Good presentations have many similarities with Jazz: Improvisation, creativity, connection with the audience. But still, most presentations today are not jazz. Presenters read their slides, flood with text and talk to the slides, not about their topic. The phenomenon is so widespread, that it has a name: Death by PowerPoint.
The problem with Death by Powerpoint is that our brain doesn’t pay attention to boring things. Which means that these presentations are a waste of time. Therefore we will turn our back to this and look at the three phases of presentation: preparation, design and the delivery.
So what we do here is a restart, forgetting all the bad habits that led us to our bad presentations in the first place!
Before We Begin …
One common mistake is to confuse slides with a document. In many cases you don’t need a presentation, reviewing a document is sufficient. Sometimes, you may need both: the presentation and a handout. But it is important that those two are separate files. No “slideument” that tries to be both and fails miserably.
If we decide that a presenation is necessary, we have to acknowledge that a presentation needs time. You need approximately 60 hours of preparation for a one hour presentation. Why? Your listeners give you their time. You owe them not wasting it.
You can be creative anywhere … but not in front of your computer. The one big mistake people make with this phase is skipping it completely. Often we start our preparation on our computer, sometimes even with the slides themselves. But it is essential to take a step back and get an overview. Then you can try things out, experiment with ideas and do excessive brainstorming. We find better ideas when we are away from the computer because more impressions from the real world reach us. Additionally, our brain seems to work better when we move.
The Core Tasks
What is your goal? If the audience only remembers one thing from your presentation, what should that be? What is your message?
The story. Why tell a story? People love stories, because they are concrete and they can easily relate to them. Notably, the brain activity of the listeners is significantly higher. Three important properties of your story: Simple. Too much information in a short timespan is the error in communication today. We need some time to digest the absorbed information. Emotional. Humans are emotional animals. Related to emotions we remember things a lot better. The best you can do to get your listeners attention is to do something unexpected. But of course, it has to be relevant.
The last thing to do in this phase is to decide which elements will not be part of our presentation. You cannot talk about everything.
Before thinking about design, one important point: A good story saves bad slides, but good slides won’t save a bad story!
A presentation typically consists of three elements: Narration, text and images.
Narration is the oldest form of presentation and it obviously does work on it’s own. It clearly uses the auditory part of our brain. However there are unused ressources, namely the visual part of the brain. So, we can do better.
Text does address the visual part then, does it? Yes and no. Reading requires the visual part, but understanding the text also requires ressources from the auditory part. This means we can’t read text on slides and listen the narration simultaneously. Thus, blocking the auditory and the visual part, it is virtually senseless.
Images however use only the visual part and represent a optimal addition to the narration. This is easily shown by our ability to watch and understand movies or television. So our brain can process these two simultaneously.
Why does it make sense to use our visual perception for presentations? 20% of our brains are constantly busy processing visual information. This makes it our most important sense. We are visual creatures. We can use that to achieve better attention and retention in our audience. Slides can work as a megaphone, amplifying your story.
It’s important to not confuse the direction: don’t talk about your slides. Tell your story and use the slides as amplification. Designing your slides is the process of making your message clearer. Design is not just decoration. A decorator adds things to make it more beautiful. A designer removes things to make it clearer. Try to think like a designer when creating your visual story.
To check if your slides still fit your story, try the “Light Table” or “Slide Sorter” view in your software, so you’ll get a fast overview over what the slides tell.
But never forget: You are the presentation. Not your slides. Try to present “naked” to figure out if you can still convey your message without the slides.
To do a good presentation, you have to practice. A lot. You have to know your topic and the technology. Then, if you’re prepared, you can “Just play.” Try to tell the story to your furniture, if you must. But do practice!
A good preparation shows the respect your audience deserves. This shows them that you deserve their respect in return. But be careful to stay on their level. Just because you prepared yourself well does not mean you know more than anyone in the audience. Respect their opinions.
Posture: An open posture (feed one shoulder-width apart, hands at the height of your stomach) gets you respect. A closed posture (feet closed, hands on the sides of your body) might get you a piece of chocolate for reasons of sympathy.
Your mood will carry over to the audience. If you’ve had a bad day, try to focus on the presentation. Be in the topic. A gloomy mood will carry over as well as a merry one. Show your honest enthusiasm, it will be infectious. If you don’t love something, why should your audience love it? You should be serious about your presentation, which means being involved and really meaning what you have to say.
Hara Hachi Bu
Literally this Japanese saying means eating until you are 80% full. You can’t say everything in your presentation. There are things you have to leave out. Just be satisfied with saying 80%. But say these in a way your audience will want to figure out the last 20% for themselves.
This means leaving room for questions. If you’re given an hour, take 50 minutes. This leaves you flexible to react to what the audience wants and what they may ask you.
Trial & Error
Starting as a presenter, you won’t hold great presentation right away. The only thing you can do is continuosly improve. There are three steps to this:
- Try something. You can try many things: how you construct your story, the pace with which you advance through slides, the way you talk (e.g. how you highlight things by being silent shortly after saying them).
- Observe yourself & collect feedback. Ask single members of the audience (the ones who you trust to give honest feedback) about specific things. Did the pace work for you? Did my intonation bore you? Take notes, so you don’t forget anything.
- Review & improve. After the presentation, take a step back and look at the feedback. How did things go? What specific things can you improve? Do you have to approach something completely differently (e.g. how you stand on stage, the way you construct your story)? Make a plan for the next presentation.
Have fun presenting!
A Few Tipps
- Use a remote presenter. You’ll be able to get closer to the audience and make a better connection.
- Leave the light on. People will fall asleep otherwise.
- The W-key turns the screen white, the B-key black. Very useful to focus the attention of the audience.
- Empty your pockets that your hands don’t play with the contents.
- Get feedback directly after the presentation. That is the most important way to improve yourself.
References & Additional Material
- Presentation Zen (Garr Reynolds)
- slide:ology (Nancy Duarte)