While those new to Six Sigma sometimes assume Black Belts and other practitioners constantly sit in front of computers running numbers through statistical software, that is far from the truth. Indeed, everyone involved in Six Sigma spends much more time interacting with their fellow employees and managers. And, with some regularity, those interactions are in the form of presentations…to process owners, team members, Champions and Sponsors, and even boards of directors. Unfortunately not many have formal training in presentation techniques. So here are some suggestions for those who would like to improve their presentation-making ability.

Understanding the 90/20/8 Rule

As one develops a presentation, they should keep in mind training guru Bob Pike’s 90/20/8 rule of teaching. Adults can listen for understanding for 90 minutes, but only for 20 minutes if they are to retain information. Consequently, it is important to involve an audience in some meaningful way approximately every eight minutes. Interestingly, this is usually the longest that commercial television runs without taking a break.

Often, presentations are developed in a linear fashion. The brain, however, does not process information in a linear way, but rather reduces it into meaningful segments. Learning consists of fitting information into existing categories or, at times, creating new categories. This process determines how people acquire concepts, retrieve information from memory and make inferences. As a result, examples become particularly powerful, since they bring a level of concreteness that aids in drawing connections between what a person knows in their existing categories, and the new information they are hearing.

What significant implications can be extracted from the 90/20/8 rule? First, in structuring presentations, it is best to consider putting the most important information at the forefront, i.e., front-load the most significant and “heavy-duty” material. Second, presenters need to have a variety of means by which to capture the attention of their audience, and need to check in regularly to gauge understanding and interest. Having an interactive quality also is a hallmark of effective presentations.

Developing the Presentation

The following tips can be used to develop content, ensure it is presentable and deliver it for maximum impact:

  • To keep an audience interested, minimize the number of slides to be used. Consider ways to vary the visual layout of slides, where possible.
  • Have a strong introduction, body (with supporting arguments and information) and close; and consider how to transition from one concept to another. Presenters should consider what they want from the audience in their close? Is the objective to challenge them? Inspire and motivate? Give a call to action?
  • Know what the key messages of the presentation are – and communicate them clearly and simply.
  • Strive to organize content to grab the attention of the audience immediately, and then hold attention by various methods – props, questions, intonation, flip chart use, walking around, humor, etc.
  • Try to keep bulleted sentences to one line when possible. It is okay to remove articles such as “the” or “a” to reduce word count.
  • Use the active voice instead of the passive voice. The presentation will be perceived as more vigorous.
  • Keep language concise, simple and jargon-free. Spell out acronyms.

Ensuring a Professional Look

Type fonts and sizes: Try not to use more than two or three different fonts in any presentation, and stick to simple, basic fonts such as Arial. A 16-point type size is typically the smallest font size to ensure readability with a large audience. Here are some guidelines for type readability: one-inch type is readable from 10 feet, two-inch type is readable from 20 feet, three-inch type is readable from 30 feet.

If a presentation is to be viewed on another computer, stick with common Microsoft (TrueType) fonts found on most computers. If the host computer does not have the fonts used in the presentation, it will replace it with a default font, and the presentation’s slides will format differently.

Text that is set “flush left” is usually easiest to read. Keep in mind too that people typically read from left to right. Leave enough white space so that the page is easily readable.

Graphics: Use graphics where possible to break up the text and create visual interest. Be sure they do not overwhelm the page or overpower the message, but rather aid in the communication of the message.

Color: Try to use no more than four to six colors that complement one another. Make colored type bold and dark so it will contrast sharply with the background. If a background color tends toward the dark, consider using white type for contrast.

Delivering the Presentation

Know the content thoroughly: Practice. Practice. Practice. The presenter might consider recording their delivery on audio tape or videotape, or at least practicing in front of a mirror as a simpler technique.

Establish rapport with the audience: Think of ways to quickly connect and communicate an understanding of the audience. Establish that rapport early. Consider humor – but use it sparingly and keep it in context.

Engage the audience: Use pictures, video, audio or animation to add interest, but be sure they clearly tie in and add value to the key messages. Do not be afraid to pause at times. Allow the audience to reflect.

Do not read the presentation material: The human brain can read faster than a person can speak. If a page of the presentation has five or six bulleted sentences, it is likely the audience will have read each bullet while the presenter is still speaking about bullet No. 1. Hold the audience’s attention by introducing variety or adding content value with supplemental information or a deeper meaning behind what is on the page, e.g., “The reason this is important is because…”

Time the presentation: After timing the presentation in practice, chances are the presenter will choose to further simplify it. Knowing the presentation is the right length also increases the likelihood that the presenter will be more relaxed, poised and confident. Sticking to a designated timeframe becomes even more critical if others are involved in the presentation. For every minute someone runs over, someone coming afterward must pay for it.

Depending on the situation, a presenter may consider using a “countdown timer” to help stay on track. An alternative would be for the presented to ask someone to give a signal at an agreed upon time so they know exactly how much time they have left, and can adjust their content focus or pace accordingly.

Body language: Minimize the natural tendency to look at the projector screen. If specific information on the screen on the screen needs to be pointed out, try using a laser pointer. The presenter should keep their body focused forward on the audience and maintain eye contact so that they can stay attuned to cues such as frowns or quizzical looks. If one has the opportunity to walk around, do it.

Speak with conviction: Verbal presentations should be practiced with varying intonation and pacing. If a person tends to speak softly, they should consider asking someone for feedback to be sure they are speaking with sufficient force. Incorporating an appropriate story can be a good way to illustrate a point. The best presenters almost always tell stories. If a story is used, there must be enough detail and color in it to make it come alive.

Closing: Close the “circle” of the presentation to give it a sense of unity, i.e., return to the opening and connect the dots for the audience. Another way to think of this is: “Tell them what you told them.” The closing can be a summary, a goal, an anecdote, a call to action, etc. It is best to prepare the audience to listen for the close, i.e., “so in conclusion.” The closing is a powerful moment when the audience is primed. A strong closure is often the vehicle for what will most likely be remembered later.

Improved Chance for Success

By applying such techniques as outlined here and practicing ahead of time, the odds of success will be in the presenter’s favor.

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