10 Steps to Becoming an Awesome Presenter

Q: How can I give an interesting presentation without subjecting my boss/professor/class to Death by PowerPoint?

A: Presentation skills are like every other skill – they get better with practice. Keep a few simple rules in mind, and then rehearse until it goes smoothly. You might feel dumb practicing to an empty room, or to a friend, but it will make the actual presentation a piece of cake. Even if you do not read the rest of this article, YOU NEED TO KNOW THIS FACT. Practicing, recording, and watching your presentation is the single most important thing you can do to improve your presentation skills.

First, we need to create the visual part of the presentation. Chance are you’ll be using PowerPoint, so that is what this will cover.

Step 1:

Outline your presentation. List the main ideas you will be trying to communicate, each followed by your supporting ideas or details. For example:

Main Idea:
— Most PowerPoints are really boring.
Supporting Idea 1:
— People read from the slides.
Supporting Idea 2:
— The slides are ugly.
Supporting Idea 3:
— The presentation is always in a dark, warm room in the middle of the afternoon.
Concluding Idea:

Step 2:

One idea per slide, and stick with a small color palette. Put as little information on each slide as possible. You do not want your presentation to look cluttered. Don’t forget, people can read faster than you can speak, so if you give them too much to read, they will not focus on what you are saying. You might as well just be standing up there and pointing.

If your presentation has too many colors, it will feel disjointed and messy. Stick with a specific color palette and use those same colors throughout the presentation. If you aren’t that color-oriented, and don’t want to choose your own palette, try the ones that come preloaded with PowerPoint. Some of the new ones, in versions 2007 and 2010, are really nice.

Step 3:

Use dramatic images or multimedia. Even if you are giving a highly technical presentation, full of facts and numbers, pay attention to the way you are presenting them visually. Can you show a photograph of the object you are describing, or a video of it in operation? Have the photo fill the screen and put your text on top of it (you can’t really do this with videos though). If it is an emotion you are describing, or a feeling you are trying to invoke in your audience, use a high quality image of someone displaying that emotion.

Just be sure to get your images legally. It is good practice to avoid using just any random image on Google Images. It will be a big problem if your boss or your company’s legal department needs to bail you out for stealing content. Try a search for “free stock photos”, and use those instead. Be ethical.

Step 4:

Consider what you want your information to show. If you have a giant list of numbers from that data you collected, what are you trying to show? That you collected a lot of data? I don’t think so. If you are trying to show a trend, use a graph or a bar chart. Are you comparing the amount of one thing to another? Try a pie chart.

Step 5:

Be careful with your animations and transitions. Sure, it is fun to have text flying in from all over the place, or for your pictures to spin out of the board. But usually,  this will just make your presentation look cheap. Stick with the more subtle transitions, like fade in and fade out. Remember – your audience is staring at a giant screen – having things flying in from all over the place will just make it feel chaotic. You want it to have a classy, subdued appearance.

Now that you have created your slides, it is time to focus on the audio/visual part of the presentation – you. It is critical that you practice, and watch other people who present well. Watch this video of Steve Jobs introducing the iPad, and then continue on below to see how you can become a great presenter.

Think for a few seconds about the things that he did (or didn’t do) that made it so engaging.

Step 6:

Watch your ums and ahs. Most people have a tendency to throw in filler words, including “like”, “such as”, “um”, and “ah”. I don’t think I heard one of those phrases come from Steve Jobs in that entire presentation. He knew exactly what he was going to say and how he would say it, so he didn’t need to fill in blanks while his brain raced to catch up with his mouth.

Step 7:

Don’t distract your audience. This may sound simple, but many people do this without realizing it. If you notice, Jobs did not stand perfectly still, nor did he pace all over the stage, rock back and forth, or wave his arms/laser pointer at the screen. He knew that the focus of the presentation was on the iPad, not on him.

When Jobs walked across the stage, it was because he was transitioning from one idea to the next. When he was making a point, or stating an important feature, he stood still, calm, and relaxed. When you present, make sure that you are not doing anything subconsciously that will distract your audience from your message.

Step 8:

Practice, and get feedback on, your presentation. As I mentioned earlier in the article, many of the bad habits you might have while presenting are subconscious. You don’t realize that you are doing them. The best way to stop these habits once and for all is to record, or have a friend record, your practice presentation.

When you watch it later, you will see exactly what you are doing wrong. You will notice when you say “um” while you are thinking, or when you start to rock from foot to foot or pace. Do this exercise until you feel that you can do the entire presentation without falling back on your bad habits.

Step 9:

Choose your clothing wisely. You will be standing in front of people while you present, so choose shoes that will be comfortable. Decide based on the atmosphere and the topic you want to focus on in the presentation. Steve Jobs is one of the most respected men in technology, so rather than keep people in awe of himself, he dresses down in jeans and a simple black turtleneck. He turns the focus from himself to his new product. He does not compete for the limelight.

For contrast, take a look at this analysis of Al Gore’s climate presentation, where he uses his celebrity to bring attention to a cause he thought was not getting enough attention. Regardless of whether you are a Mac or Microsoft fan, or a Democrat or Republican, you can agree that these two people give engaging presentations. Each of them has likely given thousands of presentations in their lifetimes, and it shows.

Step 10:

Watch your audience. Once you get to the actual presentation, keep an eye on your audience. If they look like they are getting bored, try asking them a question, and getting responses. If you wake them up a little, and get them to participate, they will be more engaged than if you were to simply give a lecture.

If the room is too dark and too warm, they might start dozing off, so keep the temperature low and the lights bright enough to prevent sleepiness. Between having engaging slides and a well rehearsed presentation, you’ll have little trouble keeping your audience involved!


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