I recently gave a presentation at a business. After the presentation, I was waiting for my plane at the airport when I ran into the president of the company and his teenage daughter. We talked briefly about what their company was wanting to do. Then he said, “You have a very engaging presentation style.” He then turned to his daughter and said, “You would have really enjoyed hearing Mark talk.” Now that is a pretty significant compliment, in my opinion. It is often hard enough to get businesspeople to sit through a presentation. If the president actually thought a high school student would have enjoyed it, I must be doing something right.
Here are some of the principles I try to follow in creating presentations. Your mileage may vary, but this is what seems to work well for me.
I like to use the visual presentation to focus people’s attention on what I’m saying and to help keep myself on track. If my slides make people stop listening to what I’m saying, they aren’t helping me. I keep my slides very clear–a white background and no header or footer. I’ve been debating whether or not I should add my company logo to each slide, but so far I’ve decided to leave it off in the interest of keeping everyone focused on what I’m talking about right then.
Minimal Words on Slides
Most of my slides contain a single word. A few contain a single sentence. This is very different than most presentations where the presenter seems to think they get paid more by fitting more words on a slide. My slide deck for a 60-minute presentation might be 50 to 70 slides long and only contain a total of 100 words.
I have seen a lot of people present for an hour with only 10 to 20 slides, each one containing 100 to 200 words. I’m not saying that this style can’t be effective, but it is a lot easier to lose people by throwing 200 words up on a screen than it is with a single word that tells everyone, “this is what you need to be thinking about right now.”
I use images where possible. Sometimes I use them in addition to a word on the slide and sometimes I simply use an image. For example, in a recent talk, I wanted to give an example from the management practices of a casino. I could have had a slide that said “Casino Example,” but instead, I just used a photo of a slot machine. It helped get people’s attention and I don’t think adding text would have made it work any better. What I think would have been worse is to say “Casino Example” and then try to fit a couple hundred words on the slide of what I planned to tell them in person.
For images, I like using Hemera Photo Objects. For about $50, you get 150,000 photos of all kinds of things on a transparent background along with some decent tools to search for images. This gives me what I need about 85% of the time, and it lets me easily drag and drop images into Keynote (what I use instead of Powerpoint).
Anchoring and Context
When watching a movie, you can get a pretty good idea of where you are in the story by looking at your watch and seeing how much time has elapsed. This is particularly true for U.S. movies that generally have happy endings. I call this anchoring. Knowing where you are in a film isn’t particularly helpful for surprise endings or twists and turns, but in a presentation, it is very important. When you present information, people need to have context to put it in. If they know a general idea of what you are doing and where you are currently at, it is a lot easier for them to remember the information you are providing.
At the very beginning of a presentation, I like to lay out a general plan of what we are going to discuss. For example, the plan might be:
- Foundational Principles
I actually do this before the introduction–before I’ve even really introduced myself or the topic if the audience already has an idea of the content. That way when I do the introduction and then move on to the next section, we have already established a pattern and expectations.
In the example above, if I’m going to discuss 6 foundational principles, I will probably put a slide at the beginning listing all the the principles I want to cover, and then again at the end. That gives people an easy way to see exactly what is coming and helps bring closure to that topic by reviewing it before moving on to the next topic.
Final Thoughts on Presentations
The best way to get better at presenting is through practice, even if that means presenting to your dog or a video camera just to have an opportunity to run through the content before doing it for real. What works well for you is largely dependent on your personality. Take the ideas here as suggestions, but make sure you take into account what works best for you, personally.