A reader asks: How do you set context in a presentation?

What is context? Merriam-Webster defines it as:

1: the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning. 2: the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs: environment, setting. the historical context of the (event)

Setting context is one of the most important tasks you need to do if you want your listeners to understand and care about your presentation. It’s best to set the context right from the start, so people understand the tone of your message, the significance of the event, or the risk that is being mitigated.

You can set the context by your facial expression, your tone of voice, and your words. If you have learned to use Targeted Messages and Power of Three Openings, you can use these touch points to craft context right along with your message.

Maybe a few examples would help.

Suppose your context is training—maybe it is about new software, a new process, or sales training.  You want your audience to be open-minded, and you want to engage them in the learning process. So pay attention to your body language and face, both should be welcoming. Your opening lines should be interactive, “How would you like to have a smooth transition to the new software?” or “Who would like our monthly closeout to be less stressful and time consuming?” These openings are engaging (which you want,) upbeat and introduce the topic on hand. Voila, context!

Maybe you are presenting about a grave accident that took place. You want to calm and comfort your listeners. Your face and body language would be more neutral, your tone would be softer, and your words measured. You might start with a brief overview of what happened, using neutral words that are accurate but not overly emotional. You might welcome others to comment. And you might prepare a call to action that brings people together at the end. A wholly different context.

Often your presentations are about status updates. The context is to ground the current situation in the past, while moving your audience to imagine the future status. It should be hopeful even when there are setbacks along the way. Your context might be a quick update of the project from conception to today, or from conception to outcome, with today’s current situation as the focus of the current presentation. You set the context by quickly reminding people of the scope and significance of the project.

Think about the setting or environment that your listeners are experiencing. What are their feelings? In my examples there might be resistance, boredom, or fear and sadness. You should acknowledge those feelings as valid (without dwelling on them or making people feel worse) and determine where you want to take your listeners emotionally. Can you offer hope? Encouragement? Silliness or fun? Let the context you set move your audience forward to hearing and acting on your message.