It is with presentations as it is with much else: less is more. If you’ve ever suffered through a meeting with slides jam-packed with Times New Roman 8 pt text, catastrophic clip art or illegible spreadsheets, you know what I’m talking about. Here are my ground rules for creating simple, captivating presentations.
Make your point
Sit down with analogue tools (pen and paper will suffice), and draft a single sentence that describes explicitly how want your audience to feel when you cross the finish line. Here’s an example: “My future customers will be convinced that my solution will improve their everyday workflow, and can be tailored to their specific needs without delay or significant increases in cost.”
Or: “My boss will realize that even though we are behind on three out of four KPIs, we have identified the following measures, assigned responsibilities, and based upon this remain confident that we will have reacquired our running rate by April 1st.” You may want to pick a different date, but the gist remains.
If excessive use of text makes you look unprofessional, does the reverse hold true as well? In fact, it does – up to a point. The perhaps best known example of this would be the late Steve Jobs, whose presentations won universal acclaim for primarily promoting major talking points and applying visuals to get a point across. Or, as one might say, to replace a thousand words.
Text creates an invisible barrier between you and your audience. Excessive use implies that you don’t know what you’re talking about, and reading it back verbatim, guarantees you being perceived as rehearsed, disengaged and quite possibly insecure. Just recall the last celebrity you observed reciting a public apology from a set of index cards, and you’ll know what doesn’t work.
For text, I keep it short – three talking points at most on a page, and preferably no sentences longer than fifteen words. I allow myself the occasional quote, but refrain from using popular ones to avoid blending in.
And then, I just let my shoulders down and talk. It’s rehearsed talking, not memorized; I always keep a close eye on the time; I use a remote clicker to allow for freedom of movement; and – more on this in a bit – I make a point of being prepared for the topic at hand.
Vary your visuals
And keep audio out of it, for the love of God. Sound effects are not amusing in presentations; they merely serve for the purposes of distraction and embarassment. Good visuals, on the other hand, are welcome – but I do have a few rules for those as well, the primary one being that just as with text, too much is still too much.
At the risk of sounding chauvinist, visuals and women are much alike: few and pretty always trumps many and frumpy. I suspect women hold the same opinion of men.
To achieve this, consider purchasing access to a high-quality clip art source, or alternatively purchase stock photos from a range of providers – just Google the terms, and you’ll find several providers as (unsurprisingly) there’s high demand for such services.
To tie your presentation and visuals together, opt for a professional colour palette rather than using the built-in ones found in presentation software such as Powerpoint or Keynote. Granted, they have improved vastly over the years, but anyone who’s sat through a presentation or a hundred will silently reward you for caring enough to make an effort to stand out.
Pick a popular palette from a site such as COLOURlovers, and use it for anything from bullet points to scorecards to KPIs, borders, lines, arrows and suchlike. Just make sure that your primary text always stays black, or – if I can make a personal recommendation – a very dark shade of gray, which is a tad easier on the eyes. As important as they may be, however, good visuals are only a part of the experience, and serve only as backup for the main attraction: you.
Know your topic, and know it well
It’s alright if you’re not an expert, but you should be able to answer eighty to ninety percent of the questions that might be thrown at you at any given time during a presentation. Having to get back to someone because they asked a particularly good question only gives you an opportunity to compliment them, and then promise – and deliver – rapid feedback.
Anything below that rate, and you’ll be considered a lightweight if you have an audience that’s anywhere near what you want to be presenting for (which would be the kind that you strive to impress for your common benefit).
If you can’t engage, disengage
How good would you say you are at judging whether someone presenting to you actually cares about what they’re talking about? I’m willing to wager that, on par with humanity, your answer would be along the lines of ‘fairly good’. Thus, every time you’re making a presentation, you face an audience of human lie detectors.
Fortunately, no matter how polished your presentation is, it all comes back to you. Why fortunately, you ask? Well, if you don’t care about what you’re talking about, you have to be a world-class presenter not to let it shine through. Alas, very few people are included in such an exclusive club, and the rest of us have but one option: don’t.
As in, don’t do the presentation. Instead, do something you care about. Whether it’s something else entirely, or simply not presenting on your particular area of expertise, just don’t present. I’ve attended a few presentations where presenter and audience were equally disinterested, and would prefer strangulation by aubergine (if at all possible).
Oh, and lest I forget: be yourself. If you know someone whose style as a presenter you admire, don’t copy – emulate. Pick up what you can, but never, ever, try to act as if you were someone else. That’s one thing that will make your audience of human lie detectors dismiss their interest in you in a matter of mere minutes.
Last, but not least: there are two kinds of presentations: monologues, and dialogues. The former kind is oft reserved for grand announcements, product launches and the likes, and requires a highly skilled presenter in order to engage emotionally with the audience.
If you have more than a thousand presentations under your belt, you likely have the skill to judge whether you’re one of those presenters; if not, be very careful about doing a ‘kahuna’, as a poorly executed presentation at that scale and level will alter people’s perception of you for a long, long while. On the other side, so will a skillfully executed one.
Personally, I prefer more intimate presentations where I get to have a dialogue with my audience, and have objections or questions alike hurled at me. This allows for close engagement, and creates equal opportunity for either party to benefit and learn.
Think outside the slide
P.S.: If you’re looking for an alternate take on how presentations can be made in a free-flowing format as opposed to the rigid, carousel-style approach favoured by traditional slideware, I suggest you take a look at Prezi. Although limited in term of platform support, it’s fun and fresh and offers novel navigation (provided you don’t swoosh around in there as if you were DUI).