Professional communication involves every possible format, including face-to-face conversations, written documents, electronic technology, and visual images. Nearly all of them can now involve technology — even a face-to-face conversation might involve colleagues located on different continents using a video platform.
A business professional must understand the basics of choosing and using the right technology for the situation.
The available technology ranges in complexity, and different media provide different advantages. A communicator should select the tool that best supports his or her purpose.
Most presentations occur in the context of a corporate decision-making process. Audience members might be actively participating in a discussion of the topic, or the presentation might cover material for later discussion. In these situations, the group's ability to understand, remember, and apply the speaker's information is crucial.
Take-withs or handouts
Business speakers often provide key facts, statistics, or reference materials in a permanent format (Simons, 1999) the audience can "take with" them. Business audiences don't typically take extensive notes during a presentation, allowing themselves to participate fully in the discussion, and they expect to receive anything they'll need to refer to later. A permanent document also adds an element of seriousness to the fleeting nature of oral communication, serving as a testimonial record documenting the talk and signifying permanent responsibility for what has been said (Tufte, 1997).
- Plain paper "handouts" are just one kind of reference. Other common options include brochures, bound reports, CDs, flash drives, and laminated reference cards. Obviously, content, production capabilities, costs, and utility are all considerations when preparing support materials, and often the simple handout is the most effective tool.
- Take-withs should coordinate with, but never duplicate oral or visual elements of the presentation. They might elaborate and expand on information covered in the presentation (Britz, 1999) or summarize the key facts or decision issues. Never provide printed copies of the slides as a handout.
- If a version of the presentation is prepared for the audience to refer to later (or for distribution to individuals not in the audience), convert the format into a complete, coherent, stand-alone document. Provide full citations for any figures, quotations, or graphics, and add explanatory text wherever the speaker explained material on a slide.
- Audiences should be discouraged from reading materials thoroughly during the presentation. Trainers might design handouts for the audience to use for note taking or reference during the presentation, but asking an audience to read rather than listen or discuss is a waste of valuable meeting time. When the audience receives copies of a proposal or report, a speaker might refer to a specific table or image, but should ask listeners to set the material aside after making the point.
- If oral explanations or animations are required to understand the handouts, create a video version that includes the speaker's image and words. This can be accessed with a QR code, at a website location, or, when distributed electronically, as an embedded video file. When electronic distribution will follow the live presentation, many presenters will arrange for a video or webcast recording.
- When mixing media, be wary of situations that unnecessarily create redundant information. For example, never read a handout or slide to an audience, or provide a handout that is a manuscript of the presentation.
Flip charts, whiteboards, and transparencies
Although these non-electronic tools seem "old-fashioned" to some, there's often nothing quite like real-time notes that reflect the immediate interests of the audience.
- Flip charts. Flip charts can be prepared ahead of time or used extemporaneously. Speakers will use this technology as a simple but eye-catching way to preview an agenda or outline, to provide graphics or illustrations, and to include ideas drawn from audience comments.
To create the illusion of drawing extemporaneously, use a very light pencil to sketch words or images, and then draw over with markers during the presentation.
Leave a blank page between each prepared sheet, both to create a neutral visual and because most paper is so thin images will show through one page.
To create a permanent, visual reminder, tear off the flipchart sheets and use masking tape to fasten them to the walls. Bring sheets back to the next meeting for further discussion, or use them as notes for a permanent document.
- Whiteboards. White boards are less suitable for advance preparation, although electronic "smart" boards can create a permanent record of drawings or notes made during a meeting or presentation. Some models allow the printing of notes right from the board to create handouts for the audience.
When using either flip charts or whiteboards, use multiple colors for information clarity, systematically matching colors to categories or ideas. Random use of color can confuse an audience.
A speaker should erase a whiteboard appropriately to go along to avoid cluttering the visual field with no-longer-needed ideas.
- Overhead transparencies. Overhead transparency projectors remain the standard method of displaying visuals in many organizations. Create them with computerized graphics programs and color printers to create a highly professional image.
Speakers can hide elements of an image they don't yet want the audience to see with an opaque object, such as a scrap of paper. The effect should appear well planned rather than sloppy.
Use colored pens to make extemporaneous additions to the transparency; wash these off to use the transparencies again.
The choice of presentation software depends primarily on a company's IT policies. Consider first, the equipment available where the presentation takes place, and prepare visuals with compatible software. Secondly, consider the venue's access to cloud storage, internet sites, personal email or software, or special apps or plug-ins needed for special effects or data access. If unable to verify access, choose the most reliable hardware and software combination: a self-contained presentation on a thumb drive, and carry it with you to the presentation site. With the technical options narrowed, the choice next depends on the presenter's communication goals.
Presentation software is so common that business speakers sometimes think badly used presentation software is better than nothing at all. In fact, the opposite is true; amateurish slides or an awkward presentation will make a speaker look incompetent. You'll want to use the technology that your peers and competitors use, which means you'll need to learn to use that technology well. As audiences become more and more accustomed to high quality visuals from entertainment and news providers, they learn to expect the same quality from any professional (Hanke, 1998; Ganzel, 1999; Jamieson, 1998; Slayden, 1999).
The most basic use of media provides pictures or charts to explain a particularly difficult or technical point. Nearly any new information becomes clearer to an audience with a visual representation. On the other hand, an audience involved in a difficult decision might gain more value from a speaker who provides real-time summaries of the issues brought up in discussion. Training on a new procedure might be clearest with a hands-on demonstration. Fine detail on a technical drawing or complex data relationships might require a handout for careful examination. Finalize the content of your presentation first, and then choose the technology that allows you to get your message across most clearly.
An audience can maintain attention to a speaker for only 15-18 minutes, and remember only about three main points. Most business presentations involve complex ideas and detailed numbers, which the audiences will need to recall and accurately use late. Technology offers tools to assist them. Visual images, and especially color dramatically improves audience attention and retention (Robbins, 1997) as well as the persuasive of a speaker (Vogel, 1986). Further, the more senses that are involved, the more an audience will remember (Endicott, 1999). Words, such as bullet points or text, have very little visual impact and thus offer no benefit to the audience. (The speaker who sets up slides with bullet points so he can remember what to say has missed the point entirely.)
Presenters typically turn to video when the multiple audiences need to see the presentation at once or when planning for future audiences. A corporate executive team, for example, might set up streaming video so that every facility can watch an important announcement at the same time. A training department might create a video shown to every new employee at very low cost.
While simple, videotaping the presentation given to a live audience provides an inferior copy of the presentation. This can extend the reach of a presentation somewhat, but a professional business video takes full advantage of the technology.
- Use multiple cameras, close-up shots, and editing software to streamline the video. Eliminate the downtime that inevitably occurs in a live event so the video audience sees only substantive content.
- Frame shots carefully to control the audience's attention. Eliminate distracting details in the background or on the speaking platform.
- Take advantage of retakes! The biggest advantage of video is the opportunity for do-overs. Keep at it until you get a fully professional version for distribution.
Some speakers who love a live audience turn nervous and stiff when facing a camera. For others, the camera seems to cure all traces of stage fright. Practice a few times so that you can make your own personal adjustments.
- Make eye contact with the video audience. Be sure you look at the camera, even if there is also a live audience present. When using a webcam, be very careful to look at the camera lens and not at your own image on the computer screen.
- Establish a conversational rhythm. Even though your audience is not able to answer back, maintain the pauses, intonation, and rhythms that suggest you are having a face-to-face conversation.
Even though the image looks real, a camera doesn't see quite like the human eye. Make some adjustments to avoid odd visual effects.
- Provide a visual reference if size is an important part of the message. An audience perceives size in relation to the environment, but a tight video shot might leave out that information.
- Provide evenly diffused lighting to avoid unpleasant or confusing shadows. Improper lighting can deepen facial contours and lines, making a speaker look old or tired.
- Tight patterns, checks, pin stripes, shiny fabrics, or reflective jewelry can introduce shimmers, waving patterns, and optical illusions. Avoid them.
- Blue and beige are good choices, but avoid bright white, reds, or orange.
- Black clothing worn by white presenters requires excellent lighting and good makeup to avoid a high-contrast washout. Dark skinned presenters might not find enough contrast. Either way, be careful with black.
- Plan to wear makeup. Women should use warm tones and full makeup without any shimmery products. Men should shave or trim facial hair carefully, apply moisturizer and lip balm, and apply translucent powder to any part of the face or head that could shine.
Presenters can be so concerned with the visual aspects of video that the audio portion suffers. A video without audio is useless!
- Test the audio along with the rest of the equipment. Make sure there is enough room for a hearing-impaired listener to ramp up the volume further.
- Pay attention to ambient noise. Position microphones so that you don't accidently record extraneous sounds.
- Choose clothing that accommodates a lapel or lavaliere microphone.
- Don't try to compensate for bad equipment by shouting. It doesn't work, makes the speaker look crazy, and makes the audience uncomfortable.
The specific look and technique of a communication will vary from organization to organization, and you should try to find out what the best writers and speakers in your new organization are doing. You don't need to learn to use every technique you see, but you do need to be at least up to speed with how technology is used in your company or industry.
Styles change over time, especially in marketing communication, but business visuals retain a characteristic look sometimes described as crisp, elegant, and clear. Crispness is the visual corollary to direct, concise language, with a visual look that emphasizes straight lines rather than curves, and strong vertical lines rather than a softer, centered look. Business visuals tend to be simple and uncluttered-even minimalist-with just a few colors, and carefully positioned images or graphics. (For more on the visual characteristics of businesslike communications, hover over Communication & Presentation Skills at the right and select Businesslike Style and Tone.)
Because the audience sits some distance away from the speaker, the primary space rule says use lots of it.
- Leave plenty of room for images, and straight, clear edges. Fuzzy imagery or blended colors might appear in a background design, but the main message should "jump out" at the audience (Heimes, 1997).
- Centered pages are formally balanced and can work well as the title slide of a presentation, but content pages usually project a more utilitarian image with elements lined up along a strong but imaginary line, generally at the left margin (Niederst, 1996).
- Reduce the visual image to the concept. An audience will not remember the numbers, but it will remember the idea represented in a "nearly naked graph" (Toogood, 1996).
- Minimize or even eliminate boxes, boundaries or lines that limit or clutter the image (Toogood, 1996).
As with any business use, conservative and conventional colors - black, blue and green--dominate.
- For U.S. audiences, blue and green connote wisdom and trustworthiness, while gold projects prestige (Wilder, 1999). Meanwhile, brown seems uneasy or passive (Hanke, 1998), and pink and purple imply immaturity and unimportance (Hanke, 1999).
- Accounting conventions matter, with green signifying profit but red with financial loss (Hanke, 1998), in addition to cultural conventions of green for safety and red for danger.
- Especially when using color for projection, pastels of any hue are generally cheap looking (Toogood, 1996) and don't convey the active business orientation that more intense colors do.
- Corporate colors trump all the rules above, with a company's logo colors used extensively in documents and presentations (Britz, 1999).
- Fifteen to twenty-five percent of an average audience has some color blindness, with some difficulty distinguishing red or brown from green, or purple from blue (Hanke, 1998).
Take special caution when projecting colors onto a screen.
- Projected colors do not remain true to the computer display. Unless you are able to test the presentation room ahead of time, stick with colors that have already proven effective in corporate templates or another presenter's slides.
- When projected, high contrast colors can seem to vibrate on the screen, while red does not project well to audience members at the back of a room. Blue graphics against a black background look fuzzy, compared to red or green, for which we have more color receptors in the focal area of the retina.
- Bright white backgrounds are hard on the eyes, and a light colored text on a dark background is easier to read (Heimes, 1997; Wilder, 2000; Hanke, 1998). However, dark colored graphics will wash out in a well-lit room, where it's best to use a light background with dark text and graphics (Jones, 1997).
Regardless of the tools available, never lose sight of the presentation goal. The occasional keynote presenter might need to entertain an audience with an artistic or humorous display, but most business speakers focus on creating visual support that helps the audience understand information.
Images and Graphics
A picture will always be worth a thousand words, but any old words won't do; the speaker must chose an image that says the right thing.
- Images should illustrate the actual point. Artwork or photography can create an impressive impact, but images must illustrate or clarify an idea, or help an audience visualize a projected or desired outcome.
- An image might be chosen because it adds emotional effect, thus enhancing the communicator's rapport, credibility, or persuasiveness, but don't stray too far from the informative point.
- Never provide an image that has no meaning. Don't add line drawings, cartoons, or clip-art illustrations simply to fill up space, and a misleading image is worse than no image at all.
- Because numbers provide the heart of most business presentations, charts and graphs generally outnumber images and illustrations.
- It is easy to constructing a graph or chart within a spreadsheet program, but don't transfer the results without simplifying the design for effective presentation. Remove unnecessary lines and borders, create legible titles and labels, select easily distinguished colors, and eliminate decorative features.
- Use conventional, easily understood titles, labels, scales, proportions, and graphical conventions. An audience should immediately understand the image; a slide that requires time to explain does not support the presentation.
- Use color, shapes, or animation to highlight specific pieces of information. For instance, a down-arrow shape instantly cues the audience of a speaker's point about reducing or moving downward.
- Use color consistently to help the audience see categories or concepts or to demonstrate regularities.
Motion and Sound
Most business presentations do not feature motion or sound, but they can both add important information.
- Embedded video clips should be completely relevant. Edit ahead of time so the audience sees only the relevant portions.
- When making multiple points from a longer video, pause to comment on specific scenes or objects. Don't expect an audience to sit through a long segment and then circle back to make your points.
- Except for certain topics related to sound, audio without video would be highly unusual. One exception involves the use of an audio track to support a montage of images, typically used as an introduction while a keynote speaker comes to the stage or responds to applause.
- Don't forget the impact of sound's opposite, silence. Just four to six seconds of silence will focus the attention on you, as an audience waits expectantly for your next words.
Animation and Builds
Presentation software offers a huge advantage with tools for controlling the flow of information the audience receives. Especially when working through a complicated argument or a series of difficult technical points, a speaker will be more effective when he or she can insure that the audience focuses on just one idea at a time.
- Use animation to bring in text and chart elements in as you discuss each one. Never show the audience something that you are not actually talking about; they'll look at the screen instead of listening to you.
- Allow 15-20 seconds for the audience to absorb each piece of information (Robbins, 1997).
- Follow a consistent pattern of animation across all slides. An audience quickly comprehends information that looks the same, but is just as quickly confused by randomness or meaningless change.
- Keep graphics clean, clear, and uncluttered. Animation should allow information to appear when needed-but not to bounce, swoosh, or vibrate.
- Order ideas conceptually. Audiences need the big picture before detail, the simple idea before the complex one, the main point before the support. (For more on conceptual logic, hover over Reasoning & Writing Skills at the right and select Clear Descriptions.)
- Dim points after discussing them so that the audience can retain the information while focusing on the current point.
A well-designed presentation anticipates interaction with the audience. Long before technology tools were available, speakers used eye contact and rhetorical questions to gauge the audience's level of interest and understanding and adjusted accordingly. With technology, the goal remains the same: anticipate the questions, concerns, or objections of the audience, and be prepared to respond.
Agendas, Transitions, and Signposts
The few words that do appear in a multimedia presentation will generally guide the audience through its organizational structure. Every presentation needs an introductory preview, transitions from point to point, and signposts that let the audience know how the current point fits into the overall structure. Graphical cues actually work better than verbal cues, and these visual tools greatly enhance a presentation.
- Preview the presentation graphically. A slide that provides a list of topics or points simply mimics the table of contents in a book. Take advantage of shapes, colors, and images to create a conceptually rich overview instead.
- Consistently use the colors, shapes, images, and terminology from the preview to indicate topic changes.
- Return to the overview graphics in order to show how points fit into the overall big picture.
- Each slide should have an informative title, which clearly corresponds to the preview. The audience member whose mind has wandered should be able to look at any slide and know exactly where the speaker is in his or her progression of ideas.
Questions and Answers
If you anticipate that the audience will request extra details, background research, or additional explanation, prepare the material on hidden slides, which you can then show in response to the questions.
- Hidden slides can directly follow each main point, or they can be collected at the end of the slide deck for use as needed. (To move directly to a hidden slide rather than jumping over it, use "H-enter" instead of "enter," which advances to the next unhidden slide.)
- Keep a list of the hidden slides by number in your notes so that you can quickly move to the slide you want using the "#-enter" command.
Highlights and Repetition
Mixed media can dramatically increase audience engagement by providing multiple impressions of a key idea. Simple duplication creates boring redundancy, but creative highlights add interest and focus the audience where you want them to focus.
- Call attention to just one element or data point on a handout with a coordinated graphic on the screen, keeping your audience's attention focused on your point, rather than reading the handout while you're trying to talk.
- Synchronize animation with your own gestures or slide colors with your attire to enhance audience focus on yourself and your points.
- Capitalize on the natural left-to-right rhythms of an English-reading audience, which will expect to see something interesting to appear on the right.
- Blank the screen after finishing points to bring the focus back to yourself with each new idea.
- Never read the words on the screen to an audience, put exactly the same words on a handout, or duplicate a chart or image exactly.
- Never use animation or sound that competes with the gestures, movement, or voice of the speaker.
The most fundamental rule of communicating with technology seems simple: don't let the technology run the show. However, unfamiliarity with the tools, lack of time spent on preparation, and the normal stress associated with important communication can conspire against success. Never assume that preparation will take less time and effort because you can "hide" behind a few snazzy presentation slides or stay quiet during a webinar. Take extra time to make sure your use of the technology enhances your professional image.
In most presentation venues, the audience will face one direction, toward a designated space for the speaker to stand. It remains the speaker's prerogative to use, change, or ignore the setting to her own advantage.
Try to think like a theater director, anticipating where the audience will naturally look and how you can take advantage of the physical props available.
- Don't assume the last speaker left everything in the best spot. Rearrange what you can to suit your own purposes and speaking style.
- When using a projection screen, stand to the audience's left (Torok, 1999) making sure not to block the line of sight for everyone in the room.
- If multiple individuals will be speaking, set up so they don't distract the audience. Ideally, upcoming speakers will face the speaker, along with the audience.
- Stand where the audience can see your entire body. If a lectern or computer stand is in the way, walk out from behind the furniture as often as possible.
Especially when using projected images, check the lighting before deciding where to stand.
- Don't let the projection light dominate the room. Especially important, never leave an audience sitting in the dark. Slides should have been designed so they could be seen in the presentation venue, but if last minute problems arise, minimize the damage by dimming lights only when absolutely necessary for a key chart or graphic. Quickly converting the entire file to a lighter colored design variant might also be an option.
- Stand in the light. Rooms designed for presentations have lighting to highlight the speaker, but some meeting rooms highlight the audience instead. Find a spot where your face stays completely illuminated, and you will probably find areas you should avoid because of shadows or spotlights (Torok, 1999).
For many speakers, moving around releases tension, and any opportunity to walk toward the audience can increase rapport. Leaving the speaking area entirely accomplishes both, with the added advantage of opening up the entire room's space for use.
- A speaker might hand tools, samples, or illustrations directly to audience members.
- Individuals can become models, role models, or examples.
- The speaker can post flip chart pages on the walls or use whiteboards or bulletin boards to surround the audience with media support.
- Groups of speakers can station themselves all around the room to avoid the look of a police lineup, either speaking from their own positions or moving in and out of the front speaker position.
Professionals sometimes have talented staff available to design beautiful, useful slides, but ruin the entire presentation by stumbling over the technology. Master these basics to avoid embarrassment.
Show Only the Show
Think of presentation technology as part of the performance. Just as a theater performance never invites the audience "behind the curtain," a professional speaker never lets the audience see anything except the prepared slides: no desktop, no personal email, no work space view. Take these steps to insure a clear, seamless performance.
- Prevent interruptions. Before you begin the show, shut down any programs that will interfere or override the presentation software, including power savers, screen savers, automatic virus checkers, email, and instant messages.
- Start the Slide Show before powering the projector. Be especially careful if you need to download the file from email or a directory. Other emails or files might be confidential or embarrassing to members of the audience. If the projector already has power, stand in front of the light or place a cover over the lens.
- Move to desired slides without leaving the show. With a good discussion, an audience will often ask to return to a specific chart or graph. Move directly to the slide using the keyboard (#-enter), rather than poking clumsily around the workspace to find the desired slide. Keep a list of the slide numbers in your notes.
- Move to external links or videos without leaving the show. Any additional media, including websites, streaming data, maps, or spreadsheets, etc., should be set up as links from PowerPoint, which functions nicely as a performance manager. Even if you can't anticipate the exact website or file, set up a link to the internet or directory location so that the audience doesn't get an eyeful of desktop clutter.
- Move to a different program without showing the desktop. If you really must move from PowerPoint to another program (as when taking on-screen meeting notes during a discussion or demonstrating a software program), use Alt-Tab or right-click for screen options so that you can move directly from program to program.
When Pausing, Pause the Show
Whether a pause is planned or unplanned, leaving irrelevant slides on the screen will distract the audience from the desired material or discussion. Several tools can hide the screen from the audience.
- Black screen/White screen. The choice is up to you. When you find yourself talking about something that is not on the screen, use keyboard commands (B or W) to make that screen disappear. Don't worry; the same command brings the screen right back.
- Blank slides. A planned pause should have earned a planned slide. It might be literally blank, but a more professional look might involve a company logo or even a cue for the activity, such as a slide that says "Break until 10:15" or "Discuss your reactions."
Pay Attention to the Pointer
During a slide show, you retain control of the pointer. Don't lose track of it!
- Don't abandon the arrow. Nothing annoys an audience like an arrow left in the middle of the screen. Move it all the way to the side, off the screen, or hide it entirely as a pointer option before you begin.
- An arrow is not a hand. If you've created your own slides, you ought to know what will happen when you click on a link or photo, but even seasoned professionals will forget, now and then, what they'd planned. The little hand means something will happen, and if you pause for a moment, a link address reveals itself.
- An arrow is not a pen. You can move the arrow to highlight an item on the screen, but use the pen provided as a pointer option if you really need to create a visible trace. If you don't have a steady hand, don't use a pointer, pen, or laser.