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10 Tips for Conference Presentations

Yesterday I attended what I think will be my last conference presentation for the year. And it was a doozy.

I've sat through at least 100 conference presentations this year. Some were awesome, some were awful, and most were pretty good. But the awesome and awful ones stick with me - when a topic is not of interest to me or is about something I already know, I pay more attention to the presentation style, looking at what works and what doesn't.

So I've compiled my ten tips for presenters. These represent the things that great presenters do well and bad presenters just butcher. Of course, I'm not perfect, and I know I've made some of these mistakes, but I'm trying to do silly things less often.



This 10 Tips for Conference Presentations is by Donna Spencer, author of three books. It first appeared on her (now archived) Maadmob blog towards the end of 2008. The article has been reposted on Tek Eye with kind permission from Donna. Maadmob is a small Australian freelance agency, run by Donna, specialising in service design, product design and user experience design.

1. Work to Time

In the worst presentation of the year, the speaker got up in front of 500 people and said "I have too much material, so I'm going to go through this quite fast". Immediate FAIL. Then, 10 minutes before the end he said "I'm almost out of time, I'll just go a bit quicker through the last points".

Conference organisers are usually quite clear about how much time you have allocated. If they are paying your airfare, accommodation and a speaker's fee, not tailoring your presentation to the timeslot is just rude, and doesn't help you or the audience.

The best presenters know how much time they have to work with, tailor their presentation to fit the time and then keep an eye on the time. One of the best I saw this year was Jeff Veen at Web Directions - with technical problems at the start he lost 15 minutes and still came in almost on time.

And if you are running out of time, stop. Jump past a couple of slides if you need to make one last point. Otherwise you are saying "I'm more important than you, you can wait until I'm finished".

2. Leave Time for Questions

A common behaviour for bad presenters is to run right up to, or over, time, then ask "any questions" (in a rushed voice too of course). No-one asks questions, and the speaker thinks they've done a great job.

Great presenters run 10 minutes before time, ask "any questions" and get a ton of hands.

This, believe it or not, has nothing to do with the material. It has everything to do with feeling permitted to ask questions. If there is obviously no time for questions (especially right before lunch or coffee break), the person who asks one is holding up the room. We are polite folks and we know how to play the game - we don't want to hold up everyone just to ask a personal question. But when there is plenty of time, we feel like we are allowed to, so we do.

And questions are a good thing. They give you a chance to elaborate on something that wasn't clear, or cover the topic that everyone wants to know but you forgot to include. They help the audience feel like you are approachable and a peer.

3. Know What Your Point Is

I attended many presentations that were well-spoken and well timed but never actually made a point.

Yesterday's presentation was a perfect example. I spent most of it wondering what the speaker's point was, and finally concluded that he didn't know what his point was either. Talks like this waffle all over the place and never get anywhere. And listeners walk away feeling stupid.

If you aren't sure of your point, do the "Why, who cares, so what" test. Think about what you're actually trying to convey, think about why someone needs to know it, why they would care about it, and what the consequences are. This is a simple trick that really helps you think about what you should be communicating.

4. Rehearse

The first time you give a talk, especially if you are using slides someone else has prepared, rehearse it.

Really. Yes, I really mean it.

Rehearsing helps because you hear yourself say the words. You can hear your jokes (I think my jokes are hilarious until I say them out loud), practice stories and figure out the pace. Then when you have to perform for real, your brain doesn't have to figure it out from scratch.

You can rehearse in your bedroom - it feels odd, but works. Or ask a couple of friends to listen to you. Our local IA cocktail hour has been the rehearsal ground for a few people this year, and we are happy to do it.

5. Avoid Self Talk

This tip came to me via the very awesome Dan Willis. We were sitting together watching someone who is super-smart and always has really insightful things to say. And Dan said "if only he'd stop self-talking, he'd be perfect".

Self-talking is all the little things speakers say when they are simultaneously trying to deliver a talk and thinking about themselves doing it. Comments about technology, "oops, there's a spelling mistake", "oh, there's an extra slide", "what does that point mean". They can subtly undermine your credibility and make you look inexperienced.

Of all the tips I've ever learned, this one has been the most helpful to me personally.

6. Understand Your Audience

The two worst speakers of the year made the mistake of not understanding the audience. But the reason they were the worst went further - they also assumed that the audience didn't know anything and needed educating. Guess what - audiences can actually pick up on it when you think of them like this.

Before speaking to a group, find out what they already know and where they are up to with your topic. If you think you might need to explain some fundamental concepts, don't talk down to people. Just say you are going to quickly go over some background so some key points later on make sense.

But really, the trick to this is to genuinely care about your audience. No matter how hard you try, if you think they are beneath you, they'll pick it up.

7. Talk About What You Know

Another difference between great presentations and mediocre is the presenter's knowledge of their material. A great presenter not only knows what points they are making, but knows why those things are important and what they mean. They can answer a question on the fly, or elaborate on a point as needed.

You might be caught having to give a presentation on a topic that you don't know thoroughly, or use a presentation someone else has written. If this happens, rehearse it a couple of times, think about each of the points, why they are important and what they mean. Do some background reading, discuss it with colleagues and think up a story for each of the main points. This will increase your understanding of the material and your confidence.

8. Tell Stories

Humans don't learn by listening to strings of facts. We learn from stories and examples.

One of the best things you can do in a presentation is to tell stories. Make a point, then put it into a real situation. It may be something you've experienced, something a colleague has, or your opinion about an issue. Your listeners will understand your point better, and you'll sound more credible. Win-win.

I tell stories in all my presentations. Sometimes I even completely ignore what is on a slide and just tell a story. The thing I have to be most careful with is that I don't tell a story twice in one session - how embarrassing would that be!

9. Talk in Inverted Pyramid

Inverted pyramid is a style of writing where you present the most important facts first, then elaborate on them, then elaborate further. The urban myth is that it developed with the introduction of the telegraph and the need to get the facts through before the connection was lost.

Whatever the history, get your point across, and then build up on it. Your audience can then make a decision about whether to listen to you or do something else (think about sex, read Twitter, write nasty things about you on Twitter). If you build up to your point essay style, chances are you'll lose part of the audience part way through and they'll never get the point you are so carefully working up to.

10. Balance Imagery and Text

If you've been attending presentations for a few years like I have, you'll have noticed that bullet points have almost dissappeared. The current style, at least amongst the user experience and web folks, is gorgeous imagery and a small amount of text.

Some of the worst presentations I saw this year went so too far with imagery - I kept getting distracted trying to figure out how the image and the speaker's point related, and ended up missing the point entirely.

Don't be terrified of text and bullet points. They are OK when:

  • the point you want to make isn't easy to communicate visually;
  • visual language is the best way to communicate the idea;
  • people need to see the whole idea in order to understand it;
  • you are discussing lists of steps or sequences.

But if you are going to use bullet points, make them communicate your point. Don't use them as a memory trigger for what you want to say - that's what speaker notes are for.



So, if you don't want me sitting in the third row twittering about how terrible you are:

  1. Work to Time
  2. Leave Time for Questions
  3. Know What Your Point Is
  4. Avoid Self-talk
  5. Rehearse
  6. Understand the Audience
  7. Talk About What You Know
  8. Tell Stories
  9. Talk in Inverted Pyramid
  10. Balance Imagery and Text


If you'd like to improve your presentations, my two favourite resources/books are:

Archived Responses to 10 Tips for Conference Presentations

Stephen Collins says on November 28th, 2008 at 8:29 am

Great stuff, Donna. While I think I'm a reasonably good presenter, I think I've made each of these mistakes at least once this year. Those of us who are given the privilege of presenting to others should make sure they get value for their time and money.

Jessica Enders says on November 28th, 2008 at 9:02 am

Excellent post Donna. Concise yet meaty.

I particularly get a lot of value out of rehearsing. It's never the same after I'm done, as the speaking it out loud exposes the flaws in the ideas in your head. I think IA Cocktail Hours are a fabulous forum for rehearsals and would encourage others to avail themselves of this fantastic opportunity in 2009.

Gary Barber says on November 28th, 2008 at 10:37 am

Great Post. I'll add to that on timing, ensure you can see a clock or timer, or that you can see the timer on your presentation software. Set you phone as a stopwatch. Conference organisers, have a time keeper, ensure they can be seen front and center by the presenter and they have timing cards that can be flashed up, its old school, but it really works.

For those not in Canberra (IA Cocktail Hours), as suggested, just grab some colleagues, don't use family.

Also follow a linear progression of facts, make it easy for people to understand where and what you are talking about at any one time and how it relates in the big picture of the presentation. I guess this comes down to referencing the inverted pyramid from time to time.

Nick Cowie says on November 28th, 2008 at 10:59 am

Looks like we went to the same "worst presentation" of the year.

I will admit, I have made all those mistake when presenting in the past, and probably will make some in the future, but now I am aware of them and try to remove them by planning my presentation in detail. Self-talk is probably my worst habit and will be working to fix it.

That said, I saw self-talk work really well in a presentation the this year. A nervous presenter let out few words including a choice expletive after demolishing the microphone. The audience laughed, the presenter relaxed and went on to give one the better presentations I saw this year.

Richard Dalton says on November 28th, 2008 at 11:45 am

Great post, I think you should make "this one go to 11" though (forgive the spinal tap reference) and add a final tip that incorporates a bunch of stuff like: talk slowly (you always talk quicker than you think), face your audience when speaking (don't turn and look at the screen), etc.

Ruth Ellison says on November 28th, 2008 at 12:40 pm

A good post Donna with lots of good points. I've made a lot of the same mistakes but I'm glad that I've always had the IA Cocktail Hours to help me through my prezzos.

Ben Ryan says on November 28th, 2008 at 1:00 pm

Reminds me of a presentation Campbell McComas did when I was in high school, in which he hit on issues of knowing your audience, your subject, and practicing the presentation to avoid unintended faux pas...and in true McComas style he taught by hilarious example.

Donna Spencer says on November 28th, 2008 at 1:05 pm

Thanks everyone for your comments. And thanks for your extra tips ;)

@Nick - we definitely were in the worst presentation together.

Tom Voirol says on November 28th, 2008 at 1:11 pm

Excellent points, Donna.

I personally find a relative of point 3 the hardest. It's not so much trying to make a point that I find difficult, but limiting myself to one point. I always catch myself trying to cram as much experience and knowledge as possible into a talk, stemming from a diffuse feeling of "I have to give them a lot for their money". I think in general, audiences are happier with a single point to take away, but built up and presented well.

Donna Spencer says on November 28th, 2008 at 1:19 pm

@Tom - I definitely have that problem too, and think a lot of us do. "Why, who cares, so what" really does help. I know that a lot of the time, my ideas overlap and this helps me distil ideas to their essence.

Abhishek Sahu says on November 28th, 2008 at 5:22 pm

These are excellent points, kind of complete guidelines to be followed, thanks for sharing your findings.

Few things which I came across, is not exactly a guideline but kind of tips (though might be situational):

  1. Asking some simple relevant question to the audiences catches their attention. But it should be simple, without letting them feel stupid.
  2. Intentional OOPSS...OH, etc., or slight humour, makes the presentation a bit more interesting.

Matthew Solle says on November 29th, 2008 at 7:07 am

The best presenter this year was Jason Fried of 37signals, search him out, inspiring.

Donna Spencer says on November 29th, 2008 at 8:09 am

@Matthew - I saw Jason earlier this year. He's a great, natural speaker who really knows what he's talking about.

Note: 37signals is now Basecamp.

Lee Potts says on November 30th, 2008 at 10:22 am

  1. Show up early and make sure all the technical aspects of the presentation are taken care of. It's hard to give a good presentation if you flustered and starting 15 minutes late because you couldn't get your presentation to work on the venue's AV system.

Andrea Hill says on December 1st, 2008 at 8:33 am

I'll echo the "great post" comment that everyone else has said.

I find myself increasingly doing presentations in my career, and these are some great points. The point about saying you're almost out of time and rushing through reminded me of something else - respect your audience, respect their time and interest. If I go to a restaurant and they only give me half the meal I ordered, I'm going to be disappointed. Don't tell people if you're not going to be able to give them the whole presentation. Ensure you can give people everything they expect, and have an option to "add in more" if there is time. Or as Seth Godin recently wrote in his blog - "No audience member, in the history of presentations (written or live) has ever said, 'it was exciting, useful and insightful but far too short.'"

As an aside, I would LOVE to see a follow-up post on how to present with others. I find there are unique challenges associated with working with others in terms of sharing control and differing presentation styles. I'm very interested in some pointers in that regard!

Presentation Zen, Matt's Musings says on December 1st, 2008 at 7:23 pm

This made me reflect on aspects of what I do in my preparation, presenting, and what I like to see.

Stephen Hall says on December 2nd, 2008 at 12:28 pm

Great list, Donna. I guess we've all done some, most, or all of these things before.

A couple of extra thoughts:

  1. I really like the trend towards using symbolic and evocative images in presentations in place of endless bullet lists, however much of the time these only make sense in the context of the presentation, and not when seen later on Slideshare or as a printout. Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen fame advocates using more images and fewer words in delivered presentations, and then leaving people text-rich handouts or electronic versions with notes. This is more work for the presenter, but delivers the best of both worlds.
  2. On the subject of self-talk. Another form of self-talk which undercuts good presentations for me is ego-talk. I respond to presenters who wear their knowledge lightly, acting as a conduit for the information rather than trying to make themselves the main event. Does anyone else get irritated by this?

Donna Spencer says on December 2nd, 2008 at 1:30 pm

@Stephen - I love symbolic and evocative images, but only when they mean something. I have seen some presentations this year when they meant nothing and were more confusing than not. And you are right - you get nothing from looking at the presentation later, unless the speaker has included speaker notes or hidden slides or provides a separate resource.

And I love the idea of ego-talk. That's a great point ;)

Olivia Mitchell says on December 2nd, 2008 at 6:41 pm

This is a really useful list of things to consider when presenting. Here's what I would add:

As well as avoiding verbalising your self-talk - get over your mistakes. We all make mistakes when we're presenting eg: stumbling over a phrase, or not being able to find the exact right word. Mistakes are only a problem if you make them a problem by spending mental time beating yourself up about it - then you'll make more mistakes. Notice the mistake, then move on.

I agree we need to balance imagery with text, but that text doesn't have to come in the form of bullets. It can be in the form of diagrams and flow charts which visually show the relationships between textual elements.

Donna Spencer says on December 2nd, 2008 at 7:27 pm

@Olivia - Thanks. If I spent my whole talk worrying about those sorts of mistakes, I'd never get through it. I don't think I string together a whole sentence sensibly, but together everything usually makes sense ;)

@Folks - Olivia is fantastic at this stuff BTW & teaches it.

Lisa says on December 11th, 2008 at 10:20 pm

How about this one:

Don't read off the screen and/or notes.

That drives me nuts. If you're up there presenting, it should be because you know your stuff well enough that you don't need to read it.

Jen says on December 13th, 2008 at 1:30 pm

I recently co-presented a pitch to "clients" as part of a course. We were supposed to have 5 minutes each which our group did. One person in the next group spoke for 15 minutes. I'm sure I sat there rolling my eyes and go so distracted that she was out of time that I didn't hear what she was saying. One of her co-presenters was chewing gum - an instant turn-off. Just by fixing these couple of things their marks would have been considerably better I think.

Some good points you make here though.

Carl Myhill says on May 1st, 2009 at 9:21 am

Nice article.

Toastermasters teaches people a number of these points - very worthwhile to do a few of their sessions.

Bill Harper says on May 18th, 2009 at 9:09 pm

I love what Merlin Mann said during one of his presentations, "There'll be lots of time for talking at the end. We will have a conversation."

Some speakers seem almost afriad to ask questions in case someone trips them up and they're made to look bad. I love Merlin's approach.

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