May I Present To You

Every 6 months I have to give a presentation on what I have been doing. Ten other people have to do the same thing. We each have 15 minutes. Often we have been doing similar things to each other, or similar to things to what someone else in the room has done before. Sometimes similar is in fact “the same”. Unsurprisingly, this can be a very tedious day.

To try to avoid this next time I have been looking into what makes an effective presentation. Here’s a brief write up of what I’ve learnt.

Firstly, let’s look at what not to do. This is the easy bit. Everyone has been in a presentation where you end up struggling to stay awake. The main three things to avoid then are:

  • Too many slides
  • Too many words on slides
  • Reading word for word from your slides (never never do this!)

Most of the above stem from Powerpoint / Keynote, or at least the way we use these tools. The main thing to remember is that these are just that – tools. Powerpoint should not be your whole presentation. In fact, before you start to plan your next presentation, consider: do you need to use powerpoint? Could you use a flipchart or whiteboard instead? Powerpoint presentations often take the form of a lecture, rather than a debate. They are not interactive, and separate the presenter from the audience.

Death by Powerpoint

While we’re on the subject of Powerpoint, I also think that bullet points suck. They force you to present in a linear way, one fact after the next. This is never going to be interesting or easy for the audience. It’s also not natural and does not encourage flow.

Now to the hard bit: what makes a good presentation?

Follow the principle of ASAP = As Simple As Possible

There are lots of thought-provoking quotes on the Presentation Zen website from Koichi Kawana, who was a designer of Japanese gardens. Japanese design is known for its minimalisim, its naturalness, and its restraint.  Unsurprisingly, Kawana champions simplicity, which he says means “the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means”. He is also an advocate of not giving away everything, which is the concept of miegakure – the Japanese belief that in expressing the whole, the interest of the viewer is lost. This can be brought into a presentation by not telling the audience up front what you are going to say. Eliminate the “contents” slide – that way they have to listen to the whole thing!

An interesting post on the Zen site compares the presenting styles of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.  Jobs favours blank screens and minimalism. Then when he does use an image or text on the screen it seems all the more powerful. Gates on the other hand uses overcrowded, visually busy slides.

Bill Gates presenting

It’s not easy for the audience to focus on his main point. If the audience is struggling or confused, you’ve lost them. If your concepts are too complicated to break down into single phrases or images, then you are trying to present at too complicated a level for your audience. Simplify everything.

Seth Godin suggests you should have no more than 6 words per slide. He argues that a standard powerpoint presentation elevates form over content, which betrays an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch. Whilst that is ok if your presentation is a sales pitch, the majority of mine are not, so this is something I want to avoid!

Use visuals and images to illustrate your point. But again, keep it simple. Remember you are designing not decorating!

In Kathy Sierra’s post on using graphics, she suggests trying to first build your slides without any words. To do this, start by working out the point you are trying to make with the slide. Then cut this down to one sentence, and then think of a graphic to represent this. She suggests pretending that you can’t use words to describe your point – you can only use the graphic. Then when you have a suitable graphic, you can add words to enhance it. Note enhance, not replace!

However relevance is key here. As this Wired article emphasises, audience boredom is usually a result of content failure, not decoration failure. If your words and images are not relevant to the point you are making, it does not matter how colourful and flashy they are – they still won’t be relevant!

Some other good tips (can’t remember where I got these from)

  • Keep the lights on – it’s far easier to engage with your audience if you can see them and they can see you!
  • Don’t be afraid to let the screen go blank if you are telling a story. You want people to focus on you, not the screen behind you.

Head over to the Missing Link website where you can download  a free PDF full of good advice. Here’s a quick summary of the most useful points:

  • The definition of presentation is: To convey a message, to achieve a result.
  • Everything should be based around this definition. What message are you trying to convey, and what result do you want to achieve?
  • Every slide should be assessed with these questions in mind. Does the slide answer the question? (If not, make it!)
  • A presentation is about the audience more than about the presenter. Having an audience is one thing, having a captive audience is something else entirely.
  • Rehearse without your slides. Don’t become a slave to the slides! They are your tool, not your presentation! (Also this way if you do happen to lose your slides on the way to the presentation, you will still be able to do it!)

Presenting man
Further reading

The following books are on my Christmas list:


About RNewstead

I am learning every day. Sometimes I worry there are too many interesting things in the world and not enough time.
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