Hammering the point home – the difference between a presentation and a report
08 March 2016
Author: Barry Brophy is a mechanical engineer who provides training in how to make technical presentations and teaches two masters’ courses on this topic in UCD
Most people find it very difficult to cram years of experience into the mere minutes of a presentation. It often leads to the presenter speaking way too fast, having way too much information on their slides and running way over time. But the real problem is not one of quantity but quality.
We often try to communicate the wrong things entirely. Tasked with presenting the outcomes of a long report, many of us present a breathless, short version of that long report. The title is the same, the sections are the same, the order in which these sections are covered is the same, and, like the report itself, the slides are full of text.
Reports are good at certain types of communication and presentations are good at others. This should be obvious. But although many reports do their job quite well, most presentations don’t. People fail to take proper account of what a presentation is good for and play to these strengths.
Play to the strengths of the presentation format
This was brought home to me at the kick-off meeting of a large European project I attended several years ago. A representative from Brussels gave an overview presentation on what is expected of the partners, talking for more than an hour on the many different facets of how EU projects of that sort work.
At one stage he made a comment about the ‘mid-term auditing of accounts’ and a minute or so later, a hand was raised. The speaker answered the question that was put to him but this only prompted two or three more questions in its wake. And after that, there were several more questions again. Soon the room was embroiled in a full-scale discussion-come-debate and it was some minutes more before the speaker finally put the matter to bed.
It transpired that this auditing requirement was new. Before, only end-of-project financials were scrutinised and the change in the rules had implications for when some budgeted items had to be spent. This could trip you up badly if you weren’t aware of it.
An important point struck me in all of this. The rest of the presentation consisted of general information that people either already knew or didn’t need to know. It was ‘overview’ of a programme we were already signed up to. The point about mid-term auditing, however, was new. This was one detail among many that people needed to know and so should have been strongly emphasised.
In this regard a presenter is like a lawyer advising a client. Everyone can access the laws of the land but few of us know what they mean. From this vast tome of knowledge, the lawyer extracts just the key point. And not only does he or she give you the relevant information, he tells you what to do with it: ‘Move your fence three feet to the left or your neighbour will sue you. And win.’ The more succinct he or she makes this, the better. Presentations are the same.
As a presenter you are selecting from your many years of experience the few minutes your audience really needs to hear. And this is where a presentation comes into its own. Not only can you isolate the key points, you have several ways of stressing them in a way that a report can never do.
Firstly, a presentation is interactive. There is no better way to meet the needs of the audience than to find out what these needs are. Get them talking and asking questions. Like a good salesman, find out what the customer wants and give it to them.
Secondly you can use the array of conversational skills you have been mastering since birth: vocal inflection, repetition, eye contact, hand gestures and body language. You don’t have to be an evangelical preacher to do this well, even simple signposting statements like, ‘Folks, this is the point I really want you to take away …’ make the audience sit up and listen like no amount of bolding, underlining or italicising in a report can do.
Thirdly, a presentation is three-dimensional. You can demonstrate things, or concepts related to those things, in all sorts of ways. You can even use yourself as demonstration, signposting ideas by where you stand and point. Demonstrations have to be the most under-utilised of all presentation tools and yet one of the simplest and most effective.
Finally, presentations are visual. As I said in an earlier article, the huge screen that most rooms now feature is an opportunity to hit people with dramatic, elegant, colourful visual content. Sure you can have – and should have – graphics in a report but in a live presentation these can take on real cinematic impact.
A presentation is not facts, it’s an interpretation of facts
In short, a presentation is not facts, it’s an interpretation of facts. It’s an extraction of the key point from within those facts. That’s where its strength lies.
I was at a wind energy conference a few years ago where six speakers – featuring, among them, the minister for energy and natural resources at the time – presented in the morning session. Not one of the speakers, the minister included, said at the outset, ‘This is what I want you to take from this talk,’ or words to that effect. All of them spoke about topics that were generally relevant to wind energy but none of them said why.
This lack of focus is at the heart of many poor presentations. Mistakenly, we look at the presenter and say, ‘He was a bit flat,’ or ‘She’s not a great speaker,’ when really it’s the content that’s not up to scratch. Real presentation magic lies in picking out the points the audience needs to hear and using the presentation tools at your disposal to hammer these points home.http://www.engineersjournal.ie/2016/03/08/hammering-the-point-home-the-difference-between-a-presentation-and-a-report/http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/aaaham.jpghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/aaaham-300x300.jpgMechconference,energy,wind