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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.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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