You Could be a Better Presenter, Here’s How

When Steve Jobs gave the graduation speech at Stanford University, the audience fell into an awe-like silence. He said nothing earth-shatteringly new. Yet his speech has gone down in history as one of the best commencement addresses of all time.

So, why do the words of some speakers resonate through the years? Read on for advice about how to deliver a knock-out presentation even if you’re not a born public speaker (who is?). Many of these tips are from our consultants who present at conferences around the world, as well as our very own SearchLove series.

I’ve divided the blog post into sections so you can skip straight to the parts that interest you, such as getting feedback, designing your slidedeck and tips for the day itself.

Rooting out your idea

Before you jump into creating a slidedeck, you need to get your ideas straight. Ask yourself:

  • What crucial message do I want my audience to grasp?

  • What do I want them to do after hearing my presentation?

  • Who is my audience?

  • What is their level of knowledge and attitude towards the topic? What do they care about?

There’s something to be said for good old-fashioned paper and pen in the initial stages. Yes, it looks and feels messy but that’s the point – you needn’t worry about making it neat, fixing typos or even writing in any linear sense. Instead, you can focus on jotting down all your thoughts – no matter how left-field – without being slowed down by self-editing.  

The first draft of anything is shit. Ernest Hemingway

If you’re adverse to paper, a computer is okay too. Just don’t go straight into making a slidedeck. You’ll get too bogged down in what each slide looks like and fuss over the wording. These things don’t matter at this stage. You need to look at the bigger picture.

Top tip: To research your audience, you could ask the event organiser for information on the demographic. Or, if you’re making a presentation for work colleagues, spend a little time chatting over what they’d find helpful.  

Structuring your thinking

So you’ve worked out what you want to say, now it’s time to think about how best to say it.

Hone your ideas

It’s not about squeezing in as much information as possible. Try to cover too much ground and you’ll wind up speaking in overly general theoretical concepts rather than specific terms and relevant examples. The aim is to draw the audience’s attention to a new discovery / way of thinking and inspire them to find out more afterwards.

Try to hone your thoughts into a relatively simple, short body of work (the perfect presentation length is thought to be around 20 minutes.) To do this, focus on your key message. You may find it helpful to write your presentation as a blog post first. This doesn’t have to include every single word, perhaps just the intro and an outline for the rest, and will help organise your thoughts.

By the end of this drafting process, you’ll want to have nailed down the wording of your key message, which may then be broken down into 2 or 3 core principles that you want your audience to understand.

The exception is if you’re doing a list-style presentation. However, this won’t necessarily need any less honing. You’ll still need an overall message and to make sure that each of your points fits in the right place – being revealed in a logical order that flows from one to the next until an obvious end point is reached.

Check out this presentation where Ian from Portent leads us through 20 copywriting disasters.

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Top tip: Strong messages can generally be expressed as a short phrase or sentence and as a normative judgment of sorts (saying X is ‘better’ or ‘more true’ than Y in some way).

For example, Phil’s 2013 MozCon talk can be broken down as follows:

Subject: Video Strategy

Messages: Creative and technical decisions should be driven by goals; video can be done effectively with small budgets; it’s better to do lots of smaller, more targeted pieces than to try and do everything with one big piece.

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Consider how to put your message across

Rather than ‘telling’ people something, give them the context and information that allows them to discover it for themselves. This way, they’ll be more likely to take your message onboard and actually remember it.

So, how can you do this? Instead of explicitly stating your key messages from the outset, provide any necessary background information, then tell stories, share data and provide concrete examples of things that support and build your argument. With any luck, the audience will absorb the themes by a process of induction and come with you on a journey of discovery.

Storytelling

You may find it helpful to draw on the principles of storytelling. This will help:

  • Provide a human element that people can relate to. Stories aren’t about facts, faceless companies and global problems; stories are about individuals and their own struggles. Speaking on this personal level is what makes stories powerful and what makes them stick.

  • Give your presentation flow. By leading your audience from one point of the story to the next, you’ll keep them listening to find out the ending.

For example, try structuring your presentation like a detective story.

Here’s a beat sheet:

(1) Detective story: the world is introduced

Presentation: you give a brief summary of the status quo

(2) Detective story: a crime is committed

Presentation: you recount a problem in the industry

(3) Detective story: the detective attempts to solve the crime but incurs several obstacles along the way

Presentation: you explain various potential solutions to the problem but also state why they each won’t work

(4) Detective story: the detective solves the crime, the audience has that ‘aha’ moment

Presentation: you solve the problem with your solution / key message

(5) Detective story: the streets are made a little safer / the audience experiences some kind of relief

Presentation: you revel in how great your solution is and all the benefits it brings

Top tip: Use post-it notes to put down the essentials of your presentation/story, then work out the order to reveal them in. Remove the ones that feel like padding; remember – it’s about focussing on your key messages.

For a deeper delve into branded storytelling, check out this post by Kyra.

Pointers for structuring

Here are more specific tips on the various parts of your presentation (the above storytelling example would translate into intro/beat 1, main/beat 2-4, end/beat 5).

Intro

  • Use the intro to convince people that this presentation is something they need to hear. You’re essentially answering the question: why should people care?

  • You could try starting with a surprising statistic or statement. This will grab people’s attention. Just make sure to back it up soon afterwards or else it will seem jarring.

  • Don’t spend too long explaining what you’re going to cover – people will want to quickly get to the ‘meat of the sandwich’.

Main

  • Pick a maximum of three key points (unless you’re doing a list-style presentation). Then break these down into subpoints.

  • To reinforce your points, find different ways of saying the same thing, e.g. tell personal anecdotes, show statistics and data visualisations. Research has shown that we are more likely to be persuaded by something that we have heard repeated several times.

End

  • Include your key takeaways here (most likely, the main points you made earlier).

  • End with a ‘thank you for listening slide’ which might include your Twitter handle and contact details.

  • Consider including time for questions. If you know someone in the audience or have an MC, you could ask them to come up with an initial question to kick-off discussions.

Only once you are confident you’ve got this draft under wraps, get stuck into your slides. At this stage, it’s best to keep it simple: stick to black and white and include only essential images. This way, you’ll be less tempted to spend ages on the design which is mostly likely a waste of time because your presentation may change drastically between drafts.

Find inspiration from the best

Flagging efforts? Stiff wording? Watch some world-class performers such as those in TED’s most popular talks or Steve Jobs’ graduation speech.

In case you hadn’t already guessed, we’re big fans of TED. That’s why we asked Aaron Weyenberg, UX / Product Developer at TED, to speak at our recent SearchLove conference in Boston. Sit back and enjoy his inspiring tales of the company’s redesign (you’ll just need to click this link and then sign up at the store).

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If you enjoyed this, take look at the speaker lineup and presentation descriptions for SearchLove San Diego and London.

Get feedback from a trusted few

You have the words and slides in place. Now it’s time to try them out with some colleagues or friends. As well as hearing valuable feedback, this process is important to get an idea of the length, as well as whether the language works; for example, perhaps the wording is too formal in places or certain sentences ‘snag’ over tricky wording.

This really is an incredibly important part of developing your presentation. SearchLove speakers tend to go through numerous drafts and rounds of feedback to get their presentation in shape.

It’s the stage where you go from having an okay presentation, to an excellent presentation. 

Lynsey Little, Head of Events and SearchLove

Top tip: It’s best to pick two to three feedbackers and stick to them throughout different drafts. Otherwise you might get stuck in an infinite loop of feedback and people will start contradicting each other.

Then redraft and repeat until everything is hunky dory.

Design your slidedeck with love

First of all, you may not need a slidedeck. One person talking, unassisted by any technology, can be a powerful thing. However, slides can help bolster your argument and provide extra visual information.

There are different ways of incorporating slides. To keep you at the right pace, you might want to set an automatic timer for the slides to change, say, every 20 seconds. You may want to include funny or surprising slides that provide a kind of to-and-fro dynamic.

Whatever way you do it, try to follow these basic principles.

Remember that simple is powerful

  • No more than 1 idea per slide.

  • Avoid bullet points (these make people feel they’re reading a document rather than hearing your compelling talk).

  • Create slides that reinforce your words, not repeat them, e.g. if you’re talking about a recent increase in traffic, show a graph illustrating this. Or display a short quote from a famous person that speaks to the same message.

  • Keep slides simple and unfussy – that means no dissolves, spins or other transitions. You don’t want to draw attention to the design of your slides; it’s not about people thinking ‘this is a great slidedeck’, but ‘this is a great presentation’.

  • Be consistent with your font, choose a colour scheme and stick to it.

Follow these general design principles

  • Asymmetry can be more interesting that symmetry – don’t centre align everything

  • Think about the rule of thirds.

  • Pay attention to the way things line up – ideally on the sides or in the middle.

  • Don’t use yellow fonts or any that are difficult to read.

  • Avoid common fonts, you can find lots at FontSquirrel.com.

Choose images carefully

  • Avoid Clipart and cheesy stock images (the good-looking couple who are having a ridiculously nice time sitting at a computer together? vom). As Vicke explains in her post on researching creative ideas, you can find a decent supply of more design-led images on sites like Behance, Dribbble and Pattern Tap. There’s also iStockphoto, Shutterstock, Flickr creative commons and Google images (be careful of copyright issues).

  • You could also take your own photos. There’s something to be said for sharing snapshots – these might not be perfectly lit/well composed by it’s refreshing to see authentic pics rather than the standard corporate ones.

  • Use images to help cut down on explanatory text, e.g. show a famous speaker quote.

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Josh from Rasmussen College used snaps of him and his wife to illustrate the personal journey that led him to some of his business decisions. Peruse his slides from SearchLove Boston.

Practice

Giving yourself enough time to practice is crucial. This might be in front of colleagues or friends, it might be to a collection of stuffed animals. Either way, act like it’s the real thing: if you make a mistake or stumble over your words, carry on going. Even the best speakers will forget and mix up their words, it’s learning how to recover that’s important.

In terms of delivery, there are 3 main ways to tackle the beast

  1. read it directly off a script or teleprompter

  2. develop a set of bullet points that map out your presentation

  3. learn it word for word

Sadly, the third is far and away the best. This will not only allow you to maintain eye contact with the audience, but will help your presentation to feel more natural and off-the-cuff.

Become familiar with the words, learn to love how they flow from one line to the next. After enough time, they’ll become second nature and you can concentrate on your style of delivery.

Top tip: If possible, give yourself a few days away from your presentation. When you come back, you’ll see it with fresh eyes and may spot potential improvements.

On the day: present like you mean it

First impressions are really important, both for your own confidence and for gaining the audience’s trust and empathy.

Voice

  • Remember to breathe (this sounds obvious but it’s easy to forget) and speak from your diaphragm. This isn’t just about volume but also control over your voice – mastering its rhythm and pitch so you can use it as an instrument.

  • A little voice training could go a long way. The most important thing is to warm up your voice before you present, especially if it’s morning time. Have a look at this resource for a starting point. 

Stage presence

  • Move away from the podium. While it’s tempting to hide away, by moving to the centre of the stage you give the idea that you own the space, therefore you own the subject.

  • If you’re happy walking around the stage that’s great. But if not, just stay in the same place and use hand gestures for emphasis.

  • Make plenty of eye contact. You might want to pick a few people spread across the audience to look at in order to make the crowd seem less large and daunting. If you are reading from a script, remembering to make eye contact is incredibly important.  

  • Try not to shift your weight from foot to foot as this weakens your presence on stage and makes you appear less authoritative. Instead, ground yourself in one place, imagining a vertical line going through your body, into the floor.

Nerves

  • Practice speaking at places like General Assembly and Toastmasters.

  • Take several deep breaths before you go onstage. Take your time doing this.

  • Accept that you’ll get nervous and that’s completely fine. Nerves will help bring energy to your talk. What’s more, your audience will be more likely to empathise with someone they see as being human rather than some ultra-confident machine-like being.

Final Takeaway

Ultimately, the most important thing is to work out exactly what you want to say, then find the best way to say it. No one can tell you precisely how to do this – it’s most likely a case of trying out different approaches during the drafting stages and trusting your instinct to show you the way forward.

For further guidance, take a look at slide:ology, a book by Nancy Duarte and this fabulous article by Mackenzie Fogelson.

Fancy seeing some world-class speakers? Come along to our two-day SearchLove conference in San Diego (September 11-12) or London (October 27-28). We carefully pick every speaker for both their mastery of online marketing and superb speaking skills.