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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