I recently sat through a number of online presentations, that were bad enough that I felt it was worth sharing observations.
First, don’t panic. I’m going to try hard to write about presenting better, but I don’t want anyone to fear presentations. Public speaking in all its forms can be scary and difficult, and I don’t want people to become more nervous. I think you’ll be surprised at how forgiving and accepting audiences are, especially if you set expectations.
I once saw a presentation at a conference where a fairly well know presenter came in very disheveled, somewhat disoriented. He started off apologizing, noting he flew in to the conference very late the night before, was woken up in the morning having been told his presentation was moved up, and basically rolled out of bed into this presentation. There were gaps, timing off, etc. However it was very well received as he set our expectations, which also helped him go from a rocky start and move more smoothly as time went on.
If you’re nervous, if you don’t do this that often, if you are talking about something new to you, go ahead and say that. Audiences want to be on your side, and if you help them understand what they are about to experience, most of the time they’ll work with you.
Relax as much as you can. If that doesn’t come naturally to you, practice. Practice on your own, with others, however you need to help you prepare.
Think about your audience. Is your audience coworkers? From different departments? Are they conference attendees? Are they parents at the local school? Is the presentation in person, online with video, or just slides? Why are they listening?
Knowing about your audience can help you determine the level of detail you want to provide. Are you sharing development tips to a set of developers? Go deep, and interact. Are you sharing what your team does to your whole department? Keep it shallow and highlight value. I really don’t want to say know your audience, but thinking about your audience helps you determine what you want to convey, and helps you create your message.
I was once co-presenter at a conference that I had never attended before. We had a general story we wanted to tell, with a demo and highlights around the demo we wanted to call out. I consider myself an ok presenter, and generally comfortable. But my co-presenter asked one question… “are you ok to present?”. Sigh. I didn’t know the audience, and the door was opened for me not to present. I ran the demo and had him speak the whole time. I’ve always regretted that choice.
Keep it simple. Even deep technological dives can be simple, you can give concise examples. If your presentation is part of longer series of presentations, the simpler the delivery the better. This doesn’t mean you can’t have rich content, it just means each point must be easily delivered. Highlight or bold a statement, talk to it (don’t say it if you can avoid it, instead describe it, and perhaps repeat it at the end), then highlight the next (or move to another page). You don’t want to overwhelm or otherwise lose your audience.
Acknowledge when it is not simple. This comes back to setting expectations. If you are about to talk in detail for ten minutes, set that up. If you are trying to demonstrate complexity, do it visually as much as possible and state that.
Don’t sit on a single slide. Okay, if you are telling a story or anecdote, then a single slide that reinforces it or at least doesn’t distract is fine. If you’re answering questions that’s fine. I can’t tell you how many people start a single topic on a slide, drift off for long time on new topics without changing the slide, and lose the audience. Or they have one slide with tons of content, never change the screen and drone on and on without any interactive change. If you don’t know your audience and they don’t know you, you’ve likely lost them.
Define your acronyms, unless you’re sure your audience knows them. Really. I mean, if you know everyone in your audience has been on the same team and has heard the acronyms over and over, go ahead and don’t define them. If you have anyone new or outside that group, define them. If you’re not sure, define them. Just define them. If your audience walks away not knowing or understanding what you presented, it wasn’t successful. Defining your acronyms eliminates one very common barrier.
I hope this helps your presentations, or at least reinforces good elements of your presentations.
- Relax. If that’s hard for you, practice. If you can’t, accept it, it’s okay
- Set expectations (how do you feel, what are you presenting, how long)
- Think about your audience
- Keep it simple
- Don’t sit on a single slide, keep the audience engaged
- Define your acronyms (really, no matter what)
- Try to have fun, or at least be comfortable