“Presentation is the ‘Killer Skill’ we take into the real world. It’s almost an unfair advantage.”– The McKinsey Mind.If you've followed this blog long enough, you'll know that I am big on presentation skills. I completely agree with McKinsey when they call presentation, the killer skill. If you're a salesman, you can make an impressive pitch. If you're a teacher, you can deliver a memorable lecture. If you're a technocrat, you can make an effective point to your clients. If you're an exec, you can appeal to your employees. If you're a keynote speaker, you can do what Steve Jobs does. The list is endless! An effective presentation is often the edge that your core skills need.
So what goes into an effective presentation? I want to examine this in a series of posts. In today's post I want to touch upon the first step to an effective presentation -- planning. This is before you slam in your first slide. This is where you start to think of your story and how you will present it. I have a few tips that'll help you create a compelling story for your show.
Don't Start at the ComputerThis has got to be the most common mistake of all time and it's one of the six mistakes you should never make as a presenter. I find it very awkward to plan my presentation on slideware. I say so, because when my first step is Powerpoint or Keynote, then I end up context switching amongst the following jobs:
- crafting my story;
- deciding how i spread the story over slides;
- finding the right images;
- and dealing with every challenge the program throws at me.
Plan on PaperSo if you don't start at the computer, where do you start? I like using low-tech, hi-touch tools like index cards, stickies, whiteboards and good old writing pads. Garrey reynolds calls this 'planning analog' as against 'planning digital' on the computer. These tools are highly flexible. If I don't like what I've done, all I do is rip the paper apart and try again. During this phase, I try to do one or more of the following things.
- I decide how I'll deliver the presentation. I like telling stories over providing a collection of facts. So at this stage I decide what my story'll look like and how it'll progress through various stages of my talk.
- I like to get some details nailed down at this stage of planning. I try my best to create a topic map from my story. This helps me understand what parts of the topic I'll cover at each stage of the story.
- If possible, I like to do some storyboarding at this stage. For this, I lay down index cards and try to sketch out as many slides for my talk as possible. In this video, you'll see an example of how I do my storyboards.
Think of 3 Key PointsYou may have heaps to say about your topic. Nothing wrong with that, except that people can only remember so much. To craft a memorable message, it's a good idea to structure your presentation around no more than three key points. I usually let my audience know right up front, "In today's session, we'll touch upon three things...". Once I've done this, then I keep coming back to this list of three so I can keep reinforcing the message in my audience's memory. Take a look at the examples in the above image. They are from real presentations and though my style could do with a little more variety, you'll see that each talk focusses on three main topics which I can keep coming back to during my presentation.
The Grandma TestBeing complicated and difficult to understand is no longer fashionable. The acid test for your plan is if you can take your story to your grandmother and she can understand what you're saying. Well, if you think that's a stretch then you need a patient wife. My wife listens to all my stories and interrupts me when she doesn't understand something. If she doesn't understand, then that's a signal for me to simplify my message.
There's something I want to say about statistics at this point. We seem to be obsessed about presenting statistics in our presentations. We use complex charts and graphs in presentations as if people can glean all the details in a few split seconds. Most charts, tables or graphs have one key point that we want to drive home. If that's really the case, then why not present just that key point? I was recently watching Steve Jobs announcing iPhone OS 4.0. Steve presented a lot of statistics in this talk, but it's an education to see how he presents these numbers. A few things Jobs does really well:
- He doesn't present more than one number at a time.
- Whenever he has to, he provides context for statistics. It's meaningless to say how many applications there are for the iPhone. It's meaningful to say how this compares with the competition. For more inspiration on how you can do this, take a look at 'Shift Happens'. No wonder it has close to a million views!
- Jobs uses visuals to convey his message effectively. Take a look at how he uses colour contrast and simple imagery to make his statistics stand out. This is something you and I can do. All that it takes, are simplicity, restraint and naturalness.
I have another example about presenting statistics - Jamie Oliver's TED prize talk. It's one of the best presentations I've seen in a long, long time. Jamie presents statistics and yet he doesn't. He talks about how American families eat unhealthy food, but instead of showing food consumption charts he shows a video of an American mother with all her junk food on the table. Definitely more compelling than a chart. He talks about how children don't know about vegetables. He could have shown education statistics, but instead he shows a video of children failing to recognise vegetables in school. The most memorable part of his talk is when he explains how much sugar children have, just from milk. He doesn't present statistics, he brings in a wheelbarrow of sugar to make his point. Now that's what people will remember!
So, let me come back to where I started. If your plan is to use a chart or graph in your presentation, then show it to your grandmother or wife. If you can make an impact on them, then you're OK. If not, please reconsider your plan!
The Catastrophe TestIf you've planned analog, thought of three key points to hang your presentation around, and been able to convince grandma about your point, then you need to undergo the catastrophe test before you get into Powerpoint, Keynote or Prezi. What's the catastrophe test? Well, it's simply a test for you to deliver your presentation without any electronic tools. Why should you do this? Remember Murphy's law?
"Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong."
What if the projector fails? What if your computer misbehaves on the day of the presentation? What if you realise on the day of the presentation that slides are not the way to go? You've got to be prepared, right? So I like preparing for the worst. That's my catastrophe test. If I know my story like the back of my hand, then slides are just another way to visualise it. If I know my story well, then I can also move quickly when designing my slides. So try this out -- see if you can use your paper based plans to talk in front of a mirror. If you can, then you've got most of your presentation nailed.
If you can pay heed to these five pieces of advice when you plan your presentation, designing it will become almost a mechanical exercise. You may feel that this planning phase is tough, and you may well be right. This will take some time. This will however, save you time when you create your slides. It's also likely to make your audience's time worthwhile, because you're less likely to drone and more likely to tell an engaging story. What do you think? Do my tips make sense? They've certainly worked for me, but I'm keen to know how you feel about them. Let me know by commenting on this blogpost. In my next Monday's post, I'll cover off a few tips for effective presentation design.