There is a classic piece of advice that many presenters have heard when thinking about how to structure their presentation. The advice is to: "Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them." I think this advice is outdated and in this article I’d like to propose a new version of the three "Tell Them" statements that I think will serve presenters, and their audiences, much better.
Why doesn’t the classic advice work anymore? Because audiences expect better. If you simply repeat your message three times, it ends up coming off as confusing if the audience thinks that there are actually three different points. If the audience recognizes the three points as the same ones, this approach comes off as condescending because the audience thinks that you consider them not intelligent enough to understand it the first time. Neither of these audience reactions will get you to your goal of having the audience understand and act on your message.
So what should you do instead? Here is my updated version of the advice: Tell them the conclusion, Tell them how you justify the conclusion, and Tell them what you want them to do with the conclusion.
Let’s look at each of these three "Tell Them" statements to see why the revised versions are a better approach. First, I suggest you start your presentation with the conclusion that you want the audience to remember. Let them know where you are going in your presentation. They need to know the destination so that they can evaluate the information you present in context.
Second, show the audience how you got to the conclusion. This may involve some details and it may involve the audience asking some questions. This is the heart of the presentation and is where most of the time is spent. Because they already know the conclusion you reached, this conversation with the audience is more productive as they convince themselves of the same conclusion you reached.
Finally, tell them at the end of the presentation what you want them to do with the conclusion. Far too many presentations don’t have a "call to action" that asks the audience to take a specific action. It could be as simple as agreeing to use some new knowledge in their role, or as complex as approving millions of dollars of new investment in an initiative. Don’t assume the audience knows what you want them to do. Make it clear at the end of the presentation.
Let’s look at how this approach would be applied in a project update presentation. You would start by stating the conclusion that the project is on schedule but a little over budget and you are asking for their support to continue with the work as planned. You can then go through the details of the project tasks, explain what is done, what is next, and why you believe the budget issue is only a timing issue. You finish by asking for the group’s continued support and you look for their agreement with the direction and decisions you are making. This is a much more productive presentation than one where the same details are repeated three times.
Whenever you hear the same advice that has been given for decades, take a step back and put yourself in the audience’s shoes. Does the advice serve the audience best? If not, update it so that your presentation helps the audience act on the message you are delivering.