Wednesday, July 6, 2016

How to give a good presentation

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

In a previous post, I shared a video on “How not to give a presentation.” That was a humorous attempt to highlight some of the mistakes that people most commonly make when they give presentations at conferences. Shortly after that, I did a lecture on “How to give a good presentation” at a Japanese university, and I posted it on You Tube so that students who couldn’t attend that day would be able to watch it later. I didn’t really think about it after that, but I noticed recently that it has had almost 200,000 views, so I decided to do a shorter, edited version, since so many people seem to be interested in the topic.

Here is the new video. If you prefer to read about it, the main points are summarised below.

When you give a presentation, it is important to remember that your audience are giving up their time to listen to you. This is particularly true at conferences, where people have to make choices about which presentations to attend, and coming to yours means missing out on something else. It is natural for these people to expect you to be organised and prepared, and to have something interesting to say. I have my own checklist for what I expect from presentations at conferences; the more of these “boxes” it ticks, the better.

  • It had a clear message.
  • It was entertaining.
  • I learned something new.
  • It reminded me of something that I had not thought about recently.
  • It made me look at something in a different way.
  • It gave me an idea.
  • It introduced me to a new resource.

Even if a presentation manages to meet all of these conditions, however, it might still fail if the style of presentation is poor. Interesting content is not a substitute for good presentation skills (and vice versa!). Of course, there are many factors to consider when giving a presentation, but I have narrowed these down to three “golden rules” that focus on the problems I see most often. If you have something interesting to say, and if you think about these basic rules while you are saying it, it should not be too difficult to give an effective presentation.

Golden Rule #1: Show images, not text.

Presentation software such as Microsoft’s PowerPoint and Apple’s Keynote were primarily designed for displaying audio-visual materials such as photos, videos, diagrams, charts, and graphs. They are not meant to be a way for you to show your audience the script to your presentation. Nor are they supposed to be used as a memory aid for the presenter. Using too many text-dense slides is probably the most common presentation mistake. (The second is reading it aloud to the audience. More on that below.)

Using images instead of text has a number of advantages. Firstly, it makes your presentation more visually appealing, so it is more likely to engage your audience. Nothing turns people off like a slide full of text! A second advantage is that good images will provoke curiosity among your audience, causing them to look at the image and then turn to you for an explanation. That is exactly how presentations are supposed to work. Perhaps the biggest advantage of images, however, is that a good image is far more memorable than a page full of text. People will remember your points much better if you illustrate them with interesting images than if you simply provide a script of what you are saying on the screen. Of course, it is okay to use text on slides as well, but use it sparingly, and make sure that you can justify the inclusion of every single word.

One more quick point to make about slides is that animation (making words leap around the screen or burst into flames) is never a good idea. It is really easy to do with modern software, and it looks cool when you watch it on your own computer screen, but it is just annoying when presenters do it at conferences.

Golden Rule #2: Speak, don’t read.

There is nothing that peeves audiences more than having presenters read to them, yet even the most experienced presenters continue to do this! If you are simply going to read a paper or read from your slides, then give the audience a copy, thank them for coming, and let them read it in their own time.

Another problem with reading aloud is that if the text is on the screen, you are going to get “out of synch” with your audience because they can read faster than you can speak. A pet hate of mine is numbered lists. I cannot count the number of times I have finished reading point number 10 only to look up and hear the presenter say, “And now, moving on to point 2.” Even if your text is not on the screen, reading from a script will change your intonation, making you sound monotone and boring. You will also lose eye contact with the audience, which is never a good thing.

If you are presenting in a language other than your own, you may feel that you need to memorise your script. This is better than reading, but your intonation will still become monotone, and you will be in trouble if someone interrupts you to ask a question. It is much better to have a list of key points or a mind map to help you navigate through the presentation.

Golden Rule #3: Focus on you, not the slides.

Remember that your audience has come to hear you, not to see your slides. Do not turn the lights off, do not stand in a corner, and do not stare at the screen. In other words, do not let the screen become the central focus of your presentation. If you are the kind of person who feels embarrassed about having everyone’s attention focused on you, it is probably better to make a narrated You Tube video than to do a presentation. If you stare at your screen, you will lose your connection with the audience, and when that has gone, there ceases to be any real point to the presentation format.

So, those are my three “golden rules” for giving a good presentation. Please let me know in the comments if you disagree with any, or if you think I have missed something important.



Comment from Brad Johnston
July 7, 2016 at 3:41 pm

“Let me know if you have any thoughts on my video”, you said. How is that supposed to happen?

Comment from David Barker
July 7, 2016 at 5:13 pm

By writing in the comments. Like you just did.

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