July 28th, 2008

Nailing that presentation: Have one idea

in: Communicate, Standing out

In conjunction with Bitcurrent, Syntenic, IDG, Flow Consulting and others, we’re helping to run a weekend-long conference in Montreal in September. It’s called Bitnorth. It’s an informal take on conferences, where the attendees are expected to provide much of the content.

One of the ways they participate is by delivering Short Bits, 10-minute long presentations on a topic they care about. This year’s general theme is The Other 99 Percent, and we’re looking at how technology has changed non-technologists’ lives.

Getting an idea across cleanly is always hard, and presenting is a challenge for many people. So for those folks presenting (and anyone else who cares abount communicating) I decided to try and summarize the process of creating and delivering a presentation. I’m constantly humbled by great presenters (and there are some links to noteworthy ones at the bottom of this entry.)

It boils down to knowing what your point is, and getting it across memorably.

First: What’s the point?

Many people don’t know what the point is. What are you trying to achieve? What behavior would you like your audience to exhibit? What should they do right after leaving your presentation? Do you want them to tell a friend? Buy a product? Sign a term sheet? Change their lifestyle? Many people will be tempted to choose several answers, but you can only choose one.

In other words…

Have one idea. Really. Just one. Ask yourself, “when someone’s done, what’s the one idea they’ll tell their friend this presentation was about.” And then worry about that one idea and communicating it well.

If you haven’t already devoured Made To Stick, possibly the best book on the subject ever, do so. I spend most of my time working on this with clients. Once you know the point of the presentation, know how your slides help make that point, and know the point of each slide. “If you could say only one sentence per slide, what would it be?” Then go ahead and say only one sentence.

If you remember nothing else about this (lengthy) entry, it’s this: Have one idea.

Then: Put the pieces together

prez-breakdown.gifNow you know the point, develop the structure. Most arguments can be split into several statements. Take, for example, “blogging is good for business.” How might we subdivide that idea?

Take a look at the diagram on the right. Each statement can be broken down into subordinate statements, often several times. In this example, we’ve broken the presentation into eight sub-statements. That could be eight slides. The point of each slide is a single statement, and the point of the deck as a whole is that blogging is good for business.

I love this approach because it ensures that you’re starting with the point you want to make and working back. Just don’t feel the need to keep subdividing: When a point can be made on one slide, you’re done. For example, if it’s inherently clear that “engagement makes buyers more attentive,”you probably don’t need to go further.

This can sometimes lead to a lot of slides.

Which brings me to my next point…

Don’t worry about slide count, worry about simplicity. Dick Hardt and Lawrence Lessig (whose eponymous style is now legend) know this well. They have hundreds of slides, but there’s often one word on the slide.

If someone says, “that has to be ten slides or less” it’s because they’re assuming you’ll spend two minutes on each slide.

So …

Don’t spend two minutes on a slide. Guy Kawasaki has a 10/20/30 rule here; he says 10 slides, 20 minutes, 30-point font. Which means 2 minutes per slide. I tend to disagree.

Guy is a VC. And VC meetings tend to have a lot of interaction. If you’ll be discussing a slide with the audience, assume it will take five minutes to do so. This is why VC presentations often run over: Everyone wants to chime in. So for interactive presentations, the 10/20/30 rule works.

But for other situations if you’re going to spend less than two minutes per slide, you can have more slides. It’s all part of your personal style.In this age of short-attention-span, fast and entertaining works well.

Until this point, you’re just working on structure. Plain text on a plain background, until you know what you’re going to say. To make that entertaining, and to support your content, it’s time to add some personality.

Strive to …

Edutain. This is a strange word we use a lot when talking about Interop (where I’ve been chairing and presenting tracks for the past few years.) Edutainment is a recognition that presenting is as much about entertainment as education. If you’re not entertaining people, they’ll tune out. You’ll be forgettable. One way to see who’s paying attention is to plant easter eggs — for example, stuff some Klingon currency in there and out the Trekkies in the audience. It also keeps people engaged.

(I was going to call this piece “presenting like a rockstar” until I started looking and found a blog entry with that title, which makes many of the points about entertainment. “Channel your inner David Lee Roth,” encourages Chris Brogan.)

But don’t use pictures for pictures alone …

Images should add context. If you’re talking about the world’s currencies, shots of money show there are many currencies. You don’t need to name them, or explain what denomination they are. The simple fact that there are many currencies has made your point. The audience understands it in half a second. Then they’re ready to hear what you have to say. Which you will say succinctly and clearly, because your audience is already wondering where their next coffee is coming from.

Which means…

Be surprisingly brief. For Bitnorth, the Short Bits will be ten minutes long. That’s enough time to get up, make a point, and sit down. It means your slides better be ready, your throat better be clear, and you’d better be on.

I once gave a speech that everyone expected to take thirty minutes. It was a university affair, with about three thousand people in attendance, many of them families. They were bored by this point, and it was the closing speech. I started with the words, “I do not wish you good luck.” That got their attention. Then I spoke for three minutes, and got off the stage. I made one point, and it was over. You have no idea how grateful people were.

Cleanup: Sweating the small stuff

Once you’ve got your structure and story done, it’s time to put on an editorial hat. Here are some quick things to look for.

Take out half the words. When you think you’re done, remove half of them. Start with conjunctions: And, the, but, with, and so on. Seriously: Count the words, then tell yourself you’re going to remove half of them.

If you have a list, it’s sub-bullets. In other words, if I have a bullet that says, “Food is tasty, filling, and expensive” then make a slide called “Food” and put three bullets in: “Tasty”, “Filling”, and “Expensive”. Now you have room for some graphics too, if they help make your point.

Use 24 point font, at a minimum. Bigger is better. Keynote, Apple’s presentation software, actually makes it hard to have more than three bullets (whereas Powerpoint automatically shrinks font size to accommodate verbosity.) I’m convinced that this, not the flashy graphics transitions, is what yields better presentations.

Don’t break the flow. In addition to keeping it simple and telling a story, Ron Shelvin makes the point of knowing your transitions, because nothing sucks as much as watching someone try to remember what they were going to say. Awkward transitions take the audience out of the flow. Is everything a logical segue? If you have a presentation tool that supports a speaker’s view, seeing the upcoming slide can be particularly helpful.

Keep it visually simple. Don’t choose fancy fonts, themes, and layouts. More than one font makes a slide look like a ransom note. And unless you’re a graphic designer, too many pictures looks like a terrifying neon Myspace page. Neither are pleasing to look at. Volumes have been written on slide design, but when all else fails, choose a dark or light background and a contrasting light or dark font sans serif font in a strong weight.

Now it’s the big day

Get to the venue early, scope it out. If possible, stand at the podium and imagine the room full of people. If you can, check the mic and slide clicker if there is one. This will help cement things in your head, and should make you more comfortable.

Get them to pay attention. Your first mission is to get them to look up from their PDAs and notebooks. If they don’t, they won’t learn. Say something controversial, or better yet, call them out on it.

Jonathan Zittrain, who I first saw at Web2Summit a couple of years ago, was astonishingly good at this (in fact, his presentation ranks as one of the best I’ve seen.) He started out talking about how he had to “earn the right” for people to pay attention to him, in a slightly self-deprecating tone, that immediately made people pay attention. I wish I could find a recording of it somewhere.The next best thing is his blog.

Early on, set the ground rules. Will you take questions at the end? If so, tell them, so they’re not waiting to ask them.

Don’t read your slides. Everybody warns against this, and everybody does it anyway. The best example of how not to read your slides is Stephen Colbert’s The Word. Seriously, watch a clip: He’s not reading. He’s not even saying the same thing as his slides. They’re disagreeing with him, mocking him. Heck, even Seth Godin thinks the best presentation might be none at all. Besides, if you just read your slides, you may as well sit down and hand them out. Your audience can read just fine.

Respect your audience. They’re giving you their time. Make it worth their while. If you can make it personal, and relate to them well, it will help a great deal. This often means a dialogue (not just a show of hands) that lets them know you care about their opinions.

One of the hardest things to do when presenting is to anticipate the audience. What questions would they want to ask? How does the slide you’re on relate back to your main point? Much of this can be gleaned from subtle cues: Are they engaged, or distracted? Are they looking at you, or the slide?

Finish early. Leave room for questions, let them know how to contact you, and leave them wanting more.

Some more stuff to get you going:

Here are some links to great posts and outstanding presentations that will start your juices flowing.

Bitnorth’s going to be an amazing event, and some of the presentations are sure to be memorable. With only 10 minutes to speak, we’re hoping even first-time presenters can make their mark. And if they have one idea, and commnicate it clearly, they’ll rock.

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  • http://www.justhardwork.blogspot.com Paul Marshall (CFOMarshall)

    Alistair,

    This should be a must-read for everyone. At some point in our lives, whether in a startup or in an evil corporate setting, we WILL give a presentation. I (and I assume you and all your readers) have seen some real beauties (tongue planted firmly in cheek) over the years. This is something that you simply must get good at. Practice, practice, practice and follow Alistair’s suggestions.

    Great Post.

  • http://www.brownbook.net Basil Berntsen

    I’ve always been an avid public speaker- the first presentation I ever did, I sat down, reflected about all the presentations I had sat through, and asked myself what had worked and why. I came up with some personal guidelines that I have had reinforced every time I read an article like this ;)