Teaching presentation skills

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Date: June 2004
From: Business Communication Quarterly(Vol. 67, Issue 2)
Publisher: Association for Business Communication
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,156 words

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EFFECTIVE TEACHING of presentation skills focuses on the most important element of the presentation--the message itself. Some instructors place the heaviest emphasis on the messenger (the presenter) and focus their presentation feedback on all the presenter is doing wrong--saying "um," gesturing awkwardly, and so forth. When students receive this type of feedback, their insecurity can actually increase because they focus their attention on the peripheral behavior they are trying to avoid instead of on the content and how it is being received by the audience. The following sections explain our coverage of message and messenger as well as our presentation facilities.

The Message

We believe that if students focus on preparing and delivering an effective message, the messenger attributes will come along almost automatically. Like pulling on one point of a spider web, the rest of the web, being interconnected, will move in the same direction. We stress that an effective message should be (a) clear, (b) memorable, and (c) useful.

Clear. Students first learn to clarify the message purpose and to design a brain-friendly information architecture, typically using the OABC (Opening, Agenda, Body, Closing) framework. The structure is then complemented with effective stories, examples, analyses, and other supporting information. Next, we teach students how to design professional PowerPoint shows to assist in presenting their message clearly. One technique is to display the agenda in small size on all slides so the audience can simultaneously see the detail of individual slides as well as the larger structure. Because of our emphasis on clarity, structure, and the OABC, we experience relatively few problems with disorganized content.

In addition to PowerPoint instruction, we help students create brain-friendly handouts, exploiting the best of text, graphics, and design. Creating an informative one-page handout is a good information-architecture exercise. One additional useful activity is to hold peer-to-peer practice presentations during the class before presentations are given, including laptop slide shows for those with computers. Here presenters discover what aspects of their presentations need improvement.

Memorable. Effective messages stick, enhancing information recall. Thus, we emphasize creating presentations that are visually and psychologically memorable. Using PowerPoint, we teach professional slide-design techniques, combining typography, graphics, color, layout, and other slide-design techniques. However, we warn against distracting transitions and animations and against an endless array of boring bullet slides.

To make messages psychologically memorable, students learn about creative openings to pull the audience away from their mental preoccupation. To prevent the audience from daydreaming during the presentation, students learn additional techniques, such as telling stories, using metaphors, giving demonstrations, and employing audience-involvement activities.

Useful. To address the usefulness factor, the presenter must first understand the audience and then create an appropriate presentation. Otherwise, the presenter must convince the audience to accept a message it does not need or want. Hence, the messenger must seek first to understand and then later to be understood. Audience analysis includes learning the demographics, interests, needs, knowledge level, and organizational pressures of audience members.

The Messenger

Regarding the messenger portion of presentations, we acknowledge that each student has a unique nature and communication style. We try to help each one improve according to that style and in a range reasonably comfortable to the student. Even in a lifetime, we could not turn an introverted student into an extroverted one. Thus, we seek to help both become effective presenters in their own way. We avoid making negative comments on nitpicky factors that matter little, if at all, to typical audiences. Only if something is truly distracting do we bring it to a student's attention. For example, some instructors try to eliminate all "ums," but we believe a few "ums" can make a presentation seem more spontaneous and conversational. The three key messenger elements we work to strengthen are (a) knowledgeability, (b) genuineness, and (c) likability.

Knowledgeable. Good presenters must learn their subject matter through reading, research, direct experience, or other means. We strive to ensure that our students' information-finding skills are developed, including Boolean-logic searches of respected databases. An effective way to strengthen students' knowledge of a topic is to require a written report to back up the oral report.

Genuine. Knowledge is critical in getting the audience to trust the speaker's "head," but genuineness helps the audience trust the speaker's "heart." However, genuineness can be difficult to teach and to measure. To get at this attribute, we show 30- to 45-second video clips of former students. Stopping the video, we ask the class how they determine the presenter's genuineness. Comments include the speaker's passion for the subject matter, expressed by verbal, vocal, and visual intensity; and the speaker's humanness, reflected by the amount of self-disclosure and the ability to "connect" with the audience. The audience wants to feel that the speaker understands them and is not condescending or manipulative.

Likable. To help students increase their likability, we also use former students' videotaped presentations. After showing a 30- to 45-second clip, we ask students whether they like the presenter and why. Reasons for liking may include a smile, a pleasant face, good eye contact, a conversational talking style, or a comfortable gesturing style. Reasons for disliking are reflected in a stern face, a cold and formal speaking style, limited gestures, limited eye contact, and distant positioning. Helping students identify factors that affect likability enhances their ability to improve the way they themselves come across to an audience.

Videotaping Facilities

We believe presentations must be videotaped for maximum student improvement, and we are fortunate to have three adjacent videotaping rooms on campus. On the day of students' presentations, we split each class of 21 students into three groups for simultaneous presentations in the three rooms. A teaching assistant facilitates each room's presentations, and the instructor watches the presentations on three television monitors in a nearby control room. Rather than trying to observe and evaluate all three presentations simultaneously, we use a system of revolving selective concentration.

After each presentation, the presenter gives a brief self-critique (what was done well and what needs improvement), followed by coaching from peers and the teaching assistant. After everyone has presented, students take their videotape home, watch it, and write a self-evaluation memo. The teaching assistant and instructor also give each student written feedback on a standard evaluation form. The feedback includes an overall evaluation and appropriate coaching comments. Specific compliments are given for areas of strength, with an additional comment or two for areas needing additional work. As stated earlier, these comments focus on aspects that matter most--not on minor details that are unimportant to typical audiences.

In conclusion, we believe our combination of message and messenger instruction with videotaped presentations achieves excellent results. The approach gives us a good mix of effectiveness and efficiency, and student evaluations reflect satisfaction with the course and with the instructors.

William H. Baker

Michael P. Thompson

Brigham Young University

Address correspondence to William H. Baker, Department of Organizational Leadership and Strategy, Brigham Young University, Provo UT 84602; e-mail: whbaker@byu.edu.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A117449775