Presentation expert Ken Haemer famously said: ‘Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it: To Whom It May Concern’.
Presumably none but the most die-hard serial polygamists would dream of taking that approach to love letters; so why do so many presenters think it’s okay to work with a single generic slide deck that is wheeled out for every presentation?
Could a presentation designed for your peers ever be expected to work with a non-specialist audience? Could a slide set developed for people within your organisation ever be as relevant to outsiders? Could a lesson devised for 11-year-olds possibly work for university students?
No two presentations should ever be identical
No, no and no again. The starting point for any presentation has to be a detailed consideration of the characteristics, interests, knowledge level and needs of the audience. And since no two audiences are ever the same it should follow that no two presentations will ever be completely identical.
So here are the crucial questions you should attempt to answer about your audience before you even start thinking about slides:
- Who are they? Okay they’re all people but do they represent one type of business/educational interest or several? If the former are they all at the same level? Are they experts or non-specialist?
- Why are they coming to listen to you? Are they on a three-line whip or attending out of choice? What do you know about their motivation?
- What are they expecting? The organisers should be able to tell you how you have been billed and positioned as a speaker?
- What do they already know about your topic? You will need to pitch your presentation at the level of the least knowledgeable without patronising those who know a lot more;
- What do they believe about your topic? Think about areas of easy buy-in but also anticipate potential areas of disagreement. This should also help you prepare for the Q&A period after your presentation, when even the most confident speakers can come unstuck;
- Who else will they be hearing from on the day? If it is a multi-speaker event, find out as much as you can about the people speaking before and after you to work out what other influences will be at work.
Armed with the answers to these questions, you should then be able to design a presentation targeted to each specific audience, using the sort of concepts, examples and – crucially – the language that is most likely to resonate with them and ultimately persuade them to your point of view.
Yes it’s not as easy as simply wheeling out the same slide set for every presentation, but you are likely to reap big rewards in terms of attention, retention, influence and reputation.
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