Going beyond ‘student’ presentations

I’m so very proud of my students – the very top performers will be presenting their semester’s work to some of the executives of The Australian Red Cross Blood Service this Friday. They’ve worked incredibly hard this semester, my students, and today we gathered for a presentation masterclass with the aim of transforming what they know about giving presentations into something professional and what I like to call “boardroom ready”.

It surprises me every semester when I run these classes that the students have been able to get so far through university and no-one has taught them how to create a professional presentation. It seems no-one teaches them about structure, about the use of metaphor, about how to connect with an audience through the use of emotion. This saddens me.

So I thought I’d share two great presentations here that I show the students in the masterclass. The first one is of Nancy Duarte who gives a great introduction to what actually makes a great presentation. The video is 20 minutes long, but it’s well worth watching.

If you watch this presentation, pay close attention to not only what she is trying to say (her message) but also the way in which she is saying it. Her message is that good presentations have an identifiable structure, that if you follow this structure, then your presentation can also turn out well. If you pay attention to the process of her presentation you can see that she is modelling the ideas that she is trying to convey. This presentation is worth watching a few times and I ask my students to break it down, both content and process, to get to the heart of what makes a good presentation.

Some questions I ask my students include:

  • What is the main theme in this presentation?
  • What techniques does Nancy use to improve the power of her presentation?
  • What do you notice about her slides?
  • How does Nancy connect the beginning of the presentation with the end?

Often it comes as a surprise to my students that the art of crafting a good presentation is as complex as it is presented here. They are often so very keen to dive right into the design of the slides and start to pull the Powerpoint deck together that they underdo the thinking and planning of the presentation. The designing of the slides (if they are going to be used at all) should come at the end, not the beginning.

Another example of a good presentation that I like to show is one of Ben Zander talking about classical music. Ben is clearly a master presenter. He is charismatic, talented, funny and so very engaged.  It’s clear that Ben has given this presentation many many times (or one very much like it) and he is truly comfortable in front of the audience. But like Nancy’s presentation above, if you analyse what Ben is doing throughout his presentation, you can begin to see familiar themes arising. Ben uses cadence and rhythm to give structure to his presentation and he uses humour to great effect, punctuating his presentation with jokes and stories to keep the audience interested. However, the strength of Ben’s presentation is not the techniques that he uses to structure a great talk, but his use of emotion to connect with his audience.

On Friday my students will be trying to get their big ideas across to our industry representatives. They’ll have 15 minutes to present their findings and they’ll have 10 minutes of QandA to answer any tricky questions. All the work we have been doing throughout the semester comes to a very sharp point. I’m confident that they know their stuff, the trick will be if can they communicate it effectively. Ultimately the main lesson on Friday will not be how ‘good’ their presentation is, but how much they learn about making a good presentation as they prepare. It’s the same lesson that they tackled throughout the semester with their reports. It’s not the final report that matters, but what they had to learn in order to make the final report.

Process matters.