Pitching the Oral Presentation: Speaking about your work, whether it be scientific or science fiction, requires at first an understanding of the intended audience and how to relate to them prior to deciding on the content of the presentation. The standout message, above everything else, is ‘context determines content’ as discussed by Haber and Lingard (2001). What is harder to do is to decide how to go about speaking about my latest work at a business lunch.
Understanding the audience: I had one occasion where I had to present my research at a business lunch to a group of Freemasons who had provided me with a scholarship, and that was extremely daunting, and I suspect not particularly well done on my part. The difference in the usual audience confounded me. The subject of my research in molecular genetics required that I explain quite difficult molecular mechanisms to people of advanced age, retirees in most cases, and who would never have had the necessary background education in this rapidly developing field. Here, I identified and understood my audience well enough, but knowing what to do with them was something else.
Purpose of the oral presentation: The purpose of my oral presentation to this audience was to inform them about the work they were sponsoring and to assure them that it was worthwhile to continue to fund it for another year. So I guess my aim was to educate and sell, in that order. They continued their sponsorship so I guess the ‘sell’ was OK, although I’m not too sure about the ‘educate’. Now that I want to move into fiction my aim would be to entertain and sell, in that order. To do that I would have to know the particular interests of the business group as a whole in order to decide on which aspects of the book to focus my delivery.
Type of occasion: A business lunch would normally be understood to be a relaxed and informal occasion. In my reference example I was seated in the centre of a very long table full of men only, where everyone ate their meal prior to my talk. There I was, faint with hunger because I was unable to eat a thing, and feeling like an intruder at secret headquarters about to be probed for information that I wasn’t at all sure they were going to be able to digest. On reflection, the PowerPoint slides I created were too formal for the occasion, and I should have used pictures to which they could relate immediately. To achieve that, I would have had to apply the underlying principles of my work to a real situation in the world of my audience. Since the topic was about muscle genetics, the oral presentation could have been pitched more generally to appeal to the intense physical interest men seem to have in their muscles.
Structure of the oral presentation: I think the opening sentence is important to encourage the audience to continue to listen. During a formal oral presentation about that same work in a job interview I once had, the first criterion was that I describe my entire PhD thesis in two sentences! After I enquired as to how long each sentence was allowed to be and how much punctuation I might use, the panel laughed and it broke the ice allowing everyone to relax as I presented my work. They were sufficiently engaged and offered me the position. For me, the most difficult part of the oral presentation was already over. However, obviously there needs to be a substantial follow-up for scientific or other technical work. The body of the presentation needs to contain logical points to explain the introduction.
If I were fortunate enough to be invited to speak on the subject of my fiction novel I would probably aim to show photographs of people and places etc that I encountered during the research phase of my writing in order to explain the origin of my ideas and how they may relate to the interests of my audience. Photos and stories with an element of humour would add to the level of interest and promote interaction by the audience. I see this approach as distinctly different to telling jokes, and a lot safer. Pictures can also deliver much more information than words and in a shorter time period. Text takes too long to read, is visually boring, and should be used sparingly. Pictures also encourage the audience to look at something else rather than me which helps those like me who don’t feel comfortable in the spotlight.
I tend to want to present what I consider to be the most interesting points first then, if time runs out due to interaction from the audience it doesn’t matter and the audience is engaged from the beginning.
Time is often too short for some oral presentations so I like to deliberately leave out some information, provided the talk can be understood without it. In doing that the audience is more likely to interact and ask questions at the end. There is nothing more disconcerting to a speaker when nobody says a word and all you have at the end of the presentation is a bunch of blank faces. I differ from Jeff Radel (2008) on this point. He says “attempt to identify problems or questions the audience may have and address them in the talk, before the audience has a chance to think of these things themselves.” I believe an audience quite likes to think of things themselves, it allows them to ask intelligent questions and become part of the discussion; at least that’s how I react as a listener. But here again, it is necessary to understand the audience prior to making that decision.
My concluding comments would be designed to summarise the main points I have raised and to leave the audience with whatever impression I wanted to create. At the end of the session I would probably encourage the audience to read my book by providing printed handouts containing the first chapter or an excerpt. Making an oral presentation of your work really requires that you look at it from the viewpoint of the audience.
Haber RJ and Lingard LA, 2001. Learning Oral Presentation Skills: A Rhetorical Analysis with Pedagogical and Professional Implications. JGIM: 16, p308-314.
Radel J, 2008. Preparing an Oral Presentation. University of Kansas Medical Centre, viewed 13 June 2008. www.kumc.edu/SAH/OTEd/jradel/Preparing_talks/TalkStrt.html