Presentation tips for people who don’t like giving presentations
Presentations at conferences or at work events are only one way of sharing information. They’re far from the only ones, and maybe they carry too much weight in tech.
But! If you’re going to do one, here’s some nuggets of advice I’ve given people in the past few years. None of them seem hefty enough to warrant a blog post of their own, but people find them helpful. This is especially true for people who are anxious about giving presentations, or who know in their heart of hearts that their presentations are normally boring.
(I’ve also given really bad advice, like “Oh, if you don’t have the video, your presentation is a bit sh*t, really, so we should get that to work in the next few minutes or you’ll just have to style it out.” Sorry, James. Not my best work.)
On the days leading up to the presentation
- Lots of good speakers worry about presentations ahead of time; all the worst ones don’t have a smidgen of doubt until afterwards. So if you’re worrying, you’re already doing well. You care about what you’re saying and about not boring your audience. This is excellent.
- Not being conventionally charismatic and outgoing is fine. It’s really easy for organisations to give the floor to extroverted people who love to talk. And we’re people with thoughts and feelings too! But, you know…the world needs to hear more from people who don’t hog the mic.
- Give YOUR talk. If you’re quiet and detailed, prepare a quiet and detailed talk. If someone’s working on your presentation with you, it’s perfectly fine to say “that’s not what I would say, or how I think.” (Thanks to Paul for reminding me about this.) Not the institutionalised version of you, who uses jargony words like “aligned” and “transformational”. Those are words to hide behind, not ones to stand in front of. Use the words you would use to talk to people you actually like about what you think and why you think it. Put these on your slides. Own it.
- All words and pretty colours is better than white slides and clip art. Not everybody is a designer, or has one to hand. This is fine. Clip art is not fine. It is the David Brent of illustration. Cringeworthy, wrong and not even funny anymore. Delete.
- It’s easier to make slides look professional in Keynote than in any other software I’ve used so far. But! Sharing it for approval or comments is a pain, especially if people travel a lot and/or otherwise have dodgy internet. Version control a quagmire of doom. If you’re sharing slides with your team, using Google Slides is easier. It’s a blunt instrument though. Sort it, Google. The panopticon owes me software that’s fit for purpose.
- Speak it out loud and try to time that. I find this more helpful than the words/minute estimates you find on the internet.
- Aim for five to ten percent shorter than allotted time. Nobody has ever complained about a talk being too short. Ever. One of the best presentations I heard this year was by the good people at Oh OK Ltd, who did a really short talk and then had a conversation with the audience at CRAFT in Manchester. If the audience wants to hear more, you have time for questions. If they don’t? Good! You’ve put yourself out of your misery ahead of schedule AND you haven’t inflicted a long talk on people aren’t interested.
- Position slides, that show you and your audience where you are in the presentation, help both them and you. They know where you’ve gotten to, like the progress bar in a Youtube video. You see slides that are familiar, and have a chance to recap and get back the momentum you might have lost if you’ve stumbled, had awkward questions or feel like you’re running out of steam.
- Try to avoid using speaker notes. Something almost always goes wrong with them. Reading them off a laptop can look like you’re hiding. If you really, really need more detail than looks good on a slide and you’re worried about forgetting the finer points of what you’re saying (both legit concerns), write flashcards for yourself and hold those instead. Old school. Your audience will see that you have them, sure, and maybe you’ll fumble a bit but they’ll ALSO see someone who is trying to get their words right. Most people aren’t Trump-like scumbags who think less of you for stuff like that.
- Speak truth to power in ways that aren’t too career limiting. What’s on the slide might be photographed by anyone in the audience and shared. What you say? Less likely to. If you want to say something that’s likely to upset your boss (or “stakeholders”) out of context, and that’s not the hill you want to die on? Do it. But say it rather than stick it on a slide. Live your best life, while still paying rent.
On the morning of your presentation
- Work out what you’re going to wear. (If you wear a suit to work every day, you’ve already got this sorted. For everyone else: this is how they win. Use their knowledge against them.) Something that’s comfortable, so you’re not wasting energy thinking about how your body looks. Avoid things where sweat patches show up, that wrinkle lots (linen and silk are not your friends) or are a bit transparent. Unless that’s your look, in which case, roll with it.
- Same goes for shoes. I went through a phase when I was working in Hong Kong about a decade ago of wearing heels for work events because four extra inches make me a lofty 5’6”. Powerful-boss-lady-cosplay. I now go for flats. Being able to bounce around is much more ME and much less physically painful. I worry less about tripping over, too.
Tips for the day of the presentation
- Have a piece of chocolate or a sweet beforehand, but avoid coffee and tea. Energy is good, the jitters never fun. If tempted to drink booze to still your nerves: remember the boring person at the bar who thinks they’re WAY funnier than they are? DON’T BE THAT PERSON. (Drink afterwards.)
- Carry a water bottle, not just because you might get a dry mouth or a cough, but also because the weight of the bottle gives you something to do with your hands. The cold makes you forget about your palms sweating. You can also take a swig of water if you feel like a little break.
- Yes, you should bring your own laptop. But sometimes it’s hard to make that demand, especially if you’re junior and/or shy/nervous. Export your files to PDF or jpegs if so, because there’s a shockingly large number of places where the wifi is shonky (farewell, Google Slides) or who claim they can’t use Keynote. NOTE: sometimes exporting the documents messes with the formatting and with GIFs. Double check this, or weep at design-time and GIF-research done in vain.
- Russell’s tip about starting all talks in exactly the same way is really helpful. Some people also have a song they play as they walk on to remove initial panic.
- If you don’t have time to practice any other part, hide in the loo (or go outside for a super-quick walk) and run through your intro. “He-llo, my name is Ella, and in a shameless ploy for more followers, my twitter handle is @fitzsimple. I help teams work out what they’re doing through how they talk about what they’re doing, and I have an odd accent. Today, I’m going to talk about these four things…” Makes your voice feel less unfamiliar and alien when you’re on stage.
- If you’re nervous but don’t want to stand behind a lectern the whole time, put one hand on it to start. It sounds silly, but it feels calming. Roots you, somehow. The “power stance” - feet wide apart - always feels awkward to me, but some people find it helpful. Though one of them is George Osborne.
- If you’re giving the presentation at work or somewhere else where you’re familiar with many people, appoint a plant in the audience. Tell them beforehand that you’re going to be looking at them when you’re nervous. Maybe ask them to smile and nod. Most of the time, it just helps knowing that there’s someone in the audience who wants you to do really well. NOTE: this is usually me, nodding and smiling vigorously.
- End with a recap, a thank you and a call for questions. Easy.
- If the thought of answering questions in front of a group of people freaks you out, offer to chat later or in writing. Those conversations tend to be less about showing off and more about learning and sharing anyway. The best kind.
- You can also ask for people to write down their questions. Live from the NYPL have done this in the past. It’s great, and it feels like it’s not always the same people asking the questions. (Try to remember to ask people to write clearly.) Trying things like this doesn’t just help nervous speakers. It’s a way to save the audience from the dreaded moment when someone puts up their hand and goes, “This is less of a question and more of a comment…” (Cue: COLLECTIVE GROAN). First rule of adulthood: nobody cares. Help them learn this vital truth.
- SIDE BAR: If you’re in a position of power, always, ALWAYS take questions after you’ve given a presentation. Maybe experiment with having a feedback form too? (Maybe even an anonymous one?) It humanises you and shows you respect the people who work for you.
Vital fact to remember once it’s done
- Nobody looks as bad as they do in snapshots from presentations. Good photos from presentations are almost all taken by professional photographers. They take hundreds of snaps to get ONE that doesn’t make someone who is usually an attractive-looking person look worse than an election-losing bacon sandwich portrait. These are then curated by people like me, who use those photos to make people and the organisations they represent look good. There’s nothing “natural” about it. So: you don’t look like that. Don’t panic, and don’t let it put you off giving a talk again.
- There’s nothing more interesting than listening to people talk about things they know and care about. Starting there, you’re unlikely to go all that wrong. Hippie-ish, I know, but true.
@fitzsimple - 6 Sept 2017