How to give a killer presentation

Chris-Anderson-TED-007In a recent article for Harvard Business Review, Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, shared some of his thoughts on what goes into making a great talk.

The whole piece is well worth a read, but here I’ve picked out some of the ideas that chime most closely with my experience of giving and developing presentations.

‘The single most important thing to remember is that there is no one good way to do a talk. The most memorable talks offer something fresh, something no one has seen before. The worst ones are those that feel formulaic… make the talk your own. You know what’s distinctive about you and your idea. Play to your strengths and give a talk that is truly authentic to you.’    Chris Anderson 

Frame Your Story

Developing your concept and framing what you want to say is the most vital part of preparation. The most engaging speakers are able to quickly introduce their topic, explain why they care so deeply about it, and then convince their audience that they should care too.

To choose where to start, work out what your audience already know about your subject and how much they care about it. Assume they have more knowledge or interest than they do, or get too technical and start using jargon, and you’ll lose them.

Don’t cover too much ground, instead go deeper and give more detail. Limit yourself to what you can explain and bring to life, with examples, in the time available.

Remember, ideas and stories fascinate us; organizations bore us—don’t boast about your company; tell us about the problem you’re solving.

Plan Your Delivery

There are three main ways to deliver a talk.

  1. Read directly off a script – Chris’ advice though is ‘Don’t read it, It’s usually just too distancing’. As soon as your audience sense that you’re reading, the way they receive your talk will change. You’ll lose your intimate connection and your talk will feel a lot more formal.
  2. Memorize your talk – If you’re giving an important talk and you have the time, this is often the best way to go. It’s really a matter of rehearsing over and over until the flow of words becomes second nature. But don’t underestimate the work involved; if you don’t have time to learn a speech thoroughly don’t try, go with…
  3. Bullet points on note cards – develop a set of short notes that map out what you’re going to say in each section. Focus on remembering the transitions from one bullet point to the next.

Develop Your Stage Presence

For some speakers, just being onstage can be the most difficult part of giving a presentation – but people tend to overestimate its importance. Getting the words, story, and substance right is a much more important to the success of your talk than how you stand or whether you’re visibly nervous.

The biggest mistake speakers make is moving too much – swaying from side to side, or shifting their weight from one leg to the other. People do this naturally when they’re nervous, but it’s distracting and can make a speaker seem weak. Simply keeping your lower body still can dramatically improve stage presence.

Perhaps the most important physical act onstage is making eye contact. Find five or six friendly-looking people in different parts of the audience and look them in the eye as you speak. Think of them as friends you haven’t seen for a while and you are now bringing them up to date on your work. Eye contact is incredibly powerful, and will do more than anything else to help engage your audience.

Don’t worry too much about nervousness. The audience expects you to be nervous. It’s a natural body response that can actually improve your performance: It gives you energy to perform and keeps your mind sharp. Just keep breathing, and you’ll be fine.

Plan Your Multimedia

Many of the best speakers don’t use slides at all, and many talks don’t require them. If you have photographs or illustrations that make the topic come alive, then show them. If not, consider doing without, at least for some parts of the presentation.

Slides can help frame and pace a talk and help speakers avoid getting lost in jargon or overly intellectual language. A picture can sometimes explain more than words so some speakers find it useful to build silence into their talks and let the images speak for themselves.

Video can be very effective too, but keep any clips short – if it’s more than 60 seconds, you risk losing people.

If you are going to use PowerPoint: Keep it simple; don’t use a slide deck as a substitute for notes and don’t just repeat out loud words that are on the slide – information is interesting only once, and hearing and seeing the same words feels repetitive.

Putting It All Together

Make sure you have plenty of time to practice. The more practice you can do in the final weeks, the better off you’ll be. Ideally, you should practice the talk on your own and in front of an audience.

Be choosy about the people you use as a test audience, and who you invite to offer feedback. In general, the more experience a person has as a presenter, the better the criticism they can offer.

Ultimately, presentations rise or fall on the quality of the idea, the narrative, and the passion of the speaker. It’s about substance, not speaking style or multimedia pyrotechnics.

As Chris says ‘If you have something to say, you can build a great talk. But if the central theme isn’t there, you’re better off not speaking. Decline the invitation. Go back to work, and wait until you have a compelling idea that’s really worth sharing.’


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