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Keys to Effective Formal and Informal Presentations

An oral presentation can be short and to-the-point (e.g., an update for a team or department meeting), but it can also be complex (e.g., orchestrating an elaborate pitch that includes various media, reports, and several speakers). Normally, public speaking classes for professionals, and even texts for oral presentations, prepare you to give formal talks that (1) present the findings of research to a group of experts in fairly academic style; (2) speak to the public about corporate issues and hazards; and (3) sell products or services to clients. But they rarely handle complex group presentations or presentations to in-house meetings.

While it is important to learn the speech-making skills taught in these classes, talks given at in-house meetings are probably more important to your career. Therefore, this section focuses on formal as well as informal and in-house presentations. As is the case with reports, an informal talk is related to complex and highly formal speaking, with a persuasive core that expands and contracts according to the scope of the task. Here we address making effective and straightforward presentations by discussing several keys to good oral communication: audience analysis, talk structure, supporting materials, and delivery.

Key 1: Audience Analysis

Try to understand and manage the distance between speaker and listeners. Speaking success is related to a careful managing of the distance between speaker and listeners. The rhetorical skill you employ in constructing that distance (audience analysis) is key to success. Ignore it at your peril. Listeners take cues about the distance you are maintaining from the image you project. If you arrive in a blue suit, stand at attention, address the group formally, and show detailed color slides, listeners see you as noticing and reinforcing the distance between speaker and listeners. If you come in blue jeans and sweater, sit among them, address them familiarly, and have some paper handouts, listeners see you as minimizing the distance between speaker and listeners. But, no one approach is always correct. In some situations, listeners are more comfortable with formal distance, while in others they prefer familiarity. You need to decide what kind of distance is appropriate to your speaking task and then work to create it. A key rhetorical skill, then, is imagining the setting and crafting the parts of that setting you can affect (your image, your words, and your materials) to create and maintain the distance you think appropriate. Figure 1 states this point more graphically. If you, as a speaker, project a sense of distance that matches well with what the listeners expect, then your talk will seem comfortable to your listeners. Quadrants A and D show good matches between speaker and listeners: in Quadrant A both speaker and listeners agree on an informal distance, while in Quadrant D both speaker and listeners agree on a formal distance. But if you project an informal distance when the listeners expect a formal one (Quadrant B), or if you project a formal distance when listeners expect an informal one (Quadrant C), then your talk may be poorly received. In Quadrants A and D you are in sync with your audience while in Quadrants B and C you are out of sync with your audience.

Figure 1: The speaker's sense of distance vs. listeners' expectations

More specifically, what might it mean to be in sync with listeners? The proper amount of formality is related to the interpersonal distance between you and your listeners: Are you closely related (e.g., are you pitching an idea to your parent company)? Are you at the same level in the company (e.g., are you talking to other engineers)? Are you strangers? For informal presentations, in which you usually know your audience well, you know what jokes to tell, how quickly to get to the point, whether to use examples, what types of arguments are most persuasive, and so on. When you do not know the audience well, yet must give an informal talk, you have to ask questions about them (e.g., Will they be receptive or hostile to this talk? Will they expect me to speak as an equal? What will be important to them? etc.).

How specifically are informality and formality projected from speaker to listeners?


Informal: Distance is one for friends/colleagues

Formal: Distance is one for unacquainted or non-peers


Business casual: ranges from jeans to slacks and skirts depending on the organization; may include a tie for men

Conservative business suit


Inside jokes shared by group; first names; slang; shared stories; invite group interaction and spontaneity

Formal jokes at beginning only; no first name or familiar forms of addresses; elevated language; generalized anecdotes


Simple materials; paper copies (sometimes a topic for discussion)

Elaborate color slideshow (plus paper copies); video; computer presentation


Sit with the group at round table; minimize hand gestures

Stand in front of the group at a lectern; use gestures as an actor on a stage

Figure 2: Components of informal and formal distance between speaker and listeners

George, a new employee at a computer company with 500 employees, noticed that some of the members of his group used the president's first name in their e-mail to the group, so he followed suit, even though he had not met the president. Then, at a company-wide meeting for one of his group's projects, the president said to the presenter, "Why don't you let my good friend George make this presentation?" Mass confusion ensued, and George had some apologizing to do.

The example shows the traces of a mismatch between an employee's familiar language in e-mail (that reflected an informal distance) and the boss's desire for a more formal distance with this new employee.

George was only doing what he saw others do, and he was admonished for it. Why? We don't know enough of the context to say for sure. But, even though the example comes from e-mail, and not from a presentation, the case demonstrates a mismatch between the use of informal speech and an expectation of more formal speech.

Mismatches in the other components can also present problems for a speaker. Say a sales representative visits a company to propose a consulting service to an informal group, and gives a formal talk that features many elaborate slides. The group might respond to the mismatch between their informality and the speaker's formality by dismissing the sales rep as being too "slick" or condescending. Why does this matter? On the one hand, it costs that consultant some valuable business, and on the other hand, it may keep the group from receiving some valuable advice.

The bottom line for speakers is this: You have to anticipate the amount of distance called for in a speaking situation and create it through your image, speech, materials, and delivery. A formal approach to speaking does not always put listeners off; nor does an informal approach always put listeners at ease. What wins an audience is the speaker's ability to project an appropriate image, speak in an appropriate style, use appropriate materials, and deliver the talk as listeners expect.

Key 2: Talk Structure

Make the talk understandable and memorable. A talk's structure needs to be understandable and memorable. This is true for informal talks as well as more complex ones. At a minimum, listeners must understand your main points, and a successful presentation makes memorable points, as well as clear and understandable ones.

Understandable Talks

Understandable talks have:

Listeners expect a logical pattern of point-making to ground and direct talks. Some popular patterns are spatial, topical, problem-solution, competing solutions, general-to-specific, chronological, and familiar-to-unfamiliar organization.

1. Spatial strategy (example: a tour of changes to be made to an assembly line)

Can the topic be presented spatially?
Are listeners familiar with this route?
Be sure this pattern won't mask the key topic.

2. List of topics (example: discuss the plant parasites that arrive in imported vegetables)

A list is less controversial.
Understanding is easier for speakers who do not have extensive synthetic knowledge, though such an approach often fails to help listeners better comprehend the system.
The speaker should order the topics (most important to least? newest to oldest? largest to smallest?)

3. Problem-solution or question-answer: Name and describe the key problem and then present and defend your solution (example: Improving online information about new products by developing a website)

Is your view of the problem shared by the listeners?
The problem-solution approach is easier for a seasoned employee than a new employee.
This approach is harder for consultants to develop, unless they use their client's view of the problem's identity.

4. Competing solutions: Present several possible answers and their advantages/disadvantages (example: The various technologies available to improve anti-terrorism security at airports)

Are you advocating a particular solution?
Should you fully describe each solution before going on to the next, or discuss how all solutions speak to the various considerations?

5. General to specific: Present the relevant general principles and the specific characteristics or actions associated with them (example: the mating habits of various kinds of insects)

A general-to-specific organization is difficult to use in process-oriented discussions.
The approach is easier to use when there is a mismatch between the action related to the general principle and the action related to the specific examples.
General-to-specific organization is very academic and textbook-like.

6. Chronology of action: Narrate the story (example: A second-by-second description of the shuttle disaster)

A chronological approach makes sense when your research has focused on uncovering the sequence of events.
What is the viewpoint of the history?
You may be marked as interested in the past rather than the future.

7. Familiar to unfamiliar (example: Discuss the current approaches to coaching video analysis and then the nonlinear approaches that will replace them.)

This approach is used frequently in demonstrations of new equipment or software.
When you have studied a new process that you will have to adopt at some point, the familiar-to-unfamiliar approach helps orient your listeners.
An analogy is often helpful to this structure.
This is a good approach if you know the "familiar" very well.
The approach is problematic if the listeners do not understand the "familiar."

When giving informal talks, some of these patterns are more obvious choices because they do not invoke as formal a distance between speaker and listeners. Both problem-solution and competing solutions can be framed in the light of problems common to everyone in an organization. Colleagues often think through problems in this patterned format anyway, so the approach seems natural.

Spatial, topical, and chronological organizational patterns can also be used successfully in informal talks, even though they establish more distance between speaker and listeners. Because they allow the speaker to avoid naming or synthesizing the problem, instead to focusing on history, topical treatises, or tour guides, these patterns are safe organizational patterns in an informal talk.

Whatever the pattern, the speech needs to be well marked for listeners. The adage, "Say what you are going to say, say it, and say what you have said," holds true for all speeches because all listeners can get derailed. Perhaps they are called out of the room, or don't understand some point, or just daydream. So a speaker must continually reorient listeners. Below is a typical pattern for marking a presentation. An informal talk would probably use a fairly brief introduction and wrap up with discussion questions or potential actions for the group to consider.


Speaker’s Point


Tell why you are talking and what you are trying to accomplish with this talk.


Say what points you are going to make.

Point 1

Say what point 1 is.


Go into detail about point 1.


Summarize the material for point 1.

Point X

Say what point X is.


Go into detail about point X.


Summarize the material for point X.

Wrap up

Say what the talk has tried to do and what action listeners need to take now.

Memorable Talks

In speeches (and sermons) memorability is a prime component of success. Think about the speech quotations you often hear: "I have a dream"; "Four score and seven years ago ... "; "Ask not what your country can do for you ..." The memorability of those quotations is due to their sentiments and the occasions on which the were made, but it is also born out of the turn of their phrases. Of course, memorability is not so important that you should use any device to ensure it. Take the case of rhyming. Rhyming can be used to make a quote memorable. A rhyme might make a good newspaper quotation, but would probably damage your credibility in a workplace talk. Why? It's mostly because rhymes are associated with poetry and with childhood, not with the professional adult workplace. Rhymes will almost never work out well in workplace presentations.

That does not mean that memorable phrasing is unimportant to workplace presentations. Even in academic writing, a colorful term, comparison, or phrase is preferable to one that is boring or unimaginative.

Informal talks don't need to be designed for memorability, the way a sermon would be crafted, but speakers should think carefully about its key categories and phrases. Each of the two columns below lists key phrases from two different versions of the same talk-one does a better job than the other at signaling key points succinctly for easier understanding and memorability.

I want to discuss a plan for upgrading machines

I want to discuss a plan for upgrading machines

think about cost considerations for future machine upgrade possibilities

our machines need to be upgraded because

think about cost considerations for future machine upgrade possibilities

there are two upgrade paths … First … Second …

expected changes in technology are related to the types of machines in line to be upgraded in five years

Here’s a chart showing the long-term costs and benefits of each possibility

projections of when cost of the technologies will fall for the respective machine types

but is tempered by fiscal responsibility

a five-year plan is attached that considers these factors … I want to discuss a plan for upgrading machines

Option B seems to address the problem directly at a much lower cost

Which statements will be easier to remember when a colleague asks you why a certain machine is due to be phased out at a slower schedule than the others he or she works with? The second version gives you cleaner criteria to grasp. It helps you speak to others about this topic.

A hypothetical example: Peter Fadde, a consultant, spoke about his work in developing audiotapes for the salesforce of Fisher Scientific Company. He claimed that the tapes were so popular because he wrote memorable lines of argument for the salesforce. They could pass along those well-phrased reasons for purchasing a new spectrometer to customers who would use those same well-phrased reasons to justify purchasing that spectrometer. Yes, even in informal settings, cleanly categorized, well-phrased reasons and memorable lines are important to your work.

Key 3: Supporting Materials

Prepare and use appropriate supporting materials. Educational psychology has shown that people learn more easily and quickly when multiple channels are used to present information to be learned. In the chart below, Peter White of Rand Corporation demonstrates that briefings that blend oral and visual media are most memorable. This finding is particularly important to informal talks because the tendency is to leave out visuals in those informal settings. Informal does not mean unimportant, nor does it assume familiarity.

Presentation Method

Recall: 3 hours

Recall: 3 days

Oral only



Visual only



Oral and Visual



Peter White,"How Can Technical Writers Give Effective Oral Presentations?" Solving Problems in Technical Writing, Lynn Beene and Peter White, eds., New York: Oxford, 1988

Still, an informal meeting setting usually does not accommodate elaborate supporting materials. You don't want it to appear that you have spent all your time for the past week preparing for this presentation, even if you have. Thus, supporting materials need to appear less sophisticated and more intimate. A rule of thumb that will serve you well in informal settings is: Let the size of the crowd dictate the appropriate visuals.

For more than ten people, use a few overheads or flip chart drawings and prepare a handout.For fewer than ten people, prepare a handout. While all of these listeners need visuals, in a meeting of fewer than ten people the apparatuses of the projection systems intrude on the meeting space. It makes more sense to fold what would have been your overhead into a handout that can be reviewed with your listeners.

General Advice for Visual Aids

Some fairly standard advice about projected visuals is to be big, bold, and simple.

Proofread text (spelling, grammar, parallelism)
Presenters also need to worry about facilities:
Check the equipment. Does it work? Can you work it? Is the volume right?
Make sure you have any help you need to show slides, turn the lights off, etc.
Think of positioning. Can everyone see the projection?

Overheads and Flip Charts

Overheads and flip charts are good for informal presentations because they are quickly prepared and are not perceived as overkill by most coworkers. Both can be used in a lighted room, which makes the use of visuals seem less formal. A flip chart is good for a small group seated at a table. But the overhead is more appropriate for larger groups, as its projected size can be changed, while a flip chart's cannot. Overheads are also useful to a speaker talking without notes. You can put main points on the overhead and then move around the room, using the overhead to remind yourself of where you are in your presentation.

The flip chart is usually preferable to a blackboard. If you put your visuals on a blackboard prior to your talk, everyone will see them all at once, making it impossible to control the pace at which the information is given. But if you write on a blackboard as you talk, you may have trouble being legible and you certainly will seem like a teacher (you will lose control of your image). This doesn't mean that blackboards cannot be used. If you use a flip chart for points and have a blackboard in the room, you can begin to fill the blackboard with ideas from the discussion. In making text for flip charts, remember the "big, bold, and simple" rule above. Use sans serif typefaces for titles and serif for text; use as little text as you can on each page; make titles much larger than text.


Handouts do not have to be as limited or spare as projected visuals; you can use them to distribute data as well as main points. Thus, they are especially good for (1) informal talks that are intended to start a group discussion and (2) briefings to coworkers who will have to disseminate the material. In addition, they can be put together fairly quickly.

Typical handouts include:

  1. Summary of the points in your talk
  2. Tables of data supporting important points
  3. Examples from the competition
  4. Sections of relevant reports
  5. Copies of overheads

Handouts that are highly coordinated (i.e., with a cover page, a common format, running heads, and so on) may seem "suspicious" in an informal setting (a question of priorities--have been working on your talk rather than doing your job?). So, you probably want them to appear as if they were quickly pulled together.  

Instead of:


A designed cover page

Your name, date, and topic at the top of the first page

Elaborate color photocopies of PowerPoint slides

Simple, black-and-white photocopies

Entire 50-page reports

Excerpts from reports and data tables

Unmarked and loose pages

Pages that are labeled and stapled

Key 4: Delivery
Hone your presentation skills. Here are some hints for a smoother delivery:

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