Five tips for Writing a Presentation

I’ve had hundreds of chances to experiment with presentations, through teaching, invited talks, and day-to-day presentations at work. If there’s a mistake you can make in delivering a presentation, I’ve made it. Today, I’ll share with you the top five things I’ve learnt along the way — hopefully, they’ll help you write a great talk!

One major point

You’ve been asked to give a presentation that’s less than an hour in length. My advice: deliver one major theme or point to the audience – you want them to leave unambiguously ready to understand, believe, act, or follow the point you’ve made.

Don’t share two or more major points. The audience will leave with different key takeaways. Or, worse still, you’ll confuse the audience or seem rushed in your delivery. And you usually won’t land that key message that you want the audience to act on or evangelize for you.

What is a major point or theme? It depends on the length of the talk. If I was speaking for an hour, I’d design a talk that lands a broader theme than if I was speaking for fifteen minutes. For example, in an hour I might land “how to deliver a great presentation”. If I was speaking for fifteen minutes, I might land “tips for verbal presentations”.

What if you have to speak on two topics in one session? For example, your boss wants you to present to her boss on two topics next week. Write two talks: start and finish the first, change decks, and start and finish the second. Consider having question time between the two. Pretend you’re two different speakers coming up to the podium.

One slide every two minutes

Rule of thumb: one slide for every two minutes of presentation. A one hour talk, thirty slides maximum. A fifteen minute presentation, seven slides. Really.

If you fly through slides, you’ll seem rushed. If you stay on one slide, you’ll kill the audience with boredom.

If I’m speaking for an hour, I restrict myself to thirty slides maximum — I’m always tempted to have more, and every time I do I regret it. If anything, err on the side of caution: I’ve given a few one hour talks with twenty or fewer slides, and it’s worked out fine.

Keep the slides simple

A slide with the right amount of content

A slide with close to the maximum amount of content. I’ve delivered this one a few times, and it’s hard to get through it in two minutes.

I like to have four to six lines of text on a PowerPoint slide. I try to avoid sub-bullets. I definitely wouldn’t have more than eight lines of text; I know when I reach eight that I’ve got two slides of content.

I dislike quadrant slides, they’re too complex for a presentation. I dislike two-content slides too — the ones that have text on the left and an image on the right (or vice-versa). If I want to include an image, I typically make it the feature of the slide and accompany it with at most two lines of text above or below the image.

Signpost the structure

I include the following signposts in most talks I deliver:

  • A title slide, with talk title, my name, company, and contact information

    An example title slide with talk title, my name, company  and contact information

    An example title slide with talk title, my name, company and contact information

  • An overview slide that explains the structure of the talk to the audience; that way, they know what to expect, it helps them to know when to ask questions and what’s going to be explained

    An overview slide. Usually the second slide in my presentations, and there to outline the structure of the talk

    An overview slide. Usually the second slide in my presentations, and there to outline the structure of the talk

  • An occasional subsection slide that shows we’ve arrived at a major section in the talk

    A subsection slide that explains where we are in the talk structure. I'll typically include two or three of these in a longer talk, and they'll reference back to the overview slide

    A subsection slide that explains where we are in the talk structure. I’ll typically include two or three of these in a longer talk, and they’ll reference back to the overview slide

  • (Sometimes) A concluding slide that contains the key points from the presentation
  • A subsection slide that includes the phrase “Questions?” or “Q&A?”

    A final slide asking for questions (and doing a little advertising)

    A final slide asking for questions (and doing a little advertising)

I count these slides in my “two minutes per slide” rule; these don’t come as free extras.

Be careful with the colors, design, transitions, and builds

When you’ve got Microsoft’s Powerpoint as your tool (or something fancy such as prezi), it’s tempting to include lots of slide builds, transitions, zooming, and animation. Resist. These are very often a distraction — and can lead to your audience thinking you’re more about style than substance.

I particularly dislike builds. Why? Because it looks like you’re hiding something, and it doesn’t give the audience the chance to read, understand, and put what you’re saying in context.

Afterword

I was fortunate to work with Justin Zobel for many years, and developed my early presentation style with his coaching. His book is worth the money — highly recommended for anyone who needs to write and present in the field of IT or computer science.

See you next week.

3 thoughts on “Five tips for Writing a Presentation

  1. Alan Cook

    Hugh, I too do many presentations and agree with all you say in your blog; however I am a great believer in mixing up wordy slides with pictures, maps and examples. Granted my field of Geology/Mining possibly gives me more opportunity to do this but I feel it just helps in reinforcing ideas and visually demonstrating your main point.
    Keep the blogs coming, I really enjoy following them.
    Alan

  2. Hugh E. Williams Post author

    I agree wholeheartedly on mixing it up — I try and do that too (even though much of what I do doesn’t lend itself to pictures). I just avoid doing it one slide — a picture is worth a thousand words, and I try to avoid adding a thousand more on the same slide!

  3. Pingback: Five tips for Delivering a Presentation | Hugh E. Williams

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