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Communication competencies and skills are often considered of lower priority than technical ones by scientists and technical specialists. Yet they are critical to professional success. I was recently involved in organising a meeting concentrating on communication skills for the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) – professionals who specialise in the assessment and control of health hazards in the workplace. The first half concentrated on report writing and the BOHS guidance on report writing that was published last year and was led by one of it’s authors, Adrian Hirst of Manchester University. During the second half of the meeting I ran a session on presentation design.

  • Occupational hygienists have to make presentations in a number of different situations, Including:
  • Presenting results, conclusions and recommendations from surveys to management and workers
  • Talks on occupational hygiene to various types of audience
  • “Toolbox talks”
  • Presenting papers and keynotes at conferences

How the presentation is designed and delivered is important if you want to make an impact and a good impression. So it’s worth putting some effort into presentation design. For me the overriding principle is

never prepare and deliver a presentation that you wouldn’t want to sit through yourself!

Careful thought needs to be devoted to a number of key elements, illustrated in the following diagram


The format of the presentation should be adapted to the type of situation and, very importantly, the particular audience. What’s appropriate for a meeting where results are presented to management or Safety Representatives is unlikely to be the same as if you were presenting the same results as a paper at a conference of your peers

Features of good presentations include:

  • Clear objectives
  • Well structured
  • An appropriate amount of content for time available
  • Content pitched at the right level for the audience)
  • Good materials – including well designed slides and handouts
  • Clear, interesting delivery


The key steps in preparing to deliver a presentation are :

1. Define your objective – what you can realistically achieve in the time available. When doing this take into account

a. The audience – makeup, prior knowledge, what they want or need from you

b. The time available

2. Design your content – prepare an outline . It’s usually best to avoid using Powerpoint (or other presentation software) to do this. Use a pen and paper to sketch out your ideas and then tipdy them up and rearrange them if necessary.

3. Design your materials – prepare good quality slides and handouts. Think about their content and how they should look before you start typing

4. Practice and rehearse and then deliver

The standard of visual aids used during most presentations, particularly Powerpoint slides, is often quite poor. This is probably because little though is given to the design of the materials and insufficient time devoted to preparing them. We spent a major part of the workshop on slide design and I’ll be covering this in another post in the near future.

This very amusing short video of a routine by comedian Don McMillan illustrates in a very effective way some common traps people fall into when designing presentation slides.

Which of Don’s mistakes do you commonly make?

And now for the News

August 16, 2012

Although there are lots of ways these days to keep up with what’s going on in the world, I still tend to watch the news on the TV once or twice a day. News broadcasts are a way of getting information across to people and involves people talking supported by visuals, so they are, in effect, a type of presentation.  And I think there are lessons that can be learnt about presentations from watching the TV news

One of the main problems with most presentations I attend is that the presenter has limited time but uses a deck of Powerpoint slides crammed full of information. In many cases every single point they make is reproduced in a list of bullet points on screen. The speaker isn’t really needed. All the information is on the slides. And because most of the audience will attempt to frantically copy down the words, they don’t hear the speaker, who might as well not be there!

TV news bulletins aren’t like this. The following is a clip from a typical BBC news bulletin.

The bulletin uses lots of visuals – it is TV after all. There are a lot of video clips that illustrate the point but there is no attempt to convert everything that the news presenters say into words. There are some “slides” where key facts are displayed, and one quote from the Prime minister. But they are limited and note how they don’t have much information displayed at any one time.

On the TV News the spoken word is the main way of conveying the information with relevant pictures used to support what is being said, and with limited use of text and graphics. TV news is really meant to be an overview of what’s happening in the world. There isn’t time in a news bulletin to give all the detail. If anyone does want to know more they can turn to other sources much more suited to presenting large amounts of detailed information – such as a newspaper or, these days, websites. With presentations, rather than try to cram everything on slides so the audience can copy them down, provide a handout they can take away.

Presenters can learn  a lot from TV news

  • time is limited, so keep to the essential points,
  • Use good quality images to support what’s being said,
  • use text and graphics sparingly
  • there should be minimal text on slides
  • provide a handout or references in case the audience wants to know more

It occurred to me the other day that the problem with the phrase “Powerpoint presentation” is the word “Powerpoint”.  What I mean by that is that when somebody delivers a “Powerpoint presentation” the emphasis is on the “Powerpoint” rather than the “presentation”. And, for me, that’s the wrong way round.

Presenters will often start preparing their presentation by opening up Powerpoint, or some other “slideware” program, on their computer and start typing. What they’re actually doing is creating an outline for their talk. That’s not a bad idea in itself. The talk needs to have a structure. But  doing it this way means that they end up with a deck of wordy slides that aren’t really what they need.

The presentation isn’t the deck of slides – it’s what the presenter has to say. The slides are visual aids that should support this. The audience doesn’t need to see the outline. They need appropriate images and key words that emphasise what the speaker is trying to get across without being a distraction.

For me best practice on presentation design is to follow the approach advocated by Garr Reynolds in Presentation Zen and Nancy Duarte in Resonance

  • work out the objective of the talk – what you want the audience to know or to do at the end
  • work out the key points that need to be covered
  • organise the key points to create an outline for the talk
  • decide what visual aids you’re going to use – it doesn’t have to be Powerpoint slides,other approaches can be better
  • if you’re going to use slides, start to think about their design

All of these are best done before switching on the computer.

Taking this approach would mean you’re concentrating on the presentation rather than the Powerpoint . And that’s a much better emphasis.

I came across this Vimeo video recently. It’s by Susan Weinschenk,  a behavioral psychologist who specialises in applying psychology to the workplace.

It’s produced in the style of the  RSA Animate series of talks by leading thinkers. In these animated videos you don’t get to see the speaker. You hear them talking while an artist creates a cartoon summary of the talk. It’s quite an effective technique.

The talk does what it says on the tin – provides 5 key points about how people respond when listening to a presentation. I’ve come across most of these points before, but Susan brings out some key lessons on what they mean in practice for the preparation and delivery of presentations

Her second point – “multiple sensory channels compete” – is particularly important in the context of slide design and reinforces the view that wordy slides should be avoided at all cost. When there’s too much to take in visually, your audience won’t hear what you’re saying.

The video is, in effect, a “taster” for her book 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People, and it’s done it’s job as I think it’s worth checking out the book.

I  recently came across a slide deck posted on Slideshare by Chris Atherton. She’s a psychologist and used to be a Senior Lecturer (formerly Lecturer) in Psychology at the University of Central Lancashire. She’s now working as a User Experience Architect for Numiko ltd

The slides are from a presentation Chris made in April at the Leeds Bettakultcha. According to their website this is:

an evening of short talks accompanied by digital slide presentations. The presenters are all volunteers who have based their talk around something that they are passionate about – which can be absolutely anything.

The format of Bettakultcha talks is 20 slides for 15 seconds each (they transition automatically), and you can talk about anything you want. Chris chose to talk about (what else) psychology.

Too many people use Powerpoint in a bad way – either creating an outline or using it as a script. In either case that results in badly designed, over wordy slides. The slides for a “lecture” type presentation should be visual aids to supplement what the presenter is saying, not to reproduce the talk or act as a teleprompter. They should be visual with minimal words that add to what the speaker is saying. Now this means that if the slides are posted onto Slideshare , where the speaker isn’t present, the slide deck can look pretty meaningless. Chris has got over the problem by annotating the slides with a summary of what she said. The annotations on the slides were added afterwards  so that they make sense to the viewer. They weren’t present on the originals. I’ve noticed that a few people have started to do this and it’s a technique that I’ve started to use with presentations I’ve uploaded to Slideshare.

She hasn’t used Powerpoint – she’s tried something quite different. The slides are hand drawn on an iPad using the Paper”. It’s a, fresh, original approach. You’d have to be reasonably good at drawing to use it, though.

Chris Atherton at @Bettakultcha Leeds from Chris Atherton

As well as showing a fresh, inovative approach to slide design, I think that this presentation is a really good example  of how to get a technical topic across to a lay audience in a limited time with well designed slides!