The key to a successful presentation is knowledge and preparation, not your message. Now, your message is the most important thing to you, but your delivery is more important to your audience. For a glitch-free presentation, I recommend that you spend more time on your delivery than on your slides. In this article, I'll share some practical, nontechnical tips that will help guarantee the success of your next presentation.
A PDF version of this article is available here.
1: Deliver your message with conviction
The only way to come out on top when everything else fails is to be a competent user of your presentation software and to know your subject backward and forward. When everything else goes wrong, your audience will still admire you if you walk forward with confidence, pull that rabbit out of your hat, and carry on with the presentation. No one will care about the technology that didn't work; they will remember that you saved the event.
It's easier said than done, but the confidence that comes with knowing your subject will outshine the worst glitches. No technology can replace you, the presenter.
2: Practice, practice, practice
Knowing how to deliver your message is just as important as knowing the message itself. Practice helps you stay on track. Practice allows you to adapt by adding or eliminating content on the fly. Practice helps you deal with the unexpected, but you'll be the only one to know; your audience will be none the wiser.
Know your content so well that you can maintain eye contact with your audience instead of reading from your slides (although a quick glance is okay). Connect to your audience, and they'll remember your message. Most of us can't wing a presentation; if you think you can, you're probably wrong—ask your audience the next time out.
If you're using PowerPoint, its Rehearse Timings feature, in the Setup group on the Slide Show tab, is invaluable. When you think you're ready, employ a few co-workers to listen and critique your skills. In lieu of human beings, videotape yourself and watch it critically and honestly.
3: Enlist another pair of eyes
Have someone else edit your presnetation, because eidting your own work is difficult. It's a psychiological fact. The mistakes in that sentence jump out at you because you didn't write it!
When editing your own work, your mind knows what you meant to write, so it glosses over mistakes and reads what you intended to write instead of what you actually wrote. It's a difficult phenomenon to beat. If you don't have another person to help out, read 10+ ways to improve your writing by self-editing.
4: Use speaker notes
Speaker notes are a great way to stay on track. Put your key ideas, statistics, and facts in the speaker notes pane and refer to them as needed during your presentation. Speaker notes allow you to be a bit more flexible with your group by stopping for questions and other short discussions and having the details at hand that someone might ask for but that you hadn't planned on discussing. You can't remember everything—well... I can't!
5: Know the equipment and location
When using your own equipment, this is easy. If not, take the time well before the presentation to verify that everything you need is available and working as expected. Also, familiarize yourself with the site's layout. Is the location easy to find and accessible to the public and handicapped? Where are the electrical outlets and switches?
Ask for the Wi-Fi password and have that ready to go beforehand. What will you do if they don't have Wi-Fi? (I can't even imagine.) Are you depending on a projector and screen or a smart TV? You might want to pack an extension cord, a power strip, and a roll of duct tape (seriously). If the room is big, do you need a way to amplify your voice or any sound files in your presentation? Pack a bottle or two of water.
Be sure to pack batteries for your wireless mouse and clicker. If you're using PowerPoint and the worst happens, you can replace your clicker with the laser pointer. Simply hold down the Ctrl key and click the left mouse key to enable it. This will be a bit more work than a clicker, but it's better than nothing. Knowing simple details like this can save the day.
6: Carry a copy of your presentation
Your presentation is on your laptop—what could happen? Well... what if your laptop refuses to boot? Perhaps the battery's dead or the fan's fried. These things don't happen often, but they do happen. Always carry a copy of your presentation on a flash drive and be ready to commandeer another laptop. A copy on OneDrive or your SharePoint site isn't good enough either; wireless adapters go bad.
This tip sounds like overkill, so let me digress for a moment. Years ago, my military husband took a raincoat to the desert. It started to pour as he and a general were leaving. My husband handed the general his raincoat and the general said, "Harkins, you're the only man I know who would bring a raincoat to the desert." Have I made my point?
7: Check that nothing's missing
If you're working with a new laptop or you recently upgraded your OS or presentation software, run through your presentation at least once to make sure everything you need is installed and ready to go. Learning you need to download a driver or reset a default setting in front of your audience isn't the way to impress them.
8: Make sure any live response slides will work
Live response systems allow you to interact with your audience by soliciting their thoughts in real time. Usually, the site will provide individual clickers or members of your audience may use their own mobile devices to respond to your questions and then view the compiled results in your presentation—live, as it's happening.
It's engaging and a lot of fun, until a piece of the puzzle goes missing. Don't plan a live response slide unless you're in complete control of the location and equipment.
9: Be proactive about comfort and accessibility
Know where all the entrances, exits, and restrooms are. Your audience will ask and you should know. Arrive early and check that there's adequate seating, the temperature is comfortable, and the lighting is adequate. For an in-depth look at disability awareness, read 10 tips for making a presentation more accessible to those with disabilities.
If attendance is still up in the air, consider taping off back rows to encourage people to sit close to the front. Remove the tape to open the back rows if necessary.
10: Stay cool
If you can stay calm and keep going when something unplanned happens, your audience might never know anything is amiss. For instance, if a slide is out of place, don't tell the audience unless you have no choice. It may sound innocent enough to you, but, "How did that slide get there? That's not the next slide!" is distracting to your audience. If your Wi-Fi connection slows down, just pause for a second or two. You don't have to draw your audience's attention to it. They won't notice, and an occasional pause allows everyone a second to absorb what they've learned.
For those impossible moments, be prepared with an out—an off-the-cuff anecdote or an impromptu question-and-answer break can fill a void until the problem is resolved (by someone else). Knowing what you'll do beforehand is key, so you can slide right into it without causing any confusion for your audience. The audience wants you to succeed, and they'll cooperate if you remain calm and in control.
Remember, you hope to inform your audience, but you must be a bit of an entertainer to pull it off well. It's okay to make jokes if all else fails.
11: Optimize the last 30 seconds
You really wowed them and your short Q&A session went great. Then you said, "So that's it folks; have a good day!" or, "Thank you for attending today; please stop over and buy my product."
You've never done that, have you?
After your Q&A, regain control for that last minute with a short but encouraging tip, summary, relevant quote, or creative call to action. In fact, it's okay to articulate your message or mission at this point. If you're selling something, this isn't the time for a pitch; your presentation was the pitch.
The truth is, perception matters more than your message. That's a tad cynical, but true. If your presentation skills—body language, articulation, eye contact—are good, your audience will leave happy and well informed. I recommend that you spend less time working on your slides and more time on presenting your message. Your audience will forgive a mistake or two; they won't be as forgiving if you bore them or make them uncomfortable by exposing your own incompetence. Knowing your message and how to share that message will make the difference between mediocrity and a great presentation.
Send me your question about Office
I answer readers' questions when I can, but there's no guarantee. Don't send files unless requested; initial requests for help that arrive with attached files will be deleted unread. You can send screenshots of your data to help clarify your question. When contacting me, be as specific as possible. For example, "Please troubleshoot my workbook and fix what's wrong" probably won't get a response, but "Can you tell me why this formula isn't returning the expected results?" might. Please mention the app and version that you're using. I'm not reimbursed by TechRepublic for my time or expertise when helping readers, nor do I ask for a fee from readers I help. You can contact me at email@example.com.
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.