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What’s the Magical Ingredient in Potent Presentations?

Updated on: May 1st, 2012
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Ann K. Emery of Depict Data Studio sitting at a computer and speaking into the webcam.

I’ve been talking to evaluators and non-evaluators about what makes great presentations, conference sessions, and workshops for the American Evaluation Association‘s Potent Presentations Initiative.

Today’s guest blogger is my evaluation friend and Eastern Evaluation Research Society extraordinaire, Jen Hamilton. I hope you enjoy reading Jen’s ideas about great presentations.

– Ann

“It’s a given that a great presenter is knowledgeable about their topic. It’s how they convey that knowledge to an audience that is important, but also difficult to define. Conveying this knowledge has two parts in my mind, the things that presenters can work on to improve, and others that are more innate.

Part of the difficulty for presenters is that the audience comes in with a wide range of previous exposure to the topic. Determining the level at which to speak can therefore be difficult. Do you target the experts, the novices, or try to hit somewhere in the middle?  Knowing a little about the conference and participants can help guide this decision.

Also having a dynamic PowerPoint that covers the main points (using bullets, not paragraphs of text), is useful. Where possible, I also like to see graphs and charts. The presenter should then give the background for the points and supplement with examples from their own experience. I think examples are key, it gives the audience something to integrate into their own experience.

And for heaven’s sake, please don’t memorize and recite! Know the main points you want to make for each slide, and talk off the cuff. When the presentation seems natural, it is much easier to follow.

Lastly, don’t get defensive. I’ve seen many presenters get argumentative during the question and answer session, and this makes the audience question the value of the presentation as a whole.

And this is where it gets more fuzzy. The best presenters, in addition to knowing their stuff, and meeting some basic guidelines for presentations, also tend to have charisma. They seem comfortable talking to a group. As an audience member, you feel that you like them as a person.

And while charisma can’t be acquired, I think there may still be some tips for those of us lacking this magic ingredient. One is to practice public speaking. A lot. The Eastern Evaluation Research Society conference is a great venue for this, with small and friendly crowds. The more you do it, the more comfortable you (eventually) become. And when you become more comfortable, it is easier for the audience to relax and enjoy your presentation. With comfort also comes the ability to speak slowly, and make eye contact, to smile, and to make the occasional joke (the audience has been sitting in windowless hotel rooms for days, after all). All of the things that charismatic speakers do intuitively.

The bottom line is, charisma aside –  being comfortable, calm, and prepared will go a long way.”

– Jen Hamilton

More about Jen Hamilton
A major emphasis in Dr. Hamilton’s work has been social equity and improving the social, academic, economic, and health outcomes of our Nation’s most vulnerable youth. She brings together stakeholders to investigate complex problems from a variety of perspectives, and works collaboratively with clients to provide the right information at the right time. She specializes in evaluation methodology, with a focus on the design and implementation of rigorous experimental and quasi-experimental designs. Dr. Hamilton is a Scientific Reviewer for the Institute of Education Sciences and NSF, a certified What Works Clearinghouse reviewer, a peer reviewer for numerous journals, and Past-President of the Eastern Evaluation Research Society. Her chapter on program evaluation was published in a major textbook.

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