Over the last several years, I’ve given a few hundred presentations. I like to think I get better each year, but that doesn’t happen automatically. As a result of consulting experts and reading a lot on the topic, I’ve compiled some best practices that I try to use in my remarks to conferences, corporations, and universities across the country.
Interact with your audience in advance
Learn as much as you can about the people you will be presenting to so that you can customize your presentation to meet their needs. This might involve having a phone conversation with the organizers in which you probe them about their goals for the event, or polling participants about typical issues they’re facing.
I also recommend providing written notes to the person who is going to be introducing you. You don’t want that person to give too much detail or the audience will zone out before you even take the floor. However, if the introducer doesn’t provide enough relevant information about you or toot your horn, the audience might not get enough of a sense of your background and qualifications, and therefore might not be sufficiently intrigued.
Make the most of your introduction
Arrive at your venue early enough so that you can test all technology and audio-visual support elements before it’s time to speak. You do not want the audience’s first impression to be you fiddling with the clicker or searching your flash drive for the right presentation.
Once you are introduced, don’t waste too much time on “good mornings” or “thank yous.” Rather, ask the audience some questions that will get them engaged and thinking about the topic’s relevance right away, such as “how many people used more than 10 Powerpoint slides in their last talk?” These questions can be rhetorical, but do give participants a brief moment to consider their responses. Then, say a few words about why you’re there and what you plan to do.
You might include a powerful, personal anecdote that illustrates why the audience should be motivated to listen. Since a major goal of a strong introduction is establishing rapport, this anecdote might be about a lesson you learned the hard way. Finish the introduction by briefly framing your key takeaways and action steps.
Consider your structure
Remember when your high school English teacher asked you to prepare an outline of your paper before you started writing? A speech or presentation should be planned just as thoughtfully.
Ideally, your speech should have one major point and only three to five subpoints. Here’s an example from one of my recent talks:
• Major point: You can be passionate about your work without changing careers.
• Subpoint 1: Changing the way you think about your job is more important than any actual change you can make.
• Subpoint 2: Considering a lateral move or taking advantage of training and development opportunities can provide new challenges and skills.
• Subpoint 3: Developing a product or process to solve a vexing internal problem, aka intrapreneurship, is a great way to reinvigorate your job and increase your visibility.
Your subpoints should include specific data and advice, but don’t go overboard or you will overwhelm your audience. It’s far better to include memorable anecdotes and examples that will resonate emotionally.
Another popular way to structure your main and subpoints is via a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes, for instance, I will take university students through the journey of Alyssa, a graduating senior who is looking for her dream job.
Use Powerpoint slides sparingly
First of all, I believe in Powerpoint. I think it’s a great tool for focusing your audience’s attention on a particular point. However, Powerpoint has now been used and abused by speakers for years. Far too many presenters rely on it as a crutch, cramming their slides full of text and then reading from them.
My friend Guy Kawasaki has a 10/20/30 rule about Powerpoint slides. It states that a Powerpoint presentation should have no more than 10 slides, last no longer than 20 minutes, and have no text in less than a 30 point font.
I think Guy’s rule as written is a little extreme, but he has the right idea. In general, if your slides can stand alone, meaning someone could just read them instead of attending your presentation, then you have too much information on them.
If I’m giving an hour long talk, I generally have about 15 slides, and they are highly visual with unique rather than stock images. If you must use bullets, please put dark text on a light background so that they are as easy as possible to read.