I’ve sat through at least 100 conference presentations this year. Some were awesome, some were awful and most were pretty good. But the awesome and awful ones stick with me – when a topic is not of interest to me or is about something I already know, I pay more attention to the presentation style, looking at what works and what doesn’t.
So I’ve compiled my ten tips for presenters. These represent the things that great presenters do well and bad presenters just butcher. Of course, I’m not perfect, and I know I’ve made some of these mistakes, but I’m trying to do silly things less often.
1. Work to time
In the worst presentation of the year, the speaker got up in front of 500 people and said “I have too much material, so I’m going to go through this quite fast”. Immediate FAIL. Then, 10 minutes before the end he said “I’m almost out of time, I’ll just go a bit quicker through the last points”.
Conference organisers are usually quite clear about how much time you have allocated. If they are paying your airfare, accommodation and a speaker’s fee, not tailoring your presentation to the timeslot is just rude, and doesn’t help you or the audience.
The best presenters know how much time they have to work with, tailor their presentation to fit the time and then keep an eye on the time. One of the best I saw this year was Jeff Veen at Web Directions – with technical problems at the start he lost 15 minutes and still came in almost on time.
And if you are running out of time, stop. Jump past a couple of slides if you need to make one last point. Otherwise you are saying “I’m more important than you, you can wait until I’m finished”.
2. Leave time for questions
A common behaviour for bad presenters is to run right up to, or over, time, then ask ‘any questions’ (in a rushed voice too of course). No-one asks questions, and the speaker thinks they’ve done a great job.
Great presenters run 10 minutes before time, ask ‘any questions’ and get a ton of hands.
This, believe it or not, has nothing to do with the material. It has everything to do with feeling permitted to ask questions. If there is obviously no time for questions (especially right before lunch or coffee break), the person who asks one is holding up the room. We are polite folks and we know how to play the game – we don’t want to hold up everyone just to ask a personal question. But when there is plenty of time, we feel like we are allowed to, so we do.
And questions are a good thing. They give you a chance to elaborate on something that wasn’t clear, or cover the topic that everyone wants to know but you forgot to include. They help the audience feel like you are approachable and a peer.
3. Know what your point is
I attended many presentations that were well-spoken and well timed but never actually made a point.
Yesterday’s presentation was a perfect example. I spent most of it wondering what the speaker’s point was, and finally concluded that he didn’t know what his point was either. Talks like this waffle all over the place and never get anywhere. And listeners walk away feeling stupid.
If you aren’t sure of your point, do the ‘Why, who cares, so what‘ test. Think about what you’re actually trying to convey, think about why someone needs to know it, why they would care about it, and what the consequences are. This is a simple trick that really helps you think about what you should be communicating.
The first time you give a talk, especially if you are using slides someone else has prepared, rehearse it.
Really. Yes, I really mean it.
Rehearsing helps because you hear yourself say the words. You can hear your jokes (I think my jokes are hilarious until I say them out loud), practice stories and figure out the pace. Then when you have to perform for real, your brain doesn’t have to figure it out from scratch.
You can rehearse in your bedroom – it feels odd, but works. Or ask a couple of friends to listen to you. Our local IA cocktail hour has been the rehearsal ground for a few people this year, and we are happy to do it.
5. Avoid self talk
This tip came to me via the very awesome Dan Willis. We were sitting together watching someone who is super-smart and always has really insightful things to say. And Dan said ‘if only he’d stop self-talking, he’d be perfect’.
Self-talking is all the little things speakers say when they are simultaneously trying to deliver a talk and thinking about themselves doing it. Comments about technology, ‘oops, there’s a spelling mistake’, ‘oh, there’s an extra slide’, ‘what does that point mean’. They can subtly undermine your credibility and make you look inexperienced.
Of all the tips I’ve ever learned, this one has been the most helpful to me personally.
6. Understand your audience
The two worst speakers of the year made the mistake of not understanding the audience. But the reason they were the worst went further – they also assumed that the audience didn’t know anything and needed educating. Guess what – audiences can actually pick up on it when you think of them like this.
Before speaking to a group, find out what they already know and where they are up to with your topic. If you think you might need to explain some fundamental concepts, don’t talk down to people. Just say you are going to quickly go over some background so some key points later on make sense.
But really, the trick to this is to genuinely care about your audience. No matter how hard you try, if you think they are beneath you, they’ll pick it up.
7. Talk about what you know
Another difference between great presentations and mediocre is the presenter’s knowledge of their material. A great presenter not only knows what points they are making, but knows why those things are important and what they mean. They can answer a question on the fly, or elaborate on a point as needed.
You might be caught having to give a presentation on a topic that you don’t know thoroughly, or use a presentation someone else has written. If this happens, rehearse it a couple of times, think about each of the points, why they are important and what they mean. Do some background reading, discuss it with colleagues and think up a story for each of the main points. This will increase your understanding of the material and your confidence.
8. Tell stories
Humans don’t learn by listening to strings of facts. We learn from stories and examples.
One of the best things you can do in a presentation is to tell stories. Make a point, then put it into a real situation. It may be something you’ve experienced, something a colleague has, or your opinion about an issue. Your listeners will understand your point better, and you’ll sound more credible. Win-win.
I tell stories in all my presentations. Sometimes I even completely ignore what is on a slide and just tell a story. The thing I have to be most careful with is that I don’t tell a story twice in one session – how embarrassing would that be!
9. Talk in inverted pyramid
Inverted pyramid is a style of writing where you present the most important facts first, then elaborate on them, then elaborate further. The urban myth is that it developed with the introduction of the telegraph and the need to get the facts through before the connection was lost.
Whatever the history, get your point across, and then build up on it. Your audience can then make a decision about whether to listen to you or do something else (think about sex, read twitter, write nasty things about you on twitter). If you build up to your point essay style, chances are you’ll lose part of the audience part way through and they’ll never get the point you are so carefully working up to.
10. Balance imagery and text
If you’ve been attending presentations for a few years like I have, you’ll have noticed that bullet points have almost dissappeared. The current style, at least amongst the user experience and web folks, is gorgeous imagery and a small amount of text.
Some of the worst presentations I saw this year went so too far with imagery – I kept getting distracted trying to figure out how the image and the speaker’s point related, and ended up missing the point entirely.
Don’t be terrified of text and bullet points. They are OK when:
- the point you want to make isn’t easy to communicate visually
- visual language is the best way to communicate the idea
- people need to see the whole idea in order to understand it
- you are discussing lists of steps or sequences
But if you are going to use bullet points, make them communicate your point. Don’t use them as a memory trigger for what you want to say – that’s what speaker notes are for.
So, if you don’t want me sitting in the third row twittering about how terrible you are:
- Work to time
- Leave time for questions
- Know what your point is
- Avoid self-talk
- Understand the audience
- Talk about what you know
- Tell stories
- Talk in inverted pyramid
- Balance imagery and text
If you’d like to improve your presentations, my two favourite resources/books are: