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How I Made My Presentations a Little Better

Since my Google Tech Talk (previously) caught fire last month (it's gotten over 100,000 views so far), I've been receiving a lot of really nice email, comments, and questions about how I put my presentations together. I'm happy to oblige.

First, of course, please understand that I don't pretend to be any kind of expert about this stuff -- I'm barely even a student. I've cobbled together whatever I have right now based mostly on the work of much smarter and more talented people, so I'm not claiming to have invented any of this stuff. I've been fortunate to finally start figuring out the right mix of visuals and presentation style that (I hope) works for my personality and what I have to say.

Anyhow, here's what I've been learning so far, starting with the giants on whose shoulders I'd love to stand.

Presentation Zen

I'll confess that I giggled like a schoolgirl when Garr Reynolds said he was featuring my Google Talk on his site today. Especially since I've studied his own slides, posts, and links for months now, and have stolen liberally from what I learned there. Thanks, Garr. I'm totally honored.

I love that Garr gets how the slides in your presentation are about visual story-telling that complements your presence and speaking. They are not a script to be acted-out, or a book to be printed and read aloud, word for word.

Some of my favorite links on his site led me to learning more about Guy Kawasaki's approach and to seeing the power in the simplicity of "the Takahashi Method".

Again: all inspiring stuff, even if you don't precisely emulate or follow every tip on the site.

Beyond Bullet Points

I learned about this book from Matt Haughey, and I agree with Matt that the premise of the book is just invaluable.

While you will get most of the (often-re-re-repeated) gist quickly, the message of Cliff Atkinson's book is worth tattooing on your forehead: "Tell a story that makes the audience into the protagonist, then demonstrate how your approach to solving their problem will help them win in the end." (Paraphrasing, but I think that's pretty close)

Also, suck up your pride, and make yourself fill out Cliff's Word template (available here) for telling your story. Even if you don't use it as the basis for your final presentation, you might find the experience more useful than any other single thing you do to improve your show. Helped mine a lot.

Guy Kawasaki's 10-20-30 Rule

Although I don't always follow Guy's rule, it's always in the back of my mind. So much so, that, in my opinion, if you're really struggling with your visuals, it's worth making "10-20-30" a rule that you break only with mindful and deliberate care. At least until you're more comfortable with what you want to say, and how you want to say it, hew to Guy's party line:

It’s quite simple: a PowerPoint presentation should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points.

Get in, get out, and don't make people squint. Awesome.


I love the look of a very simple graphic alongside a very few words. It's something Steve Jobs does really well, and it's a look I wanted to steal.

iStockPhoto is my favorite resource for finding inexpensive images to license for presentations. Their search engine is swell, and their lightboxes make it easy to snag interesting images and save them for potential use in the future (which I recommend you do as you browse on each visit -- regardless of the specific preso you're there to shop for).

43F: Your best tip on doing presentations

The response from readers on this thread was amazing, and it taught me a dozen great techniques and tricks that I'm trying to put into use every time I prepare to speak now.

What I've (finally) learned about presenting

I'm still pretty C+ at this stuff, myself, and free advice is worth what you paid for it, but here's my favorite things I've learned about actually getting up there, in front of a crowd of warm bodies.

Do a cold open

Metaphorically: clear your throat as little as possible when you start. Try to open with something in the real world -- an anecdote, a memory, an image, something that grounds your talk in the "right now" and that skips the whole "Here are the nine things you will learn today..." jibber jabber. You can always do an introduction second, once you've set the tone and gotten people's interest.

Work the notes field

I capture the 2-4 mini-points I want to hit in each slide's Notes field (Can I just mention? I love Keynote!). I make the type ginormous and start each line with 1-2 ALLCAPS words that are a glance-able cue for the point to make. I can riff and boogie all I want, then know where I need to land to keep things moving in the way I want.

Think: "Stephen Colbert"

You know how Stephen Colbert does "The Wørd?" He directly addresses the audience while "slides" appear next to his head acting as a kind of Greek chorus. He not only doesn't acknowledge the slides -- they often contradict exactly what he is saying. (This is what makes this -- as we say in the business -- "funny")

I'm not suggesting your slides should undermine you, but consider sometimes showing images and text that make an orthogonal point to what you're saying aloud to the audience at that moment. Let them discover the point (or the joke) without you leaning on it.

Let the slide serve your message, rather than letting you (and your personality and timing) be governed by the slide. That's 'death,' and that's "The Wørd."

Finish early

Man, I've always been terrible at this, and it turns out it's about the rudest thing you can do.

Running long not only says you weren't properly prepared for the time you were allotted, it leaves no time for the best part of every presentation for me: the Q&A. I love interacting with the audience and getting a chance to apply all that hand-waving to real-world questions.

There's tons more for me to learn, but it's already been a lot of fun to take this information and test it on the road.

It's an exhilarating experience to get to talk to people about something that genuinely excites you. I believe that finding a way to get them excited, too, is essentially what this stuff is all about.

Rebecca Ryan's picture

I love it when big...

I love it when big brains get together: Merlin + Garr = a simpler, more visually appealing world where stuff gets done!

Regarding Stephen's question: WHAT TO DO WITH TWO HOURS...

First, who planned this? Either the meeting planner was lazy and is relying on one speaker to carry their conference, or she/he simply doesn't understand - or care about - how adults learn. A good rule of thumb is that your audience can sit still for the number of minutes equal to their age, e.g. if the average age of your audience is 35, they'll remain in their chairs for 35 minutes before the shifting begins.

When I have to speak for two hours, I think of it like building a Layer Cake of You-Audience-You-Audience. Most presentations (less than 2 hours) have two layers: the speaker talks and audience asks Q&A. With two hours, you have to build more layers.

  1. Start with a 5-10 minute intro of WHY you're there, a personal or favorite story to reinforce why the topic matters, and (if it makes sense) your first main idea;

[Total time elapsed: 10 minutes]

  1. Give the audience a chance to share their WHY and/or to respond to your first idea. This gives the audience an early opportunity to buy into your presentation and your time together.

For example, I talk a lot about how to engage the next generation, and I ask my audience to talk to each other about their last 'generational moment,' a time when they had an interaction with someone from a different generation (at work, at home, etc) and walked away thinking, "Man, are we different!"

When you feel the energy of the room start to come down, e.g. the volume decreases, go to the next step;

[Total time elapsed: 20-30 minutes]

  1. Bring their attention back, and solicit a couple of the most surprising/funny stories they shared with each other. Your goal is to widen their shared sense of why they're all in attendance, and to develop a few 'call backs' for later in your presentation. A 'call back' is what stand-up comedians often do...their last joke will 'call back' to a previous joke or story in their act. You want to be able to 'call back' to something your audience said, "Remember when Joe said earlier that his kid text messaged him to ask what was for dinner, instead of just coming down to the kitchen and asking? That's exactly the kind of 'digital divide' I'm talking about here..."

[Total time elapsed: 30-40 minutes]

  1. The Meat and Potatoes of why you're there. Here, you share your best stuff. The Beyond Bullet Points document works well, and I also recommend (and use) the Presentation Zen style for slides (high visual, low text) to reinforce your spoken words with a visual message. HINT: As you're designing this section, if you wonder whether something fits here as 'your best stuff,' leave it out. You'll have PLENTY of time for Q&A, and if it's relevant, it will be asked...

[Total time elapsed: 60-75 minutes]

  1. More audience interaction. I think there are two directions to go here: 1. Individual learning (self-tests, checklists, etc.) and 2. Group learning. You need to pick the one that works best for your content. If your topic is highly technical, you may want to provide a trouble-shooting questionnaire, to help your audience diagnose where they could improve. If the topic is less technical, you can facilitate a larger discussion with questions like:
    • What surprised you about this information?
    • What shifted for you?
    • What wasn't said that should've been said?
    • What do you need to know more about (a great seque to Q&A)

Even with the smallest groups, this part can last at least 15 minutes. If you also invite the audience to response to each others' questions, e.g. "Who else has an experience with this issue that they'd like to share?" it can comfortably go to 30 minutes.

[Total time elapsed: 75-105 minutes]

  1. Q&A. Here, you're allowing the audience to ask you specific questions about your expertise and/or their specific situations. Do not let one person dominate this segment. A good rule of thumb is that for an entire audience to feel 'heard' by a speaker, ten percent of them must have an opportunity to interact or ask a question. So you've got to efficiently deal with each person's question, and keep the conversation flowing. If your response will take more than one minute, offer to follow up individually at the break. If you don't know, admit it, and ask the participants if they have experience with the issue.

[Total time elapsed: 90-100 minutes]

  1. Your big finish. Always, ALWAYS keep something for the end. This might be Three Things to Remember. I sometimes use the "ACE" acronym: one thing to Add, one thing to Change, one thing to Eliminate. You can also end with a big closing story that leaves them on a high note, or with a provocative idea.

[Total time elapsed: 105-120 minutes]

Other tips: 1. The number one request speakers receive (if they have a good deck) is, "Can I get a copy of your deck?" Save yourself time and headaches: Do NOT make handouts of your powerpoint to distribute at your presentation. Instead: (1) create an annotated slide deck (see presentationzen.com for more about that); (2) save it as a PDF, and (3) Either give it to the meeting planner and let them duplicate it for everyone OR put it on your blogsite or website, and show participants how to download it there.

  1. Some professional speakers say you should never thank your audience. I think that's BS. Peoples' time is extremely valuable, and speakers need to show respect. It's also a good signal to people that you're done. ;)

  2. "Know your audience." You can ask the meeting planner to fill out a short questionnaire about the audience, e.g. What do they read, what do they worry about at work, what are their accountabilities, are they married, kids, average age, what are the 'hot potato' issues that everyone's nervous about right now, etc. If you want to go lower tech, spend a few minutes either talking with people before your presentation (Why are you here? What are you hoping to get from today?) or do some quick "Raise your hand if..." questions at the top of the presentation.





An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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