Improving presentation content and style

This content is 12 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

A few weeks ago now, I attended a webcast as part of a series run by Citrix to promote GoToMeeting. Rather than saying “hey, look at our product it does x, y and z”, Citrix used the product to host others giving advice on presentation techniques.

Ironically, some of the presentations were awful – I dropped out of one on “presenting with impact” as (in my opinion) it lacked any kind of impact; suffered from poor audio on the main presenter’s line; started out with irrelevant facts (which were later suggested as an approach to make a session memorable); and then launched into a poll before even getting going.  I did later return to the recording of this session and  around presenting with passion, preparation, body language and the need for practice/preparation – but the fact remains that it initially turned me right off… (and I was surprised to find a professional communicator who hadn’t seen Prezi – although I’m not really a fan of that tool). Sadly, those first impressions stuck with me for the same presenter’s follow-up session on “communicating with impact”, which really failed to keep my attention (if I was being charitable, I might say that was perhaps as much an indictment of the delivery method as of the content).

Thankfully, another webcast was more useful – Roger Courville from 1080 Group spoke about “eight things we can do to improve virtual presentations” and, by and large, they were good tips (for face to face presentations too) so I’m sharing my notes here:

  1. Put a complete idea in the slide title – and keep slides visual for “picture superiority” (although the brain does see a few words as an image).
  2. Create a sense of presence – paint a vision to demonstrate 1:1 attention/facilitate a common connection.
  3. Draw the audience’s eyes to your slide’s main point – direct attention visually (additive) or reduce and simplify (subtractive) – make sure the audience doesn’t have to guess what the main point is!
  4. Keep “wholes” whole… and then build it out if you want to – i.e. show the big picture and then drill down into details.
  5. Analyse (who, what, where, when, why and how), synthesise (action or relationship), visualise (consider how things might look visually or spatially). It’s possible to get a tutorial (and template) for this tip by subscribing to the 1080 Group newsletter.
  6. Pause for power – in advance of a key point for a sense of anticipation or afterwards to allow the brain time to process. Pause for effect and pause for interactions. And, to add some insight from the communicating with impact presentation, allow silence, to give time to digest information and to add gravitas.
  7. Ask your audience what or when is best. Improve things based on feedback – either “on the fly” during the presentation, or by building an understanding over time.  And, although this wasn’t one of Roger’s tips, it seems like a good point to take another cue from the communicating with impact presentation: consider the audience’s DNA (demographic, needs, and attitude) – and be ready to flex your style.
  8. Start you next presentation by “storyboarding” (see the comments on “beyond bullet points” below) – think about the flow of the presentation (content), before filling in details (think how PowerPoint leads us to step straight in and start creating bullets!) – and “design in” interactions (demo, poll, etc.).  By way of illustration, Roger also referred to Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points book which I confess I haven’t read but is structured around three core themes:
    1. Tell a story – you only have a few seconds to create an emotional impact.
    2. Distil your ideas – instead of throwing everything into the presentation, go into the minds of the audience and figure out what to communicate (with an effective structure).
    3. Create visual prompts – not just pretty slides but building out the storyboard to take the audience on a journey to an effective presentation.

Two more points I picked up that I though were worthy of note:

  • The average soundbite dropped from 43 seconds in 1968 to less than 8 in 2010 – reflecting our reduction in attention span?
  • Slides don’t equal duration – more slides do not (necessarily) equal more content. [I particularly subscribe to this one!]

And a quote:

“The act of organising information is in itself an insight” [Edward Tufte]

Even the presentations I were less enamoured with presented some insight, like:

  • Get someone you trust to review your presentation style – and let them be frank, to tell you about your style, impact, and use of filler words like um and err (which come across as lacking in confidence).
  • Direct conversations with open and closed questions, together with summaries (for example, “let me just check…”, list key points and end with a closed question).
  • Online presentations lack feedback from listening noises (like those that might be applied on the phone).

Using this information, I’m hoping to improve my future presentations and, judging by the number of “death by PowerPoint” sessions that I attend, a few other people could learn from this too. There are also a few more resources that might come in handy:

3 thoughts on “Improving presentation content and style

  1. Hey Mark,

    Thanks for the review and kind words.

    A couple quick notes:

    Of the two surveys you kindly linked to, one just closed (why do attendees leave webinars). A new one takes its place…”What interactions do attendees find most engaging?”

    I also hate the word webinar. Always have. But it does still hold the top spot in search, and I’m pragmatic enough to swallow my pride and deal with it.

    There are different ways to use technology, and I prefer drawing out reference to the analog equivalent… is it a meeting? presentation? seminar? classroom?

    One thing’s for sure…most webinars (web-based seminars) bear no resemblance to any terrestrially-based seminar I’ve ever attended. :)


  2. Thanks Roger – glad you appreciated the post and didn’t think I was somehow trying to rip off your content!

    You’re absolutely right though: “webinars” are very different to terrestrial meetings. And I’ll check out the new survey when I get a moment!

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