ENGL 2105 : Workplace-Based Writing and Research

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Presenting skills are pre-eminent among the so-called soft skills. If you want to pitch an idea, sell a product, share what you've learned, make a name for yourself, you have to be able to stand up in front of a group or a crowd of people and make a positive impression. Part of the reason presentation skills are valuable is that a lot of people are terrified of public speaking. It routinely rates among life's most feared events, right up there with death.

If you are one of those people who fear public speaking, you need to get over it. Consider joining ToastMasters. Even if you don't want to join, their website has some great advice. You could seek out a coach. Mostly you need to practice speaking in front of a group of people, reminding yourself each time that you aren't the subject of the speech. The message matters; the audience matter. You are just the message's medium. It's not about you.

What follows is a fairly brief set of suggestions about how to present ideas in public.


The best public speakers sound as though they are speaking extemporaneously, off the cuff, as the ideas present themselves. They sound spontaneous because they have carefully crafted their message in advance and practiced, and practiced, and practiced, and practiced. The worst speakers write out a speech in advance and then read it. Or they memorize and recite it. You should only ever memorize and recite if you haven't got the time, or the inclination, to develop the subject matter micro-expertise it takes to deliver a really good presentation.

Given enough time, the best approach is to craft the message in advance, turn that message into an outline with headings and sub-headings and then practice giving the talk from heading to heading, without worrying about the exact wording -- get the facts right, certainly, but don't sweat the expression. If you practice over and over again, sometimes out loud, sometimes in your head, in the shower, while you get dressed, while driving to work or waiting for the train, while you're exercising, making dinner, seriously, over and over again, the outline will be tattooed on your memory and the words will arrive on the spot.

In order to get your outline together, identify who will be in the audience, what their needs are, what their expectations are, and think hard about how what you have to say can make their lives easier or better. "What's in it for them?" Do some research, call some of the people who might be attending or exchange some email. Prime the pump.

Once you know what's in it for them, identify the situation in which you will be giving the presentation, time of day (and the frame of mind people tend to have at that time of day), kind of room, number of seats, the kind of presentation equipment you will have. You need to know the room type and size and the number of people in the audience because you can't give the same speech to 3 people as you can to 100. The more people, the broader your brush strokes need to be. If you have only a select few, you can go deep; you can speak more quickly and use more complicated sentences, and you can invite questions and generate interaction. You can cover more ground with a small group as well. The size of the room will also let you figure out how to design your slides, again, big pictures for the big space, details for the smaller space.

Craft your message for the specific people (or at least the roles they play in the organization) who will be present. If the presentation is being recorded, keep in mind that some people will be receiving it in a different context and may need more context and organizing information than those present upon original delivery. Strike a balance. If the presentation isn't being recorded, stay in the present moment.

There's an old adage that you should start with a joke. Humor is dangerous.

There are two kinds of humor, contextual and set. Set humor consists of jokes and anecdotes that you deliver from memory. Some people are good at telling jokes and stories. They have a good sense of timing and they can feel the temperature of a room, metaphorically speaking. Some people are terrible at jokes, lousy timing, tone-deaf selection of topics. There are few jokes that don't disparage some individual or group and any member of the disparaged will not be amused. Generally speaking, an anecdote from personal experience that presents you in a positive light without making you sound like a braggart or a self-promoter and that is not entirely unrelated but still a bit of a distance from the topic of your speech will work well. If nothing else, consider a few light-hearted observations about the shared experience of being there that day, the weather, the traffic, the coming holiday, whatever is widely relevant.

Contextual humor is "getting off a good one" based on what was just said or what just happened. Contextual humor is also a dangerous skill with a huge risk/reward ratio. Beware the impulse to score. Getting of a good one usually means making someone else pay for it and there are only a very few, adversarial, situations where making someone wince will be worth while. Self-effacing humor is almost always better, but you don't want to appear under-confident or unsure of yourself. The best approach is friendly and responsive but not too humorous. No one looks more foolish than someone trying to appear clever.

Never go for a laugh if the topic is painful or you need to appear entirely dignified and reserved. Better to bore than to alienate your audience.

Giving the talk

The size of the room, the number of people in the audience, the number of different kinds of audience members, the nature of the topic, and your reputation as a speaker all play a part in how you should go about delivering your talk. Below are some basic, fairly universal, parameters.

  1. Focus. Breathe from your diaphragm and out through your nose. If you feel a bit anxious, breath in for 7 seconds, hold for seven, and exhale for 7.
  2. Engage. Who you are, what you will talk about, and what's in it for them, especially what's in it for them. Remind them about how much time is available and tell them what you want to accomplish in that time, perhaps a few words about how you will proceed (please hold question until the end, or feel free to interrupt, etc..).
  3. You are talking to real people, live. Pay attention to them. Ignore your slides. Make eye contact briefly with each person in the room (unless room has more than 20 people in it). Move around a bit or use your hands if you are stuck behind a podium. Modulate your voice volume and pitch based on the content of the presentation and where you are in it. Be a bit dramatic, although not histrionic.
  4. Don't talk to your slides.
    You should have only a few slides, just enough to help people visualize the complex or remember the important concepts. See more on slide composition below.
  5. Smile. Engage. Demonstrate enthusiasm for the topic and appreciation for your audience.
  6. Pause from time to time, to give people time to think, for dramatic effect, or just to. Don't be afraid of a moment of silence.
  7. Begin on time, but assume that people may arrive a few minutes late. So don't dive into the center of the talk until everyone you expect to be there is there.
  8. End with enough time for questions. If you've got 30 minutes, plan to talk for 20 if the topic is discussion worthy or 25 if you don't expect questions.

The slides

Slides are expected, although they often don't help and sometimes get in the way. People have an awful tendency to focus on their slides and ignore their audience, sometimes literally turning their back on their audience to look at their slides.

People often prepare their talk by opening PowerPoint and making slides. This is mostly a bad idea. Don't open PowerPoint till you know exactly what you want to say, unless you want to use it as an outliner, each key word on one blank slide, sort view to get the order right. Once you have the outline right, then and only then start making actual slides.

The purpose of a slide is to visualize (and therefore simplify) complexity, to make something more memorable, to help people take notes.

You need to know your slides well enough that you can scroll through them with your back turned to them. If you are standing at a podium with your computer in front of you, the current and next slide are visible to you, but their presence can be distracting. You don't want to read them. Each one should be at most a prompt for what you need to say. Ideally, you should be able to click through them without seeing them at all. Focus on your audience.

  1. The slides are for your audience; the slides are not for you.
  2. The title of a slide should answer the question so what? It should say why what's below is important not what is below.
    Fuel efficient transport
    3 ways to save gas 
  3. Whenever practical, use images rather than words
  4. You want no more than 3 bullets on a screen (imagine you are sitting in the back row of an auditorium. Can you read what's on the screen?)
  5. The last bullet should make the audience think of the question the next slide will answer

The handout

One page only, two sided if necessary. Hand out at the end of the talk unless you want people to refer to something in the hound out during your talk.

The handout should have

  1. The date
  2. Your name
  3. Your headshot
  4. The occasion
  5. The title
  6. A short paragraph providing context, why you gave the talk, why they wanted to hear it
  7. The take always in bullet form
  8. Your contact information--maybe as a footer--email, phone, address, social media (optional)

Delivering information

Informational presentations are about relevant facts. What does your audience need to know? Chances are, if they have come to your presentation they already know why they need the information, but if there are mistaken beliefs or rumors, carefully explain why before you get to what.

Using a very short book report as an example, an assignment you are likely to get in ENGL 2105, your outline might be

  1. Your name
  2. The book title
  3. What it's about -- the topic should be relevant to the class if you took it from the list of books, but if you found your own and the title doesn't immediately make it's relevance apparent, establish relevance.
  4. The chief takeaways, a bullet list of big ideas and useful tips

You needn't evaluate the book. If you think it's no good, don't waste people's time with it. Find a better one. If you think it's good enough to talk about, demonstrate its value by your enthusiasm and the apparent value of the advice contained on your third slide.

Your slides:

  1. The book's cover (go to Amazon or wherever the book is being sold and right click on the cover image) This image should be the only thing on the slide and it should fill the screen unless making it that big distorts the image too much.
  2. The big idea in a single sentence, perhaps as a question
  3. The three key take aways. Three bullets, one slide. Getting down to three might be hard. What ideas or strategies are the easiest to remember and understand?

Persuading an audience

The Pitch

The pitch is perhaps the most common form of informal public speaking. Often the pitch is what gets a productive conversation going, one that leads to more formal presentation opportunities. Sometimes the opportunity to make a pitch will just arrive, like you get on the elevator with someone you recognize from the industry but don't know or you are standing in a group at a function making small talk but you realize they might want what you have to pitch. In brief impromptu situations, your pitch should be 15 seconds at most. If you've done the leg work to get a few decision makers alone in a room to listen to you, go for fifteen minutes with lots of time to answer questions (what you say needs to light a fire).

Regardless of setting, a pitch needs to be short (fifteen seconds to fifteen minutes), tight (no fat, no digression), powerful (verbs, not nouns) and interesting to the recipients (what's in it for them?). It needs to solve their biggest problem, or at least a problem they want solved. And the solution needs to be self-evident or very close to so. You are going for, "Shut up and take my money." But that's not likely to happen often. If you get some excited questions to which you have good answers, you pitched it over the plate.

The Presentation

Narrative structure

The Greek philosopher Aristotle once said that all stories have the same structure: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Simplicity is power. You should think of your presentations as a three act play. In the first act you set the scene, provide the context; answer the question, "Where are we?". In the second act you answer the question "Why are we here?". And in the third act you answer the question, "What should we do?".

Let's look at the 3 act play as an outline using what is sometimes called the dot-dash method

  1. Beginning
    -- establish the context for the decision that's the reason for the presentation by assembling the relevant facts into a coherent story that sets the scene: Where are we?
    -- although the main question is where are we, sometimes who are we needs to be addressed first, if there is no collective identity created by a shared work context or a community setting, for example, or you have that identity in common but you need to form a new subgroup, IT programmers for app development, maybe
    -- How long the first act needs to be depends on how well understood the shared context is. If everyone know why they are there, you just need to announce the topic. "Right, we're hear to talk about why our competitors are out selling us. Here's what we know . . ."
  2. Middle
    -- what's here?
    -- a problem, a threat, an opportunity
    -- how did we get here? Causes, innovations, new markets, new sources of revenue (creditors, investors)
  3. End
    -- Here's what we need to do -- the solution