I recently had the opportunity to listen to a presentation by Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path which I found to be very interesting. I will not, however, focus on the topic of the presentation, but rather on a number of things that came to mind as Peter was delivering his thoughts to an audience of approximately two hundred people.
It has been said that apart from dying, (and having to design with only Comic Sans as your typeface), presenting in front of a large audience ranks highest on the list of fears for a human being. I’m not so sure I can help anyone with that, but I can certainly share my thoughts on things that may make presenting a little easier to cope with.
Expect the Worst
First things first: count on your technology failing. Count on the sound to be horrible, the projector to wash out all your colors, and forgetting your adapter. Count on your computer having some catastrophic meltdown and erasing your entire hard drive. It happens every time — including this time around with Peter. You can’t avoid it, and worst of all, you can’t predict it, but you can be prepared for it. How? Glad you asked…
Have a Backup
In today’s world of cheap digital storage solutions, there’s no reason why you should ever be caught off guard again. Before heading to your presentation, pick up a flash drive at Target and copy your presentation to it. Do it in as many formats as you can, including Powerpoint, Keynote (if you use Apple), as well as PDF — and since flash drives are mostly platform independent, you will have at least one file that will work. Keep the drive in your pocket and rub it constantly for good luck — okay, that won’t do anything for you. But it will give you peace of mind.
When Peter’s laptop decided to slip into a coma, he did not panic. Remember, this happens every time. People will react accordingly to your response, so keep your cool. If you must, take a couple of minutes to fix whatever the issue may be. Apologize to your audience and take a moment to re-compose. Then keep going.
Don’t Get Tethered
If you’re planning on presenting to an audience of 20 people or more, you might also consider getting a remote control for your laptop. If you’re not able to get one, then pay close attention to where you spend your time during your presentation. If you’re tethered to your laptop, chances are you’re not engaging your audience. Walk around as much as you can, from one side of the room to the other. Keep your focus on the group as a whole, not only on the section of the room that’s nodding along with everything you say. The more your connect with the group as a whole, the more memorable your presentation will be for everyone.
Don’t Read Off the Screen
If you find that you’re constantly looking at the projected image or at your laptop screen, you need to go back and redo your entire presentation. If you find that every slide on your presentation consists of bullet points, you may want to reconsider your approach. A good presenter uses the slides on the screen as visual cues for his or her next topic, not as a crutch or a script. Too often you see presentations where the presenter reads the content on the screen line-by-line — a task that can be just as easily achieved by passing out a handout — and without the nerves of standing up in front of a bunch of people.
Instead, think of what you’re trying to say and have your visuals support your message. If you’re trying to make a comparison between Coke and Pepsi, for example, consider having an image of the beverages on the screen and talk about the differences, instead of reading a long list of bullet points.
You may feel silly doing it, but practice your presentation on your own — and most importantly — out loud. Get used to the louder sound of your voice. Practice your pauses after making a good point. Practice using the technology, advancing slides, etc. That way when disaster strikes, you’ll have something to compare to and that can help get you back on track.
Get to Know Your Tools
Familiarize yourself with the capabilities of the presentation software you’re using. Most presentation tools have a feature to change the screen to an all black or all white background. This may come in handy when trying to pause the presentation to emphasize a point. Presentation tools also come with presenters notes, which you can display on your laptop screen while the actual visuals are being projected to your audience. Take the time to figure out how to use those features so your presentations run smoother from start to finish. Use the included timer so you have a good idea of how long you’re taking, and if you need to speed things up or slow them down. If you’re using a remote control, figure out what all the buttons do or customize them to your particular liking. Leverage the technologies and you’ll feel more confident while you present.
Looking like you just got run over by a train before your presentation is not a good idea. No one has ever lost any credibility by dressing up a little — on the contrary, they gain it. However, many have lost potentially big jobs because they wanted to “look cool” or “be comfortable” when presenting to CEOs and other upper management folks. In fact, this week as I was getting ready to go into a meeting with a company’s founder, I mentioned to my colleague that I wasn’t sure if I should wear my jacket. She kindly pointed out that this man was paying good money for us to work for him, and that we should look like we’re taking his business seriously. I’ll be wearing my jacket more often now.
I have been to countless presentations where the presenter, in an effort to “connect” with the crowd, will start using profanity. You may get a chuckle here or there, but ultimately, it hurts your message. Instead, be respectful to your audience and find creative ways of saying the same thing. Trust me, they’ll appreciate your creativity a lot more, and your message will resonate further.
Whenever you state some statistic or quote someone else, be sure to state the source if you can. It will help the credibility of your message, and will make you look smarter because you did your research. Give credit where credit is due.
Keep It Simple
You know those snazzy transitions where the slides move left and right and twirl and scale and do a back-flip before the text starts building and the bullet points fade in? Get rid of ‘em. Message is king, and all those bells and whistles do absolutely nothing to push the message up front. Look for a simple dissolve transition and stick to it. If you need a “build” sequence to get a point across, do it quickly and tastefully. Ignore all those flips and twirls, because all they do is distract your audience — and in many cases, makes them dizzy.
Keep your presentations clear and concise. Determine what message you’re trying to get across and don’t sidetrack from that message. If you find that you’re going on too many tangents, maybe you need to re-think your message. You may be trying to say too much.
A good rule of thumb is to stick to one overarching idea and base your presentation around that idea. Keep your presentation as contained and focused on that idea as possible, and above all, keep an eye on the clock. If you know you’re going to go over your alloted time, allow for your audience to be excused if they need to. Be respectful of other people’s time. Chances are they will stick around for the rest of your presentation, but the fact that you’re mindful of their time will speak volumes about yourself.
In conclusion, there are a number of ways that can make your presentations go smoother — and an even greater number of resources out there to help with this very topic. If you’re getting ready to make that career-changing presentation to a group of your superiors, or if you’re simply presenting to your peers, consider studying other people’s presentation styles. Steve Jobs is a great example of a presenter that can keep an audience engaged, and many folks use his style as a benchmark. You can also make it fun and try something like Dick Hardt’s Identity 2.0 presentation style. Or visit presentationzen.com and ted.com for some other ideas on how the big boys present their ideas. But above all, keep your cool.