Presentations

March 27, 2018

I have presented very frequently and continue to enjoy doing so. I would like to share with you a few tips. Some of these are my own; some come from my significantly better half, Carolyn Vella, who critiqued my early training presentations for the better; some are based on co-presenting with skilled presenters like Dr. Ben Gilad; and some are based on what I have seen and heard, liked and disliked. Here they are:

  • Check out the stage and the room 10 minutes or so before you start. Is everything plugged in? Does the mike work? How loud is it? Where can you move around? Are the floor mikes for questions working? Is your presentation really preloaded? (Hint: always bring a copy of the presentation on a jump drive in case there is a screw-up. It happens every so often.)
  • Help the audience. Tell them quickly what they will be hearing, and, at the end, remind them, in a sentence or two.
  • Continually reach out to the audience. If you are in a room, look at different individuals in the room from time to time. If it is remote, try to get responses, questions, and comments. Suggest that people “make a note of this”, or “raise your hand if this is not new to you”. If the venue’s technology permits, take polls, streaming the results live. Use short exercises that attendees can self-score and comment on. All of this keeps their attention and makes for a better learning experience.
  • You are a presenter, not a statue. If you can, move, at least a little. Step away from a podium, point to the overhead, or walk over to a table of attendees. Positive motion attracts attention. But never turn your back on the audience.
  • Make it clear. Avoid acronyms if possible. If that is not possible, at least define them on a slide when they first appear, and then repeat that definition to the audience again later.
  • Keep it short. PowerPoint slides have bullet points, not bullet essays. Keep the points around 6-7 words long. Don’t go down more than two additional levels. That is really getting in the weeds. It is also hard to read in hand outs or on a mobile device.
  • The overheads are just reminders – to you and to the audience. Write them that way and use them for that. If appropriate, use graphics and other attention-getting devices – but sparingly. They should remind you and them of your point, not just be cute.
  • Be careful of your slide contrast, pattern, and color selections. Avoid gaudy patterns, and stay away from flat, low context selections like black letters on a dove gray background. They can be hard to read in anything less than perfect light.
  • Moving transitions are nice – but only infrequently. Do it for ever slide and you are telling the audience to watch, but not to listen.
  • Modulate your voice. Not every word and every phrase is equally important. Using different tones and inflections communicates that. Besides, it keeps the audience awake.
  • Keep track of the time. Have a way to check the time while presenting and regularly refer to a sheet of paper in front of you telling you where you should be every 5 or 10 minutes, that is, “10:20 AM – Slide 26”. Always allow time for questions and comments at the very end. Note it on the overheads. End on time, no matter what.
  • Tell people that they can contact you after the presentation for any questions (and give contact details). Before you offer to give out a digital copy of the presentation, make sure that is ok with the event sponsor. Also, purge it of anything you do not want redistributed, such as exercises you developed and may want to use again.

Presenters and Presentations

May 27, 2014

A while ago, Bloomberg BusinessWeek ran a piece title “Why Bezos Bought The Post”[1]. It contains a lesson for presenting your competitive intelligence findings. Brad Stone, the author, observed that

“[a] decade ago, frustrated with the pace of meetings at his company [Amazon], Bezos banished PowerPoint and proclaimed that all future Amazon meetings would begin with the presenter passing out a narrative document that outlined the topic being discussed. The first papers were endless, spanning dozens of pages, so Bezos decreed a six-page limit. Many of his colleagues still thought this managing-by-writing approach would fade. It didn’t.“

So?

The lessons here are several:

First, PowerPoint is not the only way to convey information at a business meeting. In fact, there are those that argue, in my words not theirs, PowerPoint serves less to communicate than to conceal[2]. So, master other ways. Or at least practice what you want to say, relying on PowerPoint only as a reminder – to you of what you want to say and to the attendees of what you have said.

Second, present your case the way that senior management wants, simply because they may pay less attention to your message if they are not comfortable with the way it is delivered. If that means PowerPoint, it means PowerPoint.

Third, whatever means you employ, master the subject before your presentation. At the actual meeting, you may not be able to present what you want, when you want, and/or in the order you want. The form of your presentation is a tool; the content is the key. A corollary to this is that you should avoid presenting where the presentation and the work behind it were largely (or exclusively) done by someone else.

Fourth, shorter is almost always better than longer. Longer presentations may be more detailed, but that risks losing attention – as well as actual attendees.

[1] By Brad Stone, August 8, 2013, http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-08-08/why-jeff-bezos-bought-the-em-washington-post-em.

[2] For more on that, see Edward R. Tufte, Beautiful Evidence, Graphics Press, LLC, 2006, p. 181: “Our comparison of various presentation tools in action indicate that PowerPoint is intellectually outperformed by alternative tools.”


PowerPoint Presentations

September 29, 2012

Few things in business are more rightly feared by the presenters and more properly dreaded by the recipients than a PowerPoint presentation. PowerPoint has rightly been criticized by many, and one of the best criticisms is Edward R. Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint

I’m not going to debate the pros and cons of PowerPoint, but try to share with you a couple of hints on making the PowerPoint presentation to an audience, whether it is in person or, increasingly, over the web.

First and above all, master your material.  The PowerPoint slides should be a reminder to you of what you want to say, and a way of providing your audience with the high points, the findings, the very core of your presentation.  This does not mean you have to write an essay on each PowerPoint slide.  If you have to do that, you are not ready for the presentation and your audience certainly will not be ready to receive whatever intelligence you have to give them.  When you do that, you will soon find your audience is reading ahead of you, and is rapidly getting bored waiting for you to catch up with them.

Mastering your material means that you can give the presentation without ever looking at the overheads, and still feel comfortable with it.  Your job is to face the audience, to make eye contact with them, and to somehow draw at least a few of them into a conversation, even if it is only a one-way conversation.

Two, handle interruptions – which your boss calls his questions. Typically there will be interruptions.  There are three ways to handle an interruption.  One wrong way is to say, “I will be getting to that”.  The worst way is to say that, but then never get to it.  The right way is to give a brief, that is one sentence, response to the question, and indicate that you will expand on it later on – and then do it.  Never, ever have a questioner wait for an answer.  It is very hard getting them to pay attention in the first place.  And by doing that, you risk losing your audience, or least the small number who are actually interested in what you were saying.

Three, realize you are not giving a speech, you are talking with the audience.  But appreciate that speechmaking has some lessons to give you.  For example, a really good speaker causes you to listen because she changes the way she speaks.  She goes from a soft voice to a louder voice, from slow speaking to rapid speaking, from conversational bits to emphatic tones.  By continually modulating your own voice, you are telling the audience that you are talking to them and forcing them, almost automatically, to listen more closely to you.

Four, if you manage to get your presentation done in the time allotted – and you had better do that no matter how little time you are given or how much your time is cut down after you start – make sure you have an ending that summarizes the absolute core of what you are communicating.  That should be on one slide, your last slide of content, and put across the point in such direct terms that even people who were not at the presentation will understand what you meant to communicate.  It is not the audience’s job to guess what you meant; it is yours to pound it in.

You have to understand that while PowerPoint can be a useful way of combining visual, written, and oral communications, none of these methods, nor all of them combined, guarantee 100% reception and digestion.  To put it bluntly, no matter how good you are and how good your PowerPoint slides are, not everyone is going to get the message, so you have to overcompensate. If you have the time, practice.  If not, keep in mind Dale Carnegie’s advice while you are up there:

“Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it; then tell them what you’ve said.”