art of presenting

delivering good and interesting presentation is usually challenge people talk about a lot. and that doesn’t even account for sessions in your native or foreign language. presentation, or put in other way - communication between you and other people (one, two, thousand) can trigger sleepless nights and fear often balooning to irrational size (USA surveys show that fear of public speaking is put on the first place, before insects and - watch this - death itself!).

as you can read and see on this page, i do deliver presentations (and workshops) very often. more often that you can see here, actually, as i do most of my sessions for Partners and Customers and that material is not usually published here. i also myself saw a lot of presentations - so what advice can i give to people preparing for presentations?

get ready

i mean it. there’s nothing worse than trying to deliver presentation and coming in unprepared. if you’re talking to one person for 30 minutes, you just wasted 30 minutes for that person and 30 minutes of your life. talking to 300 people - you just wasted 150 “man-hours” and potentially - alienating yourself to some of them.

the most important point here, is once you have choosen subject of your session - you have to know it inside out.

most hardcore clueless presenters can deliver totally wrong presentations filled with bogus “facts”, and give wrong answers to questions from the room. some can withstand people standing in and leaving their session without loosing a beat. don’t be such person :)

if there will be questions you don’t have answer for (and there will be!) - promise politely to find an answer and deliver on that promise. sometimes, you’ll see questions coming just to test you (and often from people that may know way more than you, but not always).

sad reality is, that we still have situations where there’s some kind of silent battle between presenter and audience. some people will have a problem with the fact that you’re speaking on this event, and not they. some, will assume it’s their duty to show everyone that you don’t have a clue. if that’s second or third question from the same person - state nicely that you’ll answer all questions at the end of the session to avoid running late or ending before whole presentation. all things aside - you’re controlling the session flow, and you need to take responsibility for delivering content other people in the room are waiting for, or expected to get. in some cases, in this way you can also avoid giving wrong answers publicly ;)

talk to people

one of the most frequent error for people doing public speaking for the first or second time, is that they’re facing floor, wall or ceiling. i once saw presentation that was delivered almost exclusively with presenter showing his back to audience. if you have problem with people staring in your eyes or don’t feel confident that you’ll be able to concentrate while looking at people faces, there are ways to avoid doing exactly that. overall, you don’t want to be ridiculed because you were “not present” during your delivery - you were just shy or not feeling good in front of audience.

while preparing the room and your content, please remember that it should be your territory and you should own them, not vice versa. you were chosen as being more competent than the others to deliver the story. and don’t worry about story or content so much - sure, a lot of people may have a good idea about it, but still - this will be your unique way of telling that. it may be hard to imagine, but people do attend sessions not only because they’re bored and have nothing else to do :)

the trick is very simple - look just slightly over the people heads, to the wall on the other side of the room. in most of the rooms it will be actually hard to see to what exactly you’re looking at, but people sitting in the audience will believe you’re just looking at somebody behind them. and you don’t have to be nervous about catching somebody yawning, smiling or doing other things.

looking directly eye to eye triggers our instict - aggressive behavior, or assumption of aggressive intent. it’s natural to want to avoid that, but you don’t have to. it’s just a matter of practicing your skills.

and you actually should look for opportunities to gracefully set eyes on people from time to time. it’s way to make a point, show that you do care about every one of them. and it’s nice trick to keep constant attention, as people sitting there would see that at some point in presentation, you’ll be talking ‘directly’ to them - which should be received as a reward not punishment (so try to make it this way). if you’ll stare too intently or too long (“why this guy is staring at me constantly?") this can backfire, but once done correctly - helps you in delivering the message.

the other thing to have in mind is you need to talk in a way people will be able to understand. use simple wording, and don’t read the slides (DON’T). people will read them anyway, and they’ll do much faster than you. if all you have to say is just read the slides, just send them over email to everyone, publish them somewhere - don’t waste everyones time.

slides are only good background

if you use different fonts, colors, a lot of pictures, drawings, charts and more than 5-8 lines of text - you’re doing this wrong (you can get lost yourself pretty easily as well). having control over what you were saying moment ago, what you’re saying now, and what you’ll say in a moment is as much important as keeping slides readable and illustrative. people will loose focus if slides are incomprehensible and unreadable mess, even if you’re telling interesting story. or even worse - they’ll completely ignore your voice as they’ll try to decipher what’s on the slide.

not enough color difference between letters and background, completely wrong colors, background with shapes - those are another big no-nos. Microsoft PowerPoint, OpenOffice Impress and Apple Keynote have templates you can use if you don’t have corporate ones. and they’re pretty good. also, please remember that if you’re doing session about something other than being photograph, computer graphics or painting - filling your slides with backgrounds coming from services like flickr, deviantart and others is not best idea (unless those photos will be only content following your narrative - then it’s completely other story). in the best case, all you’ll get after your session is question where one can download such nice pictures and that’s all. in the worst case - you’ll be lost looking for specific information on your own slides.

please also remember, than people tend to remember around 45% of information from 20 minute session, and only 20% from 45 minute one. be laser-focused on session subject and purpose.

control yourself

you’re autopresenting yourself before presenting anything else. people will look at you, how you stand, walk, gesticulate and behave. if you have problem with hands - get microphone to one and marker or pointer to the other one. don’t push stuff into your pockets and play with it during your session, don’t pick your nose, and don’t put your hand behind your shirt - Napoleon died long time ago.

don’t cross beamer path and try to be always visible to people. walking through whole room length will be a problem for people in first rows (however this may not always be a hard rule, sometimes walking into crowd makes a good impression). walking step forward and back (you got me) constantly is also bad sign (you’re not controlling yourself and your legs). remember - it is your brain that controls your body, not the other way around. and breathe :)

one of the other interesting tricks to calm yourself and at the same time get back people attention is to stop talking, do a pause (in a moment where it makes sense of course, not in a middle of word - you’re doing this on purpuse, not having a stroke!). this is also useful if you see people talking (and disturbing others and possibly you) or starting to fall asleep. other optio (which can be mixed with previous one) is to walk to table, pour yourself a water and take one or two sips. this focuses everyone attention in a very powerful way, and gives you space and time to calm yourself (and potentially - save your throat).

jokes and other unconventional behaviors

good joke will build warm relationship with your audience and make you more interesting for them. you’ll immediately feel relaxed if you see that kind of reaction. bad one will destroy your presentation and your self confidence.

remember that you should keep away from jokes about politics, religion, cultural, racial and sexual minorities. you never know who’s sitting there in the audience, and may find your “great idea” offensive or scandalous. this extends to different cartoons, memes and other pictures on the slides. please think about such things at least twice. some presentation gurus advice to avoid them at all. you’ll never know what kind of recent events just happened before or during your presentation and such thing can easily kill the whole engagement.

and there are also ‘stories’. they sometimes help you jump between topics, better understand why something turned out in a specific way or just relax everyone. if it won’t be told in interesting way, will be boring or offensive - again, it will break bond between you and the rest.

on the other side, if you’re really comfortable and sure, simple act of delivering presentation can be extended to other forms of communication. i saw presenters jumping over first-row tables (because room was very low with no existing speaker system). i saw people singing, just to build proper association or remind people of a specific movie, character or fact from history. i never sang myself (apart from trainings) and people that know me know exactly why i shouldn’t jump on tables ;) keep remembering it’s your presentation, and you’re doing it for a reason.

things you should not tell or do

  • “i didn’t have time to prepare” - so why you agreed to deliver this session? you’re insulting audience and showing lack of respect
  • “this chart shows… well, give me one moment” - if there’s something on the slides you should know exactly what’s that and why it’s there; situations where presenter is interpreting slide on the fly and it can actually turn out to be contrary of initial idea can be funny, but believe me - people are laughing from you, not from the situation
  • “overaching drive to committing extensions for our proactive budget is overkill for our wellbeing in context of full perfomance in first and third week should give us recovery of big fall from previous fiscal” - WTF you’re talking about? if you’re talking nonsense, expect people to loose interest and please use normal language vs slang;
  • don’t ask open questions to audience of hundreds of people; you won’t get good answer and discussion may be derailed by comments, shouts and jokes from the room; if room is very big, give microphone to person asking question or repeat the question for everyone to hear
  • don’t overload your presentation with things you already know you won’t be able to deliver or have time for; it’s wise to have ‘reference’ slides as backup after main deck and you can share that as a offline bonus if your audience does care - but don’t build 386 slides for 45 minutes session
  • “hey, you, in third row - if you’re falling asleep go away” - negative comments and specially those targeted directly at your audience are obviously wrong idea; even half-joking comment may be wrongly received

things to say, do and care about

  • get there early, prepare your stuff and notes; if you’re doing presentation from your laptop - make sure you have all dongles and they work with this specific setup; make sure there’s fresh air in the room; if that’s possible, talk to technicians about specifics of room and equipment (maybe there’s poor coverage of microphone in specific part of the room, maybe they had a power outage recently and it can happen again - you’ll be better prepare for unexpected)
  • do a short and concise welcome - short; bragging about your expertise at this moment (and essentially, anytime) is bad idea and can immediately antagonise audience against you; let people receive you themselves and if they need to judge you - do it from your actions and not marketing; it’s better to positively suprise people, than fail miserably…
  • if you see that there are a lot of people suddenly looking curiously at you or at whatever you’re describing - make sure you explain whatever you’re talking again once more - it seems they lost you somewhere; or simply ask is everything clear
  • have fun - the better you feel, the better delivery you’ll do and better connection you’ll make with your audience; even when you won’t be able to name it - you’ll feel it

good luck!