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How to give a presentation

You’ve done the research, gathered the data, created your beautiful charts and graphs, maybe even added a video or a soundtrack. Now you have to take your precious PowerPoint or Keynote presentation and, well, present it. You can either shine like the consummate professional you are, or you can have all your hard work hidden behind a distracting facade of blunders and missteps. Here’s some of my top tips for making sure that the presentation goes smoothly.

Practice makes perfect

Actually, a better phrase is “Practice makes permanent, so always practice perfect.” It’s astonishing to me how often someone will give a presentation when it’s obvious that they haven’t looked at it in months, if at all. Nothing reduces your credibility quite like saying, “Huh, I didn’t know that,” when the slide of last quarter’s sales figures comes up on the screen. Always make sure you run through your slides in a rehearsal before you present, or otherwise you’ll look like a loon. A rehearsal, by the way, does not mean merely skimming through and reading silently; you actually need to plan on saying what you’re going to say in the presentation (see the next tip). When you rehearse, you should pretend that you’re actually presenting; make sure you allow time for questions, and make sure that you know how long the presentation will take. You look like a fool if you are on slide 31 of 60 when you’ve reached the end of your allotted half-hour and there’s a crowd of people standing outside waiting to use the conference room. You should know, within 10%, exactly how long your presentation takes.

Don’t read the fucking slides

Is there anything more annoying than having someone put up a slide that says, “Sales increased in the last quarter,” and then to say, “Sales increased in the last quarter,” as if the audience is composed of fucking idiots who cannot read? If you’re going to read the fucking slide, then just create a PDF version and email it to everyone at the meeting and save us all an hour.

Use presentation mode

Every commercially-available presentation software has a mode for editing or creating slides, and another one for presenting them. If you’re presenting, then put the damned thing in presentation mode. I watched a presentation the other day where the presenter kept it in edit mode the whole time, sometimes accidentally moving text blocks off the screen while he was attempting to point out things on the page.

Turn off interruptions

Yes, I know you use Gtalk and Yahoo! IM and IRC and who knows what, but turn them off when you’re presenting. You’re trying to impress people with your professionalism, not give them a laugh when your best friend messages you during the meeting with, “Damn, I just farted and the whole building smells bad.” Turn off your cell phone. You can’t keep other people from interrupting you with their tinny version of “Don’t Stop Believing,” but you don’t have to inflict that on everyone. Turn off your email notifications. Do you really want, “New message: Are you as hot as I am right now?” popping up during your presentation to the CFO?

Don’t turn off your screen

Seriously. Most people have their laptops set so that the screen will go dark after some minutes of inactivity. It’s quite common to get involved answering a question, and then suddenly have the screen go dark. It’s hugely distracting; people’s attention is suddenly diverted to the now-dark screen while the presenter frantically wiggles his or her mouse or trackpad, trying to get it to come back on. With some projectors, it will take a minute or two to warm back up again. If you have a Mac, get Caffeine. This is a little utility that looks like a coffee cup that sits in your menu bar. Click it, and it will turn black, and your screen will no longer automatically turn off. Click it again, and it will turn white, and everything will work normally. I’m sure there’s a similar utility for Windows, or just right-click on the desktop and change the screen settings to not automatically dim/turn off the screen.

Be prepared

Finally, make sure you know how to connect your laptop to the projector. If they projector uses a VGA connector and your laptop has a DVI, then make sure you have an adapter. If your laptop and presentation software supports dual screens, then make sure that the presenter screen is on the laptop and the main presentation is on the overhead screen. Arrive a few minutes early, if possible. It’s stupid and expensive to have a group of highly-paid professionals sitting around while you impress them with your skills or lack thereof in attempting to get everything working. If you follow all these tips, praise and promotions are sure to follow.

Glen Campbell
October 22, 2009