On presenting well

Many of us have seen good presentations. Just not at work. In your career, you might sit through 10,000 presentations and most of them will be dreadful. And you may be guilty of some of those.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Presenting - that is, engaging an audience while articulating a point of view - is a basic life skill. And, like writing, it’s something everyone can learn to be good at.

Here are 4 things that can help you.

Creating better visuals

Presentation Zen” by Garr Reynolds is a simple, beautiful book. It will teach you that it’s okay to be different. To step outside of entrenched communications traditions and templates and to create, instead, visually interesting presentations. And it will teach you how to create them.

The book is full of examples of what to do and not to do. It’s full of simple, practical guidelines and gorgeous images that will inspire you and will absolutely improve your very next presentation.

Every student, every knowledge worker, every person who might ever present material  should read this book.

Telling a better story

Nancy Duarte’s “Resonate” uncovers the patterns underlying great narratives. She dissects and diagrams historic speeches, TED talks, and keynotes, and shows you the common framework they all share.

Whether it’s Ben Zander or Steve Jobs or Martin Luther King, “Resonate” exposes the same basic patterns in all great talks. The same narrative arc. The same kinds of changes in rhythm and tone. The same kinds of aspirational endings.

After reading “Resonate,” you’ll view your role more as storyteller than presenter. You’ll understand why you need to engage an audience instead of just deliver content - and you’ll learn how to do it well.

Learning from others

TED talks allow you to sample from a wide range of disciplines and a wide range of presentation styles. Each one holds a lesson in refining how you present your ideas.

How could you use props? In Jamie Oliver’s talk on teaching children about food, he rails against the amount of sugar in elementary school food, notably in chocolate milk. Then he takes a wheelbarrow full of sugar and dumps it onstage. “There’s 5 years of elementary school sugar...just from milk.” It’s a more powerful and memorable statement than any slide.

How could you present complex data? Hans Rosling  is a Swedish doctor and statistician. And he’s also a master at making statistical analysis of complex subjects sound like commentary for a good soccer match. His talk on China and the developing world, for example, will surprise, inform, and entertain you.

How could you tell a good story without slides? Imagine a talk on spaghetti sauce research and how dull that might be. Now imagine it without any slides or other material. And then watch Malcolm Gladwell bring the story to life. He informs and engages you by making it personal - by framing it as the story of his friend, Howard Moskowitz. He artfully weaves in details and quotes and anecdotes while he’s making you care about his main points.

Every talk you watch can give you something new. Something you might emulate in your next presentation.

Practice, Practice, Practice

In Carmine Gallo’s “Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs,” I was surprised to read about Job’s meticulous preparation and planning before his keynotes. He seemed like such a naturally good speaker with decades of experience. Yet he practiced?

In “Confessions of a Public Speaker,” Scott Berkun also wrote at length about preparation and practice. And my friend, Gina Rudan (author of “Practical Genius”) described how she prepared for her TED talk for 62 hours.)

Talking about practicing is much easier than doing it. If they all practiced, why didn’t I? Perhaps I was too afraid, or lazy, or self-conscious.

Only recently, before a particularly important talk, I screwed up my courage, stood in front of a mirror, and delivered my talk start to finish 20 times, making adjustments along the way.

It wasn’t about memorizing it. It was about becoming comfortable with the material - the slides, the main points on each, the transitions, the overall flow.

That comfort gave me a much better chance of being me. It let me put my energy into my authentic passion for the topic instead of on the mechanics of my talk.

You deserve better

When it comes to presentations, don’t be like everybody else. Be better.

Learn the mechanics of preparing better materials and telling better stories. Watch what others do. Practice before your talks and learn by giving more talks.

If you get nervous each time (I certainly do), think of that anxious feeling as a reminder that you’re learning. A reminder that, with each effort, you’re getting better at a skill that’s incredibly useful and will help differentiate you.