Giving Great Presentations – speaker notes

4:18 pm community, freesoftware, General, maemo

Earlier today I gave a lightning talk on giving great presentations at the Maemo Summit. The response has been great, and here are the notes I wrote for the presentation, so that people can refer back tol the advice when the time comes.

Giving Great Presentations

It was said that when Cicero finished speaking, people turned to each other and said “that was a great speech”. But when Demosthenes finished speaking, people said “we must march”.

Throughout history, great orators have changed the world. Entire movements can grow from the powerful communication of an idea.

Yet most technical presentations are horrible. Slides filled with bullet points, and monotone delivery. How many people here have asked themselves at one stage or another during a presentation, “why am I here?”

You might not be Obama, but you can still give better presentations. Here are some basic tips for improving. Nothing I’m going to say here is difficult, but there are no easy fixes either.

Think of your audience

The first tip is for when you are considering giving a presentation, and when you start writing your content. Think of what your audience will get from your presentation. What’s in it for them?

If your point is “to talk about…” you’re off track. You will put your audience to sleep. Seriously.
If you want to share some information, why not just write a blog entry? Why do you need to be in the room?

People don’t care about you. They care about themselves. So make your presentation about them.

A presentation is a sales pitch. You are there to convince people of something. Maybe it’s an idea you want them to believe. Maybe it’s a product you want them to use. If you’re not *selling* something, why are you giving a presentation? You may as well write a blog entry, and stay at home.

So cut to the chase. When you’re thinking about your presentation, think about one core question: What do I want audience members to do once they’ve seen my presentation? And then make sure everything in your presentation is driving towards that goal.

Tell a story

The best way to convince someone of something is to entertain them. And stories are entertaining. Some people are funny, and can use humour to entertain. I’m not funny. But everyone can tell a story.

Human beings are natural storytellers. And stories are a wonderful way to get a point across, especially if you structure your narrative well.

One possible narrative you could use is this:

  1. Problem statement
  2. Proposed solution
  3. Supporting evidence
  4. Conclusion

It’s important to finish your presentation will a call to action. Make people march. The action can be small. Integrate the key lesson of your presentation into their work. Download an SDK and try out some sample apps. Write a letter to a local politician. Donate to your cause.

But make it clear to people what you want from them.

Presentation design

The third suggestion is to design slides to compliment what you say, rather than repeat it.

Don’t write everything you’re going to say on the slide. Otherwise people will just read it, and won’t concentrate on you. You might as well just write a document and stay at home. Bullet points are especially bad for this – avoid them. Slides should be sparse. Pictures work better. Use images that reinforce your point – show, then tell.

Let’s say I wanted to convince you that Ethiopia was once again on the brink of famine. I could show you charts of crop yields, child mortality, and displaced populations. Or I could show you a photo and tell you the rest.

It’s emotional. It’s cheating. It works.


The biggest sin that people make when giving presentations is not to say what they want to say out loud before getting on stage.

Runners train. Football players practice. Musicians and actors spend hours getting performances right. So shouldn’t you too? How do you know how long it will take you to get through your content? How do you know what’s useful and what’s superfluous? Does your presentation have a good flow? Practice will tell you.

Doing all this takes time. It’s not as easy as throwing bullet points together the day before your presentation and hoping for the best.

But think of how many man-hours people will spend watching your presentation. How much of your time is it worth to ensure that your audience isn’t wasting theirs?

So go do it. Concentrate on your audience’s interests. Tell stories and entertain people. Make slides sparse. And prepare beforehand by practising. This is harder than what you do now. The pay-off is huge.

The best part is that your audiences will thank you.

Related links:

  • Really Bad Powerpoint – Seth Godin (source of many of the ideas in this presentation)
  • Kill your presentation (before it kills again) – Kathy Sierra – Kathy has lots of material on focusing on your users rather than on yourself – and this is true for presentations too
  • Presentation Zen – the great blog of Garr Reynolds – there is an accompanying book which is well worth reading
  • slide:ology – Nancy Duarte – one of my favourite books on presentation design – a must-read on all stages of presentation design from deciding what to talk about through to working on your delivery

5 Responses

  1. Adam Says:

    Thank you Dave for this!
    Maybe we can link to this post for future conferences (like GUADEC).

  2. Marius Gedminas Says:

    It was a great talk.

    My inner grammar nazi compels me to say you probably meant “complement” rather than “compliment”.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Don’t forget the Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation. 🙂

  4. Sumana Harihareswara Says:

    It wouldn’t hurt for more presenters to try out teaching or stand-up comedy and transfer those skills to their conference presentations. That’s what I did.

    Good overview.

  5. Andrés Maneiro (amaneiro) 's status on Friday, 06-Nov-09 08:41:55 UTC - Says:

    […] a few seconds ago from xmpp […]