ASK: My tips for a great presentation

(This is part of Ask the Community Guy, an ongoing series of questions posed by readers for Jake, the Community Guy)

In the last few years I’ve presented to more audiences than I can remember. Literally. I try to refine my presentations every time I give one, and feel like I’ve gotten pretty decent. I still see people like Guy Kawasaki or Barack Obama speak and realize I’m just a n00b at all of this public speaking stuff. Andy’s post suggesting that we all pick up a copy of Presentation Zen got me thinking about what techniques I’ve learned over the years. Hopefully they’re of some help!

(These techniques are not at all unique, and certainly didn’t come only from my brain. I’ve begged, borrowed, and stolen as many ideas as I can from every speaker I stand in front of. Guy Kawasaki’s Top Ten List format is brilliant and Derek Powazek’s design style is inspired, for example)

How I create my content
Typically my presentations, whether client research findings or conference keynote, start on the white board. I start free forming a running list of ideas, thoughts, points, and issues that may be relevant. This includes everything from major points to minor factoids.

Once I come across a point that I see as “significant”, I write it down on an index card and lay it on the floor. (I may also thumb through an old stack of cards from an previous session) Pretty soon there’s a bunch of cards laid out on the floor. I take a first pass at culling them down a bit, putting them in some sort of order, and identifying anything that might be missing. I’m a very visual person, so seeing this all laid out in front of me really helps.

Once the cards are in some sort of order, I’ll start talking through the theoretical presentation, shuffling the order of cards, adding new ones as needed, and dropping cards that don’t make sense. This is a good test run for the practice part of this game. (Keep reading for more on practicing) It also helps you get a feel the length of time your content will take to present.

Time constraints
A huge part of creating a great presentation is ensuring that you come in on time. No audience likes watching the presenter hurry through the last 15 slides in 2 minutes because they ran out of time. I tend to plan content for no more than 75% of the time allotted, although typically I plan for more like 50% of the time allotted.

Throughout the planning process, I’ll develop for that 50% target (i.e. 30 minutes of content for a 1 hour time slot). This helps me to ensure that I’m focusing on the truly important issues, but it also makes it easy to deal with the “oh yeah!” content that pops in during the rest of the development.

Creating the presentation deck
Once the cards seem to be in order I see the presentation building out in my head, I sit down and start knocking out the presentation. I use Apple’s Keynote software, an alternative to Powerpoint ,which I consider vastly superior. I strongly suggest taking a look at this app if you’re on a Mac.

The first step is to start transferring the content of my final index card selection to individual presentation slides. As I do this, the presentation starts to take form in my head, and I can better see the connections between slides. This is the stage where I start to refine the words on the slides.

Once I have the slides collected together, I design each slide individually. A few of my style choices/tips:

  • Every deck I build uses a solid black background with bright white text. In most rooms, when you’re presenting visually, they turn the lights down. Powerpoint’s default white background feels like a spotlight in the audience’s collective eyes. White text on black also pops much better.
  • Font choice is typically Gill Sans, Keynote’s default font and one of my favs from college design school days. It’s a fantastic font. I use Courier New for occasions where I’m sharing things like “content from an email message”. I never use the Windows default font set simply because it’s far too common. When people recognize it, it doesn’t give them the sense that I’m an expert in my field. After all, if I’ve simply opened up Powerpoint, just like they could do, what makes us all that different, right?
  • I almost never use bullets and/or bulleted lists. The only time I use them is when I’m trying to specifically convey the feeling of overwhelming amounts of data. If I have a series of similar points, I put them on a series of separate slides so that the audience is focused on what I’m talking about, not the rest of the list.
  • In the past, I’ve not used slide or element transitions at all. Nada. None. I personally don’t think that Powerpoint transitions are at all usable. The Keynote developers, however, have done an amazing job creating transitions that I can actually use to help me deliver my point rather than providing “fun”.
  • The only place I put a logo/watermark is on the opening slide that sits there waiting for me to start the presentation, and on the last slide that prompts the audience for questions. Putting it anywhere else is just clutter that says “I don’t believe enough in my content to sell you, so I have to pitch you while I’m presenting too”.

Content wise, I really only do two types of slides:

  • Punch the point - text only slides that have either one number (for a stat) or 3-7 words that form a key point. These slides don’t have any image, and literally only have this single point. The lack of additional content, such as a supporting image, helps to convey the message “this is damn significant”.
  • Evoke an emotion – full slide image with a black opaque bar with white text overlaid. The text is the statement that I want to hear people repeating afterwards. The image helps to make them smile, or subconciously hammers home the point I’m making, or otherwise helps them stay engaged in the presentation. I often spend upwards of 60% of my presentation deck creation searching and selecting just the right images. I use primarily my own photos, iStockPhoto.com, and Flickr’s Creative Commons feature in their advanced search.

A note about photos
I can’t stress enough how much value I place in the usage of photos. I can’t remember the number of people who’ve remembered my point later on because of the picture, or who’ve told me after the presentation how much the photos helped me tell a story. Speaking, whether to an audience of 5 or 5000 isn’t about delivering information. Speaking is about making people excited about what you’re trying to convey to them. Stunning visuals create a emotional reaction, and emotional reactions keep your audience engaged. Spend the time, and money if necessary, to find the best images you can.

Check out an example from a random presentation deck.

Practice makes perfect
By the time the deck is completed, I have a pretty solid grasp of how the presentation will flow and what I’m going to say. I don’t write out my speech because, for me, it’s largely a pointless effort. Since I’m not going to memorize the speech, I don’t really gain much by writing it all out. Instead, I talk through the presentation with my dog as the audience several times getting comfortable with the content.

That comfort level is the important part for me. If I’m confident in the content, I’m more easily able to focus on reading the room, tweaking the content as I go to have the greatest impact. I also have a gut feel about how much depth I can go into as people ask questions along the way.

During this practice period I also find myself tweaking and rearranging slides as I find the “natural flow” of the content.

Picking the right tools
A huge part of a successful presentation is actually being able to have your presentation visible by the audience. It’s amazing how many presentations I’ve sat in while the presenter futzes with the projector or the laptop. I try to get into the room early to setup and test before the audience appears. Here’s what I pack with me to every presentation I give:

  • USB thumb drive with my presentation (both in the Keynote format, as for bigger presentations, a PPT file I’ve exported from Keynote and then tweaked in Powerpoint in case I have to end up using a PC)
  • Standard DVI-to-VGA converter that comes with the MacBook Pro
  • DVI-to-RCA video converter, in case I have to plug into a TV or TV like connection
  • Kensington wireless controller (love this thing!)
  • AT&T ExpressCard (for internet access – never, ever trust that they’ll have internet access for you, or that you can actually get it to work even if they do)

One of these days I’m going to invest in a nice wireless mic I can bring with me, just in case.

Personal presentation
Lastly, a few points about how I actually present myself while doing the presentation:

  • I put my phone on vibrate and put it in my bag. I also take my keys out of my pocket to eliminate rattling and an option of something to fiddle with.
  • I put my bag off in a corner so as not to trip over it or add on-stage clutter.
  • Clothing choices are one step above the audience I’m presenting to, although I always try to ensure I’m presenting wearing my wildly comfortable Nike AirMax 360 sneakers. I also dress as much for what everyone else in the room is wearing as for what they expect I’ll be wearing. If they expect to see a “Web guy”, then a sports coat might not work. If they expect to see a strategist rich with corporate experience, the sneakers might not play well.
  • I do my best to never put my hands in my pockets. To the audience you look uninterested and amateurish. Same goes for crossing your arms.
  • After I’m done setting up, I find “the spot”, that place where I can stand and feel the most comfortable and where the audience can best see me. I like to walk around, walk up to people asking questions, so I’ll pretend I’m doing just that (covertly) to make sure there’s no hidden cables on the floor.

Prepare your computer too
Before the big day, I spend a few minutes prepping my laptop too. Here’s what I do before each gig:

  • Clear off the desktop. I usually have a bunch of miscellaneous stuff on my desktop and I’ll create a folder on the desktop called… wait for it… “Desktop”, then drag all the contents of the desktop into that folder. Once the presentation is over, I can drag it all back out again, but it helps me look more organized to my audience (if they catch a glance of my desktop) if it’s empty.
  • Close out any and all other applications. Nothing like having top secret or personal emails shown to your audience because you forgot to close out your mail application. There’s also nothing like having an IM window popup mid-presentation from your rowdy college friend saying “Hey you bastard, what the f**k are you doing?” Yeah, that’s literally happened to me.
  • Restart. Don’t just wake your computer up from sleep mode, restart it. It only takes a second and man can it save you. Especially if you’re on a PC.
  • Charge the battery. Just in case power isn’t close by or I kick my power cord out of the laptop, I don’t have anything to worry about.
  • Use Safari for Web content. I have both Safari and Firefox on my laptop, but I only use Safari for presentations. I tend to have a bunch of toolbars turned on, my bookmarks bar in full use, and a ton of tabs open. I don’t necessarily want to show Client A what I’m working on for Client B. Rather than trying to clear out all the tabs and constantly turn on/off the toolbars, I just use Safari instead for presentations. And speaking of web browsers….
  • Clear the browser history. I always clear the surfing history in Safari before the presentation, even if I’m not planning on using Safari during my presentation. You never know when you’ll be jumping online to show something, so be prepared. You probably don’t want to show the audience that you’ve been hanging out on that Hello Kitty fan site, after all.
  • Run through your sites. If I’m going to be using the web during my presentation to show off sites, I’ll first clear the history, then run through each site. This ensure that I know if the site is having problems before the audience is waiting on me. It also updates the URL auto-fill and caches the pages.
  • Print out a copy of your presentation – you never know when your technology is just going to up and leave on you. If you don’t have some to refer to, you’re going to be going cold and that’s a recipe for disaster!

Have fun!
Above all else, I try to have fun with each speaking engagement I do. When you have fun, the audience does too. When you’re smiling, your audience will too. When you’re having fun, you come across as more believable and you appear to clearly be the expert in the matter. And isn’t that the point?

Additional resources
While we’re talking about presenting techniques, check out these additional sources of help, inspiration, and insight

  • 6 tips to learn from Steve Jobs, one of the greats.
  • Beyond Bullet Points: The book and the site. Author Cliff Atkinson has created a very cool subscription based set of resources including a support forum.
  • Presentation Zen: The book and the blog. Both are fantastic.
  • List of 70+ resources for Powerpoint/Keynote usage and presentations generally.

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