Back to basics: quick and easy ways to develop a great presentation: part 2: support your message with convincing evidence.
Last time, we contrasted presenters' typical worries with the requirements audiences have: (1) focus on a single, relevant message; (2) support this message with convincing evidence; (3) organize your information into digestible chunks; (4) articulate loudly, clearly, and with enthusiasm; and (5) cut back on your visuals.
You saw how to meet the first requirement: giving your listeners a single, clear message relevant to them. Now let's consider the second requirement.
WHAT EVIDENCE CONVINCES?
Your evidence must meet three criteria if it is to convince your listeners. One, it must be clearly relevant to them. Two, it must be trustworthy. Three, it must be easily absorbed in the distracting setting of a presentation.
1. Evidence Must Be Relevant. Which of all your facts, statistics, etc. matter to your listeners? You can separate relevant from irrelevant by making a list of audience questions.
Consider the people in your audience. Imagine saying your main message to them. What questions, reactions, or objections will they have? Write down at least 10, then pull out three that are the most important to the most people. Your answers to those three questions will form the body of your presentation. The evidence that clearly backs up your answers will be relevant to that audience.
2. Evidence Must Be Trustworthy. Now that you have selected the relevant information, make sure it is trustworthy. Use reproducible data, authenticated statistics, and quotes from credible, relevant sources (e.g., customers and production supervisors).
Include only your strongest evidence. Any weak argument will pull down the overall persuasiveness of your message.
3. Evidence Must Be Easily Absorbed. Don't try to impress your listeners with your specialized knowledge and technical language; put things in the simplest terms possible. Also, remember that monotonous evidence is impossible to absorb, because it puts everybody to sleep. Even at this early stage of collecting ideas, plan for intelligent variety.
Suppose you are an engineer in a mill. You have observed that in the rush to expand the product and customer base, management has let basic quality and maintenance philosophy seriously deteriorate. You have an opportunity to present quality findings to a mixed technical and management audience. The message you want them to take away is: We need to concentrate on doing our core business well, with a goal of zero rejects of shipped product by customers.
Your three key points answering major audience questions might be: (1) By pursuing any new customer, with any possible need, we have stretched our development and production processes to the limit. (2) Research, development, and engineering for new products have left too little support for quality of the basic production processes. (3) We have begun to lose more current business because of quality problems than we are gaining with new customers and products.
Relevant evidence for point (1) might include quotes from production supervisors and examples of major production breakdowns; for point (2), examples of risky postponements of crucial maintenance procedures and a demonstration object, such as a section of pipe with a heavily corroded inside; and for point (3), overall loss numbers, examples of major product rejections, and quotes from customers showing they see this as an accelerating trend.
To establish the trustworthiness of the evidence, use credible sources and methods and precise quotes, and omit minor problems that might be debated as "unavoidable" under the best circumstances.
Finally, to make your evidence easy to absorb, state it in the briefest form, using the simplest language, and plan for variety: a clear chart expressing the exponential growth in problems; some interaction with audience members who can contribute examples of quality problems; demonstration objects; quotes; and lively examples of major breakdowns and other problems.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Cheryl and Peter Reimold have been teaching communication skills to engineers, scientists, and businesspeople for 20 years. Their latest book, The Short Road to Great Presentations (Wiley, 2003), is available in bookstores and from Amazon.com. Their consulting firm, PERC Communications (telephone: +1 914 725 1024, e-mail email@example.com), offers businesses consulting and writing services, as well as customized in-house courses on writing, presentation skills, and on-the-job communication skills. Visit their web site at www.allaboutcommunication.com.