Presentation matters

Excellence is not an act, but a habit.

Will Durant

Job candidates want to come ahead of other candidates.

Junior employees want to get more important assignments and get promoted.

Students want the highest grades on their reports to pass the course and get a better chance at scholarships.

Consultants want to deliver the best job to their clients to get repeat business.

There is usually a clear incentive to persuade your intended audience that you did a good job or produced a quality product.

The goal of impressing your customer, manager or recruiter should be a convincing motivator.

Why, then, good quality is not always there? Why do we produce sloppy and careless work?  Why don’t we care more, or don’t think that anybody else will tell the difference?

Spelling mistakes, disoriented tables, skewed diagrams, haphazard formatting, and gross inconsistencies can be seen on resumes, professional portfolios, summative reports, and final client deliverables.

They look unprofessional, turn your readers off and imply that you don’t care about presenting your work in the best light. Worse than that, they create an impression about the low quality of the content.

If you don’t care about proofreading the table headings, why would I think that you cared about doing proper research before populating the tables with data?

If you don’t care about aligning the text so that it’s easy to read, why would I think that you cared about reviewing all the sources and doing in-depth research?

If your diagram looks confusing and hard to understand without titles, legends, and comments, why would I expect your presentation to be more logical and comprehensive?

The quality of a final product requires a few things. In a nutshell, let’s think of it as idea + execution + appearance (presentation):

First, you need to have a quality idea.

Then, you develop and execute it – into a report, presentation, scientific paper, or an article.

And finally, you capture it in a format suitable for communicating it to the intended audience – as a story, a set of slides, an academic paper, a book, or simply a memo or a letter.

The quality of the presentation of your work matters. It has a huge impact on whether you can communicate the quality of your idea and its execution to your intended audience.

Without clear communication, your brilliant idea may get lost. Without a well-organized structure of the report, the logic of your research and conclusions may elude the reader.  With a constant distraction of spelling errors, glaring colours or wild formatting, your audience may not be able to focus on what you are actually saying.

When I see gross spelling mistakes in my students’ reports, after reminding them many times about all the great (and free) spellchecking tools, it tells me about the overall effort applied to a report.

When I see a badly formatted resume for a business analysis position, it tells me about the quality I should expect from business requirements and user stories that this candidate would produce if hired.

When I see a cover letter so generic that it missed a key point in the job description, it tells me about the depth of information analysis that this specialist is likely to demonstrate in a job.

There are many little things that matter for quality of the work you produce, be it a presentation, a report, a resume, or a consulting report. Here are a few basics:

Proper spelling

Need I say more?  Any document processing software and tools like Grammarly will help you catch at least 95% of spelling issues. You still have to make sure you’ve used the right spelling when different words sound the same but are spelled differently, and verify all proper nouns.   

Clean formatting

  • Pick a sensible format and then follow it throughout.
  • Use a minimal number of fonts and styles – in most cases, you should use just one font for headings and another for the rest of the content.
  • Don’t mix serif and sans serif fonts unless you have a special design reason to do that.
  • Don’t underline more than a few words.
  • Use consistent bullets, indents and tabs.

Consistent terminology

  • Use the same term when you refer to the same concept in different places.
  • Don’t use the words you don’t understand – you run a risk of misusing them and sounding ignorant.

Clear communication

  • Use well structured and clear sentences, don’t overuse complex words and fancy grammar structures.
  • Don’t try to cram five different ideas into one sentence – break it up.
  • Avoid pompous language and meaningless buzzwords.
  • Don’t add extra generalized sentences you’ve found on the internet – only say what you needed to say and what adds something meaningful to the message.

Presentation

  • When you create presentation slides, follow good practices like this.
  • Don’t cram too much information into a small area: less is better. Don’t plan to read from the slides.
  • Focus on key points – make sure the main messages are clear.

Diagrams

Reports

  • Plan your report format and draft its structure, especially if it is more than two pages.
  • Include headings, a table of content, and page numbers.
  • Add captions to tables and figures. 
  • Don’t overuse heavy paragraphs.
  • Use subheadings to help the reader follow the structure and understand where one point ends and another point begins.
  • Include citations and references if applicable.
  • Here are some more ideas on creating appealing reports.

Learning to produce quality work takes time and discipline, like acquiring good habits. But once it becomes a habit, you will no longer feel that it requires a special effort. Once you built an inner discipline to demand quality of yourself, your will never be able to submit a sloppy report again.

Quality comes not from inspection, but from the improvement of the production process.

W. Edwards Deming

Please share your thoughts!

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