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Presentation tips: entertain, educate, practice
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Created 2 March 2007
I wrote a quick response to Jonathan LaCour's question about improving presentations, but I wanted to say more. Here's what I learned (the hard way) about giving presentations: Entertain, Educate, Practice.
When speaking in public, you are putting on a show. As a technical person you may feel like you don't have to entertain, but you are wrong. When presenting, you are standing in front of a lot of people, in a larger room than you are used to commanding. You are essentially on a stage, even if there is no stage. You have to entertain your audience.
Put in some jokes, or some interesting pictures. You probably feel like you don't have enough time, and that you have to pack every minute with meaty technical stuff, but your audience will be able to digest more of the technical meat if you serve it with a side garnish of fun.
Play to the back of the house. This means acting in a way that the people in the last row will like. You don't have to speak loudly, since you probably have a microphone on, but speak emphatically. Speak a little slower than you are used to, and take longer pauses. Come out from behind the podium, move around some. When you wave your hands, wave them big.
Think about when you've stood at the back of a room during a presentation: the speaker is small. When speaking at the front of that room, you have to compensate.
Engineers sometimes feel that if they entertain, they will undercut the seriousness of their message, or their own image. Stagecraft doesn't have to mean insincerity or frivolity. It's just a way to connect with your audience.
Your main goal is to educate your audience. I know you think you are accomplishing that, but a common engineer mistake is to present all the choices and design decisions. You've had a fascinating journey building your particular world, but that doesn't mean all your listeners can follow you down memory lane. They've come for answers. Give them some. Make the 80/20 cut, don't tell them about unusual cases that only a few of them will run into.
This is a difficult balancing act, and what you present will depend a lot on your topic and your audience.
Your audience is distracted, you need to help them out. They are all sleep-deprived, and worrying about their hotel room, and trying to plan what else they will see at the conference, and where they will be eating dinner, and wondering what's going on back at home and the office, and having side conversations with friends they just ran into, etc. People are walking in and out of the room, everyone is typing on their laptops, cell phones are ringing, there's just a lot going on.
Sure, you've been thinking about nothing else but your talk for the past two weeks, but half of your audience just picked you off the schedule five minutes ago. You don't have their full attention.
Your listeners have a lot of other things on their mind. Make your content easy to digest. Yes, they are technical, and yes, they are interested, but they are also human, and in an unusual environment. Do what you can to catch and hold their attention, and don't make them work too hard to follow along.
The old high-school essay structure works well here:
Repeat the main points of your talk. If you think you don't have headline themes that can be repeated at the beginning and end, then either you don't understand your material yet, or you need to find a different topic to talk about.
Be catchy. Once six or seven years ago, I used the phrase "Powerful Primitives Cleverly Combined" on a slide to describe something or other. That phrase really stuck in peoples' minds, to the point that years later people mentioned it to me as something they remembered from the talk. Sure, this sort of thing can be overdone and become cheesy, but anything you can do to break through the fog and connect with your listeners will help you in your goal: to get a message across to them.
You have to practice your presentation. I personally could never stand in front of a mirror and practice, it felt too artificial. I practice by reading through my slides obsessively, going over and over the sequence, and mentally rehearsing what I'm going say at each point in the talk. Sometimes, I actually type out paragraphs, not so that I can read them aloud, but so that I really have focused on what I want to say.
No matter how well you know your material, and how many times you've explained it to your co-workers, or customers, or your wife, it's different when you are standing in front of 150 (or 1500!) people. Just like your listeners, you will be in an unfamiliar environment. The projector won't work quite right, and you have to think about where the microphone is, and there's all that bustle around you, and the lights are in your eyes, and there are 300 (or 3000!) eyes pointed at you. You need the talking itself to be second nature. Practice.
And practice will also help polish your presentation. I came up with the phrase "Powerful Primitives Cleverly Combined" about two hours before I gave the talk, during what I thought was one more unneeded pass through the slides.
I haven't even touched on how to choose something to speak about, how to organize your presentation, what to put on the screen, and so on. These things are also important, look into them.
So, that's it: Entertain, Educate, and Practice. Keep those three mantras in mind, and your talk will be great. (See how I did that? I told you what I told you!)