Where the hell are we?

You've no idea how useful a map is until you need one.

You’ve no idea how useful a map is until you need one.

Sometimes the context is everything.

Sometimes you need to have the background before you can make things work for you.

Sometimes it’s just so very much more simple to know what you’re supposed to think if you know what is going on around you.

Let me give you a couple of examples and see if you get what I mean.

Example one
I tend to watch TV programmes when they’ve been recorded, rather than live (partially because I’m busy and partially so I can skip any adverts). Sometimes I find it handy to get a bit of background about the program in the sense of context – where in the story am I? If it’s all looking bleak for the heros I can just stop the playback for a moment and see how close to the end I am. That will tell me how much I need to worry about the imminent doom of the characters I’m cheering for…
Example two
My trusty kindle no longer tells me how far through my book I am (I don’t know why) and it’s a bit irritating. Without knowing if I’m 59% or 98% of the way through the book it’s slightly harder to get into the story: is my favorite character going to make it through the next few pages?!!?
Example two
My SatNav (called Maddy, obviously) tells me either when I’m due to arrive or how long it is until I do. It makes a significant difference to my state of mind about driving to know that I’m (for example) three hours from my hotel, rather than it being just around the corner.  Just around the corner is best, of course, but if I’m a long way from my bed I want to know, so that I can make the adjustments I need to make in my head…


So it is with presentations (stay with me!).  If your audience doesn’t know how far through your presentation you are then a little bit of their attention is dedicated to figuring how long it is till the next coffee break. ;)
Admit it – we’ve all sat there, wondering about where we are in the presentation. Context makes it so very, very much more convenient and easy to understand things. It’s one of the reasons list posts work so well on social media – people know how far up the “charts” they are.
And it’s not just a convenience for comfort either. If I know where I am the ‘storyline’ of a presentation it’s much easier to relate what the presentation is telling me to the ‘real world’ of my experience.

So what do do about it?

The solution is as obvious as it is simple. Let your audience know (at all times) where they are and where they’re going. At the very least give them timings, so that they know, for example, you’re going to speak for 45 minutes. That way, if (heaven forbid!) they start to struggle to follow your delivery after 40 minutes they can say to themselves “It’s only five minutes to go, I’ll make the extra effort”.  If they’re completely clue-less they’re more likely to say to themselves “It’s no use, I’m lost – I’ll just wait for the end of the presentation”.
It should be obvious from that example that a second handy tool is to break down your presentation into smaller components. How much harder would you find it to read a book without chapter breaks?  Give your audience a clear set of chapters so they know what they’re supposed to be thinking about.
Doing this makes it less likely that your audience will give up on your delivery but if they do it gives them a new starting point they can rejoin. Of course, to do this you need to really clearly signpost those starting points… perhaps by things like:
  • black slides at the end of a section, followed by a title slide to start the new section
  • changing medium as you change section, such as from slides to flipchart
  • using a round up at the end of your section (“So to sum up topic X…”)
  • moving from one side of the stage to the other or some other form of stagecraft
You name it – so long as it’s obvious! I’m sure you’ll have ideas based upon your own presentations, their content and your personal style.

Simon is one of the UK's most highly regarded presentation skills trainers and professional speakers in the fields of presenting, confidence and emotional resilience.

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