How To Improve Your Presentations

I’ve been asked many times how to improve your presentation skills. I don’t have any hints about visualizing the audience naked. My perspective has been practice, practice, practice. I think it fits well with the Outliers concept of 10,000 hours.

When I was in high school, I participated in Model United Nations (MUN) which was a great experience and forced you to get up in front of your peers and present on a topic. You had to research a country and understand their perspective. That was good, low pressure experience.

In undergraduate school, I studied architecture and you had to constantly stand in front of your peers and judges to present your solution. In business school, I constantly presented our cases and other work (until my teachers said I couldn’t present any more). Then, I think what finally helped me hone my skills was Toastmasters. A friend got me into it in graduate school, and it was great. We dropped pennies in glasses if people used “uhms” in their presentations. We did ad-hoc presentations on topics that we didn’t prepare for. We had to present in different ways using different skills.

Then, at Ernst & Young LLP, we practiced everything and focused on details. What does a white shirt under a dark suit mean versus a grey shirt under a grey suit? Attention to details.

At Express Scripts, Larry Zarin (CMO) introduced me to Presentation Zen before the book was even out. Before our annual Outcomes conference, we would practice our delivery over and over again. We would focus on slide content, fonts, and everything else that made them easy to use.

There are lots of things to think about in driving presentations, but in the end, I think there are some basics that I live by which are only learned and honed by practice. (I also think that presenting is highly correlated with being able to facilitate meetings (see good list here).)

  1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them what you want to tell them. Tell them what you told them.
  2. Have a structure to the presentation. Think Minto Pyramid Principle or writing a good letter (intro, body, conclusion).
  3. Know your audience. What’s important to them? What’s their history with the topic?
  4. Manage your environment. How do people sit? Projector or handouts?
  5. Engage people…don’t just lecture to them.
  6. If you’re using slides or handouts, make sure people can read them and understand them.
  7. Slides are NOT handouts. They are props.
  8. Don’t talk to the slides. Make eye contact.
  9. Walk thru the presentation (at least once) out loud before delivering it to your audience.
  10. Have a routine (like golfing). I like to get a good night’s sleep and run in the morning before any big presentation. I also try to manage my caffeine intact before the presentation.

I could go on, but those are some thoughts.

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