Illustration by Tracy Dai
The first presentation I ever gave started with a lie. FITC had been a favorite conference of mine for years and they’d been good enough to offer me a spot so I wanted to do well. I tried to think of a catchy title, landed on UX Doesn’t Exist, and then tried to build a talk around the idea. When I went to present, I was in a smaller room at the venue, which made it worse when a hundred people showed up to hear me explain something that obviously wasn’t true.
I did my best and the people were kind enough not to throw their bottles at me, but I learned a lot from that talk — and from every presentation since, whether I’m in a boardroom, a conference hall, or just showing work to my peers.
Knowing how to present is one of the most critical skills you can develop. No matter how good you are at your job, if you can’t share it effectively it won’t get the attention it deserves. I’ve put together these 10 simple tips from my own successes and failures and I hope they help you as much as they’ve helped me.
1. Decide what you want people to remember
Science has taught us that people are basically just fancy monkeys, and our little monkey brains can only really remember a couple of things from a presentation. To help your simian brothers and sisters, decide up front what the point of this presentation is. It could be the main rationale for a design you’re presenting, or an insight that you want to share. A good way to approach this is to think about how you’d want someone in your audience to answer if they’re asked “what was that about?”
2. Write for your audience
While we’re talking about your audience, when you’re choosing what you want them to remember, start by considering what they care about. Are you presenting work to your peers or senior executives? Are you speaking at a conference aimed at students or industry veterans. Always consider their needs when you’re crafting what you want them to take away.
3. Don’t start with your credentials
If you’re on stage at a conference the last thing you should do is start telling the audience why you’re qualified to give the talk they’ve shown up for. You’re the one on stage, so people tend to assume you must be qualified. They’re yours to lose at that point, so don’t waste time trying to win them over. At best you’ll bore them and at worst you’ll make them start thinking about your qualifications instead of your message. They came to hear you talk about something, not talk about yourself (unless the talk is literally about you), so skip the bio and get into the good stuff.
4. Use a narrative
We use stories to communicate concepts to each other. We’ve been doing it that way for more than 50,000 years so I think it’s worth a shot. Not every presentation needs a story, but if you use a narrative structure and add some details, the point you’re making can be punched way up and made to really stick with people. Tell them a story of someone who’s struggled and then contrast it with how what you’re presenting can prevent that. Tell them how you failed a few times and were ready to give up before you had this idea. You’re talking to people so go beyond the facts and bring it life just like this guy used to do.
5. Keep it short and sweet
While having a story is good, offering up your life story is not. People’s attention spans are short at the best of times, and they’re likely not as interested in what we present as we are in presenting it, so don’t linger or wander around unless you’ve got something pretty compelling to work with. Get to the point asap and keep things moving. Great writing is great editing.
6. Don’t Read Your Slides
When you put text on a slide your audience stops listening to you and starts reading. This leads to the awkward position of them getting to the end of your slide while you’re still talking about something they’ve already dealt with. This usually equals them switching to a different window or pulling out their phone while they wait for you to catch up. Some text is fine, but it should supplement what you’re saying, not describe it verbatim. Once you remove the text, then you’ll need to speak from memory and that means rehearsing. When you know your material well, you won’t be reciting something you’ve memorized, but speaking with conviction about something you know well.
7. Slow Your Roll
We want things to keep moving, but we don’t want to feel rushed. Try not to talk super-fast or blow through slides without checking in. Take deeper breaths. Use a relaxed voice. Ask your audience if they agree, have questions, or anything else. Pro-tip: Take sips from a glass of water. It buys you a moment to collect your thoughts and allows your audience to digest what you just said or interject if they have a question.
8. Edutain Us
Work is work, so if you’re giving a talk, try to throw in a little something here and there to keep people entertained. A personal anecdote, a little joke at your own expense, a neat observation… It’s not supposed to be a stand-up routine, but a little humour or drama can engage your audience and make them more receptive to whatever you’re saying.
9. Success is engagement
The goal is not to get to the end of the presentation, it’s to have your audience ask questions or tell their own stories. Whether they agree with you or disagree, if they’re talking about it then you got their interest and managed to communicate, which is the whole point.
10. Bookend things
While your theme probably got the key messages through to your audience, it never hurts to reinforce it with a nice summary before you send them out the door or start taking feedback. If you’re presenting work then outline what feedback you need to keep going. If it’s a talk at a conference, touch on the key takeaway again and how it can help them.
So there you go, ten tips to help up your presentation game. You’re probably already doing some or most of these, so just focus on the places that you think will help the most. Remember: no matter how well you use these tips and tricks, there is no substitute for authenticity. If you’re not talking about something you believe in or care about, your audience will pick up on it. So be yourself, talk about stuff that matters, and you’ll be a star.