Seven Secrets of Good Presentations

Over the last few months, I’ve given a small pile of presentations related to The Simple Dollar, my upcoming book, and other topics. Along the way, I’ve learned several things about what constitutes a good presentation and what constitutes a failure. Here are the seven key things I’ve learned, which you can take away to make your own presentations better.

1. Lots of words on the screen is bad. If you have a lot of words on the screen, people stop paying attention to what you’re saying and start reading the words on the screen. I suppose this is fine if you don’t want people to pay any attention to you at all, but that’s usually the opposite of the effect you want.

I had this problem with my early presentations, where I loaded down slides with words. As I spoke and looked out over the crowd, I could see a large number of them quite obviously tuning me out and reading the words on the screen. Then, when they were finished and tried to tune back into what I was saying, they had lost the thread and many of them became bored.

Try to stick to at most ten words on the screen per slide.

2. Instead, choose pictures that complement what you want to say. Instead of thinking of the information your slides can present, think of how the slides can complement what you’re saying.

For example, if I mention my children in a presentation, I’ll often include a slide that’s just a large picture of my children at play. No words, no anything. It doesn’t detract at all from what I’m saying, it merely complements and illustrates it and brings my words to life.

When you make an outline of what you want to say, consider what sort of visual image will match each idea. Then, find an image that matches that idea and actually show that image to the crowd, bringing the idea to life in their mind much as it is in your own.

3. Speaking of outlines… never forget you’re telling a story. A presentation is storytelling, pure and simple. If you look at your presentation as simply a way to convey lots of information, you’re missing out on why you’re doing it.

For me, the story is obvious – I just tell my life story. I talk about my many mistakes and how I recovered from them. It’s largely a chronological story – and it’s a visual story because I use picture-heavy slides.

Sit down for a moment and ask yourself what the story you’re telling is. Where did you start? Where did you go with it? What’s really interesting along the way?

If you need to convey lots of information, have a handout. The purpose of a presentation is to stick your big message in their mind.

4. Have lots of slides. Since you don’t have many words on your slides, you don’t need to stick with each slide for a long time. Since the slides are picture heavy, they provide a great visual complement for your points. So, have a lot of slides.

On average for my more recent talks, I stay on a slide for about ten seconds. Yes, ten seconds on average. That’s six slides a minute or, in terms of pure slide count, 180 slides in a half an hour.

For me, this serves two purposes. One, each picture accents a point I’m making and carries the story I’m telling forward. Two, it also serves as a visual outline for me, as each slide points to just one very specific idea I want to convey. The pictures themselves clue me into what I want to talk about.

5. Make the audience laugh on occasion. I find the easiest way to do this is with the pictures, since I’m not great at telling jokes myself.

I simply just choose a picture with a humorous bent that matches my point – a picture of my children making a mess, a picture of a funny street sign, a picture of a burnt casserole (when I’m talking about cooking at home). These things make people laugh (or at least chuckle) because they point to simple failures we have in common.

Humor is one of the best ways to connect with someon. Use it.

6. Use the “peak-end rule.” People will usually just take away two or three memories of your presentation, and one of them is how you finish. Keep that in mind.

I usually save something big for the finish. Usually, it’s a very explicit challenge for my audience, something simple and memorable for them to do when they leave: “go home, right now, and start an automatic savings plan.”

What can you save for the finish that will help your audience remember what you spoke about?

7. It’s you. Whenever you stand up in front of a crowd and present, the audience is informing an impression of you. If you stammer and look down and hide behind the information on your slides, it won’t be a good impression.

Don’t give yourself crutches when you’re out there, because you will lean hard on those crutches and create the impression of someone who can’t walk on their own. Throw away the note cards. Throw away the pieces of paper.

Most important of all, practice, practice, practice. Go through your slides until you’re numb, then go through them again. You should be able to know exactly what’s coming next and be intimately familiar with the story you want to tell.

When you walk out there, it’s as easy as pie. Just tell your story. Your slides will accent them beautifully. And the crowd will love you.

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  1. katie says:

    This is a great list of tips Trent. I used to do competitive public speaking, and the points you mention are quite salient.

    It’s also helpful to practice, practice, practice. Know your speech/presentation before you get up there. It’s OK if you change the wording up; just make sure you feel comfortable and know what you’re going to say before you go in front of lots of people.

    I hope your nerves have been easing up as you do more presentations. I still get nervous, but I know that it has gotten easier for me to speak in front of others. I LOVE giving presentations, even if I get butterflies in my stomach.

  2. Russ says:

    Most of your points are good, especially about practicing and being completely comfortable with the information you are presenting. However, I think #4 is way off. assuming the slides have substance, a slide every 10 seconds is way to many slides. At that speed the slides are often a distraction from what you are saying, rather than a complimentary piece to your presentation.

    Granted, this may change based on subject matter and audience but in business school the general rule of thumb is one slide every 30-60 seconds. This allows you to talk at a reasonable pace while still giving the audience important information and keeping their interest.

  3. Kevin says:

    Some good, basic points, but I agree completely with Russ. A slide every 10 seconds will draw attention away from your words just as much as wordy slides will.

    For inspiration and examples, see PresentationZen.com, look at a few TED talks, or find a few classic Steve Jobs speeches on YouTube. You won’t see slides flying by at breakneck pace.

  4. Heather says:

    You make many great suggestions but I have to agree with Russ and Kevin here – fewer slides is better. Admittedly my presentation experience is skewed towards scientific/academic presentations, but some of the ones I (and my peers and mentors) dislike the most are the ones with tonnes of slides (this goes for both students presentations and those given by experts in the field). Flying through slides really does detract from your words and the concepts you are trying to get across.

    A carefully chosen, limited set of slides that visually reinforce your points has more impact. After all the focus is supposed to be on the speaker, not on fast-flying flashy pictures or slides full of words.

  5. Bill says:

    Do NOT just read the slides. As much common sense as this makes it needs to be repeated.

  6. It is true that most of the remembering of any presentation is the last few minutes. There is no sense making the main points at the beginning of the show if you’re not going to recap, because the message will not to conveyed.

    John DeFlumeri Jr

  7. When presenting, you have GOT to tell a story. Simply re-gurgitating information is pointless.

    Second, YOU don’t have to be funny, but your presentation needs to have at least a tiny bit of humor in it.

    Fianlly, you have to finish strong. This is typically where I decide to always inject a little humor. It makes the audience remember the whole presentation a little btter.

  8. Louise says:

    Great list! I’ve bookmarked this for future reference.

    To find great pictures for your slides, search Flickr for Creative Commons licensed photos. Then sort them by “Interesting” instead of “Relevance.” This will bring up photo that others have found to be particularly eye-catching. Works well for websites, too.

  9. Claudia says:

    Some good points. I have gone to a lot of seminars over the years, many relating to billing Medicare. It’s much easier to have someone interpret the new rules, they change continually and reading the ever-changing Medicare manuals is not conducive to staying awake. But, some of these speakers! Most handout a copy of their Power Point presentation and elaborate on the Power Point. But some just read the Power Point slides which I already has sitting in front of me! I can’t help but think “I drove 2 1/2 hrs one way for this? You could have just mailed me the Power Point.”

  10. Claudia says:

    Oh my! Just re-read my post–“I already has sitting” ??? Whoops!

  11. Johanna says:

    For a lot of these, I think it depends what you’re trying to present. Like Heather, I’ve been to a lot of seminars in which scientists present very technical scientific results. In those, the slides are not just there for decoration while you give your talk – they’re needed to convey information as well, whether in the form of graphs, schematic pictures, equations, tables, or words. And while I agree that reading your slides word for word is not ideal, some redundancy between what the audience hears from you and what they see on the screen can be a good thing. You don’t want somebody to find the entire second half of your talk incomprehensible because they zoned out for five seconds in the middle (as we all do from time to time) and missed a crucial point. If that crucial point is on one of your slides as well as in what you say, they at least have a second chance to absorb it and catch back up.

    Regardless of what you’re talking about, though, if you’ve been allotted a specific amount of time for your talk, stick to it. The message you send when you go over time is that you don’t respect anyone else in the room – that no one matters but you. That’s a bad message to send.

  12. Patty says:

    I just finished a speech at a state wide event, so I’ll add a few items. I agree, less is better on a slide. Keep the movement on the slides to a minimum so that they don’t become a distraction. Make sure you have extra batteries for your electronic pointer/clicker. Make eye contact with as many people in the audience as possible and smile a lot. I gave out a set of handouts that contained most of the slides.

    Remember – most of all – have a great time! The audience is there to hear the subject matter and to hear you.

  13. Jenni says:

    Oh my gosh, I’ve heard so many bad presentations in the past three years, it’s ridiculous. I’m in a science field, and granted, presentations on your research are a little different–you have to show certain graphs for a certain amount of time to explain what’s on them.

    But seriously? If you sound bored with your own research, why should I be interested in it? If you put up a graph with axes that are labeled in 0.5 size font, or with no labels at all, how can I follow you? If your ‘presentation’ means reading word-for-word from your slides, why didn’t you just forward the Powerpoint and I can read it on my own time? And for goodness sake, please STOP waving your laser pointer at every word as we read along together.

    Scientists would greatly benefit from a class in presenting.

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