Strong opinions, weakly held

Giving presentations

Next week I have to give a couple of presentations in front of audiences of people I don’t know. I have 45 minutes allotted for each, and I’m trying to create 30-35 minute presentations, both to give myself some extra space if I start running behind and to allow time for discussion at the end. The thing is, I almost never give presentations, so I’m a bit at a loss in terms of preparation.

I envision myself as the type of person who can give an extemporaneous speech that’s interesting and doesn’t seem overly rehearsed, so I started with the idea that I would just create the slides and write a fairly detailed outline and then speak from those. The first big piece of advice I got was to write the whole thing out, regardless. My fear there was that I’d wind up reading the speech, which is boring, but I realized that given my lack of experience, not writing the whole thing out would prime me for disaster. I’d like to sound casual and engaging, but I’ve come to realize that the only way to do that is to prepare that much more. There was a great quote in one of the articles about John Kenneth Galbraith this weekend where he said that he had to rewrite his stuff four or five times in order to achieve the off the cuff style that people appreciated about his writing.

In that spirit, I’m writing out my presentations word for word and hope I have time to practice them until they don’t sound like I did.

Brilliant presentation tips would be appreciated.

Update: Here’s the Galbraith quote:

The third thing is never to assume that your first draft is right. The first draft, when you’re writing, involves the terrible problem of thought combined with the terrible problem of composition. And it is only in the second and third and fourth drafts that you really escape that original pain and have the opportunity to get it right. Again, I’m repeating myself; I’ve said many times that I do not put that note of spontaneity that my critics like into anything but the fifth draft. It may have a slightly artificial sound as a consequence of that.

You can find it here.


  1. My only presentation tip isn’t brilliant, but it would help lots of presenters if they would adopt it.

    “Don’t read your slides. Assume your audience can read.”

  2. Some tid-bits from a course I took a while back on giving presentations:

    Keep in mind your objective. What do you want them to take away?

    Keep in mind who is in your audience. If it’s geeks, then go geeky for them. If it’s execs, then keep it at a level that they can handle. And keep in mind what they want to hear. You have to mediate between their goals and yours.

    Organize the broad outline of points that you want to cover. (The grunt work is really here.)

    Develop a hook to grab their interest, keeping in mind what they want (obviously) and what you want.

    Work out the close (reiterating your hook.)

    Think about the questions that your audience are likely to ask and spend some time working up answers. (Even if you don’t get asked the questions, this can alter your outline.)

    Commit all of this blood, sweat, toil, tears, and thought to your lovely materials. (i.e., don’t start by opening PowerPoint…)

    Practice your presentation to get an idea of the timing.

    (To be fair, I don’t do all of this when I give presentations, but I try to make conscious decisions of what to skip.)

    Good luck!

  3. I recommend reading up on Guy Kawasaki and Presentation Zen.

    http://presentationzen.blogs.com/presentationzen/2005/09/the_kawasaki_me.html http://blog.guykawasaki.com/2006/01/how_to_get_a_st.html

    Edward Tufte also has some good points regarding PowerPoint but Kawasaki is much more succinct. A lot of his posts look like top ten lists so they should be easy to remember.

  4. Along with Michael’s suggestion, I’d add that if you have slides, generally have LARGE print and only display bullet points, each with just a few words.

    You want your slides to guide your presentation, but you don’t want your audience reading your slides and ignoring you. If someone can read your slides while listening to her iPod, and get most of the information in your presentation, then you have too much info on your slides.

    Other things to try: 1) Keep your hands off the podium – gripping it distracts the audience with your fear.

    2) Grab the mic (better yet, get the lapel mike) and walk around the stage. Don’t hide behind the podium.

    3) Don’t ever apologize for your slides or presentation. Your audience knows you’re not a master graphic designer (or whatever). As long as your pictures convey the required information, it doesn’t matter if it looks like they were drawn with a fat purple crayon by a 2 year old.

    4) BREATHE between each sentence. If you find yourself racing, pause and take a breath.

    5) Make eye contact with your audience often. It will bring them into your presentation.

    6) DO NOT USE A LASER POINTER!!!!!!!!! It is impossible to hold still and move smoothly without looking like you’re hopped up on crack, which makes it distracting. If you must point, use your hand (when you do #2) if you can.

    7) Small things that you think you messed up will not be noticed at all, so don’t sweat it. Just move-on dot com.

    8) Good luck; you’ll do fine!

  5. I think you’ve already had the best advice there is for presentations: practice, practice, and practice some more. I find it helps to write it out once, just to get it straight in my mind, but the most important thing is to run through the whole presentation at least a couple of times. And no cheating — pretend you’re really giving it, don’t keep giving yourself do-overs just because you’re actually in an empty conference room.

    Good luck!

  6. Guy Kawasaki plugs his 10-20-30 rule: no more than ten slides, no longer than 20 minutes, no smaller than 30 point type. Ten slides: a slide an idea; you can’t present more than ten ideas without confusing your audience. Twenty minutes because longer than that risks boring them. Thirty point type can be read at the back of the room. Plus the less text on the slide, the less temptation to read it. Don’t read it. Your audience can read faster than you can speak and will get to the end of it before you do. Surefire way of losing their attention. The point of having slides is to get their attention. If they don’t do that, why have them?

    Yes and practice. Write it out. Then practice until you don’t need the written text. When you finally give it, though, don’t worry about following the script, you’ll have internalized the flow.

    The Galbraith quote, IIRC, was “the note of spontaneity which creeps into my writing around the ninth draft.”

  7. A few tips I’ve found useful recently:

    1. People love being told stuff they already know. Even if what you’re saying seems really obvious, if you illustrate it well you’ll get positive feedback about it. “I’ve always kind of thought that, but I’ve never been able to explain why and now I can”.

    2. Slides with code on need to be kept short. One good trick is to add a line of code at a time, highlighting the latest line. My rule of thumb now is no more than three or four lines of code per slide, including build-up.

    3. Even if you’re really short on time, doing at least one full run through is essential. My worst talks have always been the ones that didn’t get a dress rehearsal.

  8. Leave 20% of your presentation time for questions. There will always be something you forgot, if you didn’t, the audience will thank you for not wasting their time.

    Talk against the slides. If you’re going to ramble in your story, have lots of bullet points. If you’re going to read the slides, never have more than three phrases.

    Don’t do automations unless you are selling concepts to people who expect to be sold.

    Never give a slide with all your credentials on it. Just your name on the title page. If you’re impressive, it will show in the presentation and people will ask for your business card afterwards.

    Great Visios make lousy Powerpoints.

  9. Danny O'Brien

    May 2, 2006 at 3:33 am

    First five minutes and last five minutes are what people remember. Two-thirds of the way through, they will be bored, so put in some explosion or big change here. Often a context switch is enough — going off the slides, or walking around.

    You want to try and relax people at the beginning, and make them listen. I often start talking a llittle before the slides, in a sort of lessformal way, because it means they think of you as a person before you launch into your talk.

    They love the facts, audiences do. Especially, as was said before, facts that express something they already suspect (or shockingly invert that).

    I don’t like practicing, but I am kind of weird. Try and do it enough that you feel confident enough to include new material at the last minute — and do so (“As Fred said in his introduction, foos really are like bars”). What practice is really there for is so your mind knows what’s coming next, so you don’t have to worry too much.

    I think practicing to a clock is a bad idea — every time I’ve done that, I’ve overrun dreadfully because the speed of talking to an audience is very different, and you want to give room to interact with the audience.

    Instead, practice, note down rough times, and bookmark certain times in your talk (“I should be around 10 minutes in by this slide”). Be prepared to skip slides to fit the time if you’re overrunning. No-one minds. I always have a few slides left over at the end if I underrun; I never underrun, but they’re also good if there are no questions.

    If you a Powerbook and Powerpoint, use the “Presentation Mode” (hit F7 to have a dual display — one for your laptop and one for the main dsplay). You get a little preview of upcoming slides, a clock, and a little window for your notes on your laptop. It’s great.

    I have a “presentation user” login apart from my normal login. This saves me from random IMs, and anyone seeing my messy desktop.

    Remember to turn off the screensaver.

    Ask the audience things “Does everyone know about X?” People like to say that they know things. Explain X in a sentence anyway for the people who didn’t. No-one minds being told what they already know.

    When answering questions, point to someone, and then just when they’re about to answer, point to the next person who you want to speak. That means you’ll both remember who the next person is, and no-one can get in the queue without at least putting their hand up. When you’re at the last question, point out three people and say that they’ll be the last questions.

    Have a USB key with your presentation on it.

    Never, ever, ever depend on being online. Use cached pages and a local webserver if necessary. Assume that won’t work either.

    Learn how to go back a slide.

  10. Don Norman has some tips disguised as a rant against Tufte – http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/in_defense_of_p.html

  11. I don’t know about writing a talk out — I’m about notes and (date) slides myself — but I definitely recommend practicing a talk aloud, if for no other reason than to calibrate its actual length, which can turn out to vary a lot when you build in the time to explain graphs, etc. Once you’ve given a lot of presentations, you get a “feel” for what a 10-minute or 45-minute talk feels like, and an outline is enough, but until then, practice the whole thing in a single shot, preferably with somebody in the room, to be sure.

    It’s less about memorization than about making sure that you know how much you’re going to say, and which key points need to be made at each stop. Sometimes I make a margin note that reminds me to point out some feature of a slide, say, or to reiterate a key point.

    good luck!

  12. You’ve been given some great advice already, the thing I would stress is to write your presentation out once and then to start speaking it.

    If you can record yourself, its as you speak it that you will start to understand the syntax and the phrasing the spoken word is very different from the written word.

    Also if you are worried about remembering the content learn a memory technique. I use something called ‘The Journey Technique’ with my clients – its been around since Roman times.

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