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Presentation Research

Effectively Present Your Message

 With the advent of the overhead projector, much research was done on exactly what makes a good presentation.  Most of what will be reviewed comes from the original research performed in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the 3M Company.  The material was revisited in the 1990s by the IBM Corporation to determine if presentation visuals on the computer projection devices were appreciably different from those on the overhead.  There were some slight differences, which will be pointed out between the overhead needs and the computer projection needs especially in the area of background and font color. 

Self-Evaluation--Where Do You Fit?

Depending on your score on the self-evaluation, you will fit into one of the following categories.


Who Are You?




Accomplished speaker who needs to maintain skills through practice.



Potential to become a highly effective speaker.



This presentation can help you significantly.



You should show dramatic improvement.

30 and below

Don't Ask

Dig in!  Roll up your sleeves and see if we can't make some progress.

Keys to Effective Presentations


       Developing visual aids

       Developing handouts

       Delivering the presentation

       Handling Questions and Answers


       Know your subject--while an expectation of any presentation, some of us expect to "wing it."  Depending on the importance of the audience, practice and essential scripted wording are important ways to assure success.

       Knowledge of the audience is essential.  You need to meet the NEEDS of the group.  The more you match your presentation to the group the more likely you will achieve success.  Particular constraints that should always be considered include political issues, financial concerns, and the knowledge base of the audience.  If you gear your presentation to the group viewing it, you'll be a hit.  The target audience is the one factor that determines success.  Talking above or below their level of experience and understanding will assure a failure in your presentation.  This is one of the reasons computer training is so difficult--the target audience is so diverse that there is no single target to focus upon in training.

Getting Organized

       Brainstorm ideas--post-it notes work well to write down each idea.  Generally an effective presentation should cover only 2-5 main ideas.

       State the sub-points--if you use post-it notes it is easy to organize the ideas.  Group items together to get the main themes for your presentation.  Remember only 2-5 main ideas.  There is no limit to sub-points

       State benefits.  You need to be specific to you main points.  What are the general assertions you are making about these main ideas?  Show the audience how this presentation will benefit them.  There must be a purpose.  Reinforce that purpose throughout the presentation.  You don't want anyone to leave without knowing those 2-5 main themes.  Summarize them!  Support them!  Restate them!

       Develop Handouts.  Make sure the handout reinforces the 2-5 main themes. This is what the audience will return to six months from now.  The handout reinforces the presentation.  NEVER GIVE OUT BEFORE PRESENTATION.  This is what you give out at the end of the presentation.

       Develop visual aids.  Your visuals are not the total presentation.  They fit into the plan and develop ideas further.  A picture is worth a thousand words--if you find the right picture.  The visual provides meaning and sometimes the essential thought that reinforces the presentation.

       Main idea preview.  Tell them what you want to tell them.  Tell them.  Tell them what you told them. 

       Develop the introduction.  You only make one first impression.  The introduction is the most important part of the presentation.  Catch their interest now and the presentation has a much greater chance of success.  Get their attention.  Depending on your personality use humor, tell an anecdote, show a cartoon, ask a rhetorical question, quote someone, or provide a shocking statistic.  Any of these will provide the springboard to your presentation and gain the attention of the audience.

       Develop the conclusion.  Good conclusions always return to the material in your introduction.  Call their attention to the purpose of the presentation.  Maybe you want to leave them with a call to action.

The Content

The presentation has four major components.  Each of them has significance to a successful conclusion.  Planning is essential if the content is to be accurate, interesting and have meaning for the audience.  The parts of an effective presentation are:

          The outline

          The introduction

          The body of content

          The conclusion

Physical Environment--Location is everything

               Layout--you must be responsible for the room layout.                 You must visit well before the presentation time.                 Arrange the seating and be sure that everyone in the                back can see and hear as well as everyone in the front.

       Noise--If possible control the noise level.  If your audience is bigger than 50 use a microphone.

       Lighting--This can be a real problem for computer projection devices.  There should always be some lighting in the room but computer projection devices cannot take any lighting around the screen.  You really have to pre-plan to locate the screen in the best location for excellent viewing with computer projectors.   Sometimes a portable screen is the best choice even if a wall screen exists in the room.  If you cannot block the lighting around the screen go for the portable one.

       Screens--There are some mathematical formulas for determining audience to screen viewing.  Most screens are five feet wide. (You should be considering the width of the projection.  If you do not cover the entire screen this brings your first and last row closer.)  Two times the screen width should equal the distance of the closest row from the screen.  Six times the screen width should equal the distance to the last row.  The bottom of the screen should be four feet from the floor.

Developing Your Visuals

The purpose of your visuals should be to focus attention, reinforce your message, stimulate interest, and illustrate factors hard to visualize.  NEVER read the visual to the audience and have that be the total presentation.

       Color is a key in computer projected visuals.  Simplicity and consistency are important.  If you change color it should be for a purpose.  The most important point of the entire presentation might need a different color from the rest of the presentation.  This will assure that the audience notes it.  Avoid using red and green together.  Be aware of color connotations.  Light backgrounds with dark colors work best for overhead presentations.  Computer projected presentations usually need dark backgrounds with light font colors. 

       Most presentations only need a maximum of seven graphics.  Limit charts to five.  The whole presentation should have a maximum of 3 to 4 colors throughout.  Note that Microsoft and Claris paid BIG BUCKS to programmers to create the color schemes.  Use them--you know they are effective.  Only change colors for a reason!

       Screen Design.  Be careful not to go crazy.  Too much means the message is lost.  The audience focuses on the colors, transitions, and graphics and misses the purpose of the presentation.

       Be Consistent.  No more than six bullets per page or six words per bullet.

       Type size is important.  For projections 18 point is the minimum.

There are certain excesses to avoid. 

     Never have more than 30 numbers in a single presentation.  People can't remember more than that.

     Words--don't fill the screen.  No more than 36 words per slide excluding the title.

     The screen should never be more than 2/3s to 3/4s full.  Always use solid fonts and watch shadows.  You want the audience to read it easily and quickly.  They should not have to puzzle out the words.  Shadows and text effects are fine for title slides but simple and easy to read is the key to the Meat of the Presentation.


 Certain graphs are better to display information.  NEVER have more than 5 graphs in a presentation.  If you have 42 fantastic graphs, put them in the handout.  If you put them in the presentation, everyone will be asleep on graph 6. 

Graph Type


Best for displaying



Parts of whole or percentages



Stacked Bar

Changes over time

Column or line

Changes over time

The Handout

Remember this is what they will have forever.  While many programs will print the slides, this really doesn't encompass the total presentation.  Again, never read the slides, this insults the audience.  Your visuals are reminders to help you remember your script.  Your handout should stand-alone.  It is the summary of the important things you said.  It does NOT have to match slide for slide to your presentation.  Remember this is what they leave with not what they have to look at instead of your presentation.   Promise them a handout at the beginning of the presentation but do not give it out until the end.

The Presentation Delivery

Anxiety must be dealt with effectively if the presentation is to be successful.  Calm comes to those who are prepared.  If you do your homework, you will be less likely to panic.  Practice, know you location, visualize your presentation, have your script, breath, and most likely you will be fine.


Again, you only make one first impression.  Confidence comes from knowing you are prepared and present a professional appearance.  Inappropriate dress when your audience enters defeats you before you open your mouth.  Professional journals note the following dress tips.


                    Long sleeves

                    2-3 colors

                    Avoid bright reds, oranges, blacks and white

                    Avoid jewelry that dangles or sparkles

                    Simple make-up


                    Suits--dark blues, grays, black

                    Ties that complement your eyes and face

                    Shoes that are appropriate and well shined

                    Hair, beard well groomed

The keys to an effective presentation have only one part that deals with the material itself.  The other areas that impact the audience are all tied to the presenter and the manner in which the presentation is delivered.  Organization, poise, warmth, and personal appearance are essential elements of an effective speaker.  Good posture and position relative to the audience is important.  Make eye contact and move around.  Don't pace but equally don't be glued to one spot.  Finally, use those electronic pointers sparingly.  Gadgets are great, but again the audience can become so immersed in the gadget that they miss the message of the presentation.  Gesture to the audience as you would in conversation with a friend.  Beware the broad throwing of the arms.  Look at people but don't stare them down.  Finally, think about how you sound.  Monotone, too fast a talker and too soft a voice are all nerve related.  Have a friend check your volume from the back before the presentation.  Pause, use this method to point out important points. 

Questions and Answers

While this is often the most stressful part of a presentation, especially if you have presented something controversial, step forward and welcome questions.  Listen carefully.  Be prepared.  Anticipate what will come up.  If your presentation was controversial, get ready for the result and have your answers prepared ahead.  If you maintain a confident demeanor, you will handle the questions with care and honesty.  Don't be afraid to say that you don't know an answer.  Never promise a follow-up and forget to deliver. 

Finally, restate your main points at the close of your presentation.  My main points were the steps to an effective presentation--planning, developing visual aids, handouts, delivery, and Q & A.  If you plan and practice you will be a success and effectively present your information to your target audience.


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This page was updated on:  04/10/02