THE BLOG

How to Give the Best Presentation You Possibly Can

09/19/2013 12:39 pm ET | Updated Nov 19, 2013

The presenter takes their place. Applause! Anticipation! The speaker fiddles around with the computer and then... their first slide! Oh, no, bullet points! Text, text and more text follows as the presenter drones on, slowly driving a lethal stake into their lecture, and the audience. Disappointed and bored to tears, they surreptitiously begin to slide out their phones and log into Facebook.

Has this ever happened to you while sitting in an audience? GREAT! Remember that horrid experience and use it to tap into when planning to give your own talk so that you keep yours interesting. Your goal as a speaker is to be relevant to your audience, engage them, have them learn something and then perhaps persuade them to do something with this newfound knowledge. To succeed at this you need to be compelling, which is defined as "evoking interest or attention in a powerfully irresistible way."

So how do you accomplish this? Whether you're giving a talk to ten people or 500, here are some important things that will make you a better presenter, and teacher:

PLANNING YOUR TALK

  • Plan your talk with your audience in mind, not you: This isn't about you and what you want to talk about. What does your audience want to know? What can they learn from you that is unique to your experience.
  • Stick with what you know well: Don't show what you don't know. Knowledge can come intellectually, say from books, or from actual experience. If you talk about topics that you're only intellectually familiar with then you can sound hollow and academic, but if you know your topic deeply because you've experienced it then you will sound authoritative and your manner will be more conversational, authentic. After all, you were probably invited to speak because of your experience, not because of a book you read.
  • Make your talk instructional: Don't just tell story after story about how amazing you are. (I've watched designers show off their work and never teach anything.) For each point you make have a relevant (pedagogical :) application for your audience, something they can walk out with and apply to their lives.
  • Have your talk unfold logically: Plan your talk as though it were a story in itself, with a beginning, middle and an end. More specifically, the basic building blocks of a story are: introduction, rising action, climax and resolution. So, introduce your subject, have each point build on the previous one, have them all add up to a key point that is bigger than its parts and then end your talk with a lesson about the larger point.
  • Include a 'star' moment that drives home your main point: A star moment is a TED-talk term and it means doing something that is so memorable that if they remember nothing else about your talk, they'll remember that. Bill Gates pretended to release a jar full of 'malaria mosquitoes' into an auditorium when talking about malaria making horrifying the participants! This got their attention! Jill Bolte Taylor, when talking about a stroke she had experienced, pulled a real human brain out of a cardboard box with the long spinal cord still attached (gasp!).
  • Practice your talk and learn your talk well: Give your speech to the dog in your living room! This will make you feel and act more confidently when speaking and have your talk flowing nicely. (You'll get a well-informed dog, too! :) And you won't torture your audience by reading from your notes. If you know your talk, then a single word reminder will suffice.
  • Time your talk: It's easy to run out of time before you finish saying all that you had intended. As insurance, put stuff toward the end that is okay to chop out if time does run out.
  • Tell great stories to make points: People love stories. Work the audience like an actor (they'll love it, even if you're horrible!). Commit to being a storyteller and throw yourself into the role. Keep your stories short, and make sure they're colorful, descriptive and relevant. Remember those ghost stories we heard around the campfire? If the teller was good, then our imaginations would kick in and our surroundings would fade away because we were so immersed in the story.
  • Try not to cover too much material: If you can, focus your presentation on a single point with a single goal in mind then please do so because it will resonate more easily with your audience, but if you have a lot of territory to cover then don't drone on too long about each topic or they'll start to count the minutes till you're finished.
  • Plan on giving your audience a road map about your talk at the start: Tell them, up front, the key points or topics you'll be be making during your talk and why it's relevant to them. This will keep them from wondering halfway through where this is all leading.
  • Create a Twitter hashtag for your audience to tweet out your best quotable comments: You can go through them later and see what resonated with your audience and also, in a way, broaden your audience. I've "attended" a few talks by just reading the audience's Twitter feed as if flowed along during the lecture. (Here is an article I wrote on the topic)

PRODUCING YOUR TALK

  • Presentation software is just a tool, neither good nor bad: A hammer and saw can build a house that will fall down or one that will stand for the ages, so how the tool is used is entirely up to the builder, and in a presentation that's YOU. Your presentation can be dull as dishwater or deeply engaging. Think of your presentation as an adventure that your audience gets to experience, not a way to torture them.
  • Bullet points are death!: Piling stacks of dreary bullet points onto your slides and expecting your audience to be thrilled about it is delusional. People will tune out. Presenters rationalize the use of bullet points because 1) they need them to remember what to say, 2) they plan their presentation as a comprehensive document (like an academic paper) or 3) they feel they're important for the audience to take notes. Whatever...they're still boring, and ultimately this is a live event with expectant people hoping to be informed and entertained. And, if I've failed to convince you, remember that the worst thing a presenter can do is to pull up a slide that's packed with bullet points and then talk about something entirely different. This forces the audience to simultaneously read the slide and listen to the presenter at the same time. Fuggedaboutit.
  • Offer details in a handout: Ahhh, here's the perfect solution to eliminating bullet points. If you can't have a paper handout consider creating a second presentation that contains all those bullet points and upload it to a online presentation site (like Slideshare.com) so that you can share it with your audience after your talk.
  • Use a strong visual on each slide: Fill the screen with a single, engaging photo or graphic that illustrates your point. Pop a word on top of it to alert the audience to what you're about to discuss and to keep you on track. Images also increase retention and recall.
  • Make each slide illustrate just one point: People have a hard time remembering several points thrown at them at once, especially if they're all just listed on a slide, so break that list down into individual slides and illustrate each with a single word and/or image and keep them moving along.

GIVING YOUR TALK

  • Your audience is present, so talk to them!: Try to be relaxed and conversational. Make your audience feel as though they were the only ones in the room.
  • Have fun!: If you're having fun, then it's likely that your audience will too and you can only have fun if you know and love your topic and plan your presentation well. Stay pumped and excited and it will rub off on your audience. Otherwise, your nerves will make you sound hesitant and sound unsure about your topic.
  • Act as if: Without even opening your mouth, your audience sees you as an expert worth listening to, so give them what they expect. Be confident, if possible, even if you are shaking in your boots (as most people are!). If you don't FEEL confident, then ACT as though you were. Otherwise, if you're mousey, self-deprecating and apologetic, your audience will begin to see you as unauthoritative and wonder why they're there.
  • Move your body: Get a lapel microphone (Lav mic) and get out from behind the podium. Think like an evangelical speaker. Hallelujah!
  • Look at people: Scan the whole audience and make eye contact with people.
  • Show emotion: Let them feel your passion. Use intonation. If you're telling a story about something that made you happy, then smile, sound gleeful and move your arms. Your audience will smile, too.
  • Stay on point: It's easy to wander into tangential stories that, although good, aren't useful to your audience. Don't waste their time.
  • Tease your audience: Make them expectant. "I'll show you how all these points come together in a way that will shock you!"
  • Think of your audience as a toy for you to enjoy!: Is there a way to involve your audience rather than having them just sit there through your entire talk? Have them tweet questions or answers to a big screen (But do that carefully. Here's an article I wrote on the subject). Can you get them drawing or moving? A show of hands? Throw paper planes at you? Be creative. In the video below I use beach balls to make a point.(Here's talk I gave to 300 students on brainstorming. I used beach balls to make my first point!)

Good luck!