Presentation Tips

Lifehacker recently had a post called Public Speaking Do’s and Don’ts. It’s a little basic, but there were a couple of points that I liked seeing: (i) know your audience and (ii) be flexible.

The first tip gets violated by speakers who give the same talk regardless of who their audience is, which produces some of the worst audience experiences imaginable: excruciating engineering details to clueless consumers, marketing jargon to annoyed scientists. I wouldn’t, however, phrase this advice the way that Lifehacker did, recommending that you ask yourself, "Will the head of the company be there or just your co-workers?" The CEO may rely on the opinions of "just your co-workers" to judge the value of what you spoke about. Don’t under-estimate or de-value your audience.

The second point is something I’ve mentioned before with respect to VC pitches: if your audience tells you they are really only interested in digging into your financials, don’t spend all of your time reviewing your technology. Be flexible and able to adjust your talk on the fly–which, of course, means that you are not reading from a script.

I have a couple of other tips from my experience:

Once, twice, three times a message

Start your talk by summarizing for your audience what you key message is, then give your talk that explains your key message(s), then finish by summarizing for your audience what the key message was. Repetition like this makes it more likely that your audience will walk away from your talk remembering your key points. It also makes them recognize the key points in your talk when they occur because you’ve already told them up front what to look for and they anticipate the message.

Have a conversation

You should be able to give your presentation without your slides. This means that you know your talk well enough that your talk becomes more of a conversation with the audience rather than a read script. Every time you give your talk, the words should be different but the content should be the same. A speaker with this technique is more engaging to the audience. In order to be able to do this, you should be talking about what you know very well. If you don’t know your content inside and out, you won’t be as confident and be able to speak naturally and with passion.

Engage your audience

If at all possible, get some audience interaction. This only works, of course, in a less formal conference/convention/classroom presentation and may not fly in a formal business or scientific presentation. I saw audience engagement done extremely well during a conference at Stanford where audience members could send questions throughout presentations via wi-fi to the presenters. They also had individual response boxes that allowed every audience member to enter letters A-F and Yes/No, allowing presenters to frequently ask the audience questions and quickly show the results from the response boxes in their multimedia presentation. I recently gave an online presentation that allowed me to ask questions of the audience and then show the results after they responded using their computer. Most of us, though, don’t have the luxury of having such polling technology during a typical presentation, but Powerpoint can be coaxed into simulating this–a technique that I will talk about in a future post.

Great advice on giving presentations without relying on a slew of bullet points can be found at Presentation Zen and on the Beyond Bullet Points discussion board.

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