Presentation Lessons from Summer Practicum

The bottom line? Effective presenting takes a lot of work!

On July 25th and 26th, the Blue and Orange cohorts presented the fruits of their three-week summer practicum projects. At the end of their twenty-minute presentation, each group received comments on their performance. While listening to the other teams’ feedback and mentally preparing for our own stage time, I took notes of the suggestions given to the 12 groups presenting that day. I also reflected on strategies that helped us during preparation.

These two information sources resulted in ideas that fell into four broad categories: Attitude, Teamwork, Visuals, and Client Focus. Incorporate these characteristics to improve your talk and increase its impact on your audience.

Elevate Your Attitude

Attitude hinges on how you behave in the spotlight, how you speak and move with purpose, how you show your presence in the moment. Have you ever experienced the surreal sense of time simultaneously seeming like forever and nothing at all during a presentation? Speaking a bit more slowly than you think you should allows you to fully address your point. It can also prevent you from getting tangled up in all the information you have to provide.

Next, be excited! Smile and stay engaged throughout your time up front. Enthusiasm can be quite contagious, and provides a great opportunity to connect with your audience. In addition, work to face your listeners and speak to them, not to the screen—it can’t hear you and neither will your audience! Speaking of the audience, make sure not to unintentionally ignore half of them. Keep up eye contact, scanning, and speaking to multiple parts of the room.

Finally, project your voice, especially when facing situations without a microphone. I fell into the double difficulties of being both quiet- and quick-speaking; strong projection will improve your confidence as well as ensure that no one has to strain to hear your findings. In short, work on your “pacing” (timing) and your “pacing” (movement). Harnessing the power of speech and body language will serve to enhance your content and further emphasize your takeaways.

Trust Your Teamwork

Collaboration is a prevalent theme throughout the MSA program, and this is especially true of presentations. Frequent rehearsals will get you more polished. The more you practice, the smoother your transitions will be, the more confident you will feel, and the quicker you can adapt to any issues that arise. Trust us, arise they will— Wednesday’s groups had at least two instances of technical difficulties occurring. However, thanks to plenty of practice, the teams made a swift recovery.

The best presentations are cohesive rather than seeming like five individual efforts pieced together, and therefore transition time between team members is especially important. Don’t forget choreography during practice runs, since something as simple as fumbling a clicker hand-off can cause you to turn from the audience prematurely. Even if you do turn, make sure you’ve stopped talking and given your conclusion point before ceding the floor. Another method, which will require additional practice time but can help with transitions, is to have one team member operating the slide advancer.

We also received the suggestion early in the day for everyone to move to the middle of the floor for question time. This practice re-emphasizes team identity at the wrap-up. It is equally important to maintain that shared purpose throughout the presentation. Referring to other team members’ points can remind your audience of the important takeaways. It also can be a proxy for a polished presentation, showing that you’re aware of what the others are saying. Lastly, remember to say “we” and avoid “I.” Embrace the group effort!

Vamp Up Your Visuals

Powerful visuals and simple slide design will take you far. Your audience may read what’s on the slide, even if you’re not speaking about it yet. This can introduce confusion and frantic scanning as they run into mismatches between what they see and hear. To avoid this, reduce the amount of information shown on each slide. Build up flowcharts, graphs, and complex slides a piece at a time. Also consider graying out areas not in focus and highlighting areas of importance with another visual cue (e.g., circle points of inflection on a line graph, or use an arrow).

Another simplifier is to combine visualizations where possible. Think about using a derived variable or overlaying charts on each other. If there are just a few elements, like a three-pattern comparison, this is an easy way to present them and catch up to spatial memory loss—the tendency to forget exactly what the last slide looked like. Beware, though, don’t go crazy with the overlapping. The information presented concurrently should be walked through, understandable, and readable even from afar. Explain your axes and legends!

Lastly, use fragments and images to your advantage. Avoiding full sentences lets the audience know the topic at hand and helps you escape the grasp of “wall of text syndrome.” Consistent colors, icons, or image styles will bring a sense of continuity and (comfortable) predictability to your slide deck. Running agendas also offer an unobtrusive way to show progress. In short, realize the importance of slide design in making your audience’s journey through the presentation a pleasant one.

Clinch Your Client Focus

Let’s sum up client focus like this: Bottom line up front…and everywhere else! Start with it, finish with it, say it everywhere you can.

Remember why you’re here. If your audience doesn’t get what your main message is or why they should care about it, the sleekest slides or most innovative analysis techniques can’t overcome that. When meeting with executives with just 10 minutes on their hands, we have to capture their attention and make sure they know the time we’re taking is about them and their needs.

Although storytelling can be a powerful and humanizing tool, resist the urge to trace the story of your entire methodology and what you tried but didn’t see pan out. We know that everyone put in a lot of hard work that often led to dead ends, but now is not the time to tell that story. If you do find yourself cramming words in to hit everything, question whether you have more than is necessary to get your main points across. That said, efficient clarifying definitions (such as what constitutes an outlier in your analysis, the subset of data being examined, etc.) are also encouraged. You can always have supplemental slides at the end for analysis specifics.

With the information you give to the client, be clear, be specific about the benefits of knowing it, and give actionable insights. If you have deliverables, don’t be afraid to put them up front, even before the ever-present agenda, and refer to them throughout the rest of your slides. Lastly, drive home the bottom line in your conclusion and continually emphasize why everything you say relates to it. As we said before, that’s why they’re here and why you’re here in front of them. Keep your focus constant and your client will appreciate it.

Leveraging these four areas—Attitude, Visuals, Teamwork, and Client Focus—will get you on the right track to an effective presentation. Here’s to many successful efforts in the future!

Abdul, Chris, Ruth, Caroline, Di after their Summer Practicum Presentation

Columnist: Ruth Sirkin