Top Tips for Top Presentations

In 2013 you are most likely going to be called on to deliver a presentation whether it be to your team at the weekly team meeting, the boss to make a case for investment, a local industry seminar or a conference attended by hundreds of people. Whichever the case, you need to get your point across and address the needs of your audience. Avoid the ‘death-by-PowerPoint’ syndrome and the ramblings of so many presentations I see. You only have one chance for delivery and you need to get it right. Having spoken at conferences and seminars since the late 90’s and being awarded ‘best speaker’ at the itSMF Australia conference back in 2005, I hope I have something to offer when it comes to advice on achieving a successful presentation.

So here are my top tips.

1. Know your subject. When deciding on the topic of your presentation make sure you are comfortable with the subject matter and the material. Speak about what you know and your experience. Presenting can be a daunting experience for many people and this will only be compounded if you choose to speak on a topic that you do not know well. The chances are that the audience will ask questions and if you do not know your subject well, this will soon become obvious.

2. Know your audience. Find out who your audience is so that you can tailor your presentation to match their needs. For example if you are speaking about a service management topic find out if your audience has experience of service management or is it a totally new concept for them. Determine whether your audience is primarily comprised of senior management or practitioners. Your presentation should be pitched at the right level and with the right level of detail that aligns with the requirements of your audience. One size does not fit all so even if you have a great presentation you may have to customise it each time you present depending on the composition of the audience.

3. Purpose. Understand the purpose of your presentation. What do you want as a result of it? What do you want the audience to take away or do at the end of the presentation? At many conferences and events your presentation slides and supporting publications are made available to the audience either before or after the presentation. If that is the case, why should they listen to you speak? Think about the real message, above and beyond your slides and papers, that you want to convey. If it is just information exchange, they can read your material. What is your ‘call to action’ that you want the audience to embrace?

4. Structure. Careful thought needs to go into the structure of the presentation. A guide that I follow which you may have heard of is simple but effective.

  • Tell your audience what you’re going to tell them.
  • Tell them.
  • Then tell them what you told them.

There is nothing wrong with repetition. It is good to tell the audience what you are about to tell them so that they are engaged and know what to expect. After you have delivered your message – which is the core of your presentation – you can then summarise the key points from your presentation and provide the audience with some key takeaways. You may also want to include a ‘call to action’, which could be a call for the audience to change their thinking, use some of your ideas back in the work place, buy a product or service or follow-up the presentation with further reading etc.

5. Plan. Plan your presentation. Before you dive into PowerPoint, plan out the structure and content of your presentation. I find it useful to use a pen and paper to draw up a storyboard for the presentation or use a whiteboard to do the same. This allows you to draw up the big-picture before getting bogged down in PowerPoint slides. It gives you the helicopter view and allows you to create the flow before getting lost in the detail. You need to have a script before you start making the movie!

6. Keep it Simple. As Garr Reynolds says “simple does not mean stupid”. Your audience will appreciate ‘simple’. Don’t confound them with massive amounts of data and statistics. You want your audience to remember your key messages. Write down the three key messages that you want your audience to remember – keep them short – and repeat them often.

7. Death by PowerPoint. We have all suffered from death by PowerPoint. There is nothing worse than endless slides with lots of detail that the presenter reads from verbatim. Your slides are there to support your message and not vice versa. Some of the best presentations I have experienced are those without slides or where the slides are minimalistic. Often pictures are more powerful than words so use illustrations and graphics wherever possible instead of text.

8. Get to the Point. You need to grab the audience’s attention immediately at the start of your presentation so get to the point straight away. Joey Asher writing for FastCompany (December 2012) uses the example of Steven Spielberg’s film Jaws. Asher says “We could all take a lesson in how to quickly grab the audience’s attention from Steven Spielberg. His masterpiece Jaws opens with a girl getting eaten by a shark. No background on the town of Amity – just a girl swimming in the surf and becoming dinner. The rest of the film is about resolving the problem of the man-eating shark”. Don’t start your presentation with lots of background information about how you conducted your research, assumptions you made, people involved and so on. If people really want this information they can ask you during the Q&A time. Cut to the key point of your message such as “70% of our change programmes fail to recognise a return on investment. I am going to show you how we are going to break that mould”.

9. Tell Stories. Some of the most powerful presentations I have witnessed are where the presenter tells a story – often a personal one. Storytelling, that is relevant to your message – is a powerful way in which to get your audience to remember your presentation. Taking people on a journey with you that they can relate to can make your presentation memorable.

10. Timing. Less is more! Unless you have been asked to speak for a specified period of time such as at a conference, keep your presentation short. The attention span of people today is much less than it used to be. They are easily distracted and will be checking their smartphones for email and messages if your presentation is taking too long. After you create your first presentation draft, try and cut it in half.  If you can make a case for a business change in 10 minutes rather than 20 you are more likely to be successful. Get your message across before people start itching to get back to their desks.

11. Q&A. When considering your timing, ensure you leave plenty of time for questions and answers. There is nothing worse than a presentation that runs over time or doesn’t leave time for people to ask questions. The burning question someone had may soon be forgotten once they leave the room so make sure you give them time to ask it. A good Q&A session can save your presentation. If there was something that was unclear or confusing for the audience, this is your chance to put that right. The Q&A session gives you the opportunity to connect with the audience and convince them about what you have said.

12. Preparation. There is no shortcut. The more preparation you put in, the better your presentation will be. This does not only include the preparation of your material and content but also rehearsing your delivery. Practice makes perfect as they say. The more you practice the presentation the more chance you will have of being successful. You will ensure that your presentation runs for the allotted time remembering to leave time for your audience to ask questions if that is a requirement of the hosts. You will uncover parts of the presentation that do not flow as intended will which allow you to make changes accordingly.  The more you rehearse, the more confidence you will have when you actually deliver. Practice alone until you think you are ready and then get someone else to watch your presentation. Choose someone whom you know will give you honest feedback.

13. Notes. If you can, deliver your presentation without having to refer to notes. This will be the result of lots of practice and preparation. If you do feel that you need notes, use ‘cue cards’ rather than pages of notes just to give you reminders of key points and messages you want to make. You may be able to use a ‘presenter view’ on the computer or laptop that is running the presentation but you will need to do some reconnaissance before hand. See Tip #14. The venue / room layout may be such that you cannot see the computer / laptop from where you need to stand in order to deliver your presentation.

14. Reconnaissance. Check out the venue / room in which you are to deliver the presentation beforehand. Firstly you want to check that everything is in working order. If your slides are already loaded onto a venue computer / laptop, check that they are working as intended e.g. transitions, animations etc. If you are using your own computer / laptop, make sure that it integrates with the venue technology e.g. connectivity. If you have video or audio in your presentation, make sure that this is also working. In essence you don’t want any surprises once you have started your delivery. Don’t be afraid to ask the supporting technicians or host to let you check all this out. I was caught out once or twice in the distant past where I was assured that everything was working only to discover midway through the presentation that my video clip wouldn’t play or that there was no audio link. This reconnaissance also lets you assess the venue / room layout. Is there a stage? Will you need a lapel microphone? If there isn’t a lapel microphone does this mean you will have to stand behind a lectern and use the fixed microphone? Can you present without standing between the presentation screen and the audience? This 5 or 10 minutes of inspection could be the saving of the day.

15. Get Close. Depending on what you have discovered from the reconnaissance may influence your ability to get close to your audience. However, you should try as best you can, to do so. Get out from behind the lectern and connect with your audience. Use a remote to advance your slides. Insist on a lapel mike if you are in a large room. The lectern and your laptop are barriers between you and your audience. For many this is a question of confidence. This is where practice and preparation and knowing your material is key. This is where the confidence comes from.

16. Engage. A great way to start your presentation is to engage the audience. If you are in a foreign city or country make some comment about your experience there e.g. how much you like the place or it is an honour to be invited to speak in a city / country which you have always wanted to visit. If you are delivering to a particular organisation do some homework and find out more about that organisation so that you can personalise some of the content of your presentation. Language can be critical when trying to engage the audience. Use phrases like ‘what I would like to share with you today’ rather than ‘ what I am going to tell you today’. But, keep it short!

17. Keep Calm and Carry On. It happens to the best of us! We are just getting into the swing of it, the presentation is going along swimmingly  – and then the technology fails. We lose sound or even worse lose our presentation slides. At this point the only thing is to carry on whilst the technicians try and fix the problem. Chances are you do not have time to stop and wait for the technology to be fixed. Also, you have no idea how long the fix may take. To stop and wait at this point will lose your audience, so breathe deeply and carry on. This is where all the preparation and practice will pay off. This is also were reliance on your PowerPoint slides full of bullet points will let you down. If there is a key diagram, chart or graph that is going to make it difficult to talk about with out a visual, be prepared with handouts of that one slide so that you have a contingency plan to fall back on.

18. Focus. Not so long ago a presenter would be very concerned if members of the audience where looking at their phones, iPads, laptops etc. This would infer that they were not interested in what you were saying and that you had failed to engage them. Today, if a member of your audience is tapping away on their smartphone it could be that they are on Twitter and broadcasting some key messages you have made, capturing ideas you have presented in tools such as Evernote, making notes of questions to ask you during the Q&A and so on. More than ever, we are able to multitask so don’t be distracted about this sort of audience behaviour. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are not listening. Focus on your message and assume they are listening. The time to get worried is when they get up and walk out!

19. Value-add. Give the audience some added value. I always make sure that on my last slide I provide contact details for my self such as email address and mobile phone number, website address and social media details e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Twitter. This allows the audience to contact you later if they want more information or to ask questions. Where possible provide an article or white paper related to your presentation that the audience can take away or download later. If not already provided, inform the audience where they can obtain a copy of your presentation.

20. Make Yourself Available. Some people would rather talk to you face to face than ask a question during the Q&A session. So try and make yourself available. If you are presenting at a conference, tell the audience where you will be located for the next hour or where you will be during the next scheduled break so that they can come and find you. If you are presenting within your organisation tell your audience that you will be in your office at a particular time today and tomorrow for any questions they may have.

21. Follow-up. After you have delivered your presentation solicit feedback from audience members and the host. If there is an evaluation of your presentation ask for a copy. If the presentation was recorded as audio or video, obtain a copy of the recording and listen / watch your performance. Identify the strengths and weakness so can you can build on the strengths and remove the weaknesses. This is all in preparation for your next presentation, which will be better than the last.

There are many other good sources of advice on giving presentations and if you are starting out for the first time in this area I would recommend checking out the raft of information available on the internet. Garr Reynolds has a good site with some sound advice and guidance.

The most important piece of advice of course is……….’remember to breathe’.






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