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In high school, where I had my first public speaking lesson, I learned that a presentation should contain an overview of the topics discussed. But I'm feeling more and more annoyed by these overviews, when I watch a presentation in an online video, I usually skip them, and when I'm physically present in a presentation, or if I'm watching one in real time, I often get obred during them, unless they're very short and to the point (3 bulletpoints or less.)

I find these overviews only useful to decide whether a presentation is interesting to me, and whether I want to wagch it. When the speaker is giving the presentation, I've already made that choice, and I just want to hear about the topic itself.

So are presentation overviews useful, and if so, why?

This isn't a software UX question, but it's still about the user's experience of a presentation, so I hope it fits here.

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4 Answers 4

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Yes, it is very useful for many tasks.

  • If you as the audience are actively trying to build a mental model of new knowledge you are learning from the presentation. In this case, the details of the new knowledge are most likely not depending on each other in a linear way, but are going to be presented to you in a linear fashion, slide after slide. Getting a feel for their structure, as a simple tree in the case of a numbered outline, or more complex forms usually expressed with graphics, helps you a lot by giving you a starting point for your new mental model.
  • If you as the audience have to critically compare the mental model of the presenter with yours. This is frequent e.g. in education, where a student gives a presentation on a topic and the teacher has to grade the student's work based on the presentation. The teacher already has an established mental model of the topic, but he has to find out how good the student's mental model of it is.
  • if you as the audience are only interested in a part of a recorded presentation. Then you use the overview to jump to the place where you expect the interesting content to be.
  • if you as the audience want to decide if a presentation is worth watching. Having an overview of what will be discussed at the beginning will tell you if the presentation contains information you are interested in, so you can close the video (or start daydreaming if you are required to be physically present)
  • if you as the presenter need to produce a well-structured presentation. Making an explicit overview and sticking to it is a better strategy than others. Of course, depending on the particular situation, the advantage of making it explicit may be so small as to be negligible.

From your experience, it seems that you have not needed to complete any of these tasks while watching a presentation. This is completely OK. Maybe you are not a teacher, maybe you don't shuffle through old presentations, maybe you only watch presentations about topics of which you already have a good mental model and only want to learn specific details. But this doesn't mean that everybody approaches a presentation the same way as you do. As the cost of including an overview is very low, in most cases it is worth to include it in order to support the tasks mentioned above, even in situations where many audience members won't need them.

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In my personal experience, I have found overviews to be useful for large audiences at things like business/consulting case competitions for a couple of reasons:

  1. The audience and judging panel have to sit through many of these presentations and the overview helps them follow your presentation.
  2. It's a nice way to sort of showcase your thought process when reaching a conclusion. A spot on overview makes you look good.
  3. Some members of the audience aren't required to sit through your presentation. The overview gives them a chance to take a peek at what you're about to say and choose to stay or leave.

There have also been scenarios where I haven't found them useful:

  1. Speaking to smaller crowds
  2. Talking about abstract ideas or research-based findings that don't really have a "conclusion" or "solution" at the end of the presentation (think TED talks-esque)

My answer is, it depends! It depends on your setting, your audience, and your subject matter.

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A presentation overview is useful for many reasons.

  • It tells the audience what is going to be covered and what will not be covered. The second half is usually implicit, but there are presentations when it is appropriate to call out something that you will not be discussing (usually with a justification for not discussing it).

  • It allows the audience to make an informed decision about whether they will attend the whole presentation. While they have already decided to attend the presentation because they had some level of interest in the topic, but they could learn upon arrival that the level of detail or specific topics being covered during the presentation aren't of interest or aren't germane. For example, you could decide to attend a presentation about presentation skills and discover that it is about how to lay out the slides and what fonts to use, whereas you wanted to learn more about how to structure a good presentation.

  • It can pique interest in your presentation and give your audience a very specific reason to be engaged with it.

  • It specifies when topics will be covered, so audience members can choose where they spend their attention during the presentation.

  • If an audience member is distracted or their attention wanders, they can direct their attention back to your presentation and know where they are in it.

  • It helps the audience know that information is coming, allowing them to ask questions at the most appropriate time. If a presentation isn't one where questions aren't allowed during the presentation, it's still positive because they know that their question is likely to answered later.

  • For the presenter, if you have misjudged your audience or the information that they want to hear, you are likely to learn this during your overview. This mostly only applies to presentations where the audience can stop you with questions, because they can stop you and ask whether you're going to cover a certain topic. In this case, if you learn that your audience expects you to cover a topic that you weren't planning on covering, then you can either remedy that (if it's something you can talk about off the cuff or if you happen to have a different presentation that covers that topic), or you can be explicit that you're not covering that and why (and, if possible, tell the audience how they can get the information that they're looking for). Even in a presentation that isn't interruptible, you'll learn that you misjudged your audience or the information that they need if half the room empties out when you go through the overview.

  • In a long or complex presentation, it can be worthwhile to revisit the overview. "We've covered [this], and now we're going to build upon that and cover [this]". You can do this explicitly by bringing back the overview slide, or just spoken to make a good transition from one of your discussion points to the next. This helps regain audience attention that might have wandered, and it sets the stage for the next topic.

An overview can go bad for many reasons. The presenter can ramble too much during the overview, talking about specific points that should wait until they get to that part of the presentation. Or the presenter could just have taken their section titles, slapped them in an overview slide, and read those bullet points to the audience. The presenter can include too much detail in their overview, or they can give too little. Getting the overview right means not only knowing your presentation backwards and forwards, but also knowing what information you need to communicate to your audience and when you need to communicate it.

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I'm apparently going to disagree with everyone else's opinion that has posted thus far. I've always held to the advice that the presentation slides should never, ever mimic what you are saying. They simply should provide ancillary visuals.

Once you start putting words into the slides, people start to tune you out and just read the slides...then get frustrated because they can read faster than you are talking.

Take for example a good TED talk. They're not regurgitating text from a slide.

So, I think I agree completely with you. I'm already listening to you. I made the decision to do so. Whatever 'overview' there is should have been handled outside of the presentation room in the brochure or ad or program or what have you. Don't distract me with a pointless table-of-contents slide. GET TO THE PRESENTATION! :)

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