FAQ for Building a Presentation

I’ve been collecting questions I get about my thoughts on how to build a presentation.  Here are, in no particular order, some of the top ones and my answers.

Does this work for every kind of presentation?

Hell no! It works well, for me, for keynotes. It works well for building talks that are presentation, performances.

It will not work well for lectures and workshops. It will not work well if what you actually need is documentation. See Tufte on that one.

How long does this take?

Start to finish it takes me between 40 and 80 hours to build a complete 20-minute keynote. I can’t tell if that is too much or too little time.

But in the end, it doesn’t matter. Think about building a presentation like building an animated movie. It takes hours upon hours to build just one frame.

Can I do this?

Hell yes! If you have clarity of what you want to communicate and if you have empathy for your audience, you can do this. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

I tried this and ended up with 150 slides for a 15-minute talk. Did I do something wrong?

Nope. You nailed.

Who ever tells you that you need X many slides for a Y minute long presentation either has never delivered a good talk or is just a formulaic drone who hasn’t had an original thought since Clinton’s first term.

Let me be clear – if you are delivering a keynote, do not let anyone dictate a number of slides. You wrote the speech. You know the words. You know how many slides you need. They know f@#! all.

My company has a slide template. Should I use it?

That depends.

I always adhere to corporate color palettes. Why? Because someone more trained than I selected those colors, and I respect their expertise.

I tend to adhere to corporate slide layouts… except when I don’t. Again my approach works for keynotes. If you are delivering a product roadmap talk, this will not work. If you are giving a technical workshop involving hands-on work, do not you this method.

What if I get scared?

This is really two questions in one.

What if you don’t get scared?

It means you don’t give a shit. It means that you care about the delivery. It means you don’t care about the audience.

You should be scared or, more accurately, nervous. But do not let that paralyze you. Wrap yourself in the knowledge that what you have to say must be said and you are best person to say it. Know that not everyone will love the talk – that’s not the goal. Get through to just 1 person in the audience and you have triumphed.

What if I freeze up on stage?

You won’t if you:

  • rehearse
  • have stuck to a single idea per slide

You won’t get lost. You won’t bog down. Just don’t try and read your speaker notes – that will sink you for sure.

What if it’s a big room?

The bigger the better. The bigger the room the less of it you can see. With the lights you’ll only really see the first two rows or so. Even if you think the people you can see don’t like you or your message, remember that they want you to succeed. No one wants to see the person on stage fail, freak out, or freeze, because they project themselves on to the speaker, on to you. Just keep having a conversation with those first two rows of people.

What if it’s a small room?

No worries. Remember the speech is the core of what you want to communicate. You are having chat over coffee with your audience.

But remember, never talk at the audience. You are talking with the audience: you speak; they send body language messages back to you.

How do I get better at presenting?

Through better preparation and through presenting more.

Who should I watch to learn from?

Don’t start with other speakers. Don’t start with TED. Find a small venue in your hometown and go watch live music or stand-up comedians. Watch people who are comfortable in their own skin, standing under a light, vulnerable, and there to entertain you.

My friend Bob wrote about another place you can learn how to present – watching street (or in this case MARTA) preachers.

Okay fine, but what presentations should I watch?

Start by watching other people in your industry and in your interest groups. Don’t watch “professional” speakers; they are far too polished. Don’t watch politicians; they are far too optimize for speaking in sound bites. Watch the genuine beginners; the ones who just gush honest deep love for what they are speaking about.

I was told no more than 3 bullets per slide with no more than 6 words per slide. Why aren’t there more guidelines like that?

I think a lot of those so called presentation rules were made by people who printed actual transparencies (foils) and delivered them on an overhead projector. The spirit of this decree is to avoid too much text on a slide. But don’t worry, you already did that by limiting yourself to one thought per slide. Remember, you are not building a document. You are building a presentation. You are delivering a performance. Shakespeare did okay without bullets.

What’s the most important thing I can do to improve my delivery?

Rehearse. Out loud. Not to anyone else. Only you get to hear your own voice and there is nothing more difficult than that. Rehearse not to memorize each word.

The aim is not a robotic recitation. The aim is to completely internalize the spirit of the speech to the point that seeing any slide at the deck at random triggers you to spout out the spirit of what that slide is meant to say. This is equivalent to musicians learning scales so that they can solo.

Any books to read to get more info?