Making better presentations

In 2003, I delivered my worst presentation ever at the podium of the Royal Irish Academy. I stood and read an irrelevant academic paper, to a disinterested audience, and had planned my delivery so poorly that it was necessary to skip paragraphs at random to keep within time. Since then I’ve looked at how Hardt, Lessig, Kawaneski, and Zittrain present complicated issues in engaging ways. I’ve learnt four rules from their example.

Working at the IIEA, where we run on average 113 events per year, I’ve sat through allot of presentations and speeches, made by high calibre speakers from diverse backgrounds. Some were good, some were bad. Listening to them, and making my presentations myself, I have learned a few things.

First, appreciate that, as Jobs and Gates apparently quoted Picasso, “bad artists copy, great artists steal”. So the exemplar of the style that has worked best for me thus far is… Jonathan Zittrain. See parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven of his presentation at the Institute of International & European Affairs.

Zittrain here is using two techniques that are immediately attractive. First, even though his content relates to cutting edge techno-legal issues, he uses historical examples that lull even a luddite audience into the frame of this thinking. Second, he uses a rapid fire, many minimal slide style of powerpoint presentation in tandem with an energetic and informal speaking style.

Perhaps the best example of the rapid fire, many minimal slide style is Dick Hardt’s presentation at the “O’Reilly Open Source Convention” in 2005, which can be viewed here. Hardt’s slides often have a single word or logo on them, and they slide by at the rate of 1 every two seconds. He times them to emphasise his keywords. This is very similar to Lawrence Lessig’s style, which is discussed at length here.

This style of presentation depends on two simple rules: i) keep the font large, words few; and ii) know your sides, do not use them as a text from which to read your speech. They can be a crutch, but not a prompt. Guy Kawaneski made good points in his presentation on the art of the start about these rules. First, a simple rule of thumb is to take the oldest person in your audience and divide by two. That means in a room in which a CEO or government minister aged 77 is present, your font must be a minimum of 34 or larger. Second, when an audience figures out that a presenter is reading through his own slides, they are, of course, going to read ahead. Taking the Dick Hardt approach of many quick slides, timed to appear as you say the relevant word, you’re feeding the audience aurally and visually at the same time. There is no possibility for them to read ahead, or find themselves waiting and loosing interest while you finish reading a long chunk of text from the screen.

Having spoken at a few different forums, ranging from off the record security meetings of government experts and associated big-wigs to informal academic get togethers, and had mixed responses to a variety of different presentation styles, I think I’m finally getting to grips with how to make a presentation. I would add two additional rules to the ones above: i) take the time to find striking graphical images that will explain visually what a paragraph would otherwise do in a less engaging presentation; ii) be informal but structured. Both of these points are reflected in the presentatons of the speakers linked above.

One downside to this type of approach is that, without the speaker present to give the verbal presentation, the powerpoint file might not make sense in the traditional way. See for example the slides I used recently (large file). This was part of a presentation that attracted very positive feedback from a critical audience, but which, when viewed in isolation, might not fully convey the content of the presentation. Because powerpoint presentations are often written like prose, which results in bad presentations, they can nonetheless make very good after notes. As a corollary, it seems that the better the presentation, the worse the after note will be. This, then, is the necessary downside to powerpoint: it was intended to be a presentation tool, but instead is used as a replacement for a word processor. If you do a great presentation, you have to send a proper article as the post-presentation material. Alternatively, one can do what 90 per cent of presenters tend to do: write a powerpoint file that will be a great post-presentation document, and bore the audience to tears by presenting it as a presentation.


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