There’s no excuse for a crap presentation

Microsoft PowerPoint

Microsoft PowerPoint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a fact of life that anyone who works in any kind of professional environment has a lifetime of powerpoint presentations ahead of them.

Some of them will be really good. Unfortunately, these will be in a minority. Most of them will be average and some of them will be absolutely atrocious. We forget the mediocre in a heartbeat, but the atrocious and the very best will stick in our minds.

There are many reasons for giving a powerpoint presentation. Some are given to inspire people. Some are to explain concepts or teach people. Some are to make people laugh. What they all have in common is communication. If you want people to remember your performance, you need to be either very good or very bad. The only way to get people to remember what you said is to be among the best – no pressure then.

The first thing to think about is the structure of your presentation. A lack of structure is one of the main reasons for poor presentations. If you don’t know what you want to say or how you want to say it, how on earth will your audience grasp your point. Remembering a poorly structured presentation is hard and difficult to prepare. You are also more likely to overrun or under run your time slot.

People like stories, so a structure that tells the audience where we are today, where we want to get to, how we’re going to get there and what it will be like at the end of a journey will naturally appeal. Another structure that works well is to tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them again. Then there is the old favourite that follows the PREP acronym; make your (P)oint, give them the (R)eason for the point, then show them the (E)vidence and then remake your (P)oint.

The exact structure you choose doesn’t matter so much as long as you’ve got one and it suits your subject material. As a rule of thumb, I spend most of my time thinking about the structure and what I want to say.

Then you will need some slides. I’m fairly anal about slides. I try to keep text to a minimum and I have a special hatred for bullet points. Words are for manuscripts and blog posts, pictures are for presentations. Every slide should communicate a single concept. Once you have a concept – a Google image search or a chart should be enough to get that concept across. In the later versions of powerpoint, you can even recolour your images so that they all match.

Once you have your slide deck, go through it a few times. I guarantee you’ll see some mistakes. You will also see the best place to break up your presentation with some chapter heading slides. There will also be the occasional slide that appears in the wrong place. A good few passes through remove any howlers and to make the deck flow better.

Then practise. I’m not wildly passionate about practise because if you overdo it, you will lose any spontaneity. The first thing I do is go through the deck and count how many slides are in each section. I write out each slide title and write a bubble around each section of slides with the count next door. So for example, my list might look like this;

  • Intro (4 slides)
  • Where are we now (5 slides)
  • Where do we want to be (4 slides)
  • How we’re going to get there (6 slides)
  • What will it be like (3 slides)
  • Conclusion (3 slides)

I run through that a few times until I can write the section / slide counts out from memory. I then learn the slides at the end of every section so that I’m never taken by surprise when I switch from one chapter to another. Once you can remember that much, it’s only a short leap to being able to write out your entire 25 slide deck from memory.

If you can do that, the presentation itself will be a breeze.

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First I was afraid, I was petrified…

Keynote speak at TechEd EMEA 2007

Keynote speak at TechEd EMEA 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seemed like a long time before I heard my introduction. I threaded my way through the round tables surrounded by delegates. I took special care when I stepped up onto the stage. The last thing I wanted to do was fall over and make a tit of myself in front of hundreds of people. I took my place and turned to face the audience. They stretched off into the distance. Behind me were giant screens showing my presentation and I had a gizmo in my hand to work the slide deck.

I started my presentation. I could hear my voice, small and trembling, amplified by the lapel microphone. Why was my voice trembling? My heart started to bounce around my ribcage at alarming speed. words tumbled out at a million miles an hour. It was only then I realised how nervous I was. Although I was no stranger to presentations, my subconscious mind decided that this one was different and a sensible survival strategy was escape at the earliest opportunity.

This was the first presentation I gave to a large audience and as I made the long walk back to my seat, I convinced myself that I made a mess of it. During the breakout session afterwards, someone sought me out and congratulated me for doing a good job. I gracefully accepted her praise, but inside I was far from convinced. But she wasn’t alone. By the end of the day, I had praise from quite a few.

This taught me a few things. Firstly, no matter how nervous you are, it never looks as bad as you think to your audience. Despite the little voice inside your head telling you otherwise, they are not waiting for you to make a fool of yourself. They want you to succeed. Even if they do detect any nerves, they are more interested in what you have to say. The other thing I learned that day is to never, ever let your boss persuade you to ditch the presentation you prepared and practised to rewrite it the night before showtime.

As soon as another opportunity to present to a large audience came up, I grabbed it. It was important to me that I improved. My voice still trembled, and so did my hand which wasn’t good because I had a hand-held microphone this time. It was most disconcerting to see it wobbling around right in front of me. I managed to slow down though and I was much happier with the presentation.

Nowadays – I’m relaxed about presenting on stage to large audiences. I still get nervous and I think I always will, but it all adds to the spice of life.