I practiced a lot for my first big business presentation. I created a script and rehearsed it, repeatedly, until it was memorized. When it was my turn to present my team’s findings, I stood up, walked to the front of the room where my slides were on the screen and, just as I planned, exactly 12 minutes and 15 seconds later, it was over.
I felt great. I hit all of the points I wanted to cover and did not miss a beat throughout the entire presentation.
When I sat down to start fielding questions, I realized that most of the audience had no idea what I had just said, and basically needed my team to reexplain the entire presentation. It turned out that my expertly planned, memorized speech did not provide much decipherable information applicable to the audience in the room. Basically, I was speaking at them instead of explaining our findings.
It soon became obvious to me why this happened. While preparing for the presentation, I was thinking about myself — could I memorize everything I wanted to say, could I deliver the findings seamlessly, and could I stand in front of the audience and hit every mark I had planned for? As crazy as it sounds, I never really thought about the reason I was giving the presentation or what the audience needed from me.
Through my approach, I achieved the wrong goal. The correct goal was not to show the audience that I could deliver a speech, but rather to inform the leadership team about a project and provide them with the necessary details to assist with decision-making. Because I was only focused on myself, the goal was not achieved, and the leadership team was unable to make a decision without more work, collaborative discussion, and data review.
I am glad I had this defining moment early in my career, because I never made this mistake again. When I prepare for a presentation now, I keep my audience at the forefront. I do not worry about forgetting something or struggling to find the right words because the only thing that matters is that my audience can follow what I am saying and walk away with the information they need.
Here are a few tips to help ensure that your presentation style is audience-focused:
Make sure that you understand the goal of the presentation and the target audience
Once you know those two key factors, you can align your talking points accordingly. I have given a good number of presentations at work and in my personal life. When I am asked to give a presentation, my first question is always “what is the goal of the presentation?”
This is not a question I ask myself. It is a question I actually ask the person who requested that I give a presentation. A lot of times you know the rationale, but it is still good to confirm if it is to provide people with information to make a decision, purely informational, or to educate and teach people something new.
When you spend time understanding the goal of the presentation and talking through that goal with the requester, you are naturally shifting your focus from yourself and what you are going to say, to your audience and what they need to hear.
Encourage conversation with your audience, and ask if they have questions after key points
A presentation should be a conversation that achieves an intended goal. Of course, too many questions can sometimes derail a presentation, but what you hear from the audience can be used as a checkpoint to see if they understand your message. Then, you can adjust your discussion accordingly.
If your topic is complex, pause and ask: “I know this topic can be a little complex, so would it be helpful to provide another example or was the information clear?”
Being conversational helps tone down the formality of a presentation and allows your audience to be more comfortable asking for clarification when they need it.
Show your excitement and passion for the topic
Once you have mastered the first two tips, you can start focusing on delivering a dynamic presentation. In the story above, my mistake was that I jumped straight to this final step. It is your job to get your audience to listen to what you are saying, and more importantly, for them to understand why the data you are presenting matters to them.
We have all seen great presentations where people passionately speak about their work. We probably agree that these presentations are much more enjoyable to watch. At the end of the day, no one will ever be more excited about your presentation than you are, so once you set the bar high for yourself, chances are your audience will feel that enthusiasm and be intrigued by your passion.
When you are excited and exude an intensity about your topic, the audience is more likely to pay attention. When that happens, you have a great chance of achieving your intended goal.
Paige Kassalen loves to put her creativity to use by solving problems in emerging technical fields, and has been an IEEE member since 2012. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech in 2015, Kassalen began her career with Covestro LLC. in 2015, and soon became the only American engineer working with Solar Impulse 2, the first solar-powered airplane to circumnavigate the globe. This role landed Kassalen a spot on the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list along with feature articles in Glamour, Fast Company and the Huffington Post.
After Solar Impulse, Kassalen helped Covestro develop its strategy for materials for the future of mobility, and shared her work at conferences around the United States. In 2020, Kassalen received a Master of Information Systems Management degree from Carnegie Mellon University and now applies her problem-solving skills to the finance industry, where she works with teams to develop big data strategies and implement innovative technologies.