Death by PowerPoint: Tips on giving successful presentations

Often times effective presentation skills seem like a forgotten art. They’re treated as an afterthought, as can be seen in lecture hall after lecture hall on any university campus. Presentations are marginally better during academic conferences where the speaker is talking to an audience that presumably cares about the topic at hand. However, even these can seem rushed and cobbled together. Recently, I gave my first-ever presentation at an academic conference. Here are several ideas I compiled while putting it together. Death by PowerPoint is now out of style. If you are like me, you have no wish to subject your audience to slide after slide of text that repeats what you say nearly verbatim. Long tangents in left-field are out too. Although occasionally interesting or funny, most academic conferences are short, allowing sometimes as little as 12 minutes for you to get your point across before opening the floor for questions. In the business world you work with presentations for a wide array of things that could take 2 minutes to an hour — but you still have to leave a lasting impression that doesn’t involve the word “boring” or “dull”.

So, this requires you to design a well-organized, visually pleasing, and pertinent slide show. You may suppose that the content of such a show is usually relatively easy to put together. That is, at least until you start thinking about what really goes into it, how many slides should be devoted to each point, and what sort of vocabulary should be used in order that your audience understands what you’re saying. This means scrap the jargon, use simple pictures and diagrams to illustrate what the main points are, and try to keep it interesting. Easier said than done, right?

Actually it’s not as hard as you think–and there is help available. The Internet is a blessing when you need a quick refresher on little things like putting together a presentation. Below are links that I find very useful and return to over and over again when I need a refresher; use them to go beyond the basics outlined here.

  1. Pull yourself together — then pull your thoughts together. I start with answering some basic questions. What is the point of your presentation? What do you want people to take away? What story are you going to tell them to get to those points? This acts as the script for your presentation. The audience doesn’t need to know everything, but they need to know some things that take them from not knowing anything under the worst circumstances to knowing the point of the meeting.
  2. Write the script. I tend to find that writing an outline to the script is easier. I lay them out on note cards and put them in order from when I walk on stage and introduce myself, through the story, and to the end point. To me, this is the fun part because I get to tell a story, and that means I can entertain people. (And no, neither business or nor academia has to be boring!)
  3. Pictures, pictures, pictures. PowerPoint is a tool that can be used to enhance your presentation so you seem less boring. It’s not a tool to tell your story for you. In order to achieve this, find pictures that represent your story points. Please do keep in mind that while useful, graphs get old. Break up the steady stream of graphs by picking a picture of the noun in your point. For instance, I talk a lot about dirt, so I might use a colourful soil profile as a background when I’m not giving data.
  4. Censor yourself. I know this seems odd, but go back through and read your presentation out loud. When you notice jargon, mark it. If you use jargon more than a few times during one slide, censor yourself. If you don’t, it’ll get boring.
  5. Highlight it yourself. If there is any doubt about your key points, take the time to highlight them yourself. You can do this creatively by using it as a heading, putting a thought bubble on top of a graph spelling out what you want them to see, and putting them in handouts. This will ensure that your key points are remembered, even if you and your presentation are not.

Still need some ideas? I found the book Presentation Zen and corresponding blog by Garr Reynolds quite refreshing for a look at  design elements, some style tips, and some different technology that one can use. There are some really nifty ideas out there that I would have never thought of using, such as a white board to draw on as I talk. If you have time, you can do something more elaborate, like using 35 mm slides, movies, or even a simple URL link in the slide.

In the end it’s all about keeping it simple, not speaking at warp speed, and trying not to shake too much. Oh, and of course, interacting with the audience to keep them interested. If you succeed in that, and you will succeed, the audience will remember you, your presentation, and key points for more than the evening.

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