May 13, 2024

Five little tips on giving a better presentation

There’s no shortage of excellent guides on how to be a more confident, engaging, and compelling speaker. Entire shelves of books have been written about the big ideas: know your stuff, bring lots of energy and passion, tell stories, don’t put giant paragraphs on your slides, yada, yada.

All that stuff is good advice. But as we’re in the season of both end-of-fiscal-year and end-of-semester presentations, I want to share a few of the teeny tiny bits of advice that I use to level things up whenever I give a talk.

Download and embed all of your videos

All it takes is to be burned once by bad WiFi or a deleted YouTube account to learn how important this one is. If you have any videos in your presentation, download a copy of them and directly embed them in your presentation file.

How do you download them? There are about a thousand websites and plugins that allow you to download videos from YouTube and some other sites. Yes, they all feel a little weird and virusy, but that’s the lay of the land. Once you have the clip, embed it directly into the slide and set your playback settings as desired.

The resulting file will be pretty big, but the risks of not doing this are two of any presentation’s most annoying momentum killers. If your chosen video is suddenly removed from wherever you found it, then you are without a keystone piece of your talk – and if the internet is uneven, you will have to awkwardly wait around while everything loads. But even if the link works, you are moving to a browser and a personal YouTube account, complete with all sorts of unpredictable notifications and recommendations that you might not want to share with a room full of your colleagues.

Export a PDF version of your presentation

When I made my first presentations using my middle school’s computer lab, PowerPoint was the only game in town. In college, I started using Apple’s Keynote (and still do). Over the past ten years, my students started with Google Slides, detoured into Prezi, and now almost all use Canva. But as the software options multiply, the odds of everything working smoothly everywhere you need it to begin approaching zero.

Hopefully, your fonts work. Hopefully, the effects on your photos stick. Hopefully, your template carries over. In an important pitch or keynote, hopefully isn’t enough. To insure yourself against disaster, always export your presentation as a trusty old PDF. Every device can open a PDF, and pretty much every PDF reader has the ability to show things in slideshow mode. You’ll lose your animations and multimedia assets, but at least you’ll have something that looks right on the screen.

Only use the most basic animations, if any

Speaking of animations, treat them as if each one cost you $1,000. Going back to that middle school computer lab, I remember that the PowerPoint animations menu was easily more fun than half the computer games available at the time. Every slide on every presentation had at least one, but more likely three of four things, swooshing and jumping all over the place. It was pandemonium.

But today, I can easily list off the only animations I’ve used in the past decade:

  • Push: My default animation between slides is to push from bottom to top, like an old-school slide projector.
  • Magic Move: A Keynote exclusive, this automatically transitions the elements between two slides. I mostly just use it to move things into and out of groupings or to add text below a headline.
  • Dissolve: Fading between slides or elements is a subtle and sophisticated way to show change.
  • Pop: This one is borderline – popping an image or text occasionally is good for emphasis, but can get overused really quickly.

The more you use animations, the less special they are – and the more obvious it is that you are using them to cover up for a lack of substance. But also keep in mind that there are other reasons to avoid using them: compression on Zoom calls or webinars will cause them to stutter, they break easily if you’re using different software or hardware, and they often take a distractingly long amount of time to really get right. Avoid all of this by keeping them to a bare minimum.

Button up your tech

Your slides and your technology are not the presentation, you are. You can give a great talk with just a dry erase board and a marker. You can give a great speech without even that.

But if you do have technology you depend on, just make sure everything is in tip-top shape. Charge your batteries and bring a charging cable. Bring an HDMI dongle if you need one. Turn on Do Not Disturb. Test your speakers. Have a remote (and extra batteries). Test any QR codes. Make sure your notes are readable. Fine-tune the lighting.

Finally, make sure your human hardware is functional too. Have water nearby. Use the bathroom. And my personal peeve if I’m on stage: Empty your pockets. Jangling keys and bulging wallets are both unflattering and distracting.

If you’re introducing somebody, say their name last

If you’re not necessarily the one giving the big speech, but your job is to introduce them, you have a unique challenge – nobody there really wants to hear you speak. An introduction should be short and sweet: it should lay out why everybody is there, why this speaker is relevant, and it should warm up the audience for the main event.

All of that makes it very tempting to lead off your introduction by saying “tonight’s keynote speaker is Jane Doe, founder of XYZ…” But the problem with that is twofold: you’ll be interrupted by applause after her name, and you break the tension in the room. Instead, if you build up to the speaker’s name by outlining their relevant biography points, you’ll draw your audience in with each beat. Like a more robust version of this: “Our speaker tonight is the founder of XYZ, is the recipient of the ABC prize, and serves on the board of Acme Co. Please give a warm welcome to Jane Doe.”

By the time you reveal the name, you’ve brought everybody’s focus to the moment and released the built-up anticipation. When the applause comes, the guest gets to ride it in to a fully “pre-heated” audience.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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