I’ve seen many presentations that work: presentations with a few slides, with many slides, with no slides. Presentations with text-heavy slides, with image-heavy slides, with a few bullet points, even hand scrawled. Presentations done almost entirely by a sequence of demos; presentations given off the cuff sans microphone.
But there are a lot of things that don’t work in presentations, and I think it comes down to one root problem: presenters don’t realize they are not their audience. You should know, as a presenter, that you aren’t your audience: you’re presenting, they’re listening, you know what you’re going to say, they don’t.
But recently, I’ve had evidence otherwise. Presenters that seem to think you know what they’re thinking. Presenters that seem to think you have access to their slides. Presenters that seem that you are in on every private joke that they tell. Presenters that not only seem to think that they are standing on the podium with them, but are like them in every way – and like them as well.
Look, let’s be honest. Everyone is unique, and as a presenter, you’re more unique than everyone else. [u*nique |yo͞oˈnēk| adj, def (2): distinctive, remarkable, special, or unusual: a person unique enough to give him a microphone for forty-five minutes]. So your audience is not like you — or they wouldn’t have given you a podium. The room before that podium is filled with people all different from you.
How are they different?
First off, they don’t have your slides. Fine, you can show them to them. But they haven’t read your slides. They don’t know what’s on your slides. They can’t read them as fast as you can flip through them. Heck, you can’t read them as fast as you can flip through them. You have to give them the audience time to read your slides.
- Second, they don’t know what you know. They can’t read slides which are elliptical and don’t get to the point. They can’t read details printed only in your slide notes. They can’t read details only on your web site. The only thing they get is what you say and show. If you don’t say it or show it, the audience won’t know it.
- Third, they probably don’t know you. But that’s not an excuse to pour your heart and soul into your presentation. It’s especially not a reason to pour your heart and soul into your bio slide. Your audience does not want to get to know you. They want to know what you know. That’s an excuse to pour into it what they came to hear.
- Fourth, your audience may not even like you. That’s not your fault: they don’t probably know you. But that’s not an excuse to sacrifice content for long, drawn out, extended jokes. Your audience isn’t there to be entertained by you. We call that standup. Humor is an important part of presentations, but only as a balanced part. We don’t call a pile of sugar a meal; we call it an invitation to hyperglycemic shock.
- Fifth, your audience came to see other people than you. You showed up to give your presentation; they came to see a sequence of them. So, after following a too-fast presentation where the previous too-fast presenter popped up a link to his slide notes, please, for the love of G*d, don’t hop up on stage and immediately slap up your detailed bio slide before we’ve had time to write down the tiny URL.
Look, I don’t want to throw a lot of rules at you. I know some people say “no more than 3 bullets per slide, no more than 1 slide per 2 minutes” but I’ve seen Scott McCloud give a talk with maybe triple that density, and his daughter Sky McCloud is even faster and better. There are no rules. Just use common sense.
- Don’t jam a 45 minute talk into 25 minutes. Cut something out.
- Don’t have a 10 minute funny video at a technical conference. Cut it in half.
- Don’t leap up on stage to show your bio slide before the previous presenter is done talking. Wait for people to write down the slides.
- Don’t “let the audience drive the talk with questions.” They came to hear your efforts to distill your wisdom, not to hear your off-the-cuff answers to irrelevant questions from the audience.
- Don’t end without leaving time for questions. Who knows, you may have made a mistake.
Ok. That’s off my chest.
Now to dive back into the fray…
Pictured: A slide from ... axually a pretty good talk at GDC, not one of the ones that prompted the letter above.