I’ve given close to a thousand presentations over the last few years. I’ve spoken to rooms with only a handful of people and on stages facing over a thousand people at a time. Success is never a guarantee, and if you think I don’t get nervous or that I don’t balk at the possibility of failure, then I’ve got you fooled. But I’ve also learned a lot, and maybe I can share some things that will help you.
Start with a Plan
The first thing that surprises me when I talk to people about their presentations is that they don’t have a plan. They have slides, and those are arranged in an order, but if I shut their laptop lid, there is absolutely no plan. To understand what I mean, try answering these questions:
- My main goal of this presentation is for the audience to ______.
- The top 3 things I need the audience to take away from this presentation are ____, ____, _____.
- In the first few minutes (no more than 2), I will capture this audience by _____.
- If my gear dies, the main 3 things I will tell them are ____, ____ , ____.
- If they start looking bored or confused, I will shift gears by _______.
- At the end of this presentation, I want people to ______.
- When I’m done the presentation, I will _____ .
- When following up with people after this presentation, I will offer them _____.
Does that sound like a lot? These 8 points that might help you feel much more prepared before your next spot on a stage. It works the same if you’re a panelist or the keynote, if you’re in the office pitching to the boss, or if you’re speaking in front of your daughter’s third grade class.
Your Part in the Presentation
Sometimes I get the feeling that speakers think they’re invisible and that we’re only staring at their slides. Your appearance matters during the presentation. It matters that you’re well groomed that day. And it matters how you conduct yourself and speak during the presentation. I’m going to assume you know how to dress and groom, so let’s skip that. Let’s talk instead about the speaking part.
Speak slowly and clearly. No matter how slow you think you’re speaking, you’re not speaking slowly enough. Your accent (whichever kind you’re lucky enough to have) comes out when you speak faster, too. Slow down and hit all the letters in the word.
Get in the habit of eliminating ums. Um, uhhh, y’know, and all those kinds of words are just mental placeholders. You can kill them by practicing being silent instead. Every time you’re inclined to say “um,” be silent instead. This takes practice. Listen for the ums in your daily speech, and start by eliminating those. It helps and really ups the level of clarity in what you’re delivering.
Structuring a Presentation
For whatever reason, somewhere along the line, most of us were taught that you should put the most important stuff at the very end of a presentation. Furthermore, we were told to go slowly and gently into the warmup, and have several “throat clearing” slides preceding the most important points. Here’s a hint: in the attention-deficit world we live in today, people are writing you off within the first three slides you put up. Don’t bore them to death before you’ve had your shot.
Title slides are fairly standard. You can make yours more interesting with a clever picture, or a subheading that will keep people wondering. I add my Twitter handle to my first slide. If people are going to tweet parts of my presentation, I want them to know who I am.
Your second slide is quite often the “About Me” slide. That’s a great slide to have, but make sure that yours is a lot of fun, instead of a super deep bio of everything you’ve ever done. What people in the audience want from this slide is just a rough sense of why someone put you in the room to talk.
My third slide is never an agenda. Instead, try a WIIFM slide. “What’s in it for me?” is the question that most of your audience is using to judge whether they’ll give you their attention while you’re in the room. Instead of an agenda, this will keep more people playing along for much longer.
From here, try putting something useful every few moments in the presentation. I use a story, exposition, takeaway kind of method, where I can catch the audience's attention, then something that explains what I mean, followed by something specific they can jot down to ruminate later.
Your Promise to the Audience
People have surrendered their time to you. Don’t waste it. Give people as much value for that time as you can. And never ever think that the audience isn’t brilliant and accomplished. Even if you’re the unquestioned expert in the topic you’re covering, know that the audience is every bit as brilliant, so treat them that way.
Practice is Everything
Nothing beats practicing your presentation. You can do this by reciting it multiple times and by recording yourself to see how you really are versus how you think you’re doing. You can deliver your presentation to a smaller, local audience before taking your show on the road. Whatever you can do to practice, you’ll find that it really helps out.
Your mileage may vary, but if you stopped me in the hall before you were about to get on stage at some conference, this is the kind of stuff I’d tell you. I don’t know it all, and I’m surely not the typical presenter you’ll see out on the circuit, but I’m blessed with some really smart audiences, and thrilled every chance I get to share ideas with a crowd. Here’s hoping this was useful, and that you find success in your next presentation.
Chris Brogan is president of Human Business Works, an online education and community company. He is a chrisbrogan.com.