20 June 2013

The Zen of Presentations, Part 60: You can’t hear a paragraph

There’s a joke that academics speak in paragraphs.

It’s poking fun at the stereotype of academics being long-winded, but it brings up a good point: we don’t talk in paragraphs. Generally, written language follows spoken language. Paragraphs are unusual because they only exist in text.

I like to write scripts for presentations. But what you can see on the page is not necessarily something an audience can hear. For example, if I was to talk about several related topics, it would make sense to describe each one of them in their own paragraph. For instance, if I were writing about family pets, I might have three consecutive paragraphs starting like this:

“Cats are...”

“Dogs are...”

“Fish are...”

The line spacing and indenting of the paragraph would make it clear to a reader that each one of these was a separate bundle of ideas and claims. The typesetting alerts the reader to the change in topic.

In a presentation, though, only the presented can see the script. A presenter working from a script could easily barrel through cats, dogs, and fish without missing a beat, and mushing the three topics all together. Itwouldbeliketryingtoreadasentencewithoutspaces. Sure, you can do it, but it’s harder than it could be.

In a presentation, you need to develop verbal cues to let audiences know when you’re shifting from one topic to another. You might say, “That’s all I have to say about cats. Now, let me talk about dogs.” You might add in a few phrases to indicate change of topic; instead of saying, “Dogs are,” you might say, “On the other hand, dogs are...” or “Secondly, dogs are...” While these are phrases I might actively try to cut out of an essay, they might serve a much better purpose when someone is speaking out loud.

But you might not even have to write in specific phrase in a script. You could indicate the change in topic with just a pause, or a change in intonation, if you do it well.

Related posts

The Zen of Presentations, Part 55: Script doctoring

Photo by oskay on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

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