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.

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