Instantly Improve Your Presentation with These 4 Quick-n-Dirty Tips

Posted: May 27, 2012 in Presentation Skills

This is the crowd at your next presentation. That’s you they’re cheering for! … Aw c’mon, it’s totally possible! (Photo courtesy of gareth1953, Flickr Creative Commons.)

You can use these tactics right now, today, to punch up your next presentation. I’ve field-tested each of these on my drive to get audience evaluation forms containing more fives than fours. You’ll be glad you tried these keepers.

1. Put only one idea on each slide. PowerPoint slides sag under the burden of too many words. When 20 minutes have expired and the speaker has reached bullet four out of six on one slide, you want to scream a la Daffy Duck, “Shoot me now!”

But reconfiguring your stump speech for succinctness and better visuals takes a ton of time. The quick-n-dirty solution: divide that slide bloated with six bullet points into six slides of one bullet each. Interest renews every time you flash a new slide. Now you are changing slides every minute or so, which gives the listeners a sense of a livelier pace.

To see the “one idea per slide” approach in its ultimate refinement, view these exemplary talks by Lawrence Lessig and Michael Pollan.

2. Rehearse aloud. The night before an important presentation, I would go over my slides repeatedly, making sure I knew what I planned to say about each slide. But I used to review it all mentally.

The next day, when speaking the presentation, I’d watch like a surprised passenger in my own body as my mouth launched down crazy rabbit trails that ate up time or repeated points already made.

A voiceover artist tipped me off that you have to rehearse actually getting the words out of your mouth. This can sound embarrassing if you have to practice in a cubicle area or a shared room. Do it anyway. Flashing the slide, then attempting to speak to it without consulting notes, dramatically improved my presentations – especially the transitions between slides. And it also gave me a realistic view of how much time the presentation actually took.

Sounds simple, but it is pure gold. Don’t just practice mentally – practice verbally.

For both your slides and your time slot, the fact that you can cram in more doesn’t mean you should.

3. Make your presentation 20% shorter than its time slot. Sometimes you have a lot you want to convey to your audience. Resist the temptation to cram it all into your presentation. The point is not for you to transmit. The point is for the audience to receive. To a real communicator, “three points that people retain” beats “six fast points people heard but barely understood” every time. Listeners cannot absorb your message when you gallop through your preso, and you lack the time budget to interact with them.

In the days when I wrote 58-minute presentations for 60-minute slots, I learned the hard way that no meeting starts promptly. I’d stew or adrenalize as laggards, opening ceremonies, introductions, and technical problems ate up 10 precious minutes of the time slot. Worse, I’d have to awkwardly edit my preso on the fly. The solution was simple: I disciplined myself to plan 40 – 45 minutes of content for a 60 minute slot; 20 minutes for a 30 minute slot.

This might require you to “kill your darlings” — discarding points you wanted to make. The sacrifice is worth it for you and the audience when you present feeling relaxed, with your pace unhurried, and with time to handle questions.

4. Dump the “Thank You” slide. Almost every presentation I’ve seen ends with a slide that says either “Thank you” or “Questions?” This single slide often gets the most time in front of audience eyeballs, because it displays throughout the entire ending Q&A. What a missed opportunity! What use is a slide that says “Questions?” when you can easily say, “Now I’ll take your questions”?

Better: for your final slide, display your single most important point – the one you really want them to walk away with. Let them view your important point for ten minutes during questions, and you greatly increase the odds that they’ll remember it.

That’s it. These four random tactics work even better if you’ve absorbed the visual presentation strategies recommended in outstanding books such as slide:ology and Presentation Zen. But if you don’t have time to dwell at book length on your presentation skills, try any of these for an instant pop of improvement.

  1. Larry says:

    Very helpful and timely. Love the WtR facelift!

  2. Ken Bour says:

    I resonate with all of these points, but I am especially enamored with #4 because, in the past, I have invariably added that stupid slide. How much better to end with the salient message of the presentation! Yep, I’m forever done with “Questions?” and “Thank You!” – even if I have to abandon the clever images I liked to tuck there…

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