Feb 09 2011

Tips and Tricks On How To Become a Presentation Ninja

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Making a great presentation is not easy. It’s something that requires hard work, thought and practice. And did I mention practice? As the saying goes, “Practice makes perfect!” So in other words: You won’t turn into Steve Jobs over night from reading this article. He has developed his amazing presentation skills over years and years of practice.

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Presentation is Not an Art

Art is something created without a specific target audience in mind. Something that reflects the emotions of the artist. A presentation is something completely different. A presentation is a performance. A performance that (if it’s a good presentation) delivers a clear message to a specific target audience.

The good news is that it doesn’t take much to dramatically change the way your audience will react to your presentations. You can improve tremendously by applying a few principles. So come along now, read on and take your first steps to becoming a presentation ninja.

The Plan

Like with any design/development project, you can divide presentation design into phases: 1) Planning, 2) Producing and 3) Performing.

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Write all your ideas and thoughts down before you forget them. Image Credit

Essentially, when you start planning your presentation, you should treat it as you would a treat a written story. Because a presentation is a story. A story told in narrative, auditive and visuals to a specific target audience. Knowing who that target audience is will enable you to focus your presentation and create a presentation that they will find relevant.

Know Your Audience

Start by asking yourself these questions about your audience: “Who are they?”, “What do they know?” and “What do they want to take home from my presentation?”. There’s a big difference between talking to a group of professional front-end designers as opposed to a group of newly graduates just starting out in the business.

By knowing “who” and “what” you have a fair chance of making a presentation that is relevant for them because you will be able to get the level right and include examples (both visual and verbal) they can relate to. Moving on to the actual presentation planning, it’s a very good idea to start your planning on paper; not in Keynote, Powerpoint or any other presentation software.

Outline

The first step you need to take is to outline your presentation so you get a clear overview of it’s content. I usually tend to build my stories like this:

  • Tell what you want to tell them about (your introduction/outline).
  • Tell it!
  • Tell what your presentation was about (your summary).

This way you deliver your key messages 3 times. Like in fairy tales, when telling a story, the number 3 has great power, and you can use it to your advantage to help the audience remember your messages. So, make things in groups of 3 as often as you can. For instance: Have 3 key messages, repeat a word at the start of 3 sentences and give 3 examples instead on one.

Write

Once you have your outline, it’s time to write your manuscript (remember, a presentation is a performance, so it needs a script). It will be helpful for you to write your story in full sentences because it will enable you to verbalise what you want to say and will ensure that you create a good flow in the story

Now, once you have your content firmly mapped out, you can start producing your slides. But hold off on cranking up any software yet — paper and pen are still your friends!

Sketch

I find sketching to be a big help before I actually start producing the slides digitally. Using post-it notes, you can create an agile storyboard of your presentation. For each slide, you make a post-it that include visuals, text and audio. Once you have all your slides on post-its you can easily change their order until it’s just right.

At this point, you should start finding visuals for your slides. It will save you time later on in the process. Flickr.com is a great resource, especially because of its Creative Commons search option. Creative Commons licensed images are free to use in any way you want, as long as you credit the author. You can search for CC licensed photos on Flickr in the Advanced search.

Now, you can fire up the software of your choice and start producing.

Produce

There’s something evil out there. Something that quickly and surely will drain your audience and leave them tired, unfocused and looking at their watches. That evil is bullet points.

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Keep a good overview of all your notes! Image Credit

Avoid Using Bullet Points

Don’t be tempted to use Powerpoint or Keynote’s default first slide with bullet points. It’s the worst mistake you could ever make.

The brain cannot keep focus on both listening and reading at the same time. Also, we tend to “chunk” information into smaller groups — which means that long bullet point lists are simply too overwhelming for us to take in. Especially because we’re using our hearing sense at the same time.

So, what’s the alternative to using bullet points?

Bullet point lists are great as supporting notes for your presentation, but they belong in your notes and not on the slides. Both Powerpoint and Keynote have a presenter notes function built in. Use it and put one bullet on one slide!

Visualize

Slides should work as visual support for your message. A place where the audience can rest their eyes — not a space they have to dedicate 80% of their brainpower to decode.

We know from perception theory that humans decode visuals first. First we see graphics, then headlines and highlighted text, and finally, body text. The Picture Superiority Effect also suggests that concepts are more likely to be remembered if they are presented as pictures as opposed to in words. So use images to support your message.

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We all perceive differently. Image Credit

The cognitive theory about Dual-coding mentions that we have 2 mental systems in which we store information: a visual system and a verbal system (more information about the Dual-coding theory can be found here).

It suggests that humans have difficulty deciphering several stimuli/ input into the same system, for instance when looking at an image and some text simultaneously. Or think about when two people talking to you simultaneously — it’s very annoying and difficult to keep track, isn’t it? It’s exactly the same when we try to force two sets of input into people’s visual system.

On the other hand, if an image (stored in the visual system) is supported by narration (spoken words that are stored in the verbal channel) it is likely to enhance learning and memory storage, because storing the input in two places creates a stronger memory of the input than if it were only stored in one place.

And that’s why you should keep your slides simple and avoid multiple “same system” input. Don’t force your audience to multitask — they can’t.

Apply the KISS Principle

Consider your slide production as an actual design job. This means that you should apply all the design principles you know, like the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Creating simple slides with plenty of white space will ensure that you create visually pleasing, calm slides that the audience can easily decipher.

Entice Trust, Aim for Beauty

We know from various studies (like this one) on how web-users perceive a given site’s credibility that the visual design is key to creating a site users will find trustworthy. This can be transferred to presentation slide design (and any other graphic/ interface design for that matter). If your presentation is beautiful, your audience is more likely to trust you.

Another usability/aesthetics study (mentioned in Donald Norman’s book called “Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things“) showed that two ATM interfaces worked radically different, despite having identical functionality. The difference between them was their aesthetics; one was simply designed more beautifully than the other. The more beautiful interface worked better for the users. They completed the tasks quicker and more easily on the aesthetically pleasing interface.

Norman suggests this is because when we look at something beautiful, we relax. And when we relax, we become more open and forgiving. So indeed, aesthetics matter highly when it comes to design – and this goes for presentation slides as well.

The 10 Minute Rule

Humans have a very short attention span. This means that shortly after you’ve started your presentation, your audience will start to look at their watch and wonder when you’ll finish. They lose focus.

A handy trick to overcome this lack of focus in the audience can be found in Steve Jobs’ book. The book suggests that exactly 10 minutes into your presentation, you do something different. You change the scene for instance by showing a video, digging out some physical props or handing out a sample. By doing that you persuade the audience to re-focus on you.

This sign played a significant role in Bruce Lawson’s presentation during The Future of Webdesign London 2010. A smart, analogue way to repeatedly change the scene throughout a presentation that otherwise consisted purely of digital slides and video examples.

Practice

Between “produce” and “perform” lies the crucial act of PRACTICE. And it holds the key to controlling your nerves, because if you’re well prepared, you lessen your risk of forgetting what it is you want to say.

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Practice many times to avoid stressful situations. Image Credit.

So once your slides are done, run through them. And then do it again. And again. And then record the audio so you can hear how it sounds. So you will memorize it. And so you can time it perfectly. Very often, you will only have a specific amount of minutes for your presentation. So make sure you practice it well — and don’t run overtime! It will pay off. That’s a promise.

One of the many great books about presentation design suggests that you make 4 complete rehearsal rounds of your presentation:

  • First, you add the full sentences from your manuscript in your presenter notes. Run through your slides and say the sentences.
  • Highlight key words in the sentences (in the notes) and then run through your slides again, this time primarily looking at the highlighted keywords.
  • Then, delete the sentences in your notes so you’re left with only the keywords. Practice the presentation from this.
  • Remove the notes and now make a practice presentation with only the slides as your support. By now, you’ve been over your presentation 3 times, so you will be able to memorize most of the details just by looking at your slides.

Perform

And so, you have reached the point where it really counts; where all your hard work, planning and practice has to prove its worth: It’s time to perform.

The Dreaded Opening

If you’re very nervous, show a visual, or maybe even a video as the first thing in your presentation (right after you introduce yourself, of course). It will detract focus from you, and give you a short breathing space so you will be able to calm down and get your nerves under control.

Step Away From the Computer

I know, this can seem very scary. But it works wonders to use the entire stage/ platform when you speak, instead of hiding behind your computer screen. It will also demand that you practice more, because you can’t have your notes present all the time — but that’s a good thing. It will make you focus on your audience.

Also, not being tied down by a podium and a computer means that you can use your body language much more.

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Try your best to stay relaxed and focused. Image Credit

Control and Use Your Body Language

Controlling our body language is difficult because it is something we do/use intuitively and without thinking about it. If we’re unwilling, we cross our arms over our chest. If we’re nervous, we might pace back and forth or move from side to side while standing in front of our audience.

A few tips to control your body language and keep the attention of the audience is to:

  • Establish eye contact with your entire audience. Don’t just stare at your screen, glance out the window or look at your feet. Talk to your audience, not at them.
  • Use hand gestures to emphasize what you’re saying. For instance if you’re saying “from beginning, to end”, use hand gestures from left to right to emphasize it.
  • Use pauses. Pauses are a great way to indicate importance of something you’re saying. And it allows you to take a deep breath so you don’t pass out from oxygen deficiency.

Entertain

On a final note: Don’t forget that a presentation is a performance. And that a performance is supposed to entertain. So don’t be afraid of making jokes, showing fun visuals and being playful while you present. Making your audience smile is the direct way to their hearts, and they will love you for it.

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Make your audience smile. Image Credit.

Summary

Creating a great presentation can be done in 3 phases:

  • A planning phase where you identify your audience, outline your presentation content, write your script and sketch your slides.
  • A production phase where you create your slides digitally. You should create slides without bullet points but rather slides that work as visual support for your presentation.
  • (And once you’ve produced your slides, make sure to practice – practice – practice!)

  • The performance phase; delivering your presentation to the audience. Make sure you control the opening to minimize your nervousness, step away from the computer and use your body language consciously.

The tips and tricks in this article are just some of the things you should start doing to improve your presentation skills. There are many more details to cover, but if you follow this 3 step plan, you are guaranteed to have improved your presentation immensely.

So go ahead and start planning!

(ik)
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About the Author

Trine Falbe is a former creative web project manager at a large regional Danish newspaper. Nowadays she teaches UI design at the Nordic Multimedia Academy in Denmark. Occasionally you can also find her speaking at creative conferences around Europe.

Comments and Discussions
  • Vivek Parmar, 09 February 2011

    very well written, presentations are a part of successful business, only few minutes show which needs only 100% from you and in return you will lots of projects.
    Practice and clear idea on topic will help you a lot.

    • Trine Falbe, 17 February 2011

      Thank you, Vivek, I’m glad you liked it. And I agree, practice and a clear message is the key. It will take you far in your presentation.

  • Flo59, 09 February 2011

    Very usefull informations !

    • Trine Falbe, 17 February 2011

      Thanks, glad you enjoyed it.

  • Web Design Nottingham, 09 February 2011

    Very useful share, good timing too :)

    • Trine Falbe, 17 February 2011

      Thanks a lot, I’m glad you liked it :) I hope it came in handy to whatever the timing was right for :)

  • Sergey, 09 February 2011

    thanks for the great tips ;)

    > That evil is bullet points.

    I was suspected something terrible in these : )

    • Trine Falbe, 17 February 2011

      Ha ha, thanks Sergey – nothing wrong with building a little suspense :)

  • Ahmed, 09 February 2011

    Very good article. Enjoyed reading this. I’m still practicing my presentation skills and will surely use the tips you’ve mentioned in my next one!

    • Trine Falbe, 17 February 2011

      HI Ahmed, thanks for your nice comment. Practice makes perfect, just remember that and I’m sure you’ll develop great skills in no time.

  • Nabiha Zeeshan, 10 February 2011

    Charmingly written! Not to mention that this article is an excellent example of presentation itself! Great job!

    • Trine Falbe, 17 February 2011

      Thanks Nabiha, that was a very nice thing to say! And I’m glad you noticed that I’ve actually applied the principles on the article :)

  • Vincent François, 10 February 2011

    Thank you very much for your complete set of tricks. They appeared to me very useful and I’m using them tonight in order to build 3 different presentation I have to give in the next month.

    • Trine Falbe, 17 February 2011

      Hi Vincent. Thanks a lot, I’m glad you found it useful. Good luck on the presentations your building :)

  • Martin, 10 February 2011

    So many things everybody pretends to know, but only a few use in their presentations …

  • Lucian, 10 February 2011

    This round up will help me hold a presentation / performance in the front of at least 300 people.
    I’m sure the hardest thing not forget to breathe.. If you’re prepared well, there should be no problems.

    • Trine Falbe, 17 February 2011

      Hi Lucian, that sounds great; I hope they will be of help to you. And yes, breathing is essential – it’s not good to pass out from oxygen deprivation on stage! :)

  • nik, 11 February 2011

    Oh, that Ninja pattern again. Good article anyhow.

    • Trine Falbe, 17 February 2011

      Hi Nik. Well, ninjas come in many different shapes and forms ;) (and thanks, I’m happy you liked the article).

  • gmarko, 11 February 2011

    Nice article and style. Saved to favorites.

    • Trine Falbe, 17 February 2011

      Sounds great, and thank you :)

  • Seenu, 11 February 2011

    A bit too long but interesting to read.

    • Trine Falbe, 17 February 2011

      Thanks, Seenu. I’m glad it was worth your while to read it all the way through :)

  • Kevin Moulton, 11 February 2011

    Trine,

    Thanks. Well written and organized.

    A couple of thoughts:

    1) Brainstorming

    In your speech creation steps, you go directly to outlining. In my opinion, you are missing the brain-storming step, where you just throw ideas up on a board, or in a mind-mapping application, without organization. This often reveals new ideas and relationships, and should be done before trying to organize your ideas into an outline.

    2) Bullet Points

    You suggest using no bullet points, but you say that the reason for this is that people cannot read and listen at the same time. Your justification is correct, but I believe that the solution is to use bullet points for what they are – BULLETS!

    The mistake that speakers make is to use sentences for their bullet points. Used properly, they are just one word.

    We all hear the oft-repeated advice, “7 bullet points with 7 words each.” Ouch! This is the worst advice ever. When you use bullet points, use 3 bullet points with a word in each. The power of 3 will help the audience remember your message, and then the detail of each point comes from you: the speaker. The bullet points can also serve as a memory trigger for you during a long speech.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Kevin

    • Trine Falbe, 17 February 2011

      Hi Kevin,
      Thanks for your comments.
      1. Brainstorming: I agree, it’s not included in the article, but that’s because I normally use the outline as my mindmapping tool. I realise this might not work for everyone, so it’s a valid point you’re raising.

      2. Bullets: I completely agree. The reason why I say that *bullet points* are evil is that they represent the phenomenon of putting way too much text into a slide, because this excessive amount of content is normally organised into bullet points. But we’re on the same page. The fewer words on a slide the better. They should serve as visual support.

      /Trine

  • Imtiaj, 11 February 2011

    I lose focus when read long posts. But this one is really good and an interesting read.

    • Trine Falbe, 17 February 2011

      Thanks Imtiaj, I’m glad you enjoyed the article despite it’s excessive length :)

  • Ed Alberts, 12 February 2011

    Too bad that the majority of ‘presentors’ don’t “need” t obe told what to do for their presentations.
    Back in the day – creating 3×4 lantern slides and 2×2 diazochromes, we tried to use the 6x Rule.
    No more than 6 words per line
    No more than 6 lines per slide
    You can expect that nobody listened – their ideas were too important to be that restricted – don’t remember any of them today.

    • Trine Falbe, 17 February 2011

      Hi Ed,

      Yes, it is a shame that many presenters don’t take the time to look into what makes a good presentation slide. Many presenters I’ve seen who use massive text blocks on their slides are actually good presenters, but their message drowns in all the text. And it’s so easy to fix, if they’re willing to.

  • Hannah Hurst, 16 February 2011

    A great set of tips given here. I think the main point to remember with presentations is practice. Before I ever give a presentation I always practice on my partner first. This gives you an opportunity to run the whole thing through and find any flaws before you do it for real. Thanks for sharing.

    • Trine Falbe, 17 February 2011

      Hi Hannah.
      Thanks a lot, I’m glad you enjoyed reading my article. It’s a great tip to practice your presentation on others. I try to do that too, or at least stand up and speak out loud when practicing. This also helps you to form good sentences and have them stored and ready for the presentation – especially if you’re presenting in a second language.

      /Trine

  • Raj, 16 February 2011

    I have a presentation to make almost daily, what better than this can i get

    • Trine Falbe, 17 February 2011

      Thank you Raj, I’m glad you found my article helpful :)

  • Intoku, 21 February 2011

    Dear Trine,

    Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge! You can see there’s definitely big work and preparation behind. There’s too much to be learnt from here.

    Best,
    Intoku.

    • Trine Falbe, 03 March 2011

      Hi Intoku, thank you for the kind words; I’m glad you liked my article :)

  • Benoit, 27 March 2011

    Thanks for all theses informations, gonna be very helpful for the final presentation of a three year project.
    Again, thank you.

  • Muhammad, 26 April 2011

    well ,wish i could have things written to me like that then I have only this pages to open,and thanks please more from you and others at least it would make things easy for learners like me.

  • Kunthy, 31 October 2011

    Thanks. It is very useful tips.

  • Trine Falbe, 17 February 2011

    Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it :)

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