Rather long mixed-up list of ten golden rules for presentations

I’m pulling together the presentation for an event I’m speaking at next week, and I’m starting to struggle, and so to keep myself amused, I put together this rather long and mixed-up list of golden rules for presentations:

1. PowerPoint is not a presentation

PowerPoint is a useful tool, but it is not the presentation itself.

It might form part of the presentation: showing visuals, capturing points, keeping the agenda clear etc. – but the presentation is, in approximate order of importance:

  • Your objective(s) (what do you want the audience to do/think as a consequence of your presentation?)
  • The audience (who are these people?)
  • The content (what is the story you want to tell?)
  • The presenter (who are you, what’s your style?)
  • The environment (where will this happen, what are the pros and cons of that?)
  • What tools can I use (not just PowerPoint, but anything else that would help me achieve my objective with this audience in this location …?)
  • How can I amplify this by making noise on other channels (Social media etc.)

That puts PowerPoint – a tool – in second-to-last spot, although I just made that list up with minimal thought, so it could be in the wrong order.

2. Don’t start with PowerPoint anyway

If you start with slides, you end up with slides (rather than a presentation suited to your audience that meets you objectives, I mean).

You probably will have a PowerPoint, but you should start with the list above in mind and ask yourself: What is the event?  Who are the audience?  What are my objectives?   Then start planning it out, what points you want to make and working out a few ideas for the best way to make each point … props, verbals, sound, video, visuals … PowerPoint can help to structure that, but it comes last.

3. PowerPoint isn’t so bad

There’s a lot of anti-PowerPoint talk about, but that’s because it’s used so poorly, and so don’t avoid it for the sake of it. If used well it can be a fantastic tool.

Remember it is a visual thing, so use it visually, but also use it wisely.

Unlike the words you speak, it doesn’t disappear, it stays visible, so it’s useful as a placeholder (you can always see where you are), and using it to support your structure will help the audience tune back in if they doze off, and help them feel that they have heard what you wanted to say and feel satisfied with the presentation.

Don’t forget that not everyone is immediately transfixed with pictures. Some people like tangible stuff like words and facts. Just showing a picture of a cute chicken won’t communicate empathy or whatever, it’s just a nonsensical cute chicken unless your presentation is about cuteness or chickens.

Yes, it is a visual tool, and people are visual animals, but they are also adults who are there for facts and insight.

4. Use the right number of slides

There are two broad schools of thought on this one.

One school often put down everything they’ve ever heard of into a slide pack several thousand slides thick. The other insist on only having two or three and end up leaving those meagre slides trying to prop up far too much content.

Guy Kawasaki has the 10/20/30 rule: 10 slides, 20 minutes, 30 point font.

Another rule is the 20/20 which says 20 slides lasting 20 seconds each.

I think I’d feel a bit sick if I were dragged through PowerPoint that quickly. I don’t entirely agree with either of these rules mainly because I don’t think there are rules: it depends on your objectives, audience and content … and of course your own personal style.

I prefer to map out what I want to say and consider one slide per point – a 40 minute presentation might try to cover 4 or 5 main points, so add in the top and tail, a couple of fancy quotes, and you’re up to about 10 to 12 slides for 40 minutes – but that’s not a hard and fast rule, you may have a few slides with useful visuals making only one point.

Use the number you need to meet your objectives, keep the presentation coherent and let the agenda flow logically.

5. Slide title and design

The slide title should be what you want the audience to conclude from the slide.

You don’t title the slide “Data from Q3” you put “30% increase in sales in Q3” or whatever the point is you want to make.

The title should be the point the slide makes.

If the slide doesn’t draw a conclusion, there might be something wrong with your content or objectives.

The design is very personal, but the strength of PowerPoint is to give you a visual medium to add to your voice and whatever other channels you may have, therefore the more visual (whilst still being coherent) the better.

Don’t do that thing where people say “you can’t see this but …” unless you’re specifically making the point that something cannot be seen.

6. You are not Steve Jobs

Some people like to think they need pace up and down in their jeans and t-shirt eating a pear when they present their genius to the world, yeah, but no – sorry – you’re not Steve Jobs.

Unless you are famous,  people are there to hear what you have to say, not to see you. It’s not about you. And, just because you have been asked to speak doesn’t mean you’re famous, so make it about your message, not you.

This means making sure you have some solid chunky practical insight to share, and then share it in a way that aids communication and understanding, not in a way that’s all about your tortured genius.

7. Delivery

It’s good to be funny and break the ice a bit, and people remember being entertained more than they remember being informed … but it’s a risky business if you’re not a natural comic.

I like to banter a bit and have a laugh but then if nobody laughs but me, I like to have some pretty solid content to fall back on, because I then tend to feel like a complete idiot.  If this happens, don’t panic, just take a drink of water to create the impression that you’re in control, and crack on with the content.

If you’re up for it, you can play a little with the lack of laughter, say something like: “this doesn’t auger well, that was my best joke. I will give you more warning next time so you can be ready” – this is a nice way to show confidence and control and show some self-deprecating humour

Anyway, having solid content is the best source of confidence there is and it’s what the audience will appreciate once the laughter has died away.

Don’t just be yourself unless being yourself just happens to be brilliant at presentations. You’ll probably need to practise, to record yourself and play it back to learn how to get better, to follow some golden rules for presentations like these, so: don’t talk too quickly, speak at a pace which feels too slow, speak loudly and make eye contact. This is really unnatural, especially as every time you pause no one else talks which is not like real life where conversations are multi-way.

Expect this, don’t worry about it, don’t panic or lose confidence.

Asking questions is a good way to get people involved but don’t expect a forest of eager hands, you’ll probably have to work to get participation, and don’t overdo it, it can detract from the presentation and make it feel loose – used wisely, with a confident presenter, it can be very powerful.

8. The start and the end

Have a good opening with clear objectives, make it clear who you are, what company you’re with, what the point of it is, how long it will take etc. (PowerPoint is great for agendas and showing how you’re sticking to it and moving through the presentation) and then conclude clearly at the end, don’t just fizzle out … end well with a smile and thanks.  Go out with a solid point and a thank-you, don’t just fade away.

It’s great to try and start with some eye-catching fact to grab the attention – especially a number.

Many years ago, I worked on a presentation for a hair-styling course for cabin crew. As we were trying to think of something we worked out that in the course of an average year, a member of the crew would probably be seen by about 900,000 people in their uniform – adding up passengers on the plane, people in the airport, in the crew hotels, on the commute to and from home … it sounded a lot more interesting and important when it opened with “ONE MILLION” written on the board, then as the attendees failed to guess the significance: “That is your audience. It has been estimated that you will be seen in your uniform by nearly one million people each year …”

9. Other stuff

Any non-PowerPoint stuff needs to be thought out properly beforehand.

People will expect PowerPoint so you’re not going give anyone a heart attack when you turn up with a data stick, but if you start pulling out flip charts, overheads, or props, people may have a funny turn. If you’re going to do this, make sure you really know what you’re doing.

Social media is a great resource for making noise about presentations and events. A lot of it is just noise unfortunately, but if well-planned it can deepen the impact and extend the shelf-life of the presentation – good examples include having dedicated micro-sites, Twitter hashtags (and live tweets during the presentation), photos, video, referred to in blog posts before and after, behind-the-scenes blogs and photos to give it a human edge etc.

11. Prepare

It’s not easy to practice, especially in front of other people, but it’s worth it.

At the very least it’s necessary to go through it on your own, practicing the pace, the slides, the sounds of the words and phrases, making sure you’ve got them in your head. It’s so easy to destroy the credibility of yourself and your message by sounding under-prepared.

Also, have a back-up – maybe two data-sticks, have it emailed to a webmail account you can access from any computer. Most importantly have a paper copy so you’ll always have a way to get the presentation and deliver it even if the computers break, you’ll also be able to review it anywhere. Check the room out beforehand, know what’s there, see if you can rehearse there or at least get the feel of it.  Get as much information about the facilities as you can before, don’t be afraid to ask.



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