Presentation structure: Creating a compelling argument

by Peter Watts

Between the introduction and the conclusion of any presentation, lies the main body of it’s content; the argument. This crucial section comprises the facts and persuasive reasoning that must support your case and convince the audience. 

If two words alone could describe your goal when constructing and then delivering the argument, those two words would be “Prove It!”

During your introduction, you offered a proposition to the audience, suggesting that due to situation A, you believe they should implement solution B. The argument will reveal to the audience the mechanics of your reasoning, and two elements must be considered: structure and relevance.

Structure

The argument is unlikely to comprise just a single fact. You will have multiple points that you want to explain, and each of these points should be regarded as a mini presentation in it’s own right, with it’s own tiny agenda, body, and summary. The technical term for each of these mini presentations is a “division”, referring to the dividing up of your content. As you move from one division to the next, tell your audience that this is what you are doing, and why the content of the division supports your original thesis:

“So, our XYZ product, by providing increased reliability, will help you to increase customer satisfaction. Let’s move on now to consider our next point which is……”

This division of content, accompanied by clearly stated transitions, makes it easier for the audience to concentrate and follow your logic. If, for example, you have three points to make, and 15 minutes in which to make them, the audience then find themselves having to concentrate in short five minute blocks rather than for a prolonged 15 minute discussion.

A further advantage of this approach is that in the event that members of the audience lose track, due to the human habit of allowing their minds to wander, then they won’t have long to wait before the next section comes along when they can re-join the flow of the presentation.

Relevance

Audiences need to clearly recognize why your presentation is uniquely relevant to their interests. “What does this have to do with me?”. To answer this question facts must be customized to the daily realities of the people in front of you.

Consider what is important to the audience. If you are presenting to a board of hospital trustees for example, then link your facts to the welfare of patients, to improved and swifter diagnosis, or to the more effective use of research funds. If you were presenting to the management team of your own company, make sure you have links to company goals, or to challenges currently faced.

Customizing a presentation in this way does not need to be a lengthy exercise. Just one or two relevant illustrations per fact will be sufficient.

Stepping Stones

By regarding the body of the presentation, the argument, as being a series of relevant and interlinked mini presentations, even the most complicated subjects become more manageable for both you and the audience.

Divide and Conquer

by Peter Watts

The ability to speak spontaneously to an audience, straight from the heart, creates a link between audience and speaker that cannot exist when the barrier of the “prepared script” stands between them.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show “Wishful Drinking”, where Fisher, the actress who created the Star Wars character Princess Leia, sits on an over-stuffed sofa with drink in one hand and cigarette in the other and slightly gravel-voiced (just look how the Princess grew up!), talks about her life with a wit and humour that has the audience crying with laughter.

She has no notes, few props, and no-one to bounce off except the people in the seats before her. She appears to make it up as she goes along, just for us, just for tonight. One long spontaneous speech and the audience love her for it.

Of course, it isn’t spontaneous. We’re witnessing months of writing and rehearsing. It’s her ability to look her audience straight in the eye, and appear to be speaking without the safety net of a prepared script that creates the spellbinding link.

We can do much the same within sections of presentations. We can put our notes aside and depart from our script to speak from the heart so long as, like all the best spontaneous speeches, it’s carefully planned ahead of time!

Imagine yourself standing on one bank of a fast-flowing river. Where you’re standing right now is the start of your note-free speaking, and the opposite bank is where you will return to the script.

Stage one in preparing the speech is to make sure it’s structured to get you across that water nice and dry. Fix in your mind what specific idea it is that you want to  be most clear to the audience.

Focus on that destination. What is the over-riding point to be communicated?

If the destination is clear in your mind, navigating the presentation becomes easier. Challenge yourself with “What do I want everyone in this room to be saying as they leave?” and let that finishing point be represented by the opposite bank of the river. You now have to get your audience there by the simplest route possible.

It’s like the advice given to tight-rope walkers – don’t look down, keep your eyes on where you’re going.

The next question is how to physically get across the river. One approach would be stepping stones you can walk across. Speech-writers call these stepping stones “Divisions”; the individual sections of the speech.

Break the speech down into its logical units and let these individual pieces form a chain of stepping stones. In your mind you are moving from logical stone to logical stone, each step leading towards the opposite bank.

The journey is easier when we can see both how far we have come and the rapidly decreasing distance across the stones to our destination.

Through division of content into reachable stepping stones, which can be memorized, actors like Fisher can get from one end of a two-hour show to the other.

For the rest of us there is no reason we shouldn’t stretch ourselves to a similar section in our next presentation. Even just five minutes of this direct, note-free speaking will make a big impact. Consider politicians when, in a televised speech, they “step away from their prepared text” for just five minutes. Which bit makes the headlines? The spontaneous bit.

One final point. There is no surer way to make sure everyone knows you’re speaking off-the-script, than to tell them that’s what you’re doing! A Roman writer on oratory observed:

“observations please better when they appear conceived on the moment, and not brought from home, springing from the subject itself as we are discussing it. Hence the expressions, “I had almost forgotten,” “It had escaped me,” “You aptly remind me,” are by no means ill received.”

He is recommending us to underline moments of spontaneity with small statements that point out what we’re doing, emphasizing the spontaneous nature of the moment, just in case anyone has missed it!

Spontaneity from the heart best wins the crowd when it is pre-planned from the brain!

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