I think there is enough and more to this topic on the internet than I just writing it here. But I still thought these are some of my perspectives when it comes to effective Technical presentations. I don’t want to call myself a veteran but close to 8+ years of delivering sessions at 100’s of venue makes me feel pretty comfortable in front of audiences. From closed groups of ~5 to open audi of 5000+, I have had the privilege of connecting to many till date. Thanks again for listening to me and I will surely keep improving to meet your expectations.
Now back to the topic of interest, Presentations. What are some of these tips that I have learnt over these years and I just don’t seem to stop learning from others.
Presentation via PPT
I don’t think there is any presentation anywhere in the world where the powerful tool of PowerPoint is not being used. Though this is a great visual tool to convey your message, please refrain from just reading from the slides. 9 out of 10 times, people in the audience can read faster than you when put on giant screens.
- PPTs are just pointers for your flow of thoughts. Slides are mere mnemonics.
- They are there to organize your story in your head.
- Create visual impact if needed.
I have learnt this over the years that this is very critical to make a compelling PPT as part of your preparations. There is some method to the madness while preparing your presentations – there is a fundamental story that you want to narrate. There is a lot of time and energy spent in this stage, be very careful of how you make your story consistent from starting till the end.
There are tons of Golden rules – here are some more for you to digest :) …
# Know Thy Content
Content is king – I have used this phrase a lot of times when I talk to external speakers for evaluating them at forums like TechEd and MSDN sessions. There is no substitute to quality content. In this internet world, content is all over the place and the only challenge as a speaker is how are we going to make this relevant to the topic under discussion for that very day.
Making your own content is so difficult and this is my first advice to all. Try to make your own content inside-out. When it is your very own content you are much more relaxed, you deliver with passion / conviction and your presentation is so smooth that everyone is glued to your talk till the end.
Think like audience – Many miss this part. It is always good to take inputs from the organizers on the type of audiences expected and what is their experience. My story line changes in the first 2-3 mins of interaction with the audience. You must have two sets of story, one for basic knowledge and other for advanced users. But in a open forum you must balance on audience who are completely new to the topic to someone who has worked on the technology for a while. This is a fine act of balance that you will need to practice over a period of time.
Prepare FAQ: including harsh ones – As a presenter know what you are talking. There is no substitute to preparation. The toughest part when presenting in front of open audiences is the factor of unknowns. So even if your presentation is on a particular product / feature discussion, be prepared for the questions around competition or even depth content within your own products. This can come and hit you hard.
“What matters is the effect …. Not the effort”
# Know Thy Competition
Know the standards and Industry trends – There is no running away from this. You must speak the language of the industry and have your very own style of delivering the contents & concepts. Know what standards are supported by your products and know the roadmap of your products to support the same. There is no getting away with this point.
When talking about the competition, know the strengths and weakness of your competition. Least assured one of the audience might be from competition and is trying to test you or catch you on a wrong foot. DONOT get into an argumentative mode with the audience, you must keep such discussion as a side conversation post the presentation.
As much as you might be prepared for your products presentation, chances are there that you might just get audiences who have just worked on the competing products. So know the right terminologies or parallel terminologies that can be used during such presentations to drive home a concept. DONOT just keep Selling, but make the audience aware of the use for technology. Selling becomes an outcome if they start using your product :) …
# Know Thy Context
I have used this to my advantage most of the time and it works 100% of the times. Be clear on what the favorite regional sports, current affairs, politics or even movies and try to make interesting anecdotes to drive home a concept. It takes a bit of creative thinking but it works.
Typical example I used when I talk about “Locking and Blocking” with SQL Server, I use the Traffic Jam’s in Bangalore as an analogy. It works very well and an immediate connect is made.
Now though this is a very powerful tip, also now the Ethnic background, the idols of the region before making a witty comment. Like you want to be the last person to comment on Ganguly in Kolkata.
Please use this tip with caution else if it misfires you might be in trouble even before the session ends :) …
# Know Thy demo
Demo’s are super critical when you are on a Technical Presentation. However, big or small the content material, when represented visually with the aid of a compelling demo will surely stick to the mind of the audience. Follow the 4 step process of -
Make it a visual treat to the audience and have a concise story line. If possible make it to the same storyline you have during your presentation. The connect is so critical. Keep reinforcing on the concept to the demo mapping during the compete demo timeframe. With simple questions asses if the audiences are getting the whole point and on stage you will need to improvise on what you are talking to drive the content effectively.
Though these are valid simple tips, a lot of presenters get carried away when they present in front of the audience. As much as possible, use the familiar tools used by the audience to build your scenario. There needs to be enough oomph to the demo presented to create a natural learning process and finally usage of the tools for the concepts delivered.
Finally, let me state that the demo neednot be 100% production ready code. It is just an illustration of the theoretical concepts discussed as part of the presentation. So dont try to get bogged down with Coding standards etc. It might be a good to have factor but not always perfect. You might improvise it every time you do this very topic.
# Know Thy non-negotiable
Time Slot – Though this is not in our control on when you deliver the actual session we must be careful enough to gauge our audience by reaching the venue well in advance. Chances of Murfy’s law of projector not working or any of the logistical issues are solved well in advance. DONOT assume anything.
More than anything else on the timing, make sure to rehearse the complete session a minimum of 3 times if not more. I personally would suggest and walk through the same atleast 5 times. Finishing session on time is very critical. If you have 60 mins session, be prepared for 45 mins, 30 mins, 60 mins and 75 mins with the same session. The impact is more important than just running through the slides.
Never in front of audience rush through your powerpoint slides. It is very annoying for someone watching your session. Here is a presentation tip, know your slide before the Summary slide – type that slide number in the presentation mode and hit enter. Vola, you are now at the slide before the Summary slide and ready to conclude in less than 5 mins.
If you find yourself running over, cut it off at the end of the next complete thought or slide segment. Don’t show any more slides and don’t apologize for the lack of time. Avoid saying “There’s no time to show this in more detail.” It serves no purpose. If you hadn’t mentioned it, the audience would never know there was more to be covered.
Practice – Though the importance of this point can never be underestimated as discussed in the previous point. I want to again bring it to your attention. Practice, practice and practice till you know in your mind the exact flow of slides and the story board has got itched into your mind.
Esp when you are the first speaker in the afternoon, your practice comes to your help. I have done tons of afternoon sessions and with a lot of success without getting the audience to sleep but attentive to each and every minute of my session. It is not an art, but practice …
Real World Examples – We are talking to our audience who are investing their time on us. So being relevant to them is critical. We cannot give hypnotically examples during a session. Examples and scenario’s mentioned must be near-real world and practical as possible.
Though, I discussed some of the content specifics, we need to know the region and plan out our presentation styles. Like I have seen many presentations in India where the slides carry “Releasing this summer”. Now a person in Chennai will be wondering if there is any other season other than Summer in Chennai :) … So the context and local relevance is very important. Be real – period.
# Know Thy Do’s-Dont’s
Internet access – Even though we are in this age of Internet everywhere (even on phones), dont assume the same in the presentation location. A lot of hotels atleast in India have a pathetic internet connection speeds. So if you can secure your internet on your own, you are good. Always have a “Plan B” when your demo’s are so closely linked to internet scenario’s. Data cards are cheap and having one is always an advantage.
Don’t drink alcohol before a presentation – Being professional is most important and the last thing you want is to is to feel sleepy or worst make a fool out of yourself on stage. Keeping your senses in full alert during a session is critical to a great public speaker.
Charge yourself – Dont skip your meal or lunch before a session. Having some energy to sustain the course our your session is very critical. Have a chocolate bar, energy bar in your bag for quick glucose into your session. Having too much is also not advised and you dont want to burp in front of your audience :) … So find your right balance.
Warm up your voice - Our voice is the primary instrument in our performance, so we need to give it the attention it deserves. With sessions on SQL Server everytime my AV guy asks me – “any audio output sir?”, I always reply – “My throat is the only audio output” :) … So practice for that perfect comfortable flow.
Strong “Welcome” and “Thank you.” - Come up with a short, sincere welcome statement you might want to use. Esp when you say – “I am really excited to be in front of you”, the excitement must be in the voice and dont forget to look into the eyes of your audience. I have seen terrible speakers esp falter in this first step and this is what sets-up the tone for rest of your presentation. Please rehearse this part as many number of times as possible till your get it right !!! As much as it can be said for the beginning, the ending also must be on a good strong note. So do take time to practice your summary and closing note.
Watch the hands – Creating a visual connect is very important. When you are narrating a story people use your visual aid’s to connect the dots. Like if while talking about servers you show it on right side and client desktops on left side – this visual congruence cannot get reversed later in your story. It creates a lot of distraction for people.
Keep them out of your pockets and under no circumstances cross your arms while presenting. Your goal should be to connect with them. Use your hands to help you tell stories and convey emotions. Your audience listens with both their eyes and ears.
Don’t forget to smile - Deliver your talk with lively enthusiasm even if you’ve presented the material 100 times already. Remember, it’s a brand new audience and they want an enjoyable presentation. As speakers it is upto us to upgrade the content the next time we get on stage based on the repeated questions from the audience.
Zoom-in to emphasis – Use the free Zoomit tool to focus in on areas of the screen that are being discussed. The current 4th version is very powerful and can be used to make arrows, highlighter etc. So first play with the tool and you will find it very useful.
Make yourself approachable - Be sure to share your contact information on screen and pass out your website link, blog, Facebook, twitter handle etc. Encourage anyone with follow up questions to contact you at any time via the social connects. It can be really fast and you can quickly create your own brand …
Publish your content online - It should be trivial for your audience to obtain the materials you presented. And also make sure you make it available via your website, blog and other channels easily.
Don’t leave your mobile or wallet or other valuables on podium - There is every likelyhood, that after the presentation you will be preoccupied with questions from audience and you will forget to collect your items back.
Good nights sleep and bottle of water handy – However good speaker you are, you are likely to have some nervousness the previous day. Keep al these aside and take a good nap before the big day. Have a bottle of water handy to avoid dry cough during your sessions …
Though these tips are generic, these might not yet be exhaustive. Dont try to take these tips like something written on stone. You need to be aware of these mistakes but dont try to be too conscious of not doing something. Be comfortable and be yourself to create your own style and aura on stage.
All the best to all future presenters … Thanks for reading this far :) …
If you are interested in these topics, do feel free to read my posts around Technology Evangelism -