The art of presentations

As a marketing guy, and even when I was an engineering manager, I make a lot of presentations. I’ve also been on a couple of presentation courses over the years. The most recently by Nancy Duarte, whose biggest claim to fame is doing Al Gore’s slides for his Inconvenient Truth presentation. The most amazing thing about that was not the course itself but the location: a whole building of professional slide designers doing nothing but presentations for large companies for tens of thousands of dollars a time.

Most problems with presentations come about from making the presentation serve too many purposes. They are what will be on the screen for the audience to see, they may be your own way of keeping track of what you need to say, and they may be a handout that is meant to stand on its own for people who missed the presentation. The problem is that the first function, adding to what you are saying, requires different content from the other two, reminding you what to say or serving as a substitute for what you say.

The reality is that your audience can only concentrate on one verbal thing at a time. If you put a lot of text on your slide then your audience will be reading it and not listening to you. You need to decide which is going to win. You cannot have it both ways and make a detailed content-rich speech accompanied by a detailed content-rich presentation. If the content is identical in both places, it is very boring. If it is different, it is very confusing. There are even studies that show that if what you say is all on the slides, then you are better either giving a speech (without slides), or handing out the slides (without saying anything).

The rest of this entry assumes that you are doing the most common form of hi-tech presentation, where a good part of the content is on the slides. When you deliver it you should emphasize the key points but don’t go over every line. Instead, tell anecdotes that back up the dry facts on the screen. Personalize them as much as you can to make them more powerful and memorable. This approach works well for presentations that you are not going to rehearse extensively, or where someone else may be the presenter. If it’s not on the slide it doesn’t exist.

When putting together a presentation, like any sort of writing, the most important thing is to have a clear idea in your own mind of what you want to say. So the first rule is to write the one slide version of the presentation first. If you can’t do this then you haven’t decided what point you are trying to make, or what your company’s value proposition is, or how to position your product. Until you get this right, your presentation is like a joke where you have forgotten the punch line. Once you have this, then this should be very close to the first slide of your eventual presentation. After all, it is the most important thing so you should open with it; and probably close with it too.

When you have the one slide version worked out you can go to 3 or 4 slides. Get that right before you go to the full-length presentation. When you expand the few points from those few slides to a full-length presentation, make sure that you presentation “tells a story”. Like a good story, it should have a theme running through it, not just be a collection of random slides. How many slides? No more than one every 2 minutes max. If you have 20 minutes to speak, 10 slides or so.

In the consulting work I do, I find that not getting these two things right are very common. Presentations where the basic message is not clear, and presentations that do not flow from beginning to end. Not to mention people trying to get through 20 slides in 10 minutes.

If you are presenting to foreigners who don’t speak good English, you must make sure that everything important is on the slides since you can assume they will not catch everything that you say (maybe anything you say). You will also need to avoid slang that non-Americans might not understand (although you’d be surprised how many baseball analogies Europeans use these days without knowing what they really mean in a baseball context). I remember the people at a Japanese distributor being confused by “low-hanging fruit.” They thought it must have some sort of sexual connotation!

So make sure you know the main point, and make sure that the presentation tells a story that starts from and finishes with the main point.

Oh, and here is another rule of thumb. Print out your slides. Put them on the floor. Stand up. If you can’t read them the type is too small. Or go with Guy Kawasaki’s rule of using a minimum font size at least half the age of the oldest person in the room.

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