Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What Makes a Great Presentation

What makes a great presentation? Everyone successful presenter from Steve Jobs to Tony Robbins have been studied for patterns. Some of the pre-requisites seem to be:

(1) Prepare. Prepare for 100+ hours for an 1 hour presentation
(2) Have a backup. If something goes wrong, have an assistant fix things while you entertain the audience
(3) Have jokes ready, and crack them when you encounter a technical challenge

Well, I was thinking about it while delivering the Oracle Celebrity Seminar series today and saw a reference to Steve Jobs' presentation during iPhone 4 launch where he had a wifi challenge. How convenient for the speakers to say that. Who has the luxury of practicing a speech of 1 hour for 100 hours, or having an "assistant" work things out behind the scenes, or the prowess of a comedian delivering seemingly good jokes turned horrid?

Definitely not me.

I delivered my very first public seminar in October 2002 in Richmond, VA. In the last eight and half years I have presented about 150 such sessions, and 24 day long seminars. Over all that time and sessions I have been been largely applauded; but heckled, humiliated and horrified as well. Laptops not starting, internet not connecting, powerpoint crashing - I have seen it all; not to mention travel plans disrupted. But above all, I have learned, learned from every step of the way to be better as a speaker and more effective to the attendees. There is no secret; but some simple pointers. Here I am going share with you some of those lessons.

(1) Empathize with the Audience

What type of presenter are you - do you know your subject well? Or, you research something and present what you find. I have met some folks who are great in delivering a topic in a flawless manner - any topic, without any mastery. They are eloquent and polished "speakers"; not subject matter experts. If you are lucky enough to be one, good for you; but most folks, including yours truly, are not. Most of us are *not* great speakers. So, would you throw up your arms in frustration and retreat to the cozy corner? 

Not at all. Remember, the audience in a technical setting is not there to listen to your eloquence; but to the substance. Of course, being entertaining helps; but it's not the core. The attendees like the talk if  they can relate with you. You must know the audience members, their needs, their challenges and the thoughts in their mind. If you are one of them, they immediately connect with you and deem your talk it valuable. If you are detached, no matter how valuable your talk is, they are less likely to appreciate.

I start most of my talk with a simple sentence, that I am just like most folks in the audience. I understand their issues, because I face the same every day. I have been fortunate to be able to address an audience like that; perhaps it's not possible in every case. But you must understand the audience's needs and wants and step into their shoes. When they talk about issues, be immediately appreciative, never dismiss it as trivial, try to understand from their perspective and you will be able to see a whole new world. The moment the audience feels that you are in sync with them, they immediately feel comfortable and try to get in sync with you - a win win situation that is the key to a successful presentation.

(2) Be Passionate

Show some passion, a lots of it. You have worked hard on the session and prepared the material meticulously; but all is moot unless you show it at he stage. Believe in the material, each word of it, believe in the usefulness and need to the audience. But just believing in itself does not work; show it. Show the enthusiasm and vigor while describing. The passion you demonstrate is contagious; the audience gets fired up as well. An engaged audience is the best audience.

(3) Show Respect and Appreciation

You have been invited to speak (perhaps you have been reimbursed your expenses and even paid a hefty speaker fee) before this audience. The audience has paid good money to have you speak there. So, they are lucky to have you, right?


A speaker is nothing without an audience. The audience is not lucky, you are. You are fortunate to be taken into the role where the audience has invested in you. Never, forget that. Even if the audience paid nothing in monetary terms, they paid - their time, their valuable time. Never assume that they have come in their own free time. There is no such thing called free time; it's an oxymoron. One uses the time from something more important, which could be a nap, a walk in the beach, spending time with family. The fact that an attendee has forgone all that to listen to you speak is an honor for you. Always remember that and appreciate the audience for attending. Always remember that you are here to earn their respect; and you must respect their biggest investment - their time - in you. You must not disappoint them. Without them you don't exist.

(4) Be Spontaneous

What about practice? If you can afford it, you should definitely practice. But most of us probably don't have that luxury. Relax, that's not important. If you have considered and incorporated the first three advices, especially being passionate, you will feel that you now have an sufficient thrust to launch you into orbit. The rest becomes surprising easy. Practicing may make it perfect; but it also brings in staleness into the delivery. If you are showing demos, you should definitely practice that; but the actual content of your presentation should be left to the stage. I never practice the presentation; but of course, choose what works for you.

(5) Correct Posture and Delivery

Always, always, always maintain eye contact with the audience. Don't look over them, in front of them, and most definitely not at the screen. You are the speaker, not the screen. 

Stand straight; but relaxed. If you slouch, place your thumbs in your pocket, the appearance seems callous and you will kill the passion angle.

Spread your ams wide - a universal sign of acceptance and inclusion. The audience feels more comfortable y feeling included and will be more receptive. Never fold your arms, especially while listening to a question from the audience.

While speaking "project" your voice. That is very different from a conversational tone. You should practice that in front of a mirror. Basically you "throw" your voice away. There should be distinct gaps between words. Imagine you are in an echo chamber and each word is followed by an echo forcing you to pause before speaking the next word. 

When asked a question from the audience, always repeat the question. It's likely that the parts of the audience might not have heard it so the answer will seem completely out of context unless you repeat the question. It will also help explain to the questioner how you interpreted the question.

(6) Spare Details in Slides

Remember, slides are to bring the audience's attention to a point, not to describe the point itself. Never crowd the slides. A few bullet points work best, unless the slides are also the course material. A better alternative is putting the descriptions in the "Notes" section of the slides, which will print; but not shown on screen. When you use a crowded slide, attendees focus more on reading that rather than listening to you.

(7) Have a Backup

If you have a slide deck, back it up on a USB stick. I carry two USB sticks in addition to the deck in the laptop. If you can, send a copy to someone at the meeting site as a backup, just in case. I also burn it into a CD, just in case the USB ports are disabled. Some computers may have that.

I also back up the files into some free online storage - Dropbox, Google Docs and email them to myself. I may not know which sites may be blocked; so options are always better.

What tool did you use? Powerpoint, Open Office, or something else? It's better to ask than assume. If Powerpoint, which version - 2003, 2007 or something else? What happens if you have the slides in an imcompatible mode?

That's why I also carry a PDF version of the presentation (create free PDF by Primo PDF http://www.primopdf.com/index.aspx) , along with the Acrobat Reader in the same USB stick and the CD. In the worst case, I will be able to show it right from the removable media. I will not be able to use all the fancy features such as animation; but it's better than nothing at all. Make sure you export the fonts when you create the PDF. Not all the fonts may be available in the target computer.

What if you want to show some demo? Will everything work? Don't count on it. Murphy's Law kicks in at the worst possible time. Always run the demo prior to the session, capture the screens using the free CamStudio tool (http://camstudio.org/). It needs a flash player, which may not be present; so you should also take some screenshots using Windows Vista's Sniping Tool or even Alt-PrintScreen. Again, they may not wow the audience, but will save the day.

(8) Have the Right Tools

Are you presenting abroad? Learn about the power requirements of the country - is is 115 volts or 220? Is the power plug the right type? Do you need and have an adapter? Learn about power requirements here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mains_power_around_the_world

What about the laser pointer? Do you have one? If you do, do you have an extra battery? Even if you use, always carry a stick pointer. Recently while delivering a session in London, I saw a quite high tech environment - a huge LCD panel instead of the screen and projector. The laser pointer was ineffective. Fortunately I had my collapsible stick pointer.

Finally, don't think of this as ordeal. Have fun. If you fail in making the same effect on the audience, relax; the world will not end. They will not think any less of you. People have other things to worry about; your supposedly fall from pedestal is least of them.

I hope you liked it and found it useful. Let me know other tips you may have for a great presentation.



Júlio César Corrêa said...

Very,but very good and nice tip.

Best Regards,

Julio Cesar

Neeraj Bhatia said...

Very nice post Arup.

These days I am preparing a presentation for an upcoming Oracle event, these golden tips will definitely help me.



Andreas said...

Very valuable. A lot of people (including me) should print this and put it under their pillow - to learn, learn and learn this.

Arup said...

Here is an offline comment from A. Maji. He has asked some questions, which I feel are relevant to all readers; so posting them and my answers here.

Question 1
Some times presenter does not like the question asked by the audience, may it is irrelevant - what presenter should do at that point?

There will always be cases when you do not like the tone or the content or the question could be irrelevant. The important point to note here is that you never lose your cool. If the question is meant as an insult, brush it off; it is not worth getting into a irrational debate. If the content is not relevant to what you just presented, ask yourself: is this something you can answer in a sentence or two? If so, you may answer that.

If you feel that the answer will take longer; or the one line answer may evolve into a much longer discussion, you should politely respond with something like, "I will take it offline". And, mean it - do take it offline afterwards.

Question 2
What if presenter do not know the answer of asked question?

The best course of action is simply saying that you don't know. If you feel that you can research and get the answer, say so.

Question 3
Some times presenter shows the data / object which is not relevant to the subject.

I'm not sure I understand the question.

Question 4
What kind of examples should be thrown during presentation?

The examples you yourself would have expected from the presentation.

John Kanagaraj said...

Nice one Arup. I would like to add this point. Many would-be presenters shy away because they are scared of stepping in front of an audience, others who attempted it and did not do too well may not present the next time around. One true and tried method is to participate in Toastmasters (http://www.toastmasters.org/) - they are a well known international non-profit that helps develop speakers and leaders from around the world, and at any level. (I saw a TM meeting even in Kabul, Afghanistan :-) ). For those of us who want to sharpen our speaking skills, this is the perfect place as well!


Sidhu said...

Great post...inspiring !!!

Thank you !

Srikar said...

Thats informative.
Thank you very much.


Ben Prusinski said...


Thank you for sharing your insightful tips on speaking and presenting. Truly a treasure trove of gold nuggets for both experienced and novice speakers and trainers.

Ben Prusinski

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