Presentation tips: entertain, educate, practice

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.

Entertain

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.

Educate

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:

  1. Tell them what you are going to tell them
  2. Tell them
  3. Tell them what you told them

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.

Practice

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.

Other stuff

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.

In closing

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!)

See also

Comments

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Don 8:46 AM on 3 Mar 2007

Great post, Ned! As somebody who makes dozens of presentations each year, sometimes to groups in the thousands, I agree with everything you've said.

I'd like to humbly add one critical tip.

The most critical tip I can offer is that you MUST Know Your Audience.

Are they already familiar with the subject matter? Are they "hostile" or "friendly?" The manner in which you carry yourself can either win over an audience or utterly destroy your presentation. When speaking to a "friendly" audience (or even a "neutral" one), then by all means be dynamic. Gesticulate, joke, and never ever ever stand still behind a podium. Move around. Use big, sweeping hand motions. Smile constantly, even if the subject matter is dry.

A friendly audience thrives on a Q&A session. Use it. You'll engage your audience, make it memorable, and learn about what you need to cover more completely during your next presentation.

If the audience is "hostile" (or, to a lesser degree, "skeptical"), your tone must be different. Speak authoritatively. Never ask a question unless it's rhetorical. Do not smile during the first half of your delivery. Seriously. Whether or not it's true, you must firmly convince yourself that YOU are the expert on the subject. Your audience either needs to be shown the light, or to come around to your viewpoint. If you're cracking jokes, you're losing credibility and authority.

A hostile audience thrives on Q&A --- but for a different reason than a friendly audience. There is always somebody in the audience that will use a Q&A session to make himself look important, or demonstrate a higher degree of subject knowledge than you possess, or just to knock you down a peg with an unanswerable question. I extremely strongly caution anybody about opening the floor to questions in a hostile or skeptical environment. That's a no-win road you really don't want to travel. If you're presenting, then you control everything. Keep it that way.

[gravatar]
Peter 7:08 AM on 11 Mar 2007

I agree with Don - I'm guessing your above tips are written with a particular audience in mind. Having done scientific presentations, I can assure you that unless it's a Friday afternoon escape-from-work kind of talk, funny pictures and jokes are NOT welcome!! An academic audience is just that... unfortunately, as I prefer a rapport with the audience rather than a boring style lecture.

[gravatar]
Catherine 8:46 AM on 20 Aug 2009

Great points, I enjoyed reading your posts!
How do you get your audience involved in a 20-30 minute presentation...
and also share a power point...ask the audience questions?
Thanks,
Catherine

[gravatar]
Bernard Farrell 9:12 AM on 8 Feb 2010

Re-read this again Ned, practice is essential. I think the importance of story can't be emphasized enough.

You may want to check out Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun. It's entertaining and informative. I think anyone doing public speaking could just read one chapter and have something they can use immediately. Wish I'd had it before many presentations I've done in the past.

[gravatar]
Kenny Meyer 10:01 AM on 24 Jun 2010

I really like Don's arguments. It's some time ago he has written them, but they're still very relevant, as this article is.

Thanks for this nice read.

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