Five Ways to Present Better

by Mike Shea on 31 March 2008

I have to present often at my job. I've been doing it for a lot of years now but still, when called upon, I feel that feeling of dread deep down in my heart when I hear I have to present. I had to present a couple of weeks ago at San Diego for only about 30 people or so, but still I had to work at it. It makes it harder that I demand more from my presentations than most people do.

Taking a walk in our beautiful woods by our house and fretting my time in front of the big-wigs, Michelle asked me what I thought the most important five things are to making a good presentation.

Here are my five most important tips for giving a good presentation:

Have a Purpose

Informational presentations are bullshit. Go read a paper. Don't waste time just giving me a whole bunch of information. Change my mind about something. Convince me of something. Make me go do something. Presentations should result in action. Most presentations fail to do anything other than bore the piss out of the audience. Instead, teach them something that changes their lives.

Define the purpose of your presentation in a single sentence. What do you want the audience to do? What do you want to accomplish with your presentation? What is the purpose?

Fancy businessfolk call this the "elevator pitch". If your stuck in an elevator, what would you tell a stranger about what you do or what your project is about? Define it as simply as you can.

The same is true with the purpose of a presentation. Simplify it. Have a purpose. Use the audience for something. Don't just tell them about something, make them do something about it.

Know Your Topic

Many presenters spend far more time futzing with their slides than they do learning about their topic. Spend the time to know your topic backward and forward. Build up a passion for what you're talking about. If that's hard, find the part of it you do have passion for and focus on that. If you have absolutely no passion for what you're talking about, consider a way to present on something else.

Spend more time understanding the topic and focusing on the purpose instead of playing around with beanie guys in powerpoint.

Keep Slides Minimal

Nothing is worse than bad slides. Anyone in business knows how bad they can suck. Huge slides filled with text or giant organizational or process flows that no one can read. Any time someone refers to a slide as an "eye chart" or says "I know you can't read this" should be fired. Minimalist slides are almost always better. Keep the total words on a slide under ten. Focus on key topics or use high resolution pictures to make a point. Don't fill up a slide with words or you will be competing with your own words as you speak for the attention of the audience.

Like everything in life, constantly simplify and cut out everything that can be cut from your slides. Extra logos, worthless graphics, needless text, cut it all. Murder your darlings.

If you can get away with it, don't use any slides. Instead, give the audience a handout outlining your talk or a paper that describes your topic. Handouts are a lot more useful than most slides.

Rehearse

Go over your presentation vocally, out loud, as many times as you can. You don't need to do it word for word when you present, but the more times you go over it, the better and more natural it will be when you present. Memorization isn't the goal. Knowing your structure, your flow, and your focus is the reason to rehearse. Like knowing your topic, time should be spent rehearsing a presentation instead of screwing with powerpoint.

Stay On Time

Nothing is worse than a presenter who can't shut up. Every minute you go over is one minute per person at the discussion that you waste. If you're presenting to a group of 20 people and you go five minutes over you've wasted nearly two hours of time. Stay on time or better yet, finish early. Don't use questions from the audience as an excuse either. The audience will always have questions. Cut the amount of time you have for a presentation by half and practice to end within that time. If you have 30 minutes (as I do tomorrow), present and rehearse to finish in 15. Stay on time.

There are a lot of good sources for good presentation tips. I recently read Presentation Zen. It's an excellent book and I highly recommend it if you have to give presentations. It isn't easy, however, and its pretty radical when compared to most corporate powerpoint presentations that fill up slides with tons of text indented into fifty levels.

There are a number of other valuable tips. Lifehacker has a whole bunch. Like just about everything in life, the best way to get good at something is to do it. The best way to present is to do it over and over and over again. Oh yeah, a big ego helps too.

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