T he other day I offered to assist a colleague with a presentation. She was faced with the difficult task of distilling a complex situation into a set of simple talking points to use to train and send out a group of spokespeople.
She had already spent considerable time working through her material, and had created an order to her ideas. When we connected about it, she was transferring the ideas into a PowerPoint document, and in the process discovering additional ways to sharpen and hone her arguments.
You can live through a situation and feel like you understand what’s going on, but being able to articulate it to others is a different thing altogether. Have you ever described something to someone, and found yourself discovering a better way to say something? Some people call it creating an elevator speech, or a 15 to 20-second summary that you could give to someone on an elevator ride.
What she was doing is hard. People sometimes hide fuzziness with pretty prose. But presenting ideas to others? That forces you into clarity and cohesion.
I offered to assist her with some visual components. In the process I rediscovered several presentation principles I sharpened while on the road speaking for several years. Here they are:
One. Don’t use your presentation slides as your notes.
Do not under any circumstances use PowerPoint slides as your notes. Your notes are something entirely different. In your notes, be comprehensive. On the slide, display a single image or a few words to capture the concept. The goal with the presentation is clarity of concept, with a dash of intrigue or story to increase retention. Only communicate big ideas on screen, visually and with a few punchy words. Images are best.
Two. Never put two (or more) ideas on one slide.
Just like you should have one idea per blog post and one idea per book chapter. This sounds easy but is monumental to achieve. It has taken me two years of writing blog posts to discover how often I’ve destroyed myself with subject-drifting rambles. Keep it tight. One idea at a time. If you find yourself writing a new idea, break it off and keep it for another slide later.
Three. Resist the urge to add more ideas to your material.
Of course most of the presentation should seem simplistic to you; you’re the expert. They’re total newbies and need 10-15 minutes just to get comfortable with the context for your talk. So limit your 60-minute presentation to 3-5 big ideas. Use most of your slides, and time, to illustrate and reinforce.
Four. Don’t assume they’re following you from point A to B in your argument.
For years in books and presentations, I would make logical leaps without realizing it. I assumed what I knew was no big deal – conventional wisdom. I eventually realized that people don’t necessarily know the things I take for granted – and those who do appreciate the validation.
Five. Keep the current idea in front of people.
I include the current big idea on every illustration and support slide. It helps the audience to follow along and maintain context and cohesion with my arguments. A chapter or essay is structured with subheaders and illustrations, right? In a presentation, keep the main header on screen to help communicate context for whatever it is you’re saying at the moment. Otherwise people can get lost.
And it goes without saying: Structure your presentation with headers and sub headers very clearly. You want to make it very easy for someone to follow along.
Six. Lead with the need.
This may be the biggest problem. Most presentations employ a poor narrative framework. Don‘t start with what something is. Start with the need – what’s the problem? Why are you making this presentation? You have to establish the connection right away, or you lose people and never get them back. Once they’re nodding their heads in shared frustration, explain your features and benefits.
Seven. Never spend more than eight minutes on a single idea.
Studies have shown that eight minutes is as far as people can retain a single idea and stay with you. But I think even eight is bad. Try five. You need to be able to summarize your concept very quickly. For example, TED talks allow a maximum of 13 minutes for the speaker to summarize their life’s work. Seems impossible – but if you can’t summarize what you’re saying in a few words, maybe you don’t know it well enough anyway.
Eight. Break it up between ideas.
Between idea segments (every 5 – 8 minutes), break up the flow of the presentation with something different. Show a video. Take a poll. Ask people to talk in groups or spend time reflecting and writing. Even if you’re only moving from one teaching point to another, try physically changing your location on the stage.
Nine. Keep it light.
My favorite mix is to throw in not more than two poignant or powerful moments in an hour talk. Mostly it needs to be funny. Humor keeps people disarmed and ready to learn.
This is a handy list but honestly I’m not sure it’s going to be enough for you. I’ve had to learn this kind of thing over the course of years and hundreds of presentations. Most the time when I work with others, they don’t intuitively understand these concepts, either. Often it’s something you have to do to get. I hope, though, that something here triggers a positive change.
What have you learned about making presentations?