After Hours

10 questions to determine whether your presentation is lame

The time to identify potential problems with a presentation is BEFORE you're standing in front of an audience.

A good speaker can survive amateurish slides, but the best slides in the world won't save an ill-prepared speaker. Try to answer these 10 questions about your presentations. Evaluating your presentation honestly might help you avoid a scary plummet into presentation purgatory.

1: Does everything work as expected?

There's nothing worse than showing an eager audience a blank screen. Instead of experiencing your brilliance, they'll be following your behind around as you crawl under tables and between platforms to locate "the problem." No matter how gracious you are about the delay, you'll never completely recover.

If your answer to this question is no, your presentation is suspect. Technical difficulties aren't a presentation killer, but you'll lose some credibility before you even start. Fortunately, this fix is easy: Know the room, the equipment, and the material — or stay home.

2: Does each diagram and chart support a specific point?

You might have heard the saying "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, dazzle them with BS." Lots of extraneous charts and pictures point to a presenter who's short on facts. That's not always the case, but it's certainly a good indication.

If the answer to this question is no, not really, or I'm not sure, your presentation is suspect. Make sure each picture, chart, and diagram illustrates a key point in your discussion.

3: Can everyone read each slide?

The wrong font face and size can wreck a great presentation. Choose fonts and size for readability, not artistic flair or appeal. Every member of your audience should be able to read each slide, regardless of proximity to the screen. Color, contrast, and lighting are also part of this package.

If the answer to this question is no, your presentation is lame but can be easily fixed. Use easy-to-read fonts (avoid fancy or specialty fonts unless they support your message in some way) that are large enough to read, but not overwhelming. Keep the number of fonts to a minimum; two or three is enough.

4: Does your design theme support your topic?

When creating a design or choosing a template, it's easy to rely on colors and attributes that please you — but don't. The theme should support the topic in some way. For example, a beige and brown color theme might make a great choice for a hardware convention, but it probably isn't the best choice for a presentation on native wildflowers.

If you gave little consideration to the design theme, your presentation is probably lame. Look for a theme that supports the topic. A business presentation should be clean and sharp, while a presentation hawking a vacation timeshare might be colorful with lots of graphics.

5: You have how many slides?

There's no formula for determining the right number of slides. Your topic's complexity supersedes any rule you might try to apply. If you need a starting point, don't display more than one slide for each 30 seconds of discussion. But to be honest, that's still more slides than the average presentation needs. In contrast, you might get three minutes of discussion from a single slide. That's a wide range — 30 seconds to three minutes, but it's a place to start.

If you have more than 60 or fewer than 10 slides for a 30-minute presentation, your presentation is somewhat lame. Now, the truth is, your presentation might be perfect as is. Try to represent each main point with at least one slide, because ideas are more important than aiming for an enigmatic number.

6: Is everything animated?

Good animation engages your audience and keeps their attention. But animation abuse will distract your audience — they'll be watching for the next clever trick instead of listening to you. Where animation is concerned, less is definitely more.

If this answer is yes, your presentation is pretty lame. If you add an animation because you think this is cool, where can I put it, get rid of it. Animations worth keeping are those you purposely seek out to make a specific point. Transitions are animations too; use the same transition scheme throughout the presentation unless you have a specific reason to deviate.

7: Do you read to the slides?

Don't watch your own presentation! You should face your audience and talk with them, making eye contact if possible. You already should know what's on your slides. You don't need to watch them go by.

If the answer to this one is yes, your presentation skills are lame. You might have a great set of slides, but your delivery needs work.

8: Do you read from the slides?

If you're reading each slide, you are unnecessary. Your audience can read the slides to themselves. Presenters who read from slides are boring and ineffective — remember you college economics professor? You are the presentation and the slides should support you.

If your answer to this question is yes, your presentation is extremely lame. Slides should be a visual aid to your discussion, not a book you read to the audience. Use slides to summarize or simplify your key points. Have a conversation with the audience and leave the slides for interesting and important details. You have a lot of work to get this presentation into shape!

9: Is your audience uncontrollably noisy or suspiciously quiet?

A noisy audience can be a good sign. It's great if the audience is showing enthusiasm by commenting or asking questions. It's bad if they're snoring or breaking into clutches to discuss the stale Danish you provided. On the other hand, you might think a quiet audience is a good sign — they're riveted! At least, you might think so until you turn on the lights and find them all snoozing.

If your answer to this one is yes, you have a hopelessly lame presentation. An inattentive audience is a clear sign that you should turn in your clicker.

10: Do you know your presentation's purpose?

Are you creating a professional presentation for a client or for an in-house sales meeting or are you trying to sell vacation timeshares? Who is the audience: the public, your accounting staff, or a potential client? You must know the presentation's specific purpose and your audience. You should be able to write a short mission-type statement clarifying the presentation's purpose and audience before you generate your first slide.

If the answer to this question is no, your presentation is hopelessly lame. Why did you even bother? Without a specific focus, you'll be as interesting as the adults in the Peanuts cartoons... wah, wah, wah.

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Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

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