Companies & Industries

Public Speaking: Too Much Information?


Avoiding information overload in oral presentations and learning to speak comfortably without a podium

You've got questions? We've got answers. This week, executive communications coach Aileen Pincus answers some frequently asked questions from executives about communication.

I'm part of a research team with a nonprofit organization. We are often asked to present our key findings to those outside our organization. I'm told my presentations are sometimes too detailed, but I don't want to damage my credibility by leaving out important information. Is there a way to get it right?

You can get it right, if you pay attention to your audience. Understand to whom you are presenting and why.

Some audiences (perhaps other researchers in your field) will have a higher tolerance for supportive details. Understand though that a higher tolerance doesn't mean an infinite tolerance. Even an audience that is well-schooled and interested in your topic wants you to get to the point about why you've selected the facts or data you have and what they amount to. Don't provide any audience with a "brain dump" of information with the idea of showcasing your own knowledge. It may have the exact opposite effect if it creates the impression you simply don't understand the larger picture.

The key is to ask yourself what you want your audience to leave your presentation knowing—your main messages—how your audience might use that information, and what specific points you need to make in support of your findings.

Remember that no audience, no matter how invested in your information, wants or needs the same thing from you in an oral presentation that they could get from you in a written one. The oral presentation is by necessity less detailed and at a higher level: It's not meant to be a written report delivered orally.

If you stay audience-focused, you're more likely to avoid offering too much detail to any audience. Unless you are accustomed to your audiences clamoring for more time or detail from you, assume you can pare down your data without sacrificing credibility.

I prefer using a podium when I speak; otherwise I don't know what to do with my hands, my body, or my notes. Having a podium isn't always an option for me. In fact, sometimes I don't know whether I will have one or not. How can I get comfortable speaking without one?

With or without a podium, you'll need to get comfortable with your hands, your body, and your notes. Most speakers like using podiums because it can provide a level of comfort in an anxiety-producing situation.

From an audience's perspective, however, the podium is often a barrier to good communication. Recent studies show that comprehension increases markedly when we can take in visual cues, such as hand gestures, from a presenter. Anything that comes between the presenter and the audience blocks those cues.

Instead of hiding behind a podium or using it as a crutch, try to decrease your anxiety in the opening moments of your presentation. That's when you're likely to be the most nervous, so something as simple as diverting attention from your performance might give you the time you need to relax. Try opening with a question for the audience, temporarily shifting the focus from yourself. You might also try opening with a prop or by showing a video.

Confidence is a great antidote to nerves. Practice your material well, especially those opening moments. Keep in mind that your audience wishes you well and does not expect perfection. A pause while you review your notes on a nearby table is just fine, once you've delivered your opening.

Remember, practice will help you gain the confidence you need to leave the podium behind and your audiences will appreciate really getting to know you.

Aileen Pincus writes the "Speaking of Business" column for BusinessWeek.com's Managing channel. She is president of The Pincus Group Inc., an executive firm coaching firm that offers training in presentation, speech, media, and crisis communications.

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