A Modern Survival Guide Interlude
You’re reading the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for navigating and interacting with the modern world. This essay is an interlude, an article that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight, or a deep discussion of human impulses, or an explanation of some major phenomenon; it’s just something people might need to know. And one thing everyone ought to know is how to give a solid presentation.
So let’s cover the basics. First of all, this is an art, not a science. I’ll get into all the ways that’s the case later on, but for right now let’s settle one thing up front: everything I’m about to tell you should be tailored to your target audience. Take nothing as gospel, treat nothing as an absolute. These are more what you’d call… guidelines as opposed to actual rules.
Ok, the caveat is done — to start off, presentations are all about transmitting knowledge to a group. This isn’t the same thing as education, which involves active participation and a back-and-forth dynamic. Presentations are one-directional, short, and focused. Your objective is to get in, say your piece, answer maybe a few questions, and get out, all in the most efficient manner possible.
The ability to give a good presentation boils down to three big areas of mastery:
- Presence — your stage presence, your public speaking skill, and your ability to command attention
- Control — your ability to make, communicate, and enforce rules of behavior
- Quality — your ability to put together a presentation that is interesting, visually compelling, and does not contain errors
We’ll cover these each in turn. Please save your questions for the end.
Your “presence” in a presentation is your ability to hold the audience’s attention and run the show. We touched on several components of this skill before, and here they are in detail:
Stage presence: Someone with a good stage presence is visually distinct and used to the spotlight.
A good rule of thumb when giving a presentation is to wear something colorful. Red is usually a good choice. You don’t have to drape yourself in scarlet, but a red tie for men or a jacket, cardigan, or scarf for women will draw eyes to you.
Another good idea is to use movement. Don’t just stand still, unless you’ve got no choice but to be tethered to a podium. Moving around the stage (if you’re on stage) or at least pacing in a limited area of a conference room is not a bad idea; human beings are drawn to movement as part of our visual acuity. Just don’t block the presentation itself. If you can’t move around, use your hands when you talk.
Now for the art: the presence you’re trying to achieve is calm without being boring, deliberate without being slow, and focused without being manic. Don’t sprint around. Don’t wildly gesticulate. Don’t show up on stage looking like a clown. Be professional, direct, and as graceful as you can pull off. Practice makes everything better, so try out some different styles in front of a mirror until you find something that you think works.
Public Speaking: Stage presence aside, public speaking is an art form in its own right. A good public speaker adopts an authoritative tone that is not ostentatious or condescending, and projects their voice to the back of the room. Making eye contact with people in the audience from time to time is also a good play, but don’t stare.
Good public speakers are funny, serious, or quirky; try not to vacillate back and forth between these too much. If you can’t be funny, be serious enough that people automatically assume that whatever you’re talking about is serious business. Use the authority tone. If you can’t be funny or serious, be quirky. Have props or use eccentric patterns of speech.¹ The point is to hold the audience’s attention.
Good public speakers also stay on target. If they tell a joke or a story, it’s on topic. They don’t wander around in their speech or use circular language. Personally, the best public speakers I’ve ever seen didn’t even use notes; they just knew the material backwards and forwards so well that they could talk about it in their sleep. If that’s not achievable (and, let’s be honest, it’s usually not) use notecards or a notes tab on a slide deck to keep yourself on track, but don’t stare at them for the whole presentation.
Good public speakers do not get flustered, either. Their voices do not waver. They don’t look panicky. They don’t lose their train of thought for more than a few moments. They deal with issues that come up during the presentation smoothly, efficiently, and usually with a plan prepared ahead of time. Knowing what to do if a technical glitch occurs is always, always a good strategy.
Now for the art: public speaking is one of the hardest things to do. There are plenty of people who are more afraid of public speaking than death. If you’re not comfortable speaking in public, or if you know you’re not a good public speaker, remember that practice makes perfect — find a supportive person, and do the presentation in front of them until you’re comfortable.
Keep in mind that your style of speech should be tailored to your audience and event — it is simply not appropriate to be funny when giving a presentation on certain topics (almost anything to do with death, really), and some groups will react better to one style over another. You may need to have some experience with a group before you can give an honestly good presentation to them.
Commanding Attention: Ok, this one I really can’t teach, you just have to have it. This is called “charisma” in other places, and what it means is that you should have some personal magnetism and charm. To give a really good presentation, people need to want to hear you. A lot of that comes from your personality.
Now for the art: This one really is mostly down to your personality, and I can’t do a thing for that. But, there are some things you can do to compensate if you need to. If you can’t rustle up a healthy dose of charisma, my advice is to substitute sheer enthusiasm in its place. Someone who’s really interested in their subject matter can hold a crowd almost as well as someone with a strong force of personality.
The other best option is to be in a position of authority or knowledge such that people feel like they need to hear what you have to say because their job, project, or objective might rely on it. Senior managers often have truly awful personalities, but they command attention on the strength of their position.
To sum up here, presence is your ability to walk onto the stage, stand up in the conference room, or unmute your microphone and have everyone present pay attention. If you can do that, you’re halfway home.
Control, control, you must learn control! Yoda said it, not me, so listen to the little green guy. When giving a presentation, your ability to control the room is critical. You can’t pass on the info you have to give if people keep interrupting you, or disrupt the flow of your presentation, or just can’t wait to ask one burning question. This is a serious problem that has occurred in almost every presentation I’ve ever seen.
There are three big things you can do to maintain control over a meeting. The first is to establish ground rules. The second is to use a moderator to control the audience while you run the presentation. The third is to identify and neutralize known risks.
Ground rules: Right at the start of the presentation, lay down the rules of behavior for the group. A common phrasing here is “Ok, we’re going to get started now, please hold all questions until the end.” Most people will not interject random commentary into a presentation, but the temptation to ask questions is always present, especially when meeting with managers.
Ground rules partially mitigate the problem of interruptions, particularly if you ask people to verbally or physically indicate agreement with them. It is an interesting psychological trick that people will more readily follow a rule if they have given some form of consent, so use that to your advantage.
Now for the art: Don’t be draconian with ground rules, but always repeat them when they are broken. If someone asks a question, it’s usually best to answer the question, at least in short form, and if necessary promise a longer answer later, and then move on. Don’t let other people jump in, and immediately remind the audience (in a polite and professional way) to hold questions until the end.
Now for the exception: If you’re in a meeting with senior management, you’re probably screwed. You can’t really tell your boss’s boss’s boss to shut up until you’re done. In these cases you need to be prepared to jump around within the presentation in order to meet their needs, and then figure out what they want to see and give that to them first in the next presentation.
Moderators: Using a moderator can be a very good idea for large presentations; personally if I have to present to a group larger than about fifty people, I use a moderator. The moderator’s job is to control the flow of information — they’re in charge of muting or unmuting people, passing around microphones, keeping track of the time, and recognizing people who have questions.
Moderators are good because they offload mental processing tasks from you, leaving you free to concentrate on all the other things that make a presentation great. Simply having a moderator in the room makes a presentation feel more official, and the same people who would have interrupted you often clam up when confronted with a moderator.
Now for the art: Moderating a presentation is its own art form, and you need to find someone who has figured it out. Not everyone can be a moderator for the same reasons that not everyone can be a good presenter; it takes practice, skill, and sheer chutzpah to get it right. Delegation in general is a risk-heavy action; delegation of moderating duties will either float or sink your presentation, and choosing the right moderator is as much of an art form as selecting a good employee.
In general, remember that no one is ever good at anything on their first try, so don’t use someone who has never moderated a meeting before. If you have someone you want to use as a moderator, but they’re inexperienced, have them shadow another moderator and train up before throwing them into the lion’s den.
Neutralize known risks: This is a big one, because it’s usually possible to identify and neutralize (or at least mitigate) known risks to your presentation. There are two big risk groups to watch out for: technical risks and personal risks.
Technical risks are anything that could go wrong with the technology you’re using for the meeting. What do you do if your laptop doesn’t work, or the projector doesn’t work, or the conference line is down? The answer, in almost all cases, is to have backups where you can and always test things beforehand.
Make sure you know how the conference software works before the presentation starts. Check the projector to make sure it works and can connect to your computer. Do a mic check. Make sure everything you need is available, turned on, and working, and do so far enough in advance that you can cancel the event if you have to. But don’t test things weeks or months in advance and expect them all to still work correctly later on; the best time to test things is an hour or two before an event, and then again about half an hour before the event starts.
Personal risks, on the other hand, are people who you know are going to disrupt your presentation. In any given organization there will be at least one of these people, and likely several. The likelihood of someone being a serial disruptor increases with their rank. Senior managers often don’t feel like they have time to sit through a presentation, or simply believe that they are entitled to interrupt anyone they damn well want to interrupt.
Nip these problems in the bud by holding pre-meetings where you can, sending pre-presentation information when you can’t, and excluding people when you have to. For senior management, the best plan is often to get with them before the presentation and give them the information they need. Then they can decide if they want to go to the public presentation or not. Usually they won’t, and that’s two birds with one stone.
For problematic people at your level or lower, consider sending them information and soliciting questions over a direct messaging path, or simply excluding them from presentations that do not absolutely require their presence.
Now for the art: There’s a reason why professionals use the term “risk mitigation” as opposed to “risk removal;” you usually can’t control everything. Having a backup plan for what happens when a risk turns into an issue should be a standard part of your meeting prep, and that will take all kinds of forms. You’ll need to know when to cancel a presentation, when to soldier through, who you can exclude, and who you absolutely have to handhold. I can’t give you those answers; they’re situational.
In general though, the importance of a presentation is directly proportional to whether or not you should cancel it due to technical problems, because for the really big stuff you want things to go well. Delaying is often preferable to not communicating effectively. Remember the point of the whole thing.
And in general, the rank of an individual or their ability to affect your goal should be directly proportional to how much you coddle them in preparation for a presentation. You don’t have to use the kid gloves on everyone, but for the boss’s boss’s boss you probably want to.
Last but oh dear Lord by no means least, let’s talk quality. Getting the simple stuff out of the way, spellcheck and grammar-check your damn presentation. I’ve seen far too many PowerPoint decks in my time that had obvious, easily spotted basic errors, and presenting one of those makes you look unprofessional, which decreases the odds of your audience learning anything. If you don’t have time to error-check your presentation, you shouldn’t be giving it at all.
But quality is not just about errors. It’s also about the fundamental composition of a presentation. This breaks down into a few more points:
- Tailor to time: A good presentation fits into the time slot available for it. ALWAYS practice your presentation in order to make sure you can get through the whole thing and still have time for questions. If you’re presenting a slide deck, a good rule of thumb is to allow at least five minutes per slide.
- Avoid text walls: A “text wall” is just a block of text without interruptions. You know, like an internet article. People don’t come to presentations to read articles. Use bullet points, visuals, and formatting to break up text walls into discrete packets of information.
- Cut out information-free content: Every presentation has a purpose. Cut out any content that does not serve that purpose. Every word, image, and chart should have direct bearing on what you’re trying to present.
- Use appropriate language: Tailor your language to your audience. In general, keep things as simple as possible. Use plain language unless you’re presenting to experts, avoid circular discussion, and cut out as many buzzwords as you can get away with. You cannot fake intelligence on an issue in a presentation without wasting people’s time, so don’t try to use buzzwords or technobabble in lieu of content.
- Use informative visuals: Charts, graphs, and artwork should be easily visible, clearly labeled, and sensitive to color-blind people. They should always show information that is relevant to your presentation, and should be accompanied by at least a little bit of text explanation.
- Format for visibility: Before you finalize your presentation, push your chair five or six feet back from your computer screen. Can you comfortably read the text? If not, make the text bigger until you can. This may mean you have to rework your presentation, but if your audience can’t see what you’re presenting then the whole thing is useless.
Just in general, no presentation should ever assume that the audience has knowledge of the subject matter being presented. If they already knew about it, they wouldn’t need the presentation. Explain and format all of your content with a clear understanding of the knowledge possessed by the audience vs. the knowledge you are trying to impart. Test this by finding someone of the appropriate level of knowledge and having them read the presentation. If they don’t get it, you need to rework things.
And finally, be very wary of your boss. Most bosses have only a fuzzy understanding of what goes into making a good presentation, and they will reliably offer suggestions that will detract from your vision of the end product. Sometimes that’s a good thing, if you’re screwing it up. More often it’s a bad thing, as your boss forgets the basic rules of space and time and tries to cram in content that has no business being there.²
Now for the art: Quality is very much a case of being good at building presentations from a writing and formatting perspective, and that truly is an art form. Knowing which information to include, what phrasing to use for best effect, which visuals will be best received by your audience — these are all things I can’t teach you.³ But I can advise you that the more presentations you do, and the more feedback you get, the more you will learn about how to make a good presentation.
As a general rule, I give my presentations to at least two other people and solicit their comments before I finalize anything. I try to pick at least one person who I know is a good presenter, and I try to pick at least one person who knows the audience. At the same time, I do not pass my presentations around to my whole team; that’s just a recipe for confusion and poor suggestions, not to mention a time lag.
Mind Your PCQs
In summary, and if you’ll forgive a mild pun, mind your PCQs. Work on your presence. Keep control of the presentation. And make sure your quality is up to snuff — even when that means having to defend your presentation from your superiors. If you can do that, you’ll probably be able to give an informative, interesting, effective presentation.
If you can’t do all of these, try to do two — sometimes this turns into an iron triangle scenario. If you can’t do two, die on the hill of quality, because if nothing else you can turn a high-quality presentation into a decent handout.
Good luck! And happy presenting.
¹There’s a story about the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in which he worried that his accent would cause Americans to not take him seriously. His friend had to remind him that to Americans, his accent was exotic, and therefore interesting to listen to.
²Ahem… I may have some mild trauma associated with this point.
³But a Google search will turn up lots of ideas.