Best Presentation Advice That I’ve Received

Yesterday, I wrote about some awful pieces of advice I’ve received over the years. But I’ve also received some excellent suggestions. (I just wish I could remember where so I could credit the folks who helped me.)

Here are some good ones. This list doesn’t include every good suggestion about slides and presenting, but rather things that I’ve actually heard from various individuals. And I’ll omit the obvious, such as “don’t read your slides.”

  • Big text, simple slides. I can’t emphasize this one enough. (See my book PowerPoint Slides That Work!)
  • Strive for beautiful slides, as best you can, whatever that means for you. I’m not an artist, but I do know when a slide is ugly. Sometimes – actually, often – I’m not sure exactly how to make it better, but if I don’t accept it in its natural ugliness, I’m forced to do something else, take a different approach. If I do that often enough, even ugly slides eventually reach “okay.” The gold standard of presentation beauty is Garr Reynolds and Presentation Zen. Even if most of us can’t reach that level, we can aspire to it – and keep plugging away at our worst slides.
  • Don’t spend a lot of time on your slides. (Spend it on preparing the presentation.) Equating “slides” with “presentation” is a recipe for a disjointed, unorganized presentation. The title of my book on presentation might be PowerPoint Slides That Work!, but it’s really about presenting – in the guise of fixing your slides. Because a) creating slides that work and b) creating an effective presentation are tightly related. Or more to the point, getting rid of awful, disorganized, wordy slides that get in your way will quickly lead to a better presentation. Over ninety percent of the time I spend working on my “slides” is actually work spent on preparing the presentation. (I do spend 5-10% of my time doing mechanical “slide work” – cleaning up pictures, reformatting and rearranging elements on a page, setting up a slide master for a particular presentation, etc.)
  • Slow down. Yeah. Steven, they’re talking to you! I’m an ex-New Yorker, and I still struggle with this one.
  • Scale your voice to the size of the room (with or without a microphone).¬†Effective presenters speak differently at a conference table, to a small group, to 50 people, to 500 people. Around a conference table, you’re leading a reasoned, “room-temperature” discussion. For a small group, you need to be more animated than at the table, but not “large,” avoiding outsized gestures or projecting your voice. For a large group, you need to be “larger” – you’re onstage, in effect. Bigger gestures. More forceful presence. And at least part of the time, in motion. Steve Jobs was a pretty good model. He’s rarely “big” in an obvious way, but he’s clearly “working the room.”
  • Repeat questions. If there are more than, say, a dozen people, it’s likely people in the back won’t hear the questions of people in front. So repeat the question, summarizing it if it’s taken the questioner time to get to the point. Not only is this helpful for many in the audience, it gives you time to think about your answer.
  • Pause. What feels like ten seconds of “dead air” in the front of the room is usually only a second or so. Unnoticeable. Except to you, giving you time to think about what you’re saying.
  • Practice. I don’t want to say “rehearse,” because that suggests a script. Don’t read, don’t memorize, but do practice. A lot. Out loud (when you can). And in various situations, not just in front of your monitor. Often I find that I discover how best to present an idea when I’m practicing in the shower, or cooking, or walking. (I only do the walking-and-talking-out-loud thing when I know I’m alone!)
  • Tell stories. This is a tough one. I do believe your entire presentation should be a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and with a journey that overcomes obstacles and leaves the “hero” – the audience – changed in some way. However, this advice referred to stories within the presentation. I’ve found that good stories that make important points in new ways can be very effective. These thirty seconds of physicist Richard Feynman testifying about the Challenger disaster summed up in a simple story (an experiment carried out in front of the committee) what experts had been struggling to make clear for days.

These aren’t the only bits of good advice, or even necessarily the nine “best” bits of advice. I’m just reflecting some excellent advice that people have given me directly over the years.

As I wrote yesterday, these articles come from a baby shower I attended over the weekend. I’m not sure whether anything we “old folks” said made sense to the mother-to-be, the daughter of a good friend, but I did hear some good stuff. (Alas, it’s mostly too late for us and our own kids!) I hope that you, too, will find some good stuff – to do and not to do – in these two articles.

Worst Presentation Advice Ever

(I went to a baby shower this weekend where all of us elders in the room [yes, tongue firmly in cheek] delivered our best and worst advice about child rearing. I thought I might carry the concept over to presentations. Worst advice today, best tomorrow.)

Let’s leave out the truly obvious, such as “read your slides aloud.” What other bad advice – big and small – have I heard over the years?

  • Imagine the audience naked. No, no, no. Just, ugh.
  • If you’re afraid, look out over the audience’s heads; they won’t notice you’re not actually looking at them. Yes, they will. The attendees want you to succeed. Because if your presentation is a mess, they’ve wasted their time. Rarely is an audience to a business presentation actively hostile at the start. (Yes, it happens occasionally. But it’s not the norm. If anything, they’re bored, not out to get you.)
  • Pick out one person in the audience and talk to them. And watch that person squirm in their seat! Make eye contact with lots of folks. Pick one out, share one thought (phrase, sentence) with her, and find someone else for the next thought.
  • Each slide should last about five minutes. (Or, No more than ten slides.) – If that’s your style, fine. Otherwise, bad idea. Use the “right” number of slides, whatever your style. For me, that may be twenty slides in three minutes at one point of a presentation, one slide lasting fifteen minutes at another point. Your slides must support you and your ideas, whatever that requires.
  • Use creative animations. Sure, if you work for Disney, perhaps. Or are showing off PowerPoint itself. Otherwise, limit them – and don’t use sound! (I learned that one the hard way many years ago.)
  • Use Prezi. With all due respect – it is a cool product, and can be valuable in specific instances – it calls attention to the mechanics of presenting. You and your ideas need to be the focus, not the delivery of them.
  • Say everything three times. (“Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, then tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em.”) – Most of use are addressing audiences with the ability to process information more effectively.
  • Keep a glass of ice water handy. According to professional singers, ice water tightens your throat. Have room-temperature water at hand, or warm tea with honey.
  • Use cool templates. Nah. Most of them are whizzy and off-balance and call attention to themselves rather than your content. Look at some of Steve Jobs’ presentations. And don’t put the name of your organization, a copyright notice, or any other repeating text element of every slide!
  • Use PowerPoint’s default settings. Nope, the type is far too small – and bullet points basically stink, anyway. Forty-point type is a pretty good minimum size. Yes, 40-point. If you want people to read your presentation rather than listen to you, send it to them in a document. Otherwise, keep the screen simple, and keep the focus on you.

I’ve received lots of bad advice over the years. Tried out variants of most of them, to discover they didn’t work.

Good advice? Tune in tomorrow.