an Effective Presentation – YouTube Video – Harvard Business Review

Fix Your Presentations: 21 Quick Tips from Geoffrey James @ INC.com

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