Newsletter 20: Death by PowerPoint – Giving better presentations

Take yourself back to that day in the mid eighties, in some smokey, Silicon Valley room where some developers were coming up with the ideas for a new application to help people do presentations. I don’t think on the blackboard of brainstormed thoughts was “death by PowerPoint”. We’ve forgotten why PowerPoint was created, to help you deliver interesting and compelling presentations and get your message across to your audience. It was not designed as a way for you to bore people. Presenting is a skill and a great tool isn’t all you need. Like all great tools, it is best used by a skilled practitioner – someone who knows when and how to use the tool to maximum effect.

In my job as the product manager for the 2007 Microsoft Office system I have had to do more presentations than at any time in my so-called career. I usually present to some group of lucky people during a typical day and some days I do as many as 4 presentations. These vary from one on one briefings to big events with 500+ people.
Doing so many presentations has really helped me hone my skills and I’ve noticed I get a lot more compliments on my presentations than I used to which is encouraging. Obviously, presenting is not something you ever stop learning but I thought people might be interested in my tips. Some of these really help to overcome nerves and many I just sort of discovered by accident. They aren’t really in any order except the order they came to mind. Take the best and dump the rest..

Know your core material

I’ve found it really helps to modularise the topics I talk about and to have a short, self contained pitch for each one. I find it helps to have 6-sliders on topics you often need to present. I often only use 3 or 4 of the 6 as well. Having prepared mini-presentations means I have chunks that I can leap to with complete confidence. I know exactly how to deliver these and each time I do it, I polish the points, practice the delivery – even the jokes. Having a good range of core material makes it easier to present new material too because you always know you have the backstop of familiar ground to fall back on. I find that knowing my core material well means I have the confidence to be more spontaneous and try out new ideas.

Make friends with the stage

If you can, come to the room you will present in when it is quiet and empty. Walk about on it and get familiar with the environment. Understand any buttons, lights or gizmos. I call it “making friends with the stage”. I’ve found that knowing the space, the stage, the options for walking about beforehand gives me confidence later. When faced with a room of strangers, if I’m friends with the stage I feel at home.

Chat with the audience beforehand

So you have a big presentation to do and you are worried about your slides, your demo, your microphone whatever. DO NOT stand at the front fiddling with your computer or reading your notes as people file into the room and sit down. That 5 or 10 minutes before you start is the perfect time to chat to your audience. Make yourself do it – start by walking down to the back row – where the troublemakers sit – and strike up a conversation with them (make sure your mic is in mute). It doesn’t really matter what you say either I’ve found. “Hi thanks for coming, I’m going to be talking about the future of Microsoft Office – have any of you seen the new UI?” or “are you using Office today, what apps are your favourites?” , “is there anything you are hoping I’ll talk about?”. That little bit of rapport will put you at ease with your audience. It forces you to think about your presentation from their perspective and as you look out at the faces, the people you have talked to are somehow on your side. Also you can say “now I know a few of you were wondering about…” and address something someone asked you. When you do, that person immediately engages, knowing it was them. I’ve noticed this is very infectious in an audience. You only need one person to be in that highly engaged state and the atmosphere in that area of the room will lift. If you chat to 5 people in different places in the room before you start and make reference to their comment, you can utterly transform the attitude of the whole room. Try it – it really is remarkable.

Write your pitch in OneNote not Powerpoint

Don’t write your presentation in PowerPoint. If you do it will be too slideware and stilted. Instead try OneNote. Using OneNote, create a scrapbook of your thoughts, move text about and group ideas, scribble thoughts, pictures – even ideas for jokes. Your pitch will be more creative and the flow improves. I then think about what slides to create that will support and reinforce my message. Do it this way, not the other way round and you will be a more powerful presenter.

Speak from a place of passion

You have to present from the heart. If you don’t people will switch off. After all, if you don’t believe it, what hope have you of convincing some strangers? You have to find a place of passion, something about your topic that you can connect to a real emotion. This might sound a bit fluffy but it helps me to stay relevant. If I really truly am interested in something, feel cross about something or just think something is really cool or just amusing, I can deliver it to other people. It also prevents you from presenting stuff that nobody cares about. If it bores you, chances are it will bore your audience. If you don’t have control of the topic, you have to somehow find a place of passion in it somewhere. That is your source of conviction and without it you will be boring.

Give people the “look”

Eye contact is a killer technique. I learnt this from watching Patrick Dixon present. He will walk about the room a lot, even up the isles (thanks to the freedom of radio microphones) and really get in with his audience. As he makes a point he will often make it as if to one specific person, holding eye contact with that person for up to 5 seconds. The electrifying and terrifying effect on the lucky victim is their absolute attention 🙂 Not only that but they feel special and will continue to be highly engaged for the next 10 minutes or the rest of your presentation. Patrick will often just smile at them as he walks off again, as if to say “thanks for your help” which builds terrific rapport.

Turn the slides off!

One of the most impactful things you can do with PowerPoint is to use the “b” key which blanks the slide. Sometimes leaving a slide up can distract the audience when you want them to listen to you. If after showing a slide, you blank it, the focus returns to you in the room and you can again make a key point. You can press “b” again to bring it back. I use the Tony Buzan’s “use your memory” techniques which make it easy to remember a list of 10 ideas. This can be a very useful way to cut from slides and talk without interruption for a while. Presenting without notes is freeing and lets you focus more on how the audience is responding to you.

Pre-empt the questions

Think before about what people might ask. I often decide to leave material out but have a slide there to answer it in Q&A if someone raises it. A good tip here is to print out your deck in handout mode for yourself with the slide numbers. Then if you type “13” and hit enter, PowerPoint will display slide 13 without you having to press escape, find the slide and then restart the presentation. It also looks very slick.

Building a better world

More respect to Patrick Dixon and his book, “building a better business“. He makes the simple point that these days the only thing that works to truly motivate people long term in a vision is that of making a better world. You can apply that to whatever context you are in. For example, when presenting Office I talk about the 400 million users of our product who can benefit from the new user interface and how we are helping people all over the world get better results faster in their jobs. It may not solve world hunger but it makes the world a better place. I’ve found this to be the basis of all motivational talks, as Patrick suggests in his book. Worth a read that one by the way.

Tell stories, do demos

Sounds obvious but break the flow with anecdotes, silly stories even. If they illustrate something, it will help people to remember the point and revealing a bit about yourself means they feel they are getting to know a person rather than being forced like a Borg unit to receive a download of information. Demos work well but don’t forget to prep them. What can seem straightforward at your desk will go wrong often once you are off the network or at a different screen resolution or something. Do your prep though and a demo, like a picture, is worth a thousand words. Telling a story in a demo can work as well although I’ve found in the UK it can be perceived as a bit cheesy. It works well in the US but doesn’t always work so well in Europe.

Make one main point

I used to say, know your three points and make them. Now I think people only remember one thing from your presentation – and that’s if you do a good job. So be sure what that one thing is and be sure they get it!

Pimp my slide

PowerPoint has some fab new ways to make a slide more interesting. Used wisely, features like Smart Art can turn a boring bullet list into a much more interesting graphic automatically. Don’t over do it but now there is no excuse for lazy slides of bullets.

Stand up and take notice

I found this one by accident. I was doing a demo and was sat down while I did it. Halfway through though, I realised I had started talking about a very important point which the demo had reminded me of so I stood up and walked to the front of the stage again. Suddenly I realised, I had 100% of the room engaged as I made my key point. I’ve tried this trick often now and it always works. If you stand up and walk toward the audience you have a window of heightened attention span from them. Deliver your key point here and you stand an excellent chance of it going in.

Be yourself, see the funny side of it

Develop your own style and get comfortable with it. Know where it doesn’t work. I have a very relaxed and informal style with a lot of ironic humour. This works pretty well in the UK but just falls flat sometimes in non-English speaking audiences where the meaning is lost. I have to present in a more straightforward way if I am at a European event. I can still use jokes but they have to be more obvious and not too dependant on timing. If you are relaxed though, let yourself have a little fun. It’s ok to find things funny while you are on stage and if you don’t take yourself too seriously and can see the funny side of things when they don’t go perfectly, you will find your audience will be more forgiving. If you seem relaxed and in control, your audience feel they are in safe hands and will relax with you.

Find a hook

I did a pitch to internal Microsoft people recently where I was challenging them to use the betas. I came up with a cheesy question to frame it “are you a staller or an installer?”. Sounds terrible doesn’t it and it got a groan but sooo many people have since yelled at me in the corridor “hey liked the pitch, I’m going to be an installer…”. Sometimes the phrase sticks and you can end up with people hearing it in their heads long after the presentation is over.

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