Giving an overview improves your presentation

My housemate Jackie writes the blog Agent Plus Environment about her life as a Cognitive Science student. She and I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women In Computing this October, and she recently posted some presentation tips based on her impressions at the conference. Full details can be found on her entry, but the highlights are:

  1. Never, ever read sentences directly off the slides.
  2. Talk slower than you thinkyou should.
  3. Make clean slides.
  4. Don’t have paragraphs on your slides, period.
  5. Proof-read your slides.
  6. Don’t put huge chunks of Java pseudocode in your slides.
  7. Insist on a mobile microphone and/or a laser pointer.

I agree with all her points, especially about the microphone. A few presenters I saw simply refused to use the microphone because they said they “didn’t like it.” We didn’t like it either, because we couldn’t hear them talk!

I have just one more point to add: at the beginning of your presentation, just take a minute to give an overview of your presentation. There are so many benefits to doing this. For one, your audience has an easier time following the presentation. For another, it decreases the fatigue associated with spending an hour or more focusing on watching one person talk, because it breaks the talk up into chunks that are easier to pay attention to. It’s easier to follow the rhythm of the presentation if you know the speaker is on point 3 of 5.

In his book Confessions of a Public Speaker, Scott Berkun puts particular emphasis on including an overview in the first 60 seconds of the talk. He advises,

Start with a beat. Think of your opening minute as a movie preview: fill it with drama, excitement, and highlights for why people should keep listening.

It’s a great book, and I enjoyed reading it. I highly recommend it for anyone who does any public speaking work, including professors. [Full disclosure: Berkun sent me a free copy of his book.]

I’d like to add that at a conference with multiple presentations occurring simultaneously in different rooms, having an overview of your presentation will let people know if they’ve come to the wrong place for the talk they want to hear, a mistake I made more than once at the conference. Not only were the room layouts confusing, but a talk entitled “Cloud Computing” might talk about any of a range of subjects, not all of which I am interested in. Almost all the speakers I watched at Grace Hopper included such an outline, which allowed me to make a quick dash out of the room when I showed up for the wrong talk. On the one hand, it’s better not to make that mistake, but for those that do, give your audience a heads up about what you’re going to talk about!

  • Andrej

    Interesting. I’m always told that I give great talks and make great presentations, but I’ve always strongly insisted on the opposite. i.e., I never give an overview, and I cringe when others do. It’s interesting that people have such varied views on this.

    For me, personally, an overview ruins the charm of the talk. I like to be a bit surprised by a talk. I like to be in for a ride. If the talk is laid out for me, many times I’ll sit back in my chair and sigh: the charm is gone. Those points are everything that the talk is about? The stuff up there is boring! Many times it lets me down, and I can be quick to just pull out my laptop and space out. Also, if the talk is drawing out, and I know we’re only on part 3/5, I’m much more likely to give up altogether on it. A talk should not come with a progress bar. Just imagine watching a movie and having your TV display progress bar on the bottom: would you like that?

    Also, I don’t find your comment about accidentally going to the wrong talk, and the way an overview solves the problem to be relevant.

  • Artie

    I agree with Andrej: I remember taking “public speaking” classes in college and struggling to stay awake through the “correct” presentations that consisted of monotonously reading the same notes three or four times, and realizing that “speaking” and “presenting” were NOT the goals of the class (nor the grading criteria) as much as they were about “outlining”.

    Think back to when you were in elementary school and your class would have to give oral book report presentations. How many times did you bang your head off the desk during those? And how many times when you were reading the actual book being reported on? There’s a simple reason for that: while learning simple facts, structured presentation might be useful, but for synthesizing information, human beings are much more wired to listen to a NARRATIVE, and the best teachers from Aesop to Jesus have known that. If Scheherezade had gotten up to read Shahryar a list of bullet points, she wouldn’t have seen the first dawn.

  • Eric

    While I agree with all your other points, I’m afraid, I hate putting an overview in at the beginning. To me, if your talk requires an overview to start with, it doesn’t flow properly on its own. I find it to be an aid that allows people to write bad presentations.
    Having said that, perhaps you simply mean: “put up the title slide and say a few words.” I’m all for that. Depending on circumstance you might explain why people are here (e.g. you told them to come and they didn’t have a choice, but why?), give a short synopsis of the topic covered, explain why you are in a position to talk about it, etc, but whatever you do, don’t put up a bullet point list of what the presentation will cover.
    Just my view of course and I’ve known it to evoke strong responses… ;-)

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