Note from Art: this is a public service post for anyone in a classroom anywhere that is on the hook for a group project.  MBA students and undergraduates, please pay particular attention.  If you know someone that might benefit from the guidance, please pass this along.  I want to hear about some seriously great group project presentations over the next few weeks!  And hey, the rest of you professionals out there might just pick up a few pointers below as well.

Everyone’s Doing It and Many are Not Doing It Well:

On campuses and in classrooms, graduate and undergraduate students alike are all doing It and many are not doing It very effectively.   The It of course, is preparing for the end of semester/quarter/year group project presentation, which in many cases will serve as a significant portion of the final grade.

After sitting through a fair number of these presentations over the past few years, I’ve identified some common mistakes that detract from the quality of the final presentation and depress grades, not to mention instructors.  The mistakes and misfires are generally a result of two issues: the very personal and irrational fear of presenting and some horrendously poor planning and coordination between group members.

Sidebar on Group Projects:

The topic of group projects in school probably merits a book, and while there are many pros and some cons to this component of the education process, I am in the camp that a well-defined project assignment enhances the learning experience, challenges individuals to develop strong group socialization, communication and leadership skills and offers a learning opportunity for the entire class if the output is of good quality. I’ll save the cons and potential for abuse of this component of college and grad school life for another post.

Regardless of your opinion on the worth of group projects, they are a reality, and one which students should play to win.  What follows is a short summary of the tips and suggestions that I provide to groups in my MBA and undergraduate classes.  I welcome additional thoughts and I encourage you to use these tips in good health and in pursuit of an A.

9 Tips For Nailing the Class and Group Project Presentation:

1.  Ensure that the group members share an integrated view of the project:

One of the biggest and painfully visible issues with group projects is that it becomes clear that the work was doled out to team members and while everyone knows their part, no one knows the whole picture.  Take the time to discuss your respective work products, key findings/conclusions and ensure that there is a unified and complete view of the project.

2.  Before preparing presentation materials, the group must think through the following:

  • You need to interest your audience in the first 60 seconds or you’ve lost them.  The group should develop an engaging opener..a reason for the audience to be interested.
  • You need to plan your message…before you begin writing your presentation.  Key points; necessary supporting points; examples; summary of key findings…and take-aways.
  • The goal is not to show how much you is to concisely and briefly deliver key points, insights and conclusions.

3.  Building the presentation:

Remember, business plans seeking millions of dollars in funding can be pitched in a dozen or fewer slides.  Keep your deck brief…make every slide count.

  • Ideally, have one person build the presentation…it allows you to standardize on graphics, fonts and importantly, on a single voice.  Nothing is worse than disjointed presentation materials that don’t flow and look like they were created in a blender.
  • The best approach is always one-main point per slide.  (Or, no slides at all.)
  • Pictures are best…with brief captions or sidebars
  • Plan on your narrative and speaking points filling in all of the words that are not on the slides.

4. Helping the group and individuals prepare to present:

Since your slides are crisp and clean, every speaker must plan out their presentation narrative.  I like to print my slides, handwrite my major points (no more than 3 to 5) and then practice delivering these points until I don’t need notes. Other important planning issues:

  • Create transitions between speakers
  • Plan on the team leader conducting group introductions.
  • CREATE AN ENDING.  Too many groups end with “that’s all.”  That works for a cartoon…not for a project presentation.
  • Coordinate the slide advancement in advance…not during the presentation.

5. Getting yourself ready-prepare your attitude:

It’s time to tackle the irrational demons that bedevil so many classroom (and professional) speakers. Think through the following:

  • Remind yourself that there is little to fear.  The audience is on your side.  They want you to succeed.  Unless you disrespect the audience, they are there for you.
  • Remember that your goal is to always inform, share and even entertain.  Entertaining does not mean that you have to tell jokes…but having the mind of an entertainer…ensures that you focus on pleasing your audience.
  • Sit down the night before the presentation and imagine that you were an audience member for your own presentation.  Jot down a list of what you would like to learn.  Review that list before the presentation.

6. Immediately before the presentation, remind yourself of the following:

  • Smile while speaking.  Your smile is infectious.
  • Eye contact please.  Or at least pick different spots in the room slightly above head level and move your eyes to each spot in a random fashion.
  • Project your voice.  Many students forget to project, and the audience has to struggle to hear.  Be loud and proud…always with a smile.
  • If you have an accent…or if you are a mumbler, you will need to focus on both projecting and enunciating!
  • Modulate your voice.  Raise volume for emphasis…lower volume for intensity.  Avoid talking in a monotone.

7. During the presentation:

  • Smile, project your voice, and make eye contact.  Present with confidence, and be part of the group in the room, not a talking head.
  • Enthusiasm and passion are a speaker’s best friends!  Show and share yours.
  • Modulate your voice.
  • Notes: if you must have them in your hand, don’t read from them.  An occasional glance is fine.  Reading is never fine.
  • Posture…don’t stand defensively (no arms crossed)…don’t get in the fig-leaf pose (use your imagination) and don’t get in the T-Rex pose (again, use your imagination). No hands in pockets, either. Pick a base position…hands at the side with occasional, simple gestures.  Vary it slightly so that you don’t become a mannequin. (Thanks, Tim Koegel for these posture suggestions!)
  • Be conscious of your timing.  If you’ve practiced and if you know your key points…make them and keep moving.
  • Briefly recap your key points and then transition to your next speaker…introducing him/her by name…and perhaps topic.

8. After the presentation: Q/A:

Many a great group presentation crashes on the rocks of a mismanaged Question and Answer session.  Consider the following:

  • Pre-plan for someone to be the question moderator.  The moderator should restate the question and then direct it to the appropriate person.
  • If you don’t understand the question, ask the questioner for clarification.
  • If you don’t know the answer, do not make it up.  Develop the habit of saying, “I’m not certain, but that is an important question that I would love to look into for you.”
  • Keep your answers brief.  Resist the urge to share everything you know.
  • The moderator should sense when the question is answered/over and move on.
  • No need to get defensive with an audience member that disagrees.  It’s OK to agree to disagree.

9. Wrapping Up:

The group moderator should close out the group’s presentation, thank the audience and transition for the next group.  Do something to close out beyond the ever-present and really depressing, “that’s all we have.”

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Here’s to nailing some group project presentations, getting great grades and importantly, improving your personal and professional communication skills along the way.  Use these in good health!  -Art