Saturday, April 03, 2010

6 Mistakes you should never make as a Presenter

In today's blogpost I want to touch upon one of my other favourite topics - presentations. There's no doubt that an effective presentation is a killer tool for business success. The ability to express your idea effectively lends a tough to beat edge to your technical skills. If presentation skills are so important, then you'd want to think every professional worth their salt should be able to create and deliver an effective presentation. That isn't the case, is it? So here I am, making another set of points -- about six things you should NEVER do, if you want to be an effective presenter. Read on to know more.

Don't just start slamming slides together

I find it really strange how the first thing prospective presenters do, is to get into Powerpoint and start slamming slides together. Having followed Garrey Reynolds for long and having been a fan of Steve Jobs' style of presenting -- I've come to agree that the computer should be a bicycle for your mind. This means that a computer should accelerate your abilities and actually give wings to your own thinking. Having said this, when you start slamming slides together, where's the thinking? You may argue that you're thinking while putting together your slides, but is that really the case? I'll argue that when you start your presentation design at the computer, you're context switching between slide layouts, searching for images, dealing with hang ups AND thinking through your story. We know that context switching isn't the best thing for any kind of productivity. So if you really care about creating an effective presentation, then take some time away from the computer to think through your story. Try answering a few questions for yourself:
  • What state of pain are you addressing?
  • Why does it matter?
  • What's the solution?
  • How can you make the solution simple?
If you can do that and then draft out on paper, a play by play plan of your presentation, then you will see a few benefits:
  1. Because you know how you wish to present , you select the best tool for the purpose -- Powerpoint, Keynote, Prezi or the good old whiteboard.
  2. You know exactly what you want to show on screen - so putting together your presentation is a fast paced, almost mechanical job.
  3. Lastly, if things go wrong and you don't have a projector at the venue or your computer crashes or there's another catastrophe, you're still well prepared. You can confidently make your presentation, because you have a strong grip on your story!

Don't be a compulsive bullet-pointer

In my recent post about slideuments, I argued that if your slides can convey their message without your presence, then you might as well send out an email and save everyone the time. The good old practice of bullet pointed presentations has to go away. Remember your audience can read faster than you, so if you have to read from your slides, then your presence is already redundant. Take a look at Steve Jobs' presentation style and look out for when he uses bullet points - never! Does he read from his slides? Never! Does he look back at his slides for prompts? Never! That says a lot for the amount of work that one of the most inspiring speakers of our generation puts in.

But it's not just Steve Jobs who you need to look at. TED presenters don't do bullet points! Now you may argue that your business presentation isn't the same as Steve Jobs' product launch or an inspiring TED talk. Agreed! Here's what I'll say though, and I'll say it with a two bullet points!
  • If you want to make your 'business' presentation effective, you need to make it engaging.
  • A bullet pointed presentation where you read from the slide, is not engaging.
So if there's a lot of text that you believe your audience should absolutely see, then put it into a well crafted document. Give it away as a handout. In my previous post on this topic, I've outlined a few strategies to avoid slideumentation - they could be helpful. And if you really, really are dying to use bullet points - then as Simon Jones says, use them at the end of your presentation to summarise your points!

Don't do live demos

I think I've heard Martin Fowler say the same thing at some point; I believe live demos are a recipe for presentation disaster. Forcing yourself to do a live demo is like saying, "Look at how much of a man I am! I'm willing to put my presentation to risk with my bravery!". One of the things you want to do in a presentation, is be in absolute control. I like to minimize the number of things that are out of my control in a presentation situation. Patchy network connections, a bad day with the demo software, and 'errs and ummhs' at the time of presenting are all things beyond my control.

What I prefer instead of a 'manly' live demo are screencasts embedded into my presentation. Powerpoint, Keynote and Prezi support embedded video quite well so why not make use of this capability? You demo looks assured and polished and there's very little chance of failure. And then once you're done with your presentation, you can show live stuff in a more intimate and less intimidating setting. Don't have a screencasting tool on your computer? Mute your mic and use a simple tool like Screenr.

Don't darken the room

I can't tell you how many times I've seen presenters do this. They set up the room, they get the projector to work and the moment the audience is in, they switch off the lights as if it's a movie theatre! What happens is, people can't see the speaker -- they just look at the screen. In his excellent article here, Cliff Atkinson says:

"It turns out that when you watch people speak, the visual cues help you to predict and understand the auditory cues that follow soon after. These visual cues are actually not limited to the lips, but include the entire human face."

Remember that even if you don't switch the lights off, people should be able to see your presentation clearly. That's because most modern projectors can handle ambient lighting and have sufficient contrast to be able to deal with a well lit room. By keeping the lights on, you keep people awake and can easily maintain a connection with them.

Don't use age-old clipart

If bullet points are bad, clipart is worse. A decade old, cheesy, overused clipart makes you look as if you were too lazy to click a photograph or search for a 'meaningful' image from the internet. Don't get me wrong - I'm sure screenbeans were a rage in the 90's! Design trends change fast and using screenbeans today is like wearing 70's style bell-bottoms to work. It's perhaps a bit unfair to generalise all clipart as bad. Some of the more recent illustrations in Microsoft's clipart collection are great for creating a consistent look in your presentations. I must say however, that I prefer to snag my own photos and I often use stock photography for my presentations. Yes, stock photography can be expensive, but there are quite a few places where you can find high-quality, free images. Of course there are many ways to use images poorly in presentations, and you need to avoid those! And visual design plays a huge part in making your message effective.

Don't drone

Last but not the least, you owe it to your audience to keep things simple. Last year at one of our conference briefings, Martin Fowler handed out an invaluable tip -- structure your presentation around no more than three key points. That's presentation zen for me! Most presenters drone as if it's their last opportunity to speak about their topic. What you want to do instead, is create enough interest for people to feel excited about your topic. In his post about the Japanese principle of 'hara hachi bu', Garr Reynolds says,

"Performers, for example, know that the trick is to leave the stage while the audience still loves you and don’t want you to go, not after they have had enough and are 'full' of you."

So for this last section here are my tips:
  • If you're doing a sales presentation, stick to your USP and avoid forgettable details. As Guy Kawasaki says, follow the 10-20-30 rule and finish your presentation in (less than) 20 minutes.
  • If you're speaking at a conference, leave at least 25% of your speaking time for (detail-seeking) questions and spend the remaining time to generate interest.
  • If you are teaching people then present the strawman first and tease out details through facilitated discussion and exercises.
  • Keep things simple - provide additional details in a handout or a follow up email.
Remember, if your presentation is interesting enough then your audience will hunt you down for details. But if you bore them with forgettable facts, they won't wait to rush out of the room when they have the opportunity!
What do you think of today's post? I must say I am no presentations expert and I've learnt all these lessons the hard way. What I do have, are sufficient experiences of failure to say what doesn't work - and of course that's the focus of this article. I'd love to know your thoughts about this topic, so please do let me know either by emailing me or adding to the comments section. And BTW, if you're keen on exploring and analysing Steve Jobs' style, then take a look at the links I'm categorising here. Until next time, cheerio and present well!
The characters in this blogpost are from Byan Jones' elearningArt.

13 comments:

Miss Trudy said...

I find these very useful. Some of the points I already knew, having come to them the hard way as well! But others I find very interesting ideas to consider and implement in my next presentation. By the way, I am a big fan of TED presentations and I believe that watching them are a great source of ideas. Some may be to "way out there" for regular presentations but others have proven very effective.

Danny Maas said...

Another tip - rehearse and prepare for your presentations. Not only will the flow be greater, but you're also less likely to overtalk your slides. Printing off a 3-slide per page with notes handout for myself, jotting a couple key points next to each slide, and rehearsing at least 3-4 times is definitely worth the effort. I've also suffered by not doing this :)

Sumeet Moghe said...

@Danny Amen to that! I usually obsess over my presentation and go through it as many times as I can and make changes and refinements each time.

By the time I'm up for my talk, I can even deliver the presentation in my sleep!

One of the underused features of Powerpoint/ Keynote is the presenter view, that gives you a prompt of the next screen. That way you know exactly what your next planned point is.

anu said...

very good points. do follow most of them already but still good to be reaffirmed

Wijsmuis said...

Bit hesitating to post a comment, because I do use presentations since about 20 yrs (yes, before PPT) but always in a learning context, mostly with smaller groups (max.50). A lot of your tips are useful even for that situation. Do love the first one, you'll first of all to have a very clear idea of the content and structure (important in a classroom situation). Although I rarely use paper but a simple mindmapping tool or even Onenote in that phase, this tip is valuable. KISS is one of the last tips: indeed, but in a learning situation presenter has to be conscious that the attendants (students) will need proper assets to 'hand over' to them. Would love to have some discussion about this: paper handouts (of slides), presentation as a SWF/AVI, text? Do use bulleted lists myself at the start (treated subjects - often return to it if presentation time is rather long), and the end. Learnt also the hard way not to overload with 'knowledge', have never read from slides, happy not to have to darken the room any more (was necessary early 90's). Always have simulations (do teach software practice) in the presentations to avoid live demo (great tip!). Should emphasize if possible to have as much interaction with your public as possible, presenter needs some intuition to feel reactions and when necessary be flexible enough to even skip part of the presentation. Of course this is much easier in my situation. Another subject I would like to discuss: what about new possibilities to have reactions in the backstage (p.e. using tweets)?
Thanks a lot for this posting, very helpful. Sorry for the long comment.

Sumeet Moghe said...

@WIJSMUIS Thanks for your comment.

As a trainer, I often use slides in a learning context. To provide learners a takeaway, I usually do either of the following:
* provide handouts summarising the session;
* send them a follow-up email with a call to action and additional resources

I usually don't provide slides, because my slides are meaningless without my narrative.

Twitter as you mention, is becoming increasingly useful as a way to collect audience reactions. In fact using tools like Google Moderator can ensure that you answer the most popular questions in class!

Your comment was very insightful - thanks for posting.

Wijsmuis said...

Forgot to tell: when providing a digital presentation (do not like handouts on paper) mostly I add a voice over, not with exactly the same narrative (depends on the audience somehow) but to provide a similar experience (audio + visual) as in classroom. And when possible an assesssment or practice as you mentioned.

Ganesh said...

Hi Sumeet, Great post very helpful. Got me thinking about the endless status reporting and issues tracking in the project management world for which I rely heavily on powerpoints and end up not adhereing to any of your suggestions. Your thoughts on how to make them more engaging would be great. Ganesh

idateasian said...

Great post very helpful. Got me thinking about the endless status reporting and issues tracking in the project management world for which I rely heavily on powerpoints and end up not adhereing to any of your suggestions.

Chuck Haas said...

You should also not let fear of public speaking overcome you. The best designed presentations and plans are useless if you give in to jitters.

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