Considering how uneasy I am about speaking before more than a couple of peole, I try as often as I can to give presentations. For an introvert like me, doing this not only yanks me out of my comfort zone but also forces me to think differently about how I write and structure information.
When I mention that to some people, they don’t see the connection. While presenting does (obviously) involve speaking, there’s actually quite a bit of writing involved. At least in the way I do it.
And I find that preparing for a presentation has helped me improve my writing. Let’s take a look at how.
Cutting to the core
One key to a successful presentation is focus. To do that, you need to cut to the core of your topic. As with a good essay, you need come up with a central argument or theme.
Once you’ve done that, you can expand on it. Build out your argument with facts and ideas. But don’t be afraid to trim down, either. As with good writing, creating a good presentation involves as much editing as writing and thinking.
Keeping it tight
I talk a lot about writing tightly. All that means is using as few words as possible to get your point across. And that involves choosing the correct words.
When preparing a presentation, that’s even more crucial. You need to choose your words very carefully and arrange them with equal care. You can quickly lose your audience if you ramble or if you speak in long sentence.
Telling a story
Sometimes, I have to admit that I’m a bit storied out. I don’t believe that everything needs to tell a story. When you’re giving a presentation, however, stories come in handy.
Stories help add some colour to your presentations. They grab the attention of the audience. That said, you just can’t tell any story. It needs to be interesting and to tie into your central theme or argument. The stories you tell need to be short and to the point.
And don’t tell too many stories. If you do, your audience could lose the overall narrative thread of your talk, no matter how good the stories are.
This is a hard one. Moving too quickly or too slowly is a mortal sin when presenting. You need to build up to a point, then slowly let your audience back down until you’re ready to take them back up again.
Doing that, whether you’re speaking or writing, is difficult. It takes a lot of practice. And there’s a lot of trial and error involved. But little by little you learn. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m edging closer.
Writing as I’d speak
In one of the essay in his collection of film criticism titled Harlan Ellison’s Watching, Ellison discussed why dialogue written by Ernest Hemingway and Ray Bradbury works wonderfully on the page but has rarely (if ever) translated to the screen. The problem? The dialogue is beautiful, but doesn’t always flow in with the cadence of normal speech.
As I prepare a presentation, I work from the premise that I’m speaking to someone. OK, I am. Several someones, in fact. I think about how I speak to friends and family, and the tone and cadence that I use. I don’t worry about grammatical niceties.
Stilted or formal language might work on the page, but it doesn’t work when speaking to an audience. Keep your speech natural. Keep it real.
If there’s one thing that’s missing from my slides, it’s text. Not that they’re completely devoid of words, but the slides I create are more visual than textual. Which is interesting, considering my lack of artistic ability.
But when I choose visuals for my slides, I try to find ones that help advance the story I’m telling or visualize something I’m saying. Sometimes, I try to have a little fun.
In a presentation that I recently gave on creating ebooks, I had a slide containing a photo of a pair of x-ray specs. That was the segue into a slightly more techie area. When I got to that slide, I said Let’s put on our x-ray specs and take a peek into an EPUB file. It got a good reaction from the audience!
I’m definitely not the most polished or confident speaker. But I’m a lot better than I used to be. And I’m hoping that I continue to improve.
If nothing else, taking a few steps into the world of presenting has forced me to focus and tighten my writing even more than before I started speaking in public. I’ve been thinking more deeply about what I want to say, how I say it, and the order and pace at which I say it. That’s bleeding over into my writing too.
Photo credit: Vladimir Kolobov