Presentations Vs Public Speaking: Which is Which?

They’re the same thing, aren’t they?

Sure, there are lots in common – both need to be heard, both need to be seen as credible etc. so many of the skills of one are transferable to the other – but on that basis, trucks and cars are the same too: both need to steer, carry things, accelerate and brake. In reality of course, you’d not use a car to carry a few tonnes of rubble and you’d not use a truck to pop down to the shops.

So what are the elements in common, what are those elements which are unique to each and – perhaps most importantly – what happens when you use the wrong tool for the job? Let me say at the outset that I’m not sure there’s a definitive answer to any of these questions and some of the definitions I’m going to use are simply mine, formed to give a handy vocabulary for the discussion.

That said then, (for me) presentations tend to be more likely to be technical and detailed, perhaps to a smaller, more involved audience. Examples would perhaps include things like making progress reports on a piece of research to the agency who has commissioned that research: there’s a specific, detailed agenda, such as whether or not you’re on timetable, over budget, making progress etc. as well as the presentation of the results of the research itself. It’s likely that the commissioning agency will be at least partially responsible for the agenda in these circumstances. In short a presentation is likely to be more technical, detailed and interactive.

On the other hand, public speaking is more akin to speech-making. The audience is probably (or even hopefully!) larger, though the individual members are perhaps not quite so involved: they’re more likely to be there to hear what you have to tell them in your area of expertise, rather than be driving the agenda themselves: the locus of control stays more (or at least more often!) with the speaker. Examples might be speaking at a conference (political or marketing/commercial focused) or a rally/event of some kind. (I might – as an extra point only – suggest that public speaking is arguably more likely to be done without any audio-visual aids such as PowerPoint and so on but this isn’t so clear cut.)

Rather like an elephant, it’s hard to describe but you know it when you see it!

So what goes wrong if you mis-judge things? Well, if you are using PowerPoint etc. then you need to be very careful indeed. I’m largely convinced by the concept of approaches such as Presentation Zen for public speaking. There’s no need to put up hugely technical slides – indeed it’s actually counter-productive because people can’t handle too much information.

Critically, when presented with more information than they can handle, people don’t take on board as much as they can cope with and ignore the rest: sadly, they tend to just ‘panic’ and take on board nothing at all. Tests of ‘recall’ are pretty well unanimous on this. The ideas of three big ideas only; simple, clear concept slides; and fewer words etc.; are critical. For pubic speaking, the speaker sets the agenda and so can dictate what’s presented to the audience.

On the other hand, if you’re making a (business or technical) presentation, you’ve got far less control over what needs to be said to your audience. They come with clearer expectations about what’s to be said to them and if you don’t fulfill those expectations they’re going to let you know, one way or another, perhaps by asking tricky questions or even interrupting. That’s very limiting to a presenter for obvious reasons.

The up-side however, is that they’ll be more knowledgeable (you hope!) and so you’ll be able to present them with much more information in a shorter period of time than in traditional public speaking. You’ll also be able to be more technically detailed without losing them. Indeed it often happens that a technical or business presentation is one of a series and you’ll simply be able to build on the knowledge the audience has from previous presentations. (Don’t forget to recap at the start though – what’s possibly been informing your every waking breath for the month since the last presentation might not have crossed their minds since the last time they sat in the room with you!)

Just like in public speaking, make a point of starting from where your audience are. The three basic questions of designing the structure of your presentation are the same as for public speaking:

what does my audience know?
what does my audience need to know?
what do I need to tell them?

Presenters have a huge advantage here over a public speaker here, because the audience is likely to be both less diverse (relating to question one) and have a higher level of antecedent knowledge in the first place… which probably makes up for the disadvantage a presenter has compared to a public speaker in terms of not controlling the agenda so strongly

Perhaps the best way to take advantage of that extra ’skill’ or ‘knowledge’ in the members of the audience is in the use of PowerPoint. Obviously a speaker shouldn’t use if if they don’t need to but there’s a case to be made that the rules of PowerPointing are more relaxed in presentations.

For example

  • you can potentially provide much more information on any one slide (for example by having more text on a slide);
  • you can relax a little about the minimum font size and so on (for example to label diagrams);
  • you can design the slide with a little more subtlety (such as using two fonts on a slide for psychological or logistic effect);
  • you can be much more informal and relaxed about effects and animations (such as to emphasize a key area of a slide or by having “pop-ups”).

Almost inevitably however, there are downsides to such presentations – not least to do with the audience and the fact that they’re likely to ask more probing questions, leaving a presenter with less control over the direction of the presentation: thinking under pressure is harder than it sounds!

Additionally, below are a number of other techniques which presenters have found very useful in the past.

Design your presentation as a Q&A. Make sure you ask yourself any question that your audience could ask you and prepare answers for them. Your presentation should answer the half-a-dozen (use your common sense!) of the questions you think will be uppermost on the minds of your audience with all your other answers ‘in reserve’.

Either use hidden hyperlinks in your PowerPoint deck, memorize the slide numbers for different questions or become familiar with the menu facilities in Keynote so that you can skip seamlessly from material for one question to another.

Use the ‘Leading Question’ technique: design your presentation so that each slide tells the audience something important but has an obvious and unanswered question at the end of it. Then, before the audience can ask it, flip to the next slide which contains the answer. A typical example might be to talk about the advantages of Model Y over Model X by increasing the strength of the materials by 10% for example… which leads to the the question “Yes, but how much extra would that cost to make?”. Your very next slide would provide the answer to that question. The next slide would answer a question raised while talking about those extra costs… and so on….

Have the information you need to provide in front of you in the form of a mindmap or some other, high-speed technique (whatever it is, make sure you’re familiar with the content and the technique – a live presentation is not the time to practice methods!). This means that when someone skips the presentation off track you can find the appropriate information very quickly indeed.

Use formula for structuring your answers to questions: examples include PPF for Past, Present and Future, DDD for Define, Discuss and Decide or PREP for Point, Reason, Example, Point. This means that you don’t have to worry about the form your answer takes and you’re free to concentrate fully on the content, thus halving the amount of work you have to do in your head as a presenter.

Be slightly more formal than you expect to need to be. This will provide you with a small, but potentially significant, greater level of control over proceedings. Examples of how to do this include things like dressing with a tie, even for informal meetings; explaining that you’re going to speak for 15 minutes and that you’ll take questions at the end (or whatever you decide – the point is that you state the ground-rules, not what those rules are); and making a point of asking for phones to be turned off.

Try hard to use Second Position when you deliver, rather than the standard First Position to give yourself more authority. First position is often the default due to the layout of chairs, tables and so on but you should try and get yourself in a position where your audience can focus on you or your PowerPoint but not both at the same time. This gives your presentation a sub-conscious sense of objectivity/independence.

Simon is a voice, public speaking and presentations trainer, working throughout the UK. You can see more of his work/company and read his blog at his presentation skills training website.

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