Your presentation sucks, your presentation rocks!

I’m an easily bored kind of guy: if you want me to pay attention to what you’re saying, you’re better make sure that the topic is interesting enough AND that you’re presenting it the right way.

This gets extemely important if I’m at a conference and I’m following your talk: there is a good chance I can get Internet access while you’re talking, and if you don’t manage to grab my attention, I will happily switch to surfing and e-mail. So, in the spirit of being constructive, here are a few random suggestions for you to make sure I listen up.

Slides: the root of all evil. I’m strongly convinced that a good talk doesn’t need slides at all, except from graphs, code snippets and nice pictures, however I also realize that slides is what the audience is expecting nowadays. That being said, I have a whole sleeve of problems with slideware, but let’s stick to the main points:

  • first of all, here is some news for you: we all can read. If your presentation is all about reading slides, than thanks but I can do that myself in a fraction of the time it’s taking to you. Not to mention that what you’re saying is no news anymore.
  • for the same reason, mile-long slides should be avoided. Stick to a few bullet points, and make them interesting enough for me to hear from you what was that catchy phrase about.
  • do your homework, and study your slides. It sucks so badly when you advance to the next slide and stop for a few seconds to actually read it. Actually, you should start talking about the next slide before it hits my eyes: have me expect something, and I’ll be all ears

The way you present: in most cases, if attendees’ thoughts were floating as comics balloons, you would see a bold and loud “BORING!” flashing all over the room. Ok, this is technical stuff so you shouldn’t act like a clown, but still there are a few tricks that keep us from snoring:

  • walk around: don’t do your presentation sitting on a table or standing behind a conference desk, as if you were nailed to it. If you move around, the audience will have to follow you, and coincidentally might even hear a word or two of what you’re saying.
  • if you walk around (and you should) do a favor to us all, and buy yourself a wireless presenting mouse: it’s just a few bucks, but it will radically change your audience experience. Changing slides shouldn’t require walking to your notebook and click a mouse: we’ll get bored in no time flat, especially if you’re the kind of guy who needs to read what the next slide is about. I know it’s just a second or two, but it’s more than enough to kill the attention threshold.
  • use your body: have some gesture walking your talk. Clap your hands, raise your arms, snap your fingers, squat, duck, tilt: everything would do. Let us know you’re a human being, with moving parts.
  • change your tone of voice: 50-60 minutes are way too long to pay attention to what seems a Text-To-Speech automatic output. Shout, whisper and talk: the audience will be with you.
  • look at me. Actually make sure you look in turn everyone in their eyes. If you stare at the end of the room, people won’t feel you’re having a conversation with them, and will start wondering where to go for dinner.
  • interact with the audience. Perform show of hands, and ask the audience a few open questions. But be careful with it: keep in mind that the audience came to the room to hear something from you, not the opposite. Also, if you’re giving a talk to an international audience, know that you might get less feedback because people are shy to speak out in a foreign language. And there little if anything worst than an open question with no answers.

Finally, you: given all the points above, ask yourself is you’re the speaker kind at all. This has nothing to do with tecnical background: I’m sure you know your stuff. But do wonder whether:

  • do you have a sound knowledge of the language you’re speaking, if that’s not your native one? A telling sign is knowing a few jokes and being able to leverage them. If you’re barely able to write short emails and/or you have a frightening accent that won’t let anyone but your fellow countrymen undestand what you’re saying, the answer is probably not.
  • do you feel comfortable standing in front of a crowded room? If you’re somewhat shy or easy to feel under pressure, that will show up: you’ll speak with a feeble tone, you’ll start muttering stuff, and the audience will turn its attention to something more interesting like counting people in the room and performing statistics over their hair colour.

Presentation is somewhat a form of art: like it or not, technical content is not enough to have people walk out enthusiastically from your room thinking they learnt something or that they definitely give your stuff a try: the way you’re presenting makes the difference. Make sure you’re entertaining: you’re audience will thank you, and they will come back to your next talk.



5 thoughts on “Your presentation sucks, your presentation rocks!”

  1. you should have written this post before! now it seems to me I’ve made all these mistakes one by one at my javaconf speech… not exactly the right place to play the shoegazer, but then I wasn’t even able to look people in their eyes past the first line… but how do you manage to writes slides that can be meaningful also “offline”? do you use comments for this?

  2. Thank you! I’m starting to do presentations at work and appreciate this helpful information. It also made me laugh! Thanks for taking the time to write.

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