3 Simple Ways to Improve Your Presentation Style


Last week, I gave three presentations in three days. Two of them were an hour long as part of Brain Awareness Week, and one was 15 minutes at the University of Lethbridge Graduate Student Meeting of the Minds. I won second place out of over 40 presenters at the latter. In fact, just about any time I give a presentation I have people come up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed my presentation.

I’m not writing about this because I want everybody to know how awesome I am. In fact, I really don’t think I’m all that good. There are several things that I could absolutely do better, and I suck at them right now. For example, I pace back and forth all the time (unsurprising for someone with ADHD), and after watching a recent presentation of mine on video, its something I’m going to work on. However, there are a few things that a lot of people don’t think about when giving a presentation, lecture, or talk. This is by no means intended to be a perfect list, so if you have additional comments let me know in the comments!

1. Speak in Everyday English (No Jargon!)

This week, I taught a group of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities about the brain. The very next day, I did the same thing to a room full of graduate students. One of the most important things you can do to improve your presentation style is to get rid of jargon and talk like a real person. The number of times you will ever speak to a group of people who have the same level of knowledge as you on a given subject is next to none. Every discipline has jargon, but you don’t need to sound like a text book while explaining concepts either. If a specific word is going to be important for the duration of your presentation, the very first time it arises in your presentation you must define it in plain English immediately. If you’re having a hard time doing that, find the nearest little kid and explain what the word means to a child. If you can’t do that, you need to either remove that concept for your outline, or find another way of expressing that idea.

All too often, experts in a certain area speak like they’re reading an article from scientific journal. The Plenary address speaker at the conference I went to last weekend spoke about the “anthropocene” for 20 minutes before bothering to tell us what the word meant. Within two minutes, I had shut her out and was looking the word up on Wikipedia. I couldn’t understand a word she said until I did that. It wouldn’t have been hard for her to have a slide that said “Anthropocene: a term to express that we are in a new age where humans are a driving geological force.” Boom. Done. Don’t assume people know what you’re talking about. You don’t have to dumb concepts down, you just have to speak to them like a human being.

2. Simplify Your Slides

This is huge, and it is one of the most common mistakes around. If I wanted to read pages of text, I would have stayed home and read a book. So many presenters make terrible slides. Seriously, they suck. Some of the most brilliant professors I have ever spoken to have had the worse slides known to man.

The number one crime that most people commit is making their slide too crowded. My rule is 30 or fewer words per slide, and only one picture. If you need more than that, use more than one slide. Every-so-often you need to include more than one picture, but make sure that it is essential that you need to have both visible (eg. before and after pictures). Also, if you’re using more than a few words, use bullets to separate ideas. If you insist of having a ton of text on your slide, for goodness sakes, use the animations to hide text until you want to talk about it. If you put an entire slide full of text up, your audience is going to be reading your slide instead of listening to you.

3. Practice Using a Conversational Tone

In my mind, nothing takes me out of a talk more than someone who is clearly reading or reciting from a script. If I catch a podcaster doing it for the majority of their content, I usually am so turned off by it that I unsubscribe. In contrast, your audience will have a stronger connection with you while you’re speaking in a natural, conversational tone. By the time you get up to give a presentation, you should have a pretty good idea of what you want to say, so just make yourself a list of bullet points to cover and have a conversation with your audience. There have been countless times that I have spoken in public where a small example or annecdote has come into my hea on the spot that has enriched the topic.

In cases where you really need to give a scripted talk, work your hardest to use a conversational tone. You know the tone I’m talking about. Go and watch an Steve Jobs Keynote. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect some form of a script was made before Steve used to head on stage, but he always felt like he was up on stage just shooting the breeze with the audience. He got excited. He got mad. He was a little off-the-cuff. Those were the kinds of things that made Steve a great showman. If you can get excited about your topic, the audience will become excited and be pulled in.

QUESTION: What do you think makes a great presentation and a great presenter? Did I miss anything? Do you disagree with things I’ve said?

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