Janet L. Kayfetz

The art and craft of writing and speaking

Month: May, 2012

Backward Buildup & Organizing Your Talk

In my opinion, the most important part of organizing a talk is knowing clearly the story you want to tell your audience. The next step is sequencing your story — and any visuals you want to include — into a logical progression that fits perfectly within the amount of time you have been allotted for your presentation.

Backward buildup is a way of thinking about your talk from the perspective of what you would like the audience to understand by the time you finish speaking. It is a technique for organizing your story back-to-front. Distributing your content in the backwards direction ensures that your story ends where and when you intend, that each section is balanced and builds to the conclusion, and that the story in its entirety fits within the time you have been allotted. Let’s look at how it works:

1. Story

The first and most important step is to compose a logical story for your audience. Select the precise body of material you want your audience to learn and “know” as a result of attending your talk or panel — include only the content that is directly applicable to this particular talk. Divide your story into the sections that you will cover, like “introduction,” “concept 1,” “concept 2,” “questions and answers,” and so on.

2. Backward Buildup

Working backwards from the end of your talk, assign a chunk of time to each section of the story. Work all the way back to the first minute of the talk. Here is an example of backward buildup for a 30 minute talk –

Section                                                  Time___

6  Questions and Answers                10 minutes

5  Conclusions                                        2 minutes

4  Concept 3                                             5 minutes

3  Concept 2                                             5 minutes

2  Concept 1                                             5 minutes

1  Introduction                                        3 minutes

TOTAL                                                   30 minutes

3. Fine-tuning

As you work through the backward buildup process, you may find that there is not enough time for all of the material you want to cover. Or you may have compressed your 60-minute talk into 50 minutes. Now is the time for fine tuning: Look at your plan from front-to-back as well as from back-to-front and make adjustments so that the sequencing and timing are perfect. Delete non-essential stuff or expand a section or two, and repeat the backward buildup process until you have a time plan that embraces all of the material you want to present. The sequence of topics in each section and the articulation across sections should have a logical flow.

4. Timing

All of the sections, including the question and answer period, must add up to no more than the total number of minutes allotted for your talk. When organizing the timing, you must account for possible technical problems, appropriate anecdotes, and nerves, so leave some breathing room in your plan.

5. Visuals

Now, go back to your story and the timed sections. Ask: “Are there any visuals that will help elucidate this section?” If no, move on and tell that part of the story without visuals — audiences love this approach. If yes, then select only the visuals that promote understanding and inspiration of your audience’s experience. Each visual should be crystal clear and easy to navigate and understand from the point of view of the audience.

Go ahead and give backward buildup a try — and good luck with your presentations!

Great Presentations

Those of us getting ready to give a professional talk are starting to think about what we are going to say and how we should prepare. We are checking our submission abstracts to remind ourselves of what we said we would talk about, and we are hoping to deliver on our promises to be worthy of the privilege of addressing an audience, whether a conference crowd, a seminar group, a job committee, and so on.

Some of us are thinking that we are a bit nervous about the whole idea of standing in front of an audience of and sharing our ideas. What a huge responsibility, we think to ourselves. And at the same time, we think — What a huge opportunity; and how much fun can this whole thing be for me?

For sure, there are a lot of details to consider when putting together a talk. And while a laundry list of reminder points is definitely not the way I think about presentation skills (I think about presenting a story as being much like a beautiful tapestry where many individual threads are woven together to produce a unique and creative work of art), perhaps it is helpful to mention some of these threads.

So here are three things to think about as you begin your presentation preparations:

• Perhaps the most critical consideration will be the idea of what you will actually be able to talk about within the specific amount of time you have been given for your presentation. Choices must be made about what you must say to advance your story; which details are absolutely essential; which details are nice but not necessary to say because there is not enough time. Once you have made your choices, your story must be crafted so that it can unfold within your given time frame in a manner that is not rushed. So don’t try to tell a 90-minute story in 60 minutes by speaking faster and whizzing through your visuals. Work it out beforehand and stick to your game plan.

• Think deeply about your audience. Ask — Who are they and how much do they probably know about my topic? Should I organize my story for a very narrow and specialist group or for a broadly defined group? The answers to these questions will guide you to prepare a story that has enough background and context so that your meaning will be clear. You may have to take time to explain some technical concepts that seem obvious to you but which may be new to many of your listeners. Remember that the people in your audience have traveled from all over the world and have made a choice to attend your talk. Return the respect by communicating a clear, logical, and interesting story that your audience members will understand, enjoy, and remember.

• We must partner our story with excellent delivery. Giving a talk is not simply a chance to unload a bunch of information. Giving an excellent talk is about connecting with your audience and sharing new knowledge that is meaningful to you and hopefully interesting and even inspiring to them. We can be excellent speakers by being as rehearsed and prepared as we can be, and by being our best, most excellent, enthusiastic, and authentic selves. Specifically, we must take care of things like volume; the clarity of everything we say, even the ends of utterances; eye contact; movement and gestures; how we face our audience, our laptop, our visuals, how we use notes to maintain at all times the connection with the audience; um-um-ums and uh-uh-uhs; how quickly or slowly we speak; and whether or not we smile even if we are nervous.

All of the ideas mentioned here are equally important and challenging for both native speakers of English and non-native speakers of English.

Being a native speaker does not confer upon a presenter the privileged and automatic abilities of excellent story and excellent delivery. While our non-native speaker friends have the obvious huge hurdles of tackling the creation and delivery of a story in their second language, the underlying principles are the same as for native speaker friends. When we stand before an audience to tell our stories, all of us have the same commitment to excellence and all of us strive to make memorable contributions.

GHC Bloggers 2011

Hi readers,

The first four posts in this blog were discussed at GHC Bloggers http://gracehopper.org/2011/community/ghc-bloggers/ as part of the lead-up to the 2011 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference. Thank you GHC2011 for giving me the opportunity to talk about a few ideas meant to help conference participants prepare for their presentations.

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