10 tips for journalists who want to be better presenters

Congratulations! You’ve been invited to teach a session at a journalism conference.

That means your colleagues think you’ve reached a point in your career where you’ve got some wisdom to share. (Or it could also mean that no one else stepped up to volunteer to organize the session.)

Now what?

Here are 10 practical tips gleaned from several years of teaching and attending conference sessions – the good, the bad and the ugly. These tips can help those of you who are preparing newsroom training sessions, as well.

Give yourself enough time to prepare.

As journalists, we tend to wait for a fast-approaching deadline to inspire us. Unfortunately, that attitude will only lead to disastrous teaching. You’re good at what you do. But that doesn’t mean you’ve broken down what you do into steps and thought about the most effective way to teach those steps. That preparation takes time and care.

Focus, focus, focus.

A good presentation is like good storytelling. You can’t try to cover an entire topic. Instead, you need to focus on two or three main points that you want to convey to your audience, and then shape your presentation around those main points. A side note: Some presenters find that using a PowerPoint presentation can help them focus their thoughts. Use PowerPoint if you’re comfortable with it, but avoid making so many slides that you have to rush through them at the end.

Know your audience.

A group of editors, a group of reporters and a group of average citizens are all going to have different perspectives on your topic. A group that includes international journalists may not understand your cultural references or even some of your assumed journalistic standards. Tailor your presentation to the group.

Know your audience’s needs and experience.

Take a minute at the start of your session to survey your audience. How much experience do they have with the topic you’re going to talk about? What tools are they familiar with? What are they hoping to take away from the session?

Avoid war stories.

My eyes glaze over whenever a speaker rambles on, talking about stories that he or she reported on back in the day. Yes, you want to share your personal experience -- that’s why you’ve been asked to speak. But make sure to attach a clear, relevant lesson to each “war story” you tell.

Realize that panels are their own beasts.

Panels are not excuses for winging it, and they're not always the most effective approach to engaging an audience. The best panel sessions require preparation. Select your panel members so that you know you’ll get a diversity of perspectives -- perhaps even disagreement. Include a few “ringers” -- people who you know are reliable and who can present to great effect. Talk to your panelists ahead of time and e-mail them questions so you can get a sense of what they may say. Then, if you’re the moderator, be prepared to guide the panel with both a light touch and an iron fist. You want to encourage each panelist to have their say. But you don’t want any one panelist to dominate the conversation. If that happens, you’ve got to intervene for the audience’s sake.

Foster the people.

Or: Get your audience to interact with you. I hate it when a presenter says he or she wants a conversation with the audience, and then proceeds to talk and talk. Give some thought to how you’re going to not only foster – but enforce – interactivity. If your audience is small enough, ask folks to pair up or break into smaller groups and work on an exercise. If you’re working with a large audience, ask folks to take a minute to write down their thoughts on the topic and then ask three or four of them to share what they’ve written.

Understand that part of teaching is showmanship.

As an introvert, I struggle with this the most. My father, a venerable university professor, once advised me that “to teach well, you have to bubble with enthusiasm.” Well, I don’t think I’m ever going to “bubble,” but I do understand that to teach, you have to choose entertaining examples and bring drama to your storytelling. A little bit of humor won’t hurt, either.

Save time for questions.

In your prep work, edit your presentation down so that you have 10 to 15 minutes to spare. That will allow you to take questions at the end. Sometimes, the Q&A period is the insightful part of the session.

Make handouts.

In this time of chaos and uncertainty, journalists who attend conferences want to know that they’ve left your session with some practical takeaways. Share your wisdom on the handout and pass it out at the end of your session. And take comfort in knowing that the handout can cover any bullet points that you weren’t able to address in your session.

  • Tom Huang

    Tom Huang is Sunday & Enterprise Editor at The Dallas Morning News and Adjunct Faculty member of The Poynter Institute, where he oversees the school’s writing program.


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