Wednesday, May 01, 2013

My completely unscientific, highly personal, and probably misguided list of presentation tips

Over the course of a long career, I've sat thru, prepared, and given more presentations than I care to remember.

Here's my completely unscientific, highly personal, and probably misguided list of presentation tips - use at your own risk:

  • Know your material: This is so basic that I'm amazed I still come across presenters who put up a slide and then break down as soon as someone asks the first question about what's written on it. Know your material. Know the sources of your data. Know the units of your graphs. Know the rationale of your arguments. Know everything. You get the idea.
  • Know your audience: Are you presenting to people who are already familiar with the material you have put up ? are they subject experts looking for details ? or are they novices looking for introductory material ? Will they understand the jargon you are using ? will they be bored if you try to give too much background they are already familiar with ? Know your audience and tailor your style accordingly.
  • Know your purpose: Are you trying to inform ? entertain ? convince ? get an approval ? State your purpose and make sure your material is structured to get the proper response.
  • Know the time: Is this a 15 minute update ? or a 1 hour discourse ? Please, for the love of all that is holy, have a clock in a visible location and look at it once in a while
  • Know the occasion: All presentations are not born equal. Making a presentation at a conference is completely different from making a routine update presentation to your colleagues. You can be more dramatic if the occasion demands it, give more preamble if the situation allows, but be brisk and businesslike if it is a routine internal meeting. Don't waste your audience's time with needless introductions and dramatics unless the occasion demands it
  •  Use a clicker: If you make presentations regularly do yourself a favour and buy a wireless clicker which let's you advance slides from a distance. It is extremely irritating for an audience if you are constantly getting up to point something on a slide, and then sitting back down to advance a slide by pushing a button 
  • Move: Specially in long presentations, try to move around the room a little. For important slides, move up to the screen and point out critical details with your hand, move back to the audience, gently pace the floor. There is always a very good chance in any presentation that you might be putting the audience to sleep - at least it shouldn't look like you are about to follow them. Look a bit lively and chances are your audience will deel a little livelier too.
  • Don't dim the lights unnecessarily: It's considered good form to dim the lights so that the slides are visible. But unless you are intentionally going for a twilight atmosphere, dimming the lights will also make it more likely for the audience to fall asleep. Experiment and see how much light you can get away with while still maintaining visibility of the slides.
  • Either read off the slides - or don't. If you intend to read your slides word for word, go ahead. Not a great idea but it is sometimes needed. But if you intend to articulate most of the material yourself, don't have too much text on the slide. Because this will confuse the audience. They will not know whether to listen to your spoken words, or read the thesis on the slide.
  • The presentation is there to complement you - not vice versa. It's OK to have clever graphcis and effect in a presentation  - and done right they certainly add impact - but don't get carried away. The audience are there to listen to you, not to be blown away by creative slide animations. If the focal point is the presentation, you're extra. Think about it.

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