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The secret to great presentations: it's not about the software

Joe Kissell | July 31, 2014
I've sat through countless dull PowerPoint and Keynote presentations. And I'll admit that some of my own have been snoozers, too. Based on my observations of presentations by others, and on feedback I've received about my own, I'd like to share one simple tip for making your presentations better: Don't focus on your presentation software.

I've sat through countless dull PowerPoint and Keynote presentations. And I'll admit that some of my own have been snoozers, too. Based on my observations of presentations by others, and on feedback I've received about my own, I'd like to share one simple tip for making your presentations better: Don't focus on your presentation software.

You read that right: In some of the most successful presentations I've seen, I barely noticed what was on the screen. If your audience leaves feeling informed, inspired, or entertained, you've done a better job than if they leave talking about your fancy 3D effects.

Start with the message

Nobody watches an Apple keynote to see the slides. They watch to see Tim Cook and other executives in action and learn about new products. Sure, there'll be interesting some photos, charts, and statistics. But those are there only to supplement and reinforce what the speakers say. Or consider politicians, preachers, comedians, and TED presenters, all of whom convey the bulk of their messages with speech alone. The essence of your talk is the words you say, not what you put on the screen.

So focus on those words first. Figure out the message or facts you want your audience to leave with, and map out a talk that accomplishes your goal. Practice until you can deliver it with little or no reliance on notes. Then — and only then — start looking for ways to add supporting visuals with presentation software.

Fight the presentation-as-handout meme

How many times have you seen a presentation in which the speaker does little more than read what's on the slides? My feeling is that if all the essential text from my presentation is on my slides, I might as well just distribute a PDF and stay home. I want my audience to pay attention, to be surprised, to smile and nod and laugh at the right places. I want to be able to use intonation and body language to convey feelings that text alone would miss.

As a result, I never put everything I say (or anywhere close to it) on my slides. I politely decline to provide attendees a copy of my presentation (which wouldn't be very useful, after all), and instead I often prepare separate PDF or printed handouts to be distributed after my talk, that include all the main points, URLs, and other details, in a more-readable form.

Embrace simplicity

All things being equal, simple text and images are the way to go. Text-heavy slides, complex images, cutesy animations, flashy transitions, and other such embellishments are more of a distraction than an aid. You don't want your audience to say, "Wow, what great Keynote skills that presenter had!" You want them to remember what you said.

 

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