Tag Archives: verbal presentations

Five tips for Delivering a Presentation

I wrote a few weeks ago on writing a presentation. This week, I offer a few thoughts on delivering one – in no particular order. I’m working on my sequel to my post on performance reviews — expect it next week!

Eye Contact

You want to portray confidence. You don’t want to mumble. You want to engage your audience. Here’s my simplest tip to achieve all three: make eye contact with the audience. Pick out a few friendly faces – people you know who want you to succeed or just people who look friendly – and look them in the eye. Move between those folks as you deliver your presentation.

The side effects are you won’t look down and mumble. You will face the audience and not the slides (the slides aren’t that interested in your talk). You won’t look like you’re only trying to impress your boss (it sure freaks me out when someone spends the whole presentation looking at me). You’ll look like you’re in command as you survey the crowd.

Body Language

Stand up, go to the front, take charge of the room. But don’t plant yourself in one spot – plan to move every few minutes; for example, stroll from one side of the projector screen to the other, or move from the lectern to center stage.

Don’t rock. Plant your feet. Don’t freeze your arms. Make a few gestures – you can even plan to do these every minute or two.

Change your facial expressions every now and then. But not as much as a news anchor – don’t raise your eyebrows every second sentence like they do.

Don’t Read Notes (or Memorize)

Don’t write out your speech. You’ll kill the presentation. Please. For the sake of everyone who is listening. If you must, write a phrase per slide on some palm cards.

Memorizing is the same as writing it down. You will kill the audience.

Only newsreaders can do this, and you are not a newsreader.

Don’t Read Slides

Don’t read the slides to the audience. They can read, and that’s why you’ve put the text on the slides. Again, you’ll kill the talk.

Here’s how I see the role of slides: they’re the key material, and your job verbally is to add flavor to what they’re saying. Relate a story, add an extra point that wouldn’t fit on the slide, point out a key fact, or summarize the key message that the slide is conveying.

The worst thing you can do is to read the slides and track the text with a laser pointer. I hate laser pointers.

 It’s (almost) Impossible to Speak Too Slowly

Earlier this week, I was watching the first election debate in Australia, between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. It wasn’t a debate per se, more of a press conference. And as I was thinking about writing this blog post, I was watching and listening for their presentation styles. I noticed careful use of body language, eye contact, and saw the Prime Minister use notes in the form of phrases. Whether either is charismatic is in question, but they are certainly practiced speakers.

What I noticed most was how slowly they spoke. Try an experiment: watch this video (or any video of a leader), and count the number of words they speak in a minute. Now, at work or school, count the number of words a presenter speaks in a minute. Compare and contrast people you think are great, and those that aren’t – you’ll quickly see that the ones you like generally speak slowly.

About 150 words per minute is about right. That’s hard to execute when you’re up on stage – so my practical advice is just to slow down. Speak as slowly as you can – nervousness will make sure it actually isn’t too slow, you’ll go a little faster than you intend anyway.

A Word on My Personal Style

I always walk off stage thinking that I made a mistake in one way or another. That causes me to reflect on what didn’t go well – and to try and capture it, and avoid the same mistakes twice. Here are a few things that I’ve learnt along the way:

  • If I work in humor early, the body language of the audience becomes more positive, and I relax (and become confident, and present more effectively). I try to lighten the mood early – but only when it’s appropriate!
  • I always write my own slides. I can’t present other people’s slides with confidence
  • When I’m repeating a talk, the third time is always the best. Before that I am rehearsing, and after that I am going through the motions
  • When I’m nervous, I gesture too much and I touch my face. I think about putting my hands in a position (such as one hand in a pocket) and keeping them there, and allow them to move only occasionally
  • I practice the endings of my talks. Starts and middles I can do, ends tend to drift. One trick I use is to learn who or what is coming next, and to introduce it in some form. For example, I might say “I would love to spend more time with you today, but I know you are all looking forward to Jenny speaking to you about Hadoop internals. I hope you’ve enjoyed the presentation, and I look forward to seeing you all again soon”. Or something like that. I also clearly signal the end of the presentation verbally

I love to run surveys about large meetings that I run to see what I can learn. I also always ask people in person what they thought of my presentations. If there’s a video, I’ll skim that too (which is always painful – I don’t know anyone who likes watching or listening to themselves). I think I am pretty good at spotting my own flaws – most people are their own best critics.

See you next week.

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.


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.