Why are we still so bad at presentations?

There have been dozens of books written; articles galore; advice everywhere you look; even some amazingly good examples of great presenters – Steve Jobs and Daniel Pink come immediately to mind – but  most of us are still  just plain bad at delivering presentations! And I count myself amongst the baddies, because I fall into the same traps as everyone else.

Actually, to be fair, it’s not the presenter – it’s the presentation –  but the presenter is the one with control over it.

I attended a presentation a couple of months ago that should have been really good: the presenter knew his subject, might have been reasonably passionate about it, and even spoke well –but – every word he said was on the slides. Now here’s the thing: I can read faster than most people talk, so I’d read the slide whilst he droned on, in a room that was darkened (big mistake) and too warm (air conditioner switched off so that we could hear the presenter speak), at the end of a long day – and I embarrassed myself by nodding off more than once.

So here’s the thing folks – learn your presentation – don’t use the slides as crib notes. You should have either an image or very few words on each slide. They are an aid for the audience, but you should be the focus of attention.

The Learning & Development Community of Practice in Cape Town used the Pecha Kucha format for the presentations at their last event. This format requires 20 slides, each slide to be shown for no longer than 20 seconds. I was one of the speakers at this event, and putting the presentation together was a real learning experience. My topic was “E-learning: Help or hindrance in a time of Information Overload”. My first difficulty was actually producing as many as 20 slides. I found that I because I wasn’t using words, but rather images, I just did not need as  many slides as usual. Think about how often you see a slide with “Continued” on it – because the presenter could not fit all the words on one slide! And there were 7 speakers at the event, and the audience certainly learned two or three important concepts from each speaker. This was clearly demonstrated when they had to do a report-back on what they had learned. So it does work!

So how can we overcome the “Death by PowerPoint” syndrome when we are preparing and delivering presentations? Here’s what I suggest you do:

  1. Remember you are the main attraction
  2. Do a mind map for your presentation. This will clarify your thinking, and give you the presentation outline.
  3. Write a script. Try to make it into a story if the subject allows.
  4. Choose a design. It’s best to stick to white as a background to ensure legibility.
  5. Be careful with font colors. Some colors – lime green comes to mind, is close to impossible to read.
  6. Put your content onto the slides, using only an image or a few words. The slides should capture the imagination and aid retention. If you find yourself running out of space for your words, you definitely have too much on the slide
  7. For goodness sake, if you have quote on a slide, either paraphrase it, or allow the audience to read. If you read it out as is, it suggests the audience can’t read!
  8. If the presentation will be made available to the audience, and you are worried that a few pictures won’t make any sense when they review at a later date, copy the appropriate parts of the script into the notes section of the slide. This is also a good aid for you when you are practicing your presentation.
  9. When you rehearse – and you must – say the words our loud at least once. This will help you remember your script, but also alert you to anything that sounds wrong.
  10. A good rule of thumb as far as timing goes is to have a maximum of one slide per minute.
  11. And again – remember you should be the main attraction.

These rules are even more important for a webinar, because you have to hold the attention of an audience you can’t see.

Aim for continuous improvement – it is a challenge to change old habits, but if you keep working at it you’ll get better and better. You’ll also find you enjoy the experience more, and if you are having a good time, your audience will too.

Next time I am presenting, I’ll try to follow my own advice. And I wish you good luck for your next presentation.


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