After Hours

10 things you can do to make your presentations more effective


To advance and succeed in your career, you need more than just technical skills. You also need to be able to present your ideas clearly and persuasively. Here are some suggestions that may help you in that regard. They assume you are in front of a group, using the ubiquitous PowerPoint and a projector. However, the principles generally apply regardless of your actual type of delivery.

 Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Channel your nervousness

You've probably heard of that survey, right? The one that said most people fear public speaking more than they fear dying? Nervousness grips nearly every speaker, regardless of the topic or the size of the audience. In fact, there's probably something wrong with a speaker who fails to experience nervousness. The trick is to avoid having the nervousness paralyze you. Rather, channel it productively, allowing it to energize you and your presentation.

#2: Know the material

The best way to control that nervousness is to know your material. All of the other tips in the world are useless if you're unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the material you're presenting. I'll talk later about how you should interact with the slides themselves. For now, I'll just say that the more you know and care about your material, the more effective your presentation will be. If you're talking about a product, how often have you used it -- and what gotchas can you share? In other words, what can you offer beyond what people can Google for themselves?

Knowing the material doesn't mean memorizing a presentation. Audiences will recognize memorization, and it will turn them off.

If you really know your material, you can be free of the lectern and be directly in front of your audience. Your presentation will have more life, and your audience will appreciate it more.

#3: Organize the material

Public speakers have an adage:

  • Tell ‘em what you're gonna tell ‘em.
  • Tell ‘em.
  • Tell ‘em what you told ‘em.

In other words, a good presentation has an opening, a body, and a conclusion.

The effectiveness of your opening can determine the success of your presentation. You want to capture your audience's attention and draw them into your presentation. For example, when I do my talks on customer service and communications, I ask the audience for examples of times they, as customers, have been annoyed or upset. Other effective openings employ humor (see below), a quotation (a good reference is Bartlett's Familiar Quotations), or a hypothetical situation to stimulate or even scare the audience. (For example,. "Suppose you arrived at work and the CEO confronted you, saying the data for the entire company was gone. How would you react and how could you prevent such a situation?")

In the body of your presentation, make sure you cover the points you allude to in your opening. Finally, conclude your presentation with a summary of what you said. Make sure your material makes logical sense and that it flows smoothly from one topic to the next.

When preparing your slides, remember the "six-six" rule: A maximum of six words per line and a maximum of six lines per slide.

#4: Make contact with the audience

Many guides on presentations advise the speaker to look attendees in the eye. This advice, while well-intentioned, can cause distraction for a speaker. A better technique, I have found, is to look not into their eyes but at the bridges of their nose. When I do so, I'm less likely to be distracted, but it still looks like I'm looking at their eyes.

The worst option is to avoid all eye contact at all. Your talk will fail to connect, and your audience will feel excluded.

#5: Consider using a wireless mouse or pointer

I have found the wireless device is the best option for advancing your slides. None of the other alternatives work as well. Moving forward to press the Enter key manually takes time and distracts the audience. Relying on an assistant to do so requires good communications with that person and carries the possibility of a missed cue. Setting timings in the slide show to advance slides automatically limits your spontaneity.

I once delivered a presentation using my wireless mouse and later got a complaint that its red light distracted an attendee. Since then, I've made sure either to cover that light with my hand or else to tape it up.

#6: Empty your pockets

Before I deliver a presentation, I clear my pockets of any loose coins and my keys. That way, there's nothing to jingle or otherwise make noise. Just remember to put them back when you're finished.

#7: Properly handle questions from the audience

If you take a question from the audience, first repeat it so everyone can hear. Then, thank the questioner and answer the question. Finally, follow up to make sure you answered the question. Repeating the question first helps put your answer into context. Thanking the questioner allows you to gracefully "cut away" from him or her, so that you're talking to the whole audience.

If you sense that the answer will take longer than a few moments, offer to speak with the questioner after the session.

#8: Avoid looking at the screen

The audience wants to see your face, not the back or side of your head. Looking at the screen while you're talking breaks eye contact, and makes the audience feel disconnected.

"But wait," you say, "How else can I know what my audience is seeing unless I too look at the screen?" Position equipment in the following sequence: screen / you (the presenter) / laptop computer and LCD projector / audience. Now, set your laptop for dual display, that is, so that images go BOTH to the LCD projector AND to your laptop. With this setup, you no longer need to look at the screen, because you will see the same display on your laptop.

#9: Embellish, don't read

My wife teaches English at a local college, and a few years ago I attended an academic conference with her. Looking back at the one session I attended, I would have preferred root canal surgery. Each participant (there were four or five on the panel) handed out his or her paper before the session started. They then proceeded, in sequence, to read their paper verbatim.

Don't insult your audience. They can read your slides themselves. What they want is your added value. So when you present, embellish the slides with your own comments and insight. Don't just read the slides yourself.

#10: Use humor effectively

Humor, when used correctly, can break tension for both you and the audience and can help them connect with you. You don't need to be a Rodney Dangerfield. People generally aren't expecting humor, and they aren't expecting a professional stand-up comic, so your chances of making humor work are greater.

A great book that can help in this area is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Boardroom: Using Humor in Business Speaking, by Michael Iapoce. He talks about various aspects of humor, how and why humor works, and how a good joke should be structured.

My preferred form of humor is to make fun of myself. Once, I was doing a presentation right before one by Scott Waddle, the former commander of the submarine U.S.S. Greeneville, which struck and sank a Japanese fishing boat in 2001. The first thing I asked the audience was, "Who's looking forward to hearing Commander Waddle?" As expected, the entire room raised their hands. "In other words," I continued, "You can't wait for me to finish."


About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

9 comments
wrlang
wrlang

Along the lines of knowing your audience, you also need to understand what your audience wants from the presentation. I go to several conferences each year and I always need to make choices between simultaneous sessions I want to go to. Most of these presentations are to disseminate information, not entertain, persuade, or debate. The meat of the presentation must be contained on the slides and be understandable without the presenter. This will allow those that could not attend or those that need to come back to the presentation months later to make use of it. Embellishments should be examples to support the actual information on the slides. Too many times presentations are about presenting and not about the actual information. As an audience member, I really don't care about most of these tips as long as there is useful information on the slides. Stiff and boring presentations are just part of life. A really horrible presentation to me is one where I have to constantly take notes. Once, a speaker had three slides with three words on each slide for a 45 minute presentation. Everything meaningful came out of his mouth. He had to stay around for another 30 minutes after the presentation so people could get repeats of what he said. A terrible waste of time for everyone, but he thought it was great because he had so many questions. As someone else already stated, surveying the audience is one of the more useful ways to keep the audience interested. Just make sure that responding wouldn't be embarrassing. How many of those in the audience have a generator for a power outage? Not ??? How many of those in the audience failed to prepare for power outages with a generator?

squonk
squonk

The most important thing regarding presentations is knowing your audience. If you know the material but are not able to relate it to your audience you have failed as a presenter. A good example of this is trying to teach someone about an application but they don't have basic PC skills - I've run into this many times training and it takes more than presenting skills. Know your audience as well as what you're presenting.

unhappyuser
unhappyuser

I used to feel that I needed to read exactly what I had written. It took me a LONG time to relaize that it's okay to not read it verbatim. I'm wondering if that's something we were all taught in school? Good article. EMD

rajeevcapricorn
rajeevcapricorn

Very useful, practical tips indeed. There could be many ways of engaging the audience - like use of humor or a controlled participatory approach (keeping some questions for the audience as a means to bring out your point). What maters the most though,in my experience, is for genuine enthusiasm/passion on part of presenter to share what one is presenting.

GreyTech
GreyTech

Connecting with the audience is the most important thing. #11. Find 3 people in the audience to talk to, one near the front who is alert and interested, one in the middle who is knowledgeable and one at the back who is likely to doze off. Keep all three of them on side and you will keep the whole audience with you. Change the three every 10 or 15 minutes. When I first gave a presentation to a large audience (about 400) in the early 70s I was very nervous and had done lots of preparation, aid-memoir cards, 2 carousels of technical slides and an assistant to standby the projector in case of failure (spare projector at hand). I used the cards for about the first 4 slides then just used the slides as my guide. This went well for the first 45 minutes and first carousel when I turned to the chairman to say I had finished and he said no you have reached half way. Whereupon I picked up the cards and dropped them on the floor saying "They weren't much use were they" and continued for the next 45 minutes. From that day until now I have always used #11 and always done my preparation without a script or aid-memoir cards. Knowledge of your subject is the key, plus enthusiasm for it helps get your message across but proper preparation of your slides and rehearsal will keep you out of trouble. I did a presentation today without all the preparation rehearsed and it screwed up. OK I have the experience to get by but it made me look amateurish. Next week no short cuts, even if it means a late night.

bethg7
bethg7

Boy, for me #8 is the most important point. I can't begin to tell you how many presentations I have been to where the "speaker" simply read what was on the slides! Great article.

michael.cutler
michael.cutler

#11 - Let your audience know you are ready to present. This was shown to me by an experienced speaker. Go to the from to the audience, fuss with something for a second or two, then take your stance, one foot sightly in front of the other, feet about shoulder width. Then clasp your hands, pause and begin your presentation. The fiddling give the audience time to settle, and you then have time to show that you are ready to go. Simple and effective, I've had rooms of 100 people quiet down to silent from a dull roar in those few seconds.

Bill Owen
Bill Owen

Good tips. I agree one of the worst things is to read from your slides. Anyone wants to see the best watch Gore! The other thing I tell people (I am biased of course as I do presentations professionally, is to use a pro to actually design their presentation. Sorry but most people have no clue. They use every transition in the book, they put text on the screen in 12 pitch, they mix up their fonts and font colours, they have stuff flying all over the screen, and their page is filled to the brim with no white space. Or they import a 12 megabyte image without reducing the file size and then wonder why their pages take so long to appear. I have seen it all. In my whole life I have seen just a handful of truly good presentations. It is getting better though, as people become more comfortable with the tools and better educated. My company, eyestir does a lot of work with people who have a presentation but want us to make it better. Usually they are so bad we have to redo them from scratch. A government manager + PowerPoint = disaster. Get some help, that's my advice.

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