The secrets of great presentations

We’ve all been there – the captive audience of a presenter who shows a long Powerpoint presentation, reads from hundreds of slides and at the end hauls out the classic phrase “I hope you don’t feel tired…!” This is invariably the same presenter who started the presentation with the dread words “I will try to keep it short,” before speaking at great length. When he asks for questions at the end and receives only silence, he congratulates himself, believing that the lack of questions is because all the topics were perfectly covered!

Kurt Tucholsky’s “advice for making a bad speech” tells it all:

“It’s just what the listener likes: getting your speech forced upon him like a tedious piece of homework, being threatened by what you are about to say, what you are saying, and what you have been saying. And be sure to keep it nice and long-winded.

Do not talk freely — you will create an anxious impression. Best read out your speech. This is a safe and reliable method. Furthermore, everybody feels happy when the speaker suspiciously peers at the audience four times during every sentence in order to check if everybody is still there.”

Isn’t that amazing? And just think – it was written back in the 1930s!

So, what are the secrets of success in presentations?

Here are a few Dos and Don’ts:

  1. Prepare, prepare and prepare again! Start with the end in mind! What is it that you want your audience to take away with them when you finish? How much does your audience know about the topic? What questions are they likely to ask? If a previous presentation didn’t go as you expected, ask yourself about the causes of this. Think about them, and while you prepare, do the best you can to ensure they won’t happen in real time!


  1. Prepare your Powerpoint as a final step – NOT the first step. The aim of a presentation or lecture is NOT to show Powerpoint slides! These slides are a useful technology, but they must be secondary to the message that you are personally sharing with the audience. Make your preparations as if you had no slides at all. What would you do if the power failed at the beginning of your actual presentation, and you couldn’t show anything? Too late to postpone it, right?


  1. Watch your body language and eye contact. Look at your audience – don’t turn your back to see the projected slides! Trust me – you can see exactly the same thing on your own computer screen! Do not stare at a selected group of people who make you feel more comfortable, and be sure to make eye contact with the people sitting close to you. Keep your hands out of your pockets, and don’t hold anything in your hands except for the projector control. Don’t overdo it with the laser pointer – some presenters risk giving audience members a seizure with their rapid laser movements!


  1. Beware of dense slides. Follow the 6x6 rule – no more than six bullet points per slide, and no more than six words per bullet point. Don’t copy and paste material that you will be reading onto a slide. Each slide should take no more than ten seconds to be read and understood by your audience – otherwise the audience will be gazing at the slide rather than paying attention to you. If you have graphs or other complex data, please make sure they are as simple as possible. It is entirely up to you what information to share with your audience, but please don’t direct your audience’s attention to a slide by saying things like, “As you can see in this slide…” – after all, YOU ARE THE MESSAGE!


  1. Be brief with your Powerpoint presentation. On average, each slide should be on the screen for around two minutes. Divide the time allocated to you by two, to give you a rough idea of how many slides to show. Go easy on animations, and keep things simple. Finally, do not finish the presentation with a slide showing a beautiful nature scene or a Buddhist monk meditating – these things may look nice, but they simply aren’t relevant to your presentation!


  1. Use humor…but with caution. Remember that humor is a very serious thing. Don’t tell a joke just because you think you have to – you may be the only one laughing! Anything you want to use to “lighten” the presentation must be relevant.


  1. Handle the Q&A session properly. Allow time for Q&A at the end. If you want to make it interactive, you can allow questions during the presentation, but be sure to control the time so that you don’t get carried away. Don’t start by asking “Any questions?” Believe me, it intimidates people, and they will feel that you don’t really want them to ask! It’s better to say something like, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have ten minutes for questions…who has the first question?” This means, as Dale Carnegie used to say, that you expect people to ask, and you really encourage them. Moreover, do not assume that a lack of questions mean that you have covered everything clearly. Always have one or two questions that you can ask of the audience, in case they don’t ask you anything. This will prompt a discussion to flow naturally.


  1. Body language redux. Finally, when you respond to a question, look at the person who asked, but then expand your gaze to take in the rest of the audience – they are also interested in your answer. One final warning – please don’t use the words “that’s a very good question…” or “thank you for your question…” as it makes other questioners feel unappreciated. Obviously, some questions are better than others, but you don’t have to show this! Simply rephrase the question, to give yourself time to think about your answer, and make sure that all understand the question.


Good luck, and enjoy your presentation!


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