Most people suck at presenting to big groups. It’s a shame because the ability to nail these presentations at key conferences can be once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to influence journalists, business partners, potential employees, customers and VCs.
So I thought I’d write a piece on how not to suck when you give a presentation.
1. Show some energy! – No great presentation can be delivered like a conversation. You’re not lecturing to a college class, you’re not at a cocktail party and you’re not chatting with a small group in a board meeting. You’re on stage!
People are sitting in their chairs for too long – most of them squirming. Many of them have their iPhones and laptops ready to command their attention the moment that you start sucking. You’re on stage – act like it! Get out of your comfort zone. You need to be an order of magnitude more perky than you would feel comfortable with in a normal conversation.
Project your voice. Use your hands. Don’t mumble. Speak quickly sometimes. Speak slowly to emphasize a point. This is called “vocal variety” and it’s critical. Speaking in a monotone voice is, well, monotonous.
If this isn’t naturally you then you need to learn it. Go join your local Toastmasters. It’s the best way to learn. It’s how I did. If you care about being a compelling presenter you need to work on it if it doesn’t already come naturally.
Monotony. Kills. Speeches.
2. Tell a story – Every great presentation tells a story. Stories have starts, middles and ends. They are human and touch emotions. They bring your product to life. They are not buzzwords or bullet points. Why do people think that buzzwords are going to interest audiences?
Be human. Try to connect with your audience. You need a narrative. I talked about the importance of the narrative here.
I always tell people that if you’re not creative in how you tell stories the simplest way to do so is by telling “a day in the life” of your potential user. Establish the persona of the person who would be using your products. Help us to get to know him or her. Tell us what their life is like without your product – how they struggle. Tell us about the breakthrough they’ll have when they’re using your product.
NEVER lead with features. No one gives a shit about your features other than your product manager and your developers.
3. Learn how to structure – Telling a story is one thing. But make sure that you’re structured in the way you communicate. You need to break down your message into key components. It is generally best if you have a “theme” or “thesis” which if the main point you want to get across. You then need sub-themes or “supporting evidence” to reinforce your key theme. These are weaved through your story.
If you’re not naturally talented at good, logical structures you may consider purchasing The Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto.
3. Know your audience – I always try to find out something about the audience before I present. I ask the conference organizer all the details I need to know:
- how many people will be in the audience?
- who is speaking before / after me and on which topics?
- is there a theme for the event?
- what level will the audience be in terms of knowledge / experience?
- what do you think they’d want to hear about?
You are there to speak to the audience so make sure you know what they care about and how to entertain them. If you don’t, you’re wasting your time and theirs.
4. Be unique / memorable – Remember that at most speaking events you have a ton of other speakers – most who are exceedingly boring. I They all start to blend together. Do SOMETHING that makes you stand out. For almost everybody do not attempt humor. If you’re not already the funniest person you know in social situations you’re not likely to be funny on stage. Nothing is worse than bombing at jokes on stage.
But spend time before your presentation in creative thought. Don’t overwhelm the audience – just find some way to be on their memorable consciousness.
5. KISS – (keep it simple, stupid) The goal of the presentation is just to give the audience a basic sense of what you do and why it matters. Don’t confuse this with a tour-de-force education on the finer details of how your company operations. They simply need to know: who has a problem? how are you solving this problem? why does this matter? how big of a problem is it – really?
So I recommend that you greatly simplify your message. The conventional wisdom is that the audience can only remember 3 simple things about any presentation 10 minutes after they’ve seen it. I think 3 might be an exaggeration. You’re there to leave an impression – not to educate. It’s OK to throw in some facts & figures that people won’t remember because giving people numbers helps them understand the magnitude of the problem you’re solving.
6. Summarize – The old line about presenting was, “tell us what you’re going to tell us, tell us and then tell us what you told us.” If you literally do this it will be very boring. But the core idea is right. If you want the audience to remember what you covered you need to be slightly repetitive with your key take-away message. I like to have an “anchor line” which is my big take-away point and have it repeated three times throughout the presentation. In any speech I do that is information rich I often have a summary slide at the end with the key points I want them to remember.
7. Make it visual – Bullet point were the worst thing ever created for group presentations. Nobody wants to read your text on a big screen. If you’re going to do that why not just print out your presentation and leave it on my seat. Far more expedient. You presentation should have almost no bullet points. The way to capture an audience’s attention is visually. Pictures set the image, your voice tells what would have been in the bullet points.
You need to memorize what you’re going to say when each image comes up. If you wants some words to support the image – fine. But make them sparse and make the B-I-G! If you really get nervous and are afraid you’ll forget your lines have one 3X5 cue card in your hands for each slide. Don’t write sentences on them – only key words to help you remember what you’re going to say. If you write sentences you’ll read them and you’ll … suck.
One strategy I sometimes employ. I often do two versions of my presentations – one that has mostly images and one with a lot of supporting text. I use the latter if I send out the deck after the presentation. Sending out a follow up deck with a lot of images is silly – no one remembers the “meat.” But writing lots of words on a slide you put up on a big screen so that later people will be able to understand what you said is also suboptimal. My dual approach solves both needs.
8. Practice! – You actually need to do a dry run in front of friends, colleagues and others. People don’t like to do this because it feels funny “pretending” to deliver a presentation. That’s not you. You’re going to read out your points like it is for real. You’re not going to stop and go out of character and say, “oh, that didn’t sound right. I’m gonna do this page over from the start.” You wouldn’t say that on stage.
There is only one way to know how your presentation will go – to do it in advance. Get real feedback from your listeners. Ask them to be harsh. Better that you know now than when you deliver it in front of 300 people.
9. Stick to your alloted time – If you’ve been given 6 minutes then plan a presentation that can be done in 5. Trust me – whatever amount of time you’ve gone over in practice it will be longer when you’re on stage. And if you’re done a minute early – bravo! The audience will love you.
The best way to manage to a time is: a) practice with a stop watch and b) have less slides than you think you’ll need. There is nothing worse than a presentation that runs over the end of the allotted time. Oh wait, there is. A presentation that is CUT OFF because it ran long. And you don’t get to finish your points or summarize at the end. Don’t be this person.
1o. Pick the right speaking slot – This is the hardest thing because you often can’t control it but you’d be surprised that you can often ask the conference organizer for a preferred time and others don’t so you might get your request met. After all, as I outline here, you don’t ask, you don’t get.
So here are some guidelines.
- try not to speak first. everybody is always late to conferences so the best people will miss your presenation
- for the same reason try not to be first after lunch
- best slots are in the morning. Why? for starters you want to talk early so interesting people see you speak and want to talk with you at the event. The earlier you go the more interesting connections you’re going to make at the event. Also, in the afternoon everybody has food coma and conference brain. They pay less attention
- mostly make sure you don’t have the coffin slot. If you speak Friday at 5pm at the end of a 3-day conference you’ll be speaking to crickets. Everybody leaves early on a Friday to get home.
Some final “no no’s”
– don’t say “how’s everybody doing today?” or similar lines like you’re having a conversation. You’re not. You’re presenting. Lots of people start with stupid banter like that at the start of their presentations. It adds nothing. You’re not a comedian warming up the audience. Get right down to business. I hate time wasters at the start of a presentation. You’re already trying to stick to a rigid time plan. No joke, many people waste 30-60 seconds of a 5-10 minute speech with preamble. Fools.
– don’t say “how many of you have ever experienced x … (ie how many of you have ever had all of your photos erased on your home computer)” in your presentation. You never know how the audience will react. If you don’t get the response you expect it ruins your tempo and the audience will start to question your premise. The risks outweigh the benefits.
– don’t turn around and read the screen. Big pet peeve. If you don’t put up bullet points this will never happen to you! But it looks really stupid PLUS your voice projects in the wrong direction. Many, many people make this mistake. Yuck.
– never say, “I know this slide is really busy and hard to read” – if it’s so busy and hard to read then why did you put it in your deck? If you practiced you sure would realize that nobody could read it. People say this all the time. I cringe when I see it happen. It definitely is an IQ test thing for me.
Photo Credit: Asmund on 500px