How to hold a presentation and survive to tell the tale.
I went to Vancouver about a month ago, to visit EA Canada and among other things hold a presentation on part of our work. Quite a trip, I can tell you, considering that most of the time was spent travelling there and then back. I can also tell you that a sufficiently large family of which none speak English on a transatlantic flight is quite an adventure, but that’s a different story.
This story is about the presentation — and about what it taught me. Not because I’m the best presenter out there and I want to teach you all my secrets, but because the big secret is that most people holding presentations are just like you and me, they also lack the experience, and they’re just as terrified when they step up there to say the first word. My presentation went by pretty decently. I did many things right from the start, but I also learned quite a few of new things from it, and it’d be rather silly of me to not share that with you.
On a grand scale, people tend to be bunched up between the center notch of “uncomfortable” and the high extreme of “about to throw up” — most people just absolutely hate or fear presentations. There must be some deep hidden feature of the human psyche that makes any gathering of more than, say, 10 of your colleagues turn into something as intimidating as an invasion army. And knowing how silly this is does absolutely nothing to prevent it from affecting you.
Fortunately for me, Sweden, where I grew up, has understood this, and puts an incredible focus on presentations in public schools. Unfortunately for me, a very core part of holding a good presentation is to be extremely confident of what the hell it is you’re trying to tell people. You need to be seen as an authority to be believable and feel somewhat comfortable in what you’re saying. And while the exporting stats for Bolivia, the dates of historic battles in France and the thoughts and motives of Jonathan Swift may all be fascinating subjects, they’re not my area of expertize just because I just read my homework about it 7 times in a row.
My gut feeling is that the education just cements the students’ fears, by putting them in a position where it’s essentially utterly impossible to hold a good presentation. Maybe that’s a good thing in a way, because no matter how badly you perform when the time comes to hold a presentation on a subject you know about, there’s just no way it’ll ever be as bad as it was in school.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, somewhere heading to Canada. So, several repetitions of putting all your belongings in a plastic box (your shoes as well please, sir) only to put them back on again (don’t forget your belt sir), I found myself in Vancouver about to deliver a presentation on a subject I actually knew and cared about. That’s quite a different beast, and in the whole process I became aware of a whole lot of things I’d otherwise ignored.
My company for the trip was one of the programmers from the Mirror’s Edge team, who was also about to hold a presentation, and who was nervous to the point of breaking down. My own nervousness has been somewhat masked by playing in a band on stage, practicing acting for a while and by a few years of talking to groups of people trying to coordinate them to slay the next big beast or a new set of opponents in various computer games, but it’s definitely still there. The key difference in this case was the fact that he was completely convinced that he didn’t have interesting content.
The first thing you need to realize when you step up there to deliver a presentation is that your audience, for one reason or another, are actually interested in hearing what you have to say. You always start out with a grand chance, as the audience will always assume the best of you before you start. That’s probably not what you wanted to hear as you stand there thinking you’re going to make everyone disappointed, but it also does mean that as long as you tell them new stuff, they’ll happily listen.
The next thing to do is prepare. Prepare so you know everything you could possibly be expected to say. Prepare so nothing but you matters, prepare for any problems that could possibly occur. This doesn’t mean learn a sequence of words by heart and then just speak them in sequence as you hold the presentation — it means be confident in all the material you have, and be ready to deliver it in any way and form.
For instance, the number one most common error I’d say is the reliance on technology — especially slides. Reading from your slides is always a really bad idea for a number of reasons, but there’s a different kind of slide addiction as well. If something goes wrong with your slides, make sure you have a way around it. I’ve seen presentations completely stall because of a video not playing, when the video wasn’t essential to the topic at all. Sure, it was a good visualisation of the subject at hand, but as someone in the audience I’m much more interested in the rest of the presentation than I am in someone trying to make PowerPoint perform a specific move.
Prepare for your slides being broken an unusable — have your vital images and videos in free form as a backup. And have some form of plan for what to do when that fails, as well. Think of how you’d present if the electricity failed and you were forced to hold your presentation in a circle of candle light. Will it impact on what you can show? Of course it does! But it should (almost) never stop you from holding a good presentation.
Even if everything goes the way it should, preparation is entirely vital. What I do when I finish writing a presentation is to boil it down to a few words per sentence or paragraph, and write those down on a separate piece of paper. Then I’ll hold the entire presentation alone using only those words as a memory. You’ll find that you remember a bit more, and some of the words are not really needed — so strike them out, write a new set of words. Hold the presentation again.
Sound like a painful procedure? Think it’s hard to hold a presentation only to yourself, listening to your own voice? Damn right it is. That doesn’t make it less vital. And if that sounded like a pain, check this out: Now continue repeating the process until you need no words at all. Hold the presentation without papers, and without ever turning to look at your slides. Practice this many times more — because when you step up there to deliver the presentation for real, your mind turns everything which isn’t very deep in there to blank.
This is where I made my biggest mistake… I just simply didn’t have the time (or take the time) to do this, but ended up with some words on a few papers. Not many, but still this ties you to the place where your words happen to be… for me, it turned out to be a big problem because there was nowhere good for me to place the papers. The result was that I got stuck several times, and didn’t have the mental chart I needed to keep going without the words… had I practiced more, I’d definitely been able to do a more free version of it, not being tied up to my papers awkwardly balanced somewhere.
The next thing to do is to listen to yourself (ouch). Nearly everyone hates this, and it can really put you in a state of total despair. Don’t let it — you need to listen to yourself hold the presentation, so you need to record it. It’s going to sound horrible, but that’s because most people don’t like the sound of their own voice as recorded. What you need to listen for is the words you get stuck on, the points where you go “ummmm… and then, ahh, well, you know…”
Everyone has those moments, but no one knows about all of them. Now that you’ve identified them, practice on getting rid of them. Remember — being silent is fine. Remaining silent for a bit is a good punctuation, lets people ponder what you’ve just said for a bit. The only person in the room feeling awkward about it is you – so gather your thoughts for a bit, make sure what you’re going to say and then say it all in a flow.
Sound like a lot of practice and preparation? It is. Holding a presentation and making it good takes its time, and you need to be ready to invest that time if you’d like to hold a really good presentation. In a way, you’ll need to keep practicing in front of actual audiences to gain the experience that, in time. can give you that almost super-human ability to deliver good presentations displayed by people that end up on TED.
There’s so much more to say about this subject, but this post is already long enough. I’m sure I will return to it again, but for now I’ll leave you with some very good links with presentation wisdom.
Rands has written two pieces on holding and writing presentations that delve a bit deeper into some parts than I did here. The first one is called “How To Not Throw Up” and the second one is called “Out Loud“, and both are very interesting reads.
Scott Hanselman has posted his 11 Top Tips for a Successful Technical Presentation. Some of his tips are somewhat hard to think of for beginners, when your brain is panicking and all you can hear in your mind is “gahhhhhh”, but if you strive to become a great presenter, it’s a must-read.