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Presentation Structure – A Hard-Working Ally

Tell them

Developing a presentation is more than "stringing pearls." It's also not enough to just arrange a message in a way that supports a presenter's style. The really good presenters understand this and spend their time developing solid, understandable, high-quality content and applying a structure to the content that will help to accomplish two goals:

  • Promote maximum retention
  • Establish credibility with the audience.

That's a tall order for the structure of a presentation to fill. Yes, a very specific structure is needed to help accomplish the two goals mentioned above.

Structure to promote maximum retention

Although there are many benefits for applying structure to your presentations, promoting retention is, by far, the most compelling. This is a strong statement and you should understand what backs it up.

Let's review generally accepted "truths" regarding retention rates in a learning environment. There are a number of resources that consistently establish average learning retention rates in terms of delivery methods. The learning pyramid is one of the most recognizable resources.

The Learning Pyramid
Average Learning Retention Rates

In-person presentations with on-screen support fall within the audio/visual classification. The 20 percent audio/visual retention rate is not impressive. So how can you increase this retention rate?

Repetition Promotes Retention

There is a "universal speaker's law" that states:

Tell them what you are going to tell them

Tell them

Tell them what you told them

This is "law" is simply saying that a presenter needs to deliver a message multiple times in order to achieve the desired results.

Factoring repetition into average learning retention rates is not an absolute science. There are many variables that affect quantifying this type of gain (e.g., number of repetitions, elapsed time, variations of the message). Suffice it to say that repetition increases the retention rate of an audio/visual presentation. Exhibit 2 shows the learning pyramid (Exhibit 1) represented as a bar chart. The quality and number of your repetitions are represented by the gradient of gain on the 20 percent audio/visual bar. If you incorporate a demonstration (like a case study), retention of the material should increase even further. A demonstration could be counted as one of the repeats.

Average Learning Retention Rates

Retention Chart

How do you repeat your message without putting your audience on edge?

Structure to Reinforce Your Message

Most presenters use an agenda slide, which is typically a bulleted text list of topics that will be covered. It is a presentation structuring device and most presenters go over the list of topics rather quickly, usually without a lot of explanation. Used in this manner, the presenter is missing an important opportunity.

Consider, instead, using the agenda slide in a slightly different way. Rather than the passive approach of simply listing the topics on the agenda, actively establish the objectives for the presentation and set the audience's expectations. This important step should be the first topic on the agenda, not the agenda itself. This is the "tell them what you are going to tell them" part of the universal speaker's law.

The first topic on the agenda page below, particularly the third bullet, provides a significant opportunity for the presenter to create a mood of expectancy with the audience. This is also your first repetition.

Establish a Structure That Will Effectively Set Audience Expectations

Agenda PageThe next step is to present the actual material. Make sure that the material is presented exactly as promised when the expectations were established. The presentation of the material is the "tell them" step. The material should be presented in a few different ways (case studies are particularly helpful). These repetitions are important to help the audience retain your message.

Every presenter should recap the main points of the presentation. The summary is the "tell them what you told them" part of the law, also sometimes referred to as the executive summary. This is your last repetition of the material.

Structure to help establish credibility

The material you are presenting needs to be correct, compelling, and relevant if the audience is to believe that the presenter is credible. This is the most important aspect of establishing credibility, of course. But there are also subtle, almost subliminal, messages that need to be sent along with the storyline.

Everyone knows that correct grammar, punctuation, consistency, and spelling send the message that a presenter is professional and meticulous. If the presentation is error free, then perhaps the material being presented is error free. An audience is more likely to believe a presenter with a flawless presentation than with one riddled with errors. Similarly, the structure works in this matter. If you tell them what to expect and then meet those expectations, credibility is further established. Don't overlook any of these presentation guidelines. Used together, they are powerful in helping you achieve your goals.