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.
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.
Like with any design/development project, you can divide presentation design into phases: 1) Planning, 2) Producing and 3) Performing.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Make your audience smile. Image Credit.
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.
- 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.
(And once you’ve produced your slides, make sure to practice – practice – practice!)
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!
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.