July 14

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Rule #1: Pick A Topic And Stick To It

By jaime

July 14, 2020


How many times have you heard a speaker start on a topic then suddenly go off on a tangent, never to return? In software parlance, the speaker “went off into the weeds”. Well I’m here to tell you that the worst thing you can do to your audience is build up anticipation for an ending that doesn’t come. So here’s the first rule of giving a good presentation:

Pick one, and only one, message that you want to share with your audience and stick to it.

All Roads Lead to…Your Message

Imagine for a moment that you plan a vacation with your family. You announce to them that you are driving from Dallas to Disneyland. You pile your wife, your kids and more luggage than you knew you had into your vehicle and you hit the road. On the way, you suddenly decide it would be a good idea to take a detour and see the Grand Canyon. “It’ll only take a day,” you tell your family. “We’ll still have plenty of time to visit Mickey and his pals.” They don’t much like the idea but they have no choice since you’re driving. So you drive off to lose a day at the Grand Canyon. It’s all very nice but your kids are anxious to get to California. From the Grand Canyon, you plot your course to Disneyland and you discover that Las Vegas is on the way. “Hey, honey! How about we stop in Vegas to see some of the casinos?!” Your kids groan, “But, daaaaad. What about Disneyland?” “It’s alright, it will only be for a day,” you say and you change directions again, this time to Las Vegas. By now you’re having a ball but your family frustrated and they’re wondering what you’ll do next. Will you suddenly decide to trade Disneyland for a trip to San Diego instead? Will they ever get to see Mickey Mouse? Will their vacation be reduced to just one day because you can’t stay on-course?

That’s how it is with a speaker that can’t stay on-topic. He’s taking you on a trip with no clear destination. And the worst part is sometimes you can’t even get out of the car! Sure, if you’re at a conference you can probably just get up pretending you’ve got to take an important phone call. But what if you’re at some large company gathering where everyone will see you exit. Don’t be that speaker who holds your audience hostage. Let them know you have a plan to take them to a destination they will appreciate and then get them there.

Your Points Should Support, Not Distract

All the points you make during your presentation should, well, point back to the main message. Yes, it’s important to have supporting arguments but those arguments should not lead you down a different road, they should lead you back to the main road of your message. If you plan on using stories to support your message try to have them prepared ahead of time. I’ve heard speakers say something like, “This reminds of a story.” They then start to tell that story and it has nothing to do with their main message. The story may be very entertaining but, by the time they finish it, the audience is confused as to what the topic is anymore.

It’s Ok To Repeat Yourself, At The Right Times

One of the greatest speeches ever given was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech. You’ll notice that he starts key sentences in that speech with the same phrase, “I have a dream.” That can be a very effective way of reminding your audience of the main topic but you don’t want to overuse it. If your supporting argument is a little long you can repeat the main idea at the end of it. This helps the audience reconnect with you before going on to the next supporting argument.

In a great vacation, half the fun is getting there. By the same token, half the fun of a great presentation is the road you take to deliver the main message. So be kind to your audience and stay on track. Don’t forget, pick one (and only one) message then stick to it.

About the author

I'm an engineer and, sometime, public speaker.  I believe technical presentations don't have to be boring.  I believe the world will benefit when engineers become better communicators.

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