Presenting in public

Not a PowerPoint slide in sight


I seem to have acquired the habit of presenting in public. Early in my career, when I worked for a software house, I did a lot of product demonstrations and also ended up regularly presenting new functionality at my company’s user group; so I guess this is where things started.

When thinking about presenting outside of my own corporate environment, I made my debut at a Cognos Europe press summit in Barcelona back in March 2004. Coincidentally this was also the occasion that Cognos supremo Ron Zambonini took his final bow at the company – I trust it was not my talk that pushed him over the edge.

Since then, I have spoken at over 20 seminars and other events, the most notable of which are listed here. Generally I have had very positive feedback, both in person and via the, now ubiquitous, speaker assessment questionnaires that event organisers love.

Despite my scepticism about recipes for success, I thought that it might be worth passing on a few basic tips; approaches that have worked for me over the years. As with many things that we learn, several of these are pointers that I picked up via getting it a bit wrong and trying something slightly different next time round. I’m a great believer in trial and error!

A couple of notes up-front:

  • I am an IT person at heart and in the following I often take this perspective, e.g. this is how you should approach IT matters when speaking to people without a background in the area. I will assume readers are more than capable of transposing this to a more general situation when any specialist presents to people without a background in their area of expertise.
  • A lot of the following assumes that you are using PowerPoint or something similar to present. Many people loathe PowerPoint presentations. My take is the same as with any other tool, it’s not the technology, it’s how people use it. I have sat through deeply boring PowerPoint presentations and highly professional and thoughtfully constructed ones; it’s all down to the presenter. Nevertheless some of the following points would apply to all public speaking, whether accompanied by slides or not.

With these thoughts in mind, let’s leap in.
1. Be careful what you speak about and to whom

"The ability to use tools has been suggested to indicate advanced physical cognition in animals. Here we show that rooks, a member of the corvid family that do not appear to use tools in the wild are capable of insightful problem solving related to sophisticated tool use, including spontaneously modifying and using a variety of tools, shaping hooks out of wire, and using a series of tools in a sequence to gain a reward. It is remarkable that a species that does not use tools in the wild appears to possess an understanding of tools rivaling habitual tool users such as New Caledonian crows and chimpanzees. Our findings suggest that the ability to represent tools may be a domain-general cognitive capacity rather than an adaptive specialization and questions the relationship between physical intelligence and wild tool use." - Dude?

This might seem a very obvious point to start with, but I have been guilty of getting this one wrong on at least one occasion. On subject matter, it only makes sense to talk about areas of which you have a really good understanding; why else would anyone want to listen to you? Beyond this, the content of your presentation needs to be pertinent to the audience.

It is no good being a renowned expert on insightful tool-use in corvidae and then looking to address a convention of skate-boarders. More prosaically, on the basis of delivering a well-received talk on Business Intelligence, the company that organised this event convinced me to speak at a further conference whose topic was at best tangentially related. This turned out to be a low point for me in public presenting and I learnt to be a bit more careful about which seminars to speak at. It doesn’t matter how informed and engaging your talk is, if it is not relevant to the people you are delivering it to, then things are not going to go well.
2. Know your audience

An averaged-sized crowd for a Business Intelligence seminar

Expanding on the second part of point 1. assuming that your audience has some general interest in what you are going to talk about, then it is important that you highlight the elements that are going to be most pertinent to them. So when I speak to a general audience about Business Intelligence, I might preface the talk with a brief introduction to the area and provide some definitions. When presenting to BI professionals, this would clearly be superfluous.

Looking at this the other way round, when talking to people with a technical background in BI, I might spend more time covering my ideas about the role of change management. This is because this may be a success factor that they have not focussed on as much as others. It is also important to tailor your vocabulary to the audience. IT people may love (and understand) your jargon, but it is unlikely to help more general audiences to engage with you.
3. Set the length of your presentation well within the time available

Messe tenus propria vive (Persius)

Given that you are going to deliver an informative, entertaining and insightful presentation, it makes sense to make time for all of the excited questions that this will lead to. Allow sufficient time for this.

In general if you have a 30 minute slot, then aim to speak for no more than 20 minutes of it. If your session is scheduled for a hour, then look to speak for no more than 45 minutes. Ideally you will have a break (or at least a change of pace) somewhere in the middle as well, because 45 minutes is a long time to speak for – and an even longer time to listen for! Use dry runs of your presentation (see 8. below) to make sure that you hit the desired time without either rushing or taking too leisurely a pace.

This approach to timing can also help you if you need to help the organisers to make up time after the inevitable overruns of earlier presentations / coffee breaks; something that both they and delegates tend to be grateful for.
4. Be punchy

I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.

This follows on from point 3. above. As regular readers of this column will know (and perhaps as attested to by this article) I am no stranger to verbosity. However I hope that I am quite different when presenting. While loquaciousness and elliptical arguments may have their place in written work, they are the enemy of the public speaker (and their audiences). Think about the main points that you want to cover and aim to achieve this in a crisp manner. If listeners are interested in greater detail, then they can ask questions, or chat to you about their specific queries afterwards.
5. Have a structure and tell people about it

A blue[stone]print for your presentation

In your presentation you are looking to convey ideas, or provide recommendations, or even just to make provocative suggestions. This is going to go a lot better if you work out in advance what you want to do and how you are going to do it. When actually presenting, it is a good idea to start out by explaining what your talk is going to cover and the broad points that you want to make. This could take the form of an agenda slide, or maybe a brief preamble according to your personal style.

In particular if you are speaking for more than say 15 minutes, it is worth breaking up your subject matter into sections. At the end of section A pause to re-emphasise the main points of what you have just covered. Pause again and introduce the next section. If you can put this into the context of the overall talk, then so much the better.
6. A picture paints a thousand words

I tend to have a somewhat visual approach to absorbing ideas and over time this has come to influence my presentation style. To illustrate how my approach has shifted, here are two slides from presentations that I have given. The first is from the Cognos Press Summit I reference at the beginning of this article. The second is a more recent presentation, dating from late 2009. I much more frequently take the latter approach nowadays.

Rather wordy, old-style slide
Cognos Press Summit - Barcelona - March 2004
More recent, visually oriented slide
Obis Omni Forum - London - September 2009

A more pictorial approach is likely to stick in people’s minds. Also it has the benefit of allowing you some latitude around what points you actually make while displaying the slide. There are going to be times when text is appropriate, but then it should not be so dense that you need opera glasses to read it. Again brevity is the key.
7. Don’t simply recite your bullet points

Assume that your audience is at above kindergarten level

If you have some text-based slides, which is generally likely to be the case, never, ever, ever, under any circumstances simply repeat what you have written. By all means use bullet points as reminders to discuss a particular area, but assume that your audience is capable of reading themselves!

Your aim should be to use the bullets as a framework around which to weave the story that you are telling. Incidentally this is another argument for not having text-dense slides as if you have 15 bullet points and take two minutes expanding on each, you are going to spend most of your presentation on a single slide; which might become a little dull.
8. If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail

If at first you don't succeed...

I am not a big fan of adages, but this one stuck in my mind from early on in my professional career. Although it is a general point, I think it has particular applicability to presenting in public. This activity is not a million miles away from acting. Would you expect to go and see a stage play where the cast were constantly forgetting their lines or speaking in a dull monotone the entire time?

When you actually present, you need to be entirely comfortable about your material so that you can focus on doing the best job of presenting it. It can be nerve-wracking enough standing up to speak, but feeling that you have not prepared well enough is ten times worse. You need to do more than read through your notes a few times. You need to have run through your presentation a few times as well. Ideally this will have been via presenting to someone else.

I am lucky enough that my partner and I both have to give presentations; mine business-focussed, hers scientifically-focussed. This means that we both act as a tame audience for the other. Nevertheless I have also spent quite a bit of time in hotel rooms presenting out loud to myself or the mirror. This may seem mildly psychotic, but trust me it helps.

As mentioned above, another benefit of practice is that you can time yourself in order to get a sense of pace. If you know that you will finish in say 20 minutes with neither rushing, nor dawdling, you can relax a little more and not be constantly focused on clock-watching.

It is also useful to have a dry-run with someone who is not familiar with the subject you are speaking about. At a seminar you are not going to be presenting to people who are au fait with your day-to-day work, or the details of what your organisation does, or the issues that are important in your industry. These are things that you need to make explicit when you speak. Again my partner is invaluable here. She will point out when I say something that might be clear to me, or my colleagues, but impenetrable to the uninitiated.

One thing that is important with any run-throughs is to listen to the feedback that you get. If someone says that you went too fast or too slow, your probably did. If they say that you didn’t make a point clearly, then you probably were unclear. If you were not animated enough (or too animated) then this is something to think about addressing. This type of feedback is invaluable and should be taken constructively.
9. Embrace your nerves

Starring Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding and Richard Todd

Standing up to speak in front of a group of strangers is undeniably a little intimidating. Even with the number of times that I have done this myself, I still get butterflies in my stomach each time my turn to present approaches. However, I have learnt to tell myself that this is simply a build up of adrenaline and that this hormone will simply condition me to perform better.

Nerves are generally a good sign, they indicate that you care about what you are going to do and that your body is gearing up to give it your best shot. Thought of this way, apprehension can be a positive thing. In any case, it is never going to go away, so if you are going to present in public, you had better get used to it.
10. Check out the venue and your slides

Small arachnids in superfamily Ixodoidea that, along with other mites, constitute the Acarina

I appreciate that this is not always possible, but if you can get access to the auditorium before the seminar starts, or in a break, this is invaluable. Stand on the stage. Accustom yourself to the room. Work out where you are going to stand, or if you are like me, what scope you have for pacing about. If you are going to be mic’ed-up then go through this with the sound engineer and make sure that everything is OK (also remember to turn off the mic when you are not presenting and to turn it on when you are – both easily forgotten).

If there is a pointing device, or a clicker to advance your slides, check that these work and you know how to use them. Finally flip through all of your slides, checking that the text has not been scrambled and that any builds or animations work OK. If you find a problem, there may not be time to fix it, but at least you won’t be surprised later.
11. Don’t expect to be perfect

Yuvraj Singh of India hits a six (the maximum score in cricket) off each of the six balls of an over - sadly against England

If you have properly prepared (see point 8. above) then you will be fine. If you are OK with your material, even if you only say 75% of what you planned to say, this should not be problematic. It is inevitable that you will forget something, or even stumble over a couple of phrases here or there. The important thing is to not let this faze you, no one will notice your omission, and the occasional glitch in your delivery is to be expected. So long as you simply move on and don’t let minor set backs throw you, all will be well.

The worst thing is to focus on a small issue, which will inevitably distract you, leading you to make more mistakes and creating a spiral of death. Often if you do forget to say something on Slide X, you can say it on Slide Y instead, or mention it in the Q&A session. Telling yourself in advance that it doesn’t matter if you are not 100% perfect is perhaps a good way to set yourself up for success.
12. Try to maintain a sense of humour

Recommended footwear for presenters

I am not suggesting that you tell a lot of jokes, particularly if this is not your forte. If there is something that has raised a laugh for you previously then consider using it again, but you are not meant to be a stand-up comedian. However a certain lightness of touch never goes amiss and if you can drop in some self-deprecation along the way, this can help to engage better with your audience. No one is going to warm to an overly serious presenter, let alone a pompous one, so try to display a degree of humility as well.
13. Ask for feedback and actually review any questionnaires that you get back

So how was it for you?

The same as anything else in life the more that you present in public, the better you will get at it. Talk to the people who asked you to present and ask them how they thought things went and whether they had received any comments about your speech; listen to what they tell you. As mentioned above, it is becoming increasingly common to ask delegates to rate speakers. Instead of getting defensive about any adverse comments, think about how you could do things differently next time.
14. Be yourself

The author being himself

It is an essentially rather contrived thing to stand up in front of an audience and present. Above I have compared it to performing on the stage. There is however one difference. The actors in a play are adopting the personae of their characters; you are playing yourself. That is something important to remember. If you try to be someone else when presenting, you will come across as false. The fact that you have been asked to present is most likely testimony to you having done something right. Your own personality has undoubtedly played a big part in achieving this, so let it shine through.
Will slavishly following the above recommendations make you into a stellar presenter? Probably not, but there may be some things that you can take from what has worked for me, add to your own experiences, garnish with your personal style and arrive at a formula that is right for you. Good luck with this process. Presenting in public can be a very rewarding thing to do, so if you get the chance plunge right in and then maybe you can pass some tips on to me.

12 thoughts on “Presenting in public

  1. Peter,

    Useful article.

    One of my experience points to add to the list – be very wary when using animation in PowerPoint, particularly if you inadvertently leave the “Use saved timings” option selected!

    I found this out to my cost in a presentation as part of a job interview where I had followed most of your points above, had prepared thoroughly, rehearsed timings etc. but had not spotted the “Use saved timings” switch was left selected. My slides then went at their own pace during the interview presentation forcing me to ad lib and go back in the presentation where I had not finished on a slide. I did not get the job (and in retrospect I was glad) and the feedback on how I handled the problems in the presentation was good – but it was extra pressure I could have done without.

    On a related note, whenever you are doing any animation of slides choose a consistent and subtle animation, i.e. fade or wipe. Whatever you do, do not click the “Random animation” option, I have had to sit through too many of these and they distract significantly from the message.


  2. If you present as directly and as concisely as you write this blog, you must be very effective. It’s an excellent review sheet for those of us who present only occasionally. I’m going to print it out and save it. Thanks.

  3. You allude to some people being an “actor” when presenting.

    I’d like to view presentations as given by a “conductor”. One who controls the pace, volume, direction, and orchestration of all the tools and information given out.

    • Good point,

      But I would say that only the very best of presenters (often those who do it for a living) get to the level of conductor. I don’t think that I have ever reached that level myself.


  4. […]   It may be noted that I am going through a minimalist phase in my decks for public speaking. Indeed I did toy with having a deck consisting primarily of images before chickening out. Of course one benefit of being text-light is that you can focus on different elements and tell different stories for different audiences (see Presenting in Public). […]

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