Creative Leadership

The Secrets of Making Great Presentations

Every day, someone in America is committing career suicide. But it’s not with a gun or even drugs – it’s with a podium. Respected men and women – often excellent leaders and employees – but who end up dying a horrible death in front of an audience – usually at an industry conference, corporate meeting, or workshop.  It doesn’t take a CSI officer from the crime lab to analyze the evidence from the scene. It can easily be found in an audience filled with people nodding off to sleep, checking their e-mail, mumbling to themselves, or finding excuses to leave early.

The truth is, most speaker mistakes could easily be solved with a few easy steps – keys that only take a short time to learn, but could literally catapult your speaking career to an entirely new level.  So if you’re preparing for an upcoming conference or workshop, or know someone who is, look over this list carefully.

…It might save you from the dreaded “ECH” (Early Career Humiliation).

Workshop Titles:

1. Titles are critically important for their advertising and promotional value, so I suggest you make it “sexy” but not “cute.” “Sexy” simply means compelling. Intrigue the audience and pique their interest. Create a desire for the subject. The workshop name should create a “buzz” and get people talking about it long before they even arrive. But don’t get cute or try too hard, or you’ll end up embarrassing yourself. I especially encourage people to be cautious using “parodies” (trying to co-op the name of a popular song, TV show, or movie).

2. Keep it short. A title like: “Directing a zany wildlife documentary on a limited financial budget with a single video camera and limited crew in the back country of Wyoming” doesn’t really make an impact. Keep the main title short and sweet, and use a sub-title if necessary to convey more information about the workshop.

3. When it comes to titles, be careful with humor, it can easily backfire. (Enough said.)

Workshop Content:

1. Avoid information overload.  A great presentation is 70% INSPIRATION, and 30% INFORMATION. Nothing is more boring than information overload. I once had a college professor that walked into class, opened a notebook, and simply read word for word for the entire hour. He never looked up, not even once. Then the bell would ring, and he’d close the notebook and walk out the door. No questions, no conversation, no relationship. Worst professor I ever had.

2.  Don’t duplicate the written word.  At my media workshops, I will often provide a handout with detailed information, reading lists, or research results. That allows me to use the time in front of the crowd to inspire them, motivate them, and help them enjoy the experience.  I want to create a passion in the participants for the subject. So limit the amount of heavy information. That’s not to say you can’t give out important facts at a conference – just remember to keep it in balance. People would rather read it later than listen to you read it for them.

3. Avoid the slide crutch.  I’m very careful about using slide presentations – probably because I’ve seen them used so badly. Too many speakers today rely on programs like PowerPoint and Keynote to cover their poor speaking skills, and believe me, the audience notices. Learn first to be an engaging speaker, and only use “devices” as a supplement to an already fascinating presentation.

But if you make the decision to use programs like PowerPoint or Keynote, here’s a few tips:

A. Keep it visual.  Once again, use a pre-printed handout if you’re giving out too much information. Slide content should be simple and easy to understand.

B. Don’t forget white space.  Too much text crammed into a slide is difficult to read. Keep the slides simple and easy to follow.

C. Take the time to find interesting pictures and illustrations.  Don’t rely on the stick figures or simple illustrations that came with the program. We’ve seen them 100 times already. Be original, be creative, be different.  And avoid cheesy stock footage!

D. Don’t create a slide unless it’s absolutely critical to understanding the point.  Otherwise, it just creates clutter and distracts from your message.

E. Make sure the slides have visual continuity.  Use the same or similar backgrounds, font styles, and overall graphic design. Otherwise, each slide will look like it came from a different presentation. Give your talk a finished, professional look, and if possible, have custom backgrounds created that reflect your subject, your brand, or your company.

F. Be ready for technical malfunctions.  First, triple check before the event to make sure what you need will be provided. Next, have a back-up copy of the presentation on a disk or thumb drive so you can use another computer if yours crashes. Finally, show up at the room early to work out any plug, adapter, or equipment issues.

G. Be careful about giving out copies of the presentation to the audience.  If you’re building a personal brand or career as an expert on the subject, I would give out a handout rather than a copy of the actual PowerPoint presentation. You don’t want people stealing your thunder by using the presentation you worked so hard to develop, so be careful about giving it to others.

For Speaking at Workshops:

1. Find out who’s in the audience.  I always ask the organizers long before the event who’s registering, and at the event I often ask it again to the audience themselves. During my media workshops, I need to know if I’m speaking to producers, directors, video editors, actors, pastors, ministry leaders, or civilians. I want to know if they’re professionals or students. Experienced? Novices? Don’t stab in the dark. Know your audience and focus your message to that specific target.

2. The Panel Paradox.  Most organizations love panels, because it allows more speakers to participate. Theoretically, it provides more perspectives and expertise, and allows the conference to keep feelings from being hurt by giving more people speaking opportunities. If you’re the host, it also allows you to give out “favors” to friends, clients, and associates by bringing them to the table. However, in a typical hour workshop, with four to five panelists, after a few minutes of welcome and some Q&A at the end, each panelist is left with only 5-10 minutes to actually share.  That’s why panels SEEM effective, but rarely are. They don’t allow any one speaker to actually go deeply into a subject, and as a result, most panel presentations or discussions are pretty shallow. Sure it might help you score a few points by adding more speakers, but in my experience, most panels leave the audience frustrated and feeling short-changed.

3. The interview format.  There are various reasons to invite a speaker – sometimes it’s for his or her expertise or experience, and other times it’s because of their new book, movie, or other accomplishment. However, none of those reasons make them a good speaker. If you’re afraid your guest might be boring or uncomfortable in front of an audience, consider turning it into an interview rather than a formal speaking event.  In other words, set up two stools or tall director’s chairs, and you take the lead by interviewing them in front of the audience. First, it puts them at ease, and second, it allows you to control the presentation. I’ve discovered that interviews often allow us a more intimate look at the expert, because he or she feels more relaxed and comfortable, not having to be in the lead.

4. Don’t forget the Q&A.  The best way to help your audience is often to allow them time for questions. No matter how great your presentation, you can’t possibly address all the particular challenges the audience is facing, so I always enjoy hearing from the crowd. I’ve discovered that if you handle it right, the question and answer time can be far more important and informative than the actual presentation. Think of it this way – the presentation builds the foundation, and the Q&A customizes the home.

5. Don’t be commercial.  There’s few things worse than a workshop speaker who spends his or her time promoting a product or discussing themselves. Certainly we want to hear about your experience as it relates to the subject, but we didn’t pay all this money to hear you toot your own horn. Be respectful of the audience and focus on helping them. Plant that seed into their lives, and it will come back to you many times over.  One self-promotion technique that works well is the handout. Don’t be afraid to put your contact and product information on the handout – especially if you’ll like people to contact you for more information after the event.

6. Finally – keep it moving!  We live in a sound-bite, A.D.D. world, so don’t lose your audience with a boring presentation. Keep it lively with emotion and excitement. Without going overboard, move around the stage, be dramatic with your voice, and be fun and compelling. Object lessons can help, so think about items that would help visually explain your points.

Workshops and conferences can be an incredibly important time to develop your personal brand, or promote your ideas about particular issues. Don’t waste the opportunity. Practice in front of a mirror, bring a friend to help with technical issues, and more than anything, come prepared. A great presentation can dramatically change your perception in the industry, and re-position you for success.

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  1. Great stuff. My pet peeve is speakers who read from their handouts. Every time this happens, I want to just take the handout and leave. Right behind this are pastors who read their sermons word-for-word.

  2. Great info Phil! The interview format looks like a safe bet for new speakers. I have watched way to many panels and been on panels where everyone talks but says mostly nothing because they want to be polite and there’s never enough time.

  3. Great info. I totally agree with what you said about panels and the interview. Many times panel speakers simply wing it. I have yet to see a panel presentation that kept me engaged. I did an interview format with a speaker recently who was overly nervous. Having me ask him questions helped him relax and stay on message.

  4. One thing I like about you Phil, among many others, is that you keep getting better and better. Like “practicing what you preach”. Thanks!

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