Newsletter #474 – Improving Conference Presentations

Last month I attended two conferences. Most speakers were competent, knowledgeable and well-prepared. But too many presentations were poorly presented. Over the years I’ve learned that effective talks have at least two key elements: good material and good delivery. The impact of the content is weakened and sometimes undermined when the material is poorly presented. From my perspective and experience there are several culprits:

• Too much material crammed into too little time. Sometimes presenters rush through their talks, flip through slides and often mention how they can’t get everything in. This focuses the audience on the speaker’s feeling of pressure and distracts from the content of the talk. It also can show that the speaker didn’t rehearse and trim the talk to fit the allotted time.
• Cluttered slides. These include too many words, bullet point lists, irrelevant images (sometimes used to decorate slides) and long sentences that the presenter reads like using a teleprompter. One student made this comment: “The speakers threw a ton of information at us and seemed to be saying ‘catch this if you can.’” Occasionally lists and whole sentences may be helpful but in general, simple is better. For example, I avoid clutter and cutsey effects. If I have three points I list them on three slides with carefully selected images and as few words as possible.
• Too many slides. Shouldn’t a good presentation focus on the speaker and his or her message rather than being a tsunami of passing words and pictures? Too many slides can be distracting
• Pre-delivered handouts. Recently I taught a class where the students expected copies of my slides before I spoke along with all of my personal notes. This encourages audience members to read the slides before the talk and pretty much turn off the speaker. It also squelches the speaker’s creativity and ability to engage the participants when they already know what’s coming. Handouts are useful, especially for complex material, but consider when their distribution leads to best learning.

Compared to others, some presenters are more at ease before an audience. Some are better speakers. But all can improve, especially when we remember that delivery matters.

What has been your experience? How can presentations be better? Please comment.

    • Duane Hanson
    • April 5th, 2012

    I have been guilty of trying to jam too much information into the allotted time, and thus using too many slides to do it. As a result, the added information and slides DISTRACT from the essential few thoughts that I can reasonably hope for the audience to remember after the talk.

    I have to be more modest in what I can realistically expect the audience to learn from my talks. The test of me being an effective communicator is NOT how much I can present, but how much my audience will understand, remember and apply. That is a MUCH smaller amount.

    BTW, a YouTube video on the “secret” to Steve Job’s presentations was an eye-opener to me. Simplicity is key.

    • I’m guilty. When I read his article, I thought Dr. Collins must have had a spy in one of my Richmont classes, because he seemed to describe all of the things that are wrong about how I use my “PowerPoint encyclopedias.” My students often say it’s like “drinking out of a firehose.” In my own defense, however, I doubt that any of them have ever drank out of a firehose.

  1. Bravo!

    Gonna send this to the presenters at Denver 2012 (October 29-31) Leadership Consultation – many thanks!

    • Thanks for this Phil. I wish all conferences would give guidelines for good presentations. Of course many speakers seem to think they don’t need this. Please let us know if anybody at your conference picks up on what you sent them to read.

  2. I’ve actually stopped using slides completely. I’ve found they create a passive audience experience. I engage the people I present to with provocative discussion questions and a simple flip chart. The point is to facilitate learning not to get through a prescribed set of material.

    • Elsie
    • April 5th, 2012

    Thank you for all these reminders of what makes a good presentation. To prepare a presentation that is focused and realistic takes a lot more time and creativity than just making the slides. A practice run to test for length is such a good idea. I went to the presentation of a friend who I thought would speak far too long and fast because of her natural tendency in every day conversation. In fact, her presentation was excellent …. clear and just the right length and depth. She had practiced until she had it right!

    • Why has it taken so long for me to recognize that practice improves our presentations? Along with this, I rehearse a lot in my mind as I prepare. This gets the ideas into my brain – and can help if the slides are not available and suddenly we are in front of the audience all by ourselves.

  3. I’ve learnt to eyeball four cardinal drivers for good presentations –

    1. CONTACT – through personal anecdotes, humor, life narratives and direct rapport with a live audience. Too many slides truncate this vital dynamic of audience engagement.

    2. CONTENT – through reflection and insights. It is learning how to say vital old things in a vivid new way!

    3. CLARITY – through simplicity and coherence. The aim is to say less for more. A BIG IDEA that unifies the entire presentation helps immensely!

    4. CONVICTION – no presentation, no matter how good, would make a difference unless it moves the audience to DO something about it. Our world is desperate, not for more instructions but for more inspiration!

    In my last visit to Oxford University, I picked up a magnet that says-
    The mediocre teacher tells,
    The good teacher explains,
    The superior teacher demonstrates,
    The great teacher inspires.

    Inspiration is power. And so when it comes to the power-point presentation, my maxim is – if there’s no power, there’s no point!

    • Edmund, my friend, your insights always connect and challenge me. What you wrote says it all. I have made a copy of your comments and am posting this where I can see it and will not forget your wisdom here. The quote from Oxford says a lot about the person and character of the teacher even more than how his or her ideas are presented.

      And what a conclusion: If there is no power there is no point. So often the reverse is true: too many points, no real power (or passion.

    • billgbill
    • April 5th, 2012

    Good insights. I would like to add that connection and a sense of reality is important. I want the speaker to let me know that they have been in my shoes in some way.
    While I like information, I will remember the speaker long after I forget the information. With connection I will take the speaker and their information with me. Without connection I will remember that there was an event.

    • If we don’t connect (that includes making the effort to connect) we do not communicate well. That, of course, is one reason why it is so important to know our audience before we plan a talk and deliver it.

    • george rondono
    • April 5th, 2012

    I believe that the presenter should be overflowing with enthusiam and passion, this can only happen when the presenter is in the flow. As a Clinical Social Worker I am often given the task to engage multifamily groups. My approach is to make immediate connections, know my stuff and -not merely rely on information from a ppt. slide.

    A speaker should find ways to communicate the fundemental truth about life and that is that time is all we have and whether your the presenter or the listener – engagement is essential inorder to redeem every moment of every second of time.

    • I agree, George. Passion is key.

      In preparing my original post I read about a speaker who decides the one or two ideas he wants to be remembered. Then, in preparing, he imagines himself in the audience listening to himself. The goal is to design a presentation that would communicate to an audience participant who is like the speaker. Does that make sense? (If not, this means that what I wrote was not presented well).

  4. One of the best openings to a presentation I’ve seen is at the beginning of The DaVinci Code where the Robert Langdon character is addressing his audience in Paris about the relevance of symbols. No words are shown in his presentation, which is flashing behind him, just well-timed questions and comments coinciding with relevant images being displayed. His audience is totally captivated and fully engaged. I wish I was there to hear the entire presentation!

    Presenters, please remember… your audience can read!

    • If audiences can read then how come that so many speakers read their slides to their audiences? Denise I like your comment at the end. Certainly there is value in reading something on occasion. But how often presenters seem to think that many words make great learning or that reading from a slide makes better learning. In contrast sometimes no words or the telling of stories stories carry more weight

      Recently I did a five hour workshop and later returned to my slides to see what percentage had no words, how many had images with only 2-3 words, how many had words without images and things like that. I summarized the percentages and now try to improve on my earlier record. Of course some presentations need more words depending on the purpose of the presentation. But if we need to give information why not duplicate it or post it on the Internet? I also watch other speakers carefully (including preachers) and try to learn from superb communicators and their books or talks. This is a lifelong process. Sadly I wonder if I some speakers don’t even think about this.

        • Duane Hanson
        • April 11th, 2012

        Some speakers, like Steve Jobs, are tremendously effective with a minimalist approach to Powerpoint. Other speakers, like David Barton, are very effective, reading lots of long quotes in their presentations. I’m not sure that there is a one-size-fits-all strategy.

      • Duane. Your post was the first to hit my mailbox. I thought “I wish I had said what he said.” How common trying to fit in too much and losing the audience as a result.

      • Duane, your post that starts “Some speakers” makes a good point. That is why I wrote in one of these replies that a lot depends on the situation and the audience. An academic presentation often calls for more words than a sales presentation like those of Steve Jobs who often used show more than tell. I have never heard of David Barton but I know that too many slides can (as one person said) lull the audience into passivity.

  5. Great points, Gary. I highly recommend Toastmasters to my clients. The Toastmasters program is very much like coaching in that it gives a routine platform, immediate feedback (on slides, style and content), and they get commendations for things well done. It is well worth the small investment. To find a club near you: toastmasters.org

    • HEY EVERYBODY!

      Some weeks almost nobody comments on the newsletter. This week was different, so much so that in the newletter following this one there is a note urging other readers to come back to these responses. Obviously you all have worked on improving your presentations. You are leading the way. I hope increasing numbers of us will get the idea that how we present material is as important as what we present. I have learned from your posts and my presentations will improve as I apply some of the things you wrote. Thanks for your responses and for teaching us all to be better presenters.

    • jenny_giezendanner
    • April 16th, 2012

    We teach people, not material. Focus on the experience, needs, dreams of those you teach when you are teaching on a topic about which you care passionately. Keep the lights on and look at each other. Magic!

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