Tips for Better Presentations
1. Practice – very few people are natural presenters so practicing helps. Try your presentation in front of the mirror, video yourself, ask your partner or colleague to listen and provide feedback to you. Try subjecting the dog to your best efforts!
2. The Message (1) - Be clear what the topic of the presentation is. Be very clear in your own mind what The Message is you are trying to convey. You may be travelling to the next room or across the world to give this talk so you want to make sure you maximise your chances of getting your Message across to every person in the audience. Everything you do should be designed to get your Message to them. If they miss the point then you have wasted your time and money and, more importantly, theirs too.
3. Know your stuff - Be familiar with your subject.
4. Structure - Make sure your presentation has a structure. About 10% of the total time for the introduction, 80% for the body of the talk and 10% for the conclusion. The introductory 10% should cover briefly your credentials and The Message. The 80% that comprises the body should cover the arguments that explain The Message. The Concluding 10% should draw together the arguments and prove that you have delivered The Message.
5. Keep It Simple – if it isn’t adding to The Message don’t say it.
You may really want to include some funny story or interesting data – but if it doesn’t add to The Message, leave it out.
6. Stick to time – there is only one thing worse than running over the next presenter’s session and that is being cut off by the organisers before you have delivered The Message. Practice to make sure you keep within the time limits given by the organisers. It is basic politeness to stick to the time allocated to you. Just think how you would feel (as I have) when the organisers tell you that you have 15 minutes for a presentation that you have timed to 40 minutes because the earlier presenters all went over time and lunch must start on time! You may not be thanked for staying on time but you may not be asked back if you overrun.
7. Question time - Even though you may be tempted to cram as much as possible into the time available, leaving time for questions can be useful. Perhaps your talk wasn't as clear as you thought! There may be people in the audience who want the opportunity to ask questions to clarify The Message and they may help others not so bold who would otherwise not have received The Message.
8. Credibility - Sometimes the person introducing you to the audience will give a short summary of your career or reasons why the audience should listen to you on this subject. If you are not well-known to the audience, it can be worth spending a few seconds describing your credentials and expertise on the subject.
9. The Message (2) - Early in the talk, make it clear why is it important they listen to you. What is The Message you are going to give them? What is the point of your talk? I have never been a fan of people who start their presentation by listing all the points they are going to cover. And then they go ahead and cover them – it seems such a waste of valuable time.
10. Speak without notes - If you can speak without notes or slides – fantastic – this is by far the best way to present, in my opinion. It allows freedom to be expressive with one's hands, it's more conversational and looks most natural. I have always admired speakers who, without notes, can make an argument weaving together 3, 4 or 5 separate facets and then come out at the other end and make their point. I am not good at putting forward an argument requiring several points to be made, holding the different points in my head, when under the pressure of a presentation. Therefore, I nearly always use notes in one form or another.
11. Slides/Bullet points - Next to no notes, the best is a few slides containing a few bullet points each which I use as an aide memoire. If that doesn’t provide enough prompt for the material then I use Index cards.
12. Index cards - This is my favoured method of presenting. On the Index cards I have notes, bullet points or keywords to which I can refer to remind me of what I need to talk about. Space is very limited on cards which forces me to be more familiar with the material. Practice to learn the material. The cards can be used to expand the material on the slides on screen. Talking from cards seems to come over as more natural and fluent than reading from text. Index cards are better than large sheets of paper (A4/US Letter) as they are less obtrusive and look more professional.
13. Number the cards - so they correspond with the slide numbers, punch a hole through the corner and tie them together using a Treasury tag (a short length of string with metal ends) or a piece of string/ribbon. In the event that you drop the cards, they will still be in the correct order!
14. Eye-contact (1) - Making frequent eye-contact with the audience is important. Therefore, write the words on the cards in large letters so that they are easy to read with a just brief glance down from looking at the audience. Use colours, underlining or highlighter for emphasis of important points.
15. Large Sheets of Paper - My least favourite form of notes. However, if you are going to use large sheets of paper like A4 don’t be afraid to brandish them when making a point.
16. Scripted Text - I have found that there are occasions when reading from a script is the best option for me. Occasionally it is critical that I make certain points in a certain order or that I use simpler language without jargon or colloquialisms – so important when speaking to a group of people for whom my language, English, is not their first language. Reading from a script comes over as rather formal but in some circumstances that is no bad thing. Try to keep it fluid and conversational. Don't rush - the idea is to put over your point not to show everybody how fast you can read. So, keep the pace measured and use plenty of pitch change and inflection. Use pauses for emphasis. Try to make frequent eye-contact with the audience. Keep your finger on your place as you read. Print the speech in larger font than you might normally use (eg 14 point) because the light on the stage may not be bright. Don't forget to tie the corners together - you don't want to be scrambling about on the stage sorting the papers you just dropped.
17. Glasses - don’t forget your spectacles!
18. Glasses - don't forget to have a glass of water handy!
19. Practice - It’s easy to set up a video recording of a practice presentation – and it is very educational. Try it!
There’s a great deal of information about the use of PowerPoint on the web. Suffice it to say here, that there are some simple rules to follow to make presentations better when using PowerPoint:
20. Use as few slides as possible.
21. Use only a heading and 3 or 4 bullets per slide. Don’t use full sentence bullet points
22. Use large fonts - Tiny font size is pointless – think of the person at the back of the hall or room - you want them to get The Message.
23. Switch off the autosizing feature that reduces the font size the more text you put on the slide. That will force you to write briefly and allow a large font size.
24. Spell and grammar check all text.
25. Decide early with the organisers what the arrangements are going to be for Handouts.
26. Always give out the Handouts after you’ve finished otherwise the audience will be reading ahead of your presentation and you will lose the impact.
27. If using tabulated data make sure you are adding to The Message. Tables and Graphs can be very good when used well but they can be appalling and valueless when not used well.
28. Same for video – will it add to The Message? Is the video viral on YouTube and everybody has already seen it?
29. Don’t read the slides verbatim – the audience don’t need you to read the slide to them – they can do that. You’re there to add explanation and detail to the slides.
30. Especially, don’t read from the screen with your back to the audience.
31. Some may be sitting where they can’t easily read the slides and may have forgotten their spectacles – help them with large text.
At the venue
32. Check all equipment before it's your turn.
33. Make sure the latest version of your presentation is on the computer that will be used.
34. Just in case (1) - have a back-up version on a memory stick just in case the computer you were going to use breaks, is lost, stolen.
35. Just in case (2) - have a paper version as well…just in case.
36. Be familiar with how to step through the slides both forward and back.
37. Be familiar with how to activate video and how to adjust the video volume.
38. Be familiar with how to make the pointer work. Is it a physical or laser pointer?
Making the Presentation
39. Nervous - Being nervous is a good thing. It shows the audience that you are keen to make a good impression, that you have a Message which you consider important to give to them and it can make the presentation more passionate. Also remember that nobody can see how nervous you are. They may be able to tell that you are nervous but not how nervous. This fact was brought home to me very powerfully the first time I saw a video of myself presenting. I remembered being really nervous. However, when I looked at myself on the video I seemed relaxed, almost casual – chatting away on topic. I was amazed at how my nervousness wasn’t apparent.
40. You start with 100% - Remember, nobody goes to a presentation hoping it will be dull and that they will be bored. They want you to be interesting. It’s like an exam where you start with 100% - you can only get marks knocked off if you present badly.
41. Be passionate - Use your nerves to make a passionate presentation. Even if people don’t agree with you they will enjoy an empassioned talk more than a dull one with which they agree. You never know, you may win them over!
42. Listen to the other presenters who are talking before you if you have spare time. Did they say something which is pertinent to your presentation? Can you refer to them and weave their point into your talk? It can often work well - it shows respect for the other speakers and empathy for the delegates. Of course disagreeing with the host or sponsor's talk can also make the audience pay close attention to your message!
43. Avoid using a lectern - I dislike having to use a lectern because it separates me from the audience. I much prefer to stand out on the stage in full view. I’m not keen on people who move around the stage a great deal – I think it is slightly distracting. I prefer to be in plain sight, try to adopt a relaxed stance and stay in approximately the same location. Find a good spot which is in full-view and which does not impede the view of the slides. I even stand directly next to the lectern rather than behind it if I need to see the computer monitor.
44. Speak slowly – especially for audiences who do not have your language as their first language.
45. Translators - if you are at a venue where there will be simultaneous translation of your presentation, let the translation team have a hard copy of your text in good time so that they can familiarise themselves with it before you start talking.
46. Avoid jargon – some jargon is acceptable for audiences where you know they will understand. However, it is better to play safe and not use jargon if it can be avoided. The same goes for abbreviations – always speak them in full. Remember, you are trying to put over The Message and if you use abbreviations or jargon that some don't understand, you lose them.
47. Pauses (1) - Don’t worry about pausing to collect your thoughts and find your place.
48. Use a microphone. Not many people can make their voice carry, even in a small room. There is always a temptation gradually to speak more quietly, often without realising it. Using a microphone ensures all of the audience can hear even when speaking at normal, conversational volumes. If the microphone is hand-held, make sure you find where the best position is to give the best results and don’t move it from that spot.
49. Vary your voice pitch and volume for interest and emphasis.
50. Pauses (2) - Pauses are effective for emphasis.
51. Sound check - Check the whole room whilst other presentations are in progress - Has the room got noisy areas? Is there a nearby air conditioning unit, a corridor, a kitchen area or a road which will mean people in a particular area won’t be able to hear easily? Consider how loudly you will have to speak to reach these people.
52. Panic - If you start to feel panicky or faint, take a pause, drink some water. Nobody will mind – as I said before, they want you to do well. Everybody has been in a similar situation and will sympathise.
53. Your body language is vital to putting over The Message. Don’t put your hands in your pockets, don’t jingle your keys or coins in your pockets, don’t cross your arms.
54. Eye-contact (2) - Make eye contact with all of the audience from front to back and especially the extremities at both sides – it’s easy to forget them.
55. Keep It Simple – if it isn’t adding to the message don’t say it.
56. Stick to time - practice
57. Humour – always good used in moderation. It can lighten some dry, dusty subjects and make the whole experience more interesting and entertaining.
58. Questions – ask the organisers, decide in advance, will there be time during the talk to take questions? At end? No time? It depends on the occasion. I think it is more informal to take questions during the presentation. Be aware of people who may speak tentatively or make small hand gestures to get your attention. Be positive and encourage the questioners with a friendly response. If they speak quietly or they are near you, make sure you repeat the question to the microphone so the whole audience know what has been asked. In big venues it is worth waiting for the roving microphone to reach the questioner.
59. Don’t know the answer? Admit it. Don’t try to bluff. There will always be someone who knows more than you who will embarrass you in front of the audience. If nobody knows the answer, make a note, promise the questioner that you will find out and get back to them afterwards.
And did I mention…?
60. Keep It Simple – if it isn’t adding to The Message, don’t say it.
61. Stick to time.
62. Enjoy it!
This article is just my view of the topic at title. Like a lot of people, I’ve done some training in management techniques but there is no substitute for experience. In my case, a bit of trial and error, learning from my mistakes, watching other managers and a little common sense. I hope you found it of interest and assistance.
Peter Cromarty is a former air traffic controller and pilot. He spent 27 years as a safety regulator of ATM/CNS, airspace and aerodromes.
View his Linked In profile.