How well I remember my first public presentation! It was at a national convention of broadcast engineers, circa 1990. Big meeting room, sparsely populated. Lights dimmed to favor the projection screen, leaving little light on the presenter. I did little more than narrate my slides. If there was a story in there anywhere, I can’t bring it to mind. The best that can be said of the results is that I grew from the experience and my audience graciously tolerated it. I’m sure they saw both better and worse presentations that day.
Don’t you want a better outcome than that the next time you give a presentation? I know I do! That’s why I eventually left broadcast engineering and went full-time into speaking and coaching. Now I am often asked, “How can I make my presentation better?” There are as many answers to that question as there are presentations on which to give feedback. Nevertheless, I have compiled ten of my most frequently used responses here. Embedded links will take you to related blog posts.
- Start your preparation with a clear idea of your specific purpose, by asking yourself, “What do I want my listeners to think, do, or feel differently when I am done?” Your purpose should never be “I have to present X information”—you can do that in a memo. What need does the audience have that will be affected by your information? If you’re not there to make a difference, you ought not to speak.
- If possible, don’t use PowerPoint at all. At the very least, don’t use it as your outline or speaking notes. Know your material well enough to give the presentation without slides. Put detailed information like charts and tables in a handout; they usually make incomprehensible slides anyway.
- Always write your speech first, then look for visuals to reinforce it. Most people work the other way around—slide deck first, then the speech—which is why most business presentations are awful.
- If you must use PowerPoint, keep it to a minimum. Only show an image or a key phrase (no more than six words) when it truly underscores your point and makes it more memorable. The rest of the time, darken the screen by inserting black slides (New slide->Format background->Solid fill->Black). Just because there is a screen doesn’t mean you’re obligated to fill it at all times.
- Especially shun slides with bullet points. The brain has only center for processing receptive language; therefore, if your audience is reading words on a slide, they cannot possibly listen to you at the same time.
- If you do use PowerPoint, put a black slide ahead of your title slide. That way the projector can already be on and ready the whole time you are waiting to start. No more making your audience wait while the projector warms up.
- Never confuse the visual aid with the presentation. YOU are the presentation: specifically, everything you do, say, or show the audience from the time you have their attention until the time you relinquish it. That includes your Q&A time as well as any time you spend fumbling over your technology. The room arrangement, lighting, etc., should all reflect your understanding of this fact.
- Facts tell; stories sell. To sell your information, no matter how compelling you think it is, there must be a story attached to it. (If it were that compelling on its own, everyone would just read the report, right?) Every audience member is silently asking you, “What’s in it for me? Why should I give you my attention?” Answer them with the story of how you learned the importance of your information—what difference it made to you.
- Never end with Q&A. You want your last words to have lasting impact. What kind of impact is there in, “Well, if there are no more questions…”? Instead, say, “Before I wrap up, I have time for a few short, specific questions. Who has the first one?” Then close with a final story that sums up the impact of your main points.
- Always repeat each question before answering it. This is a favor to anyone in the room who didn’t hear or understand the question, as well as a favor to yourself: it gives you more time to formulate a thoughtful response. (And it ensures that you and the questioner agree on what the question is.)
Which tip was most helpful to you? Please leave a comment.