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Getting Your Voice Heard

Posted by Thomas Leusner on

by Aditi Khadilkar, Process Technology Development Engineer (Intel Corp., OR)

Ideas can be powerful but need to be expressed clearly to achieve your desired outcomes. We all have experienced being excited by an ‘aha’ moment that we would then like to bring to implementation. Most significant projects require us to collaborate with individuals at different levels and convince them of the potential of our ideas or work. In today’s digital world, this is often aided by PowerPoint presentations. Depending on how we use this tool, we might be able to make a “power” presentation or a “poor” presentation, which can have a big impact on our next steps.

A successful presentation include these elements:

  • Technical content
  • Storyline development
  • Slides
  • Verbal communication
  • Time distribution of the material

Additionally, understanding audience expectations will dictate the structure and content of the presentation.

Note that even if the presentation style is mastered, the foundation of a good presentation depends on its inherent content. The level of understanding of the topic by the audience and audience expectation is critical in determining this content. This also ties into the pace of storyline development. On an average, for an audience with some basic understanding of the subject, a good rule of thumb is to have about 10-15% of the presentation as introduction; about 75% as the main body with technical detail; another 10-15% as conclusions and future work.  The main body can include 20% methods, 80% results and discussion. It is advisable to intermix results and discussion together to avoid excessive strain on the audience’s memory. This will help the audience to establish a connection. The presentation, if it is a long talk, can also be broken up into subsections using section header slides – each subsection containing these different components. It is often a safe assumption to consider that your audience knows very little and build the story step by step. This is safe and helpful as every slide that the audience understands makes them interested in understanding and listening to the next one. Keeping flow and continuity from one slide to the next is critical to keep everyone’s flow of thoughts uninterrupted.

Important considerations while presenting different sections of your talk are as follows:

  • Title slide is an important slide. Remember to spend time on this slide to set the stage and some expectations for the audience by briefly talking about the title and giving them time to read it, instead of making them feel rushed.
  • Introductory section should clearly define the problem statement based on the current status and lead up to the goal.  Any assumptions or limitations in the current work can be listed upfront. A bulleted introductory list, though often used, does not usually add value. Such a list generally becomes too generalized to convey much. You want to keep the audience in slight suspense instead of revealing details upfront.
  • Presentation body includes methodology, data, and results and need to have smooth transitions.
  • Conclusions and summaries should be more like a recap of the significant take-away messages. It is often useful to breed in familiarity by repeating images and words that were used earlier in the presentation. Instead of a bulleted list, a summary of figures with brief titles, discussed as they are introduced by animation, can often be effective.

Tips on slide preparation

In addition to proper distribution of content intensity throughout the presentation, proper distribution and variety within each slide helps keep the audience’s attention. It is important to appeal to all the different senses of perception that the audience uses to absorb the material. The audience “sees or visualizes”, “listens”, “reads,” and “thinks.” Guide the audience through these to avoid confusion. For example, when the audience has to read long sentences, listen to details (not written on slide) and think at the same time, they may find it challenging to absorb anything.

Start the slide with a strong title and pictures. Write out key phrases and include a good balance between figures and letters with a greater emphasis on pictorial communication. The assertion-evidence methodology detailed in Michael Alley’s book, “The Craft of Scientific Presentations” explains the importance of the title as an assertion for which the rest of the slide provides evidence. As everyone reads the title, and it gives them an idea of what to expect and stimulates their thinking. Then they keenly listen, while looking at pictures. Few letters highlight and support the same messages. Finally, after the explanation, a summary/conclusion or a key leading question can be flashed at the bottom of the slide. This gives a sense of completion to the thought process on that slide and establishes a link with the next one.

Using all these elements should thus be complementary, as some of the audience may be skilled listeners, others visualizers, some readers or quick thinkers. Keeping each of these elements simple, clear, and concise is the key to using their power without leading to audience overwhelm or information bombardment.

Voice modulation is also important. Give your presentation as if you are talking to the listener and explaining an interesting story instead of giving a monotonous sermon.  The natural variation in your tone of voice, excitement at results and next steps, seriousness in technicality or grimness and confidence at challenges needs to come through. Simple voice modulation and body language are critical here.

The ideal time spent on a slide or the time taken to build up the message can differ greatly based on the audience. On an average, a minute per slide is a good rule of thumb.

There is a distinction between academic and industrial audiences. In academia, emphasis is on technical details and the pace is generally several orders slower than in industry. It becomes important to explain elaborately for development of trust in the data collection techniques, results, and ideas. In an industrial setting, however, the same presentation often needs to be presented in a highly condensed form, with the gory details as backup slides. The audience inherently tends to trust the material and is looking for conclusions and is in a mind-set to make immediate decisions on next steps. While academicians may have an evaluative perspective, industrialists come from the point of view of business impact. Data validity and completeness is critical in both settings, but in the industrial settings, a 15 slide academic presentation could be condensed into 3 slides with objective, current status, results, and next steps.

Additional artistic elements, such as limitation on blank space on a slide, font, and animation can be utilized. Animation is often useful in breaking complex slides into parts for easing piece-by-piece absorption. After compiling all the discussed elements into a set of slides, practice presentations with a relatively lay audience and in front of a mirror can be useful. The key is to break down the complexity (that often is extremely simple to the expert presenter) into something that can be explained easily to a first timer.

Finally, passion can be contagious! Conveying excitement for one’s work and speaking about it clearly and enthusiastically wins an audience.