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Andy's Top 10 Presentation Tips

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  • Andy's 10 Rules for Presentations

    I spent this morning discussing presentations with a younger colleague, and realized that I may have some pointers to give the rest of you. This time I managed to think of 10. There are some obvious things, and some things that I have learned over the years of presenting information to audiences. I'm talking here about situations where you are presenting to a meeting of native English speakers (Americans, Australians, Brits, many Canadians etc), but some of the principles will apply anywhere.

    1/ If something stands out: talk about it (even joke about it). Then get on with the main item: your presentation

    Maybe you forgot a necktie... or you have a sore throat... or you have a foreign accent... or you are disabled in a visible way. Explain it then move on. Don't mention it again. Anything unusual and unexplained means that your audience will be spending time wondering what happened rather than listening to you. Also, if something odd happens during the presentation - again - talk about it for a second ("Ok: we all heard a loud bang - I don't think it's anything to worry about."), then get on with your job of explaining your information.

    2/ Talk so someone at the back of the room can hear you

    I'll talk about microphones in a minute, but talking audibly doesn't mean shouting: just talk a little louder than normal conversational volume, and, hey, ASK a person at the back of the room with a smile: "Can you hear me OK?". Your audience is your customer for the information you are providing: they chose to come and listen, and the reality is that they mostly do not care about you - just the facts you are presenting. Microphones can complicate matters rather than help, in many instances: for example, turning your head "out of the zone" may make you inaudible. At the iMAPS Arizona show a couple of months back, one presenter forgot this, so all we heard was "On the next slide you will see that..." then he turned his head to the projection screen, and we completely missed the next part. Lapel mikes are suppoed to be worn on the lapel, hence the name. Don't do as I did one time and use it like a hand-microphone - the audience will be deafened and hear every intake of breath and smack of the lips. You can not hear yourself as your audience does, and take note if people seem to be having trouble hearing - their body language will give you the cue.

    3/ Do... not... read... off... the... slide

    It's been said before, but bears repeating: the presentation is there to provide just enough data and memory-jogging (for you) to make your discussion credible, not to substitute for your verbal exposition. This is the classic, but understandable, mistake made by presenters in their non-native language, and man, is it a great way of turning a dynamic talk into a speak-n-spell session. If anyone at a conference just reads the first two slides, you will notice me pulling out my Blackberry and getting on with something that can not be put off to another time (i.e. just reading the presentation). And done faster, to boot.

    4/ Presenting to 10,000 people is the same as presenting to 10 people

    OK: I'm lying. It isn't the same - we both know that you'll get more nervous, but the basic principle is that you are presenting to some PEOPLE, not giraffes or pencil erasers. Just MORE people, that's all. My first swimming teacher said, "If you can swim in 7 feet of water, you can swim in 1,000 feet of water". The opposite principle is the same: if you have a problem keeping your head above water in front of 5 people, you will not do any better at Madison Square Garden.

    5/ Slow down

    Not to a crawl, but don't be afraid to take a breath and pause for a second. Aim to talk about 10% slower than normal, and if you can avoid slang expressions in front of a multicultural audience, you'll be a lot better off.

    6/ Water

    Always have some available during your presentation to sip occasionally. The best comedians know that the audience will forgive a momentary pause, and it also reminds your audience that they are listening to a human being.

    7/ Practise

    Practise makes very good. Too much practise makes slick and dull and uninteresting to the presenter and the audience. However, slick and dull is better than....

    8/ Umm err you know, like, stuff you umm. Yeah. Err... Don't!

    There is a great line from the old BBC show "Dad's Army" when one of the soldiers hesitates while talking and starts saying, "Errr...". Private Godfrey pipes up with "To err is human." Great line! Your audience will forgive the odd little hiccup like this, but umm if you err like umm.... then no-one will want to listen. Also, please don't "you know" all the time. We know. We really DO know. We know you sound like an idiot.

    9/ File Format

    Everyone knows that technology has speeded up our lives and lightened our workload to the point where giving presentations is easy and painless.... I'm sorry: I can't keep a straight face typing this - we know that, with different operating systems and computer anti-virus software and so on, even the best presentation can be laid low. I did a presentation 11 years ago, where the greek letter "delta" in the presentation was substituted by something that didn't even look like an alphabet character. Quick! Think!!! "This thing here that looks like R2D2 got caught in a car crusher is supposed to be a 'delta'". Audience laughs: point made: everyone substitutes "delta" for R2D2 and the presentation goes on. If I'm presenting, I usually bring my own laptop and a copy of the presentation in PowerPoint and PDF format on both a CD-ROM AND a memory stick. Seems to have worked so far!

    10/ Continuing Distractions

    At a meeting a couple of years back, a speaker was interrupted by loud music coming from a back room. Not something that could be ignored or joked about (see 1/). In this situation, you need to make sure whoever is chairing the session has noticed that there IS a problem. Some session-chairs are remarkably oblivious to problems, and they are also responsible for the comfort of the speakers during the session. In this instance, the chair dispatched one of the organizing committee to get the music turned down: it was: presenter made a joke about being a party pooper and he got on with the presentation.

    Cheers! Andy