As I listened to a CEO (with an impressive background of a pipeline of senior titles) of a young, somewhat already successful company deliver a keynote at an extremely popular conference to an audience of about a 1000 people or more, I wondered about this – why are there so few execs who can really capture the audience? I will refrain from the particulars of the individual, because it is not important. The presentations that followed were all similarly styled – eye charts on colorful tables for the most part. We are all familiar with this – sitting through boring presentations that page through packed bullets and tables on slides and conclude with 10 takeaways packing the last slide. Why didn’t someone give these people a lesson on presentations? Why do they fail to learn from the most brilliant presentations that have been delivered by a select few leaders and visionaries?
I’ve been guilty of packing a lot of material on slides, but over the years, I’ve increasingly learned that it doesn’t help. The corporate template in a previous company I worked for was designed to fit more text than available default templates in PowerPoint. It is really tempting to fit that one last relevant point, without which the presentation will be so incomplete!
I’m not going to say that there is a blanket rule about how to do presentations – of course, the audience and scope of the presentations should help us tune it appropriately. And sometimes, slides are guiding material for a deeply technical discussion – a substitute for a white board (although it is a terrible idea generally speaking, it may make sense at times). In those cases, go ahead and put your equations on the slides and pack it up with barely readable font that can be zoomed into for your discussion! But, more often than not, you are presenting to an audience that wants the gist of your talk and is potentially coming in without the deep knowledge you have in the topic you are about to talk about.
Many people have written about how to give presentations and there are many that make a career teaching people how to present effectively. There are a couple that I consider amazing material that is a must-read for anyone doing a talk for any sizable audience:
The Internet is filled with tons of other content on how to do presentations, but these two are what you’ll need to check out for the most part.
I’ll close with a few points on what should be on our minds while preparing for a talk. Much of this is borrowed or observed from inspiring thoughts and presentations from some of the best speakers out there.
- When slides don’t matter
There are some truly amazing speakers. So good they don’t need something on the monitors to engage the audience or assist with talking points. When you are that good, skip the slides entirely. Or, fill it up with junk. Because, you are the focus of the audience when you are that good. But, many of us are not in this category and hence need to focus on other points.
- Know the key message your talk should focus on
Every talk needs to drive home no more than one message to its audience. Not two, not three, just one. Focus on that and make sure the entire deck is converging towards that message.
- Tell a story around the key message
Humans think and connect in terms of stories rather well. So, tell a story. Not on your slides, but construct a flow of a story in your head, leading up to the key message.
- Your slides are not the handout material
Don’t treat your slides as the handout material – if you need material that will live beyond the talk, create a separate version or add notes. Your live audience does not need to be tortured with tiny fonts because you may have other readers – after all, if your audience didn’t think the talk was great, you failed anyway!
- Resist the temptation to use bullets
- Look at your audience, engage them, take cues
Understand when you need to pivot your talk in some way by observing your audience. It is really hard to do this when you are already nervous about the talk, but, this is as powerful as it gets. Engage your audience when you can. Make it interactive rather than a lecture.
- Don’t leave your passion behind!
Last but not the least, be absolutely, truly passionate about your talk. If you are not passionate about the topic, try not doing the talk! There are circumstances when your job requires you to do presentations, but, try to be in it. You’ll enjoy your job a lot more that way too!
Great ideas need to be communicated. An idea is only worthwhile if others can see the value of it. Presentations are clearly important. Make a conscious effort to do them right!