Monday, May 08, 2006

Giving Good Presentations

Whenever you are in someone's office and you see a stack of magazines, don't hesitate to look at the covers and see if you like the headlines. Call it "desk surfing" rather than "web surfing".

I stumbled across an article called "Presentation Lessons from Comedians" in the an older issue of IEEE Computer magazine. It had a lot of good advice that I think can help people be better presenters. Granted, some people just have "it", that personality feature that allows them to be captivating speakers. Some people don't have "it". But, if you follow some of this advice, you will be less likely to put the audience to sleep even if you don't have "it".

  • Have a purpose. Decide what you want to tell them before you make a single Powerpoint slide. Make sure what you want to tell them is only 2-3 things. If you can't summarize what you want to tell them in 2-3 sentences, you're trying to do to much. Most of your talk is purely about supporting those 2-3 things.
From the article

"...if you get your story right, the delivery will follow.... [When] the story isn't clear, the audience has to work too hard to make sense of it, and they will resist it, become irritated, and finally lose confidence in the presenter. Conversely, once the story is clear, the audience will come along for the ride even if the presenter [isn't a gifted orator]."

  • Beat them over the head with your purpose. Don't put up a lot of data and expect them to infer what you want them to leave with.

  • Leave a lot out. There's plenty of neat tidbits of information floating around in the world. Leave it out. Some of your audience will care, most will find the first 3 amusing and then get bored.

  • Be brief. The worst sin in speaking is to go long.

  • Know your audience. Know what they are expecting to get out of the talk. If they are expecting you to talk about something else, they will fixate on waiting for a particular piece of information and not focus on what you are trying to tell them

  • Never read your slides - not only can the audience read them while sitting there, they will feel like they should just leave and instead get the slides later (which they can read in 5 minutes rather than the hour you are making them sit there). Talk "about" each slide instead.

  • The article had one I'd never seen before - Look people in the eyes. Don't focus over their heads, look straight at them. As engineers, I know we hate to make eye contact while speaking but this one has merit and I'll give it a try. The article states that you will get a much better read on the audience this way and it will force you to subliminally do things that actually improve your talk.
The final one I'll leave you with is

  • Know your material. If you know the information, you'll relax. The worst talks I've given have been NITS presentations because someone else made the slides and I didn't know the material like the back of my hand. Please never ask me to give an Advanced DAQ talk again :-)

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