Part 3: Adaptations

Oral Presentations

Letters and Memos
Collaborative Documents
Oral Presentations
Telephone Calls



The methods you learned earlier for writing documents can easily be adapted for oral presentations. But the differences are crucial. The most important one is to plan your talk thoroughly, but don't write it out. By giving it extemporaneously, but following a well thought-out plan, you put life into it. Second, as you plan your talk and as you give it, keep in mind the nature of the listening experience. Listeners need much more help than readers to follow what you are saying. You have to give them structural cues, point out what is important, and emphasize the action you want them to take.




Many highly competent professionals fear giving oral presentations. The best way to get over this fear is to prepare your talk thoroughly and practice it, if possible, before a real audience.

Begin your preparation by exploring your content and analyzing your listeners. These steps are important, particularly the second. Readers can be expected to re-read a difficult portion of a document, but listeners only get one shot at what you are saying. So you need a clear image of who they are, what they know, and how they are likely to react to what you will tell them.

Bring your early thinking to a close by writing a brief Focus Statement that identifies, precisely, the main point you want to make, the actions you want your listeners to take, and the impression you want to make on them.

To organize your ideas, use a Tree and follow a top-down strategy. However, develop the tree several levels lower than you intend to actually present to your listeners. You do this for several reasons. First, it will help you make conscious, realistic decisions about how much material to actually include in the presentation. Second, having thought through your topic in greater detail, you will be well prepared to respond to questions or requests for more information.

As you give your talk, think strategically. It is very hard for listeners to understand complex ideas presented orally. Give your listeners structural cues throughout your presentation. Start out with an overview in which you preview the main point you want to make, the major topics or issues you will discuss, and the action(s) you want them to take as a result. Each time you move from one major point to the next, mark the change explicitly. At the end, restate the major topics/issues, the main point, and the action(s) you intend.

Put issues into perspective. Point out what is important. Draw conclusions and connections. Don't leave it up to them to guess what is important or where your talk is headed. If your talk is more than ten minutes long, put in "resting spots", places where you talk about something less technical or less critical to your message. This gives listeners a chance to relax, collect their thoughts, and relate what you are saying to their own experiences. A good place for these is at the transitions between major points, as you sum up what you just said and introduce the next idea.

Visual aids are particularly important for oral presentations. Diagrams are virtually mandatory if the topic is technical. Aids that list major points, but not details, can also be helpful for focusing the attention of your listeners. But don't overdo them. If you use transparencies, don't have so many that you are constantly slapping them on and off the projector. A good rule of thumb is to plan to talk for 2-3 minutes for each visual aid.

Practice your presentation. Try to get a small sympathetic, but frank, group to listen to you. Do the presentation straight, just as if you were giving it for real. Don't stop and restart or talk to your audience "off the record". Pay particular attention to time. Be sure you can comfortably give the talk within your time constraints. Giving an oral presentation is different from stuffing sausage. The idea is not to pack in the maximum number of details. Rather, aim for effectiveness. In most instances, less is probably better.

When you actually give your presentation, try to relax. That's a lot easier said than done. Try to shift your focus from the details of your talk toward the concept of actual, real communication with your listeners. Reach out, psychologically, and encompass them. Imagine what has been going on with them that day. Are they tired at the end of a long day? Or are they fresh, all gassed up on coffee, and ready to get into something exciting and technical? Be prepared to adjust your opening remarks to fit the situation.

Some speakers are born, but most of us have to work at it. The procedures outlined above will help you with the basics. Seek out opportunities to practice them and keep notes on what works for you. Good luck!

Go to: previous section - next section - table of contents