Present Better– Suggestions for Effectively Conveying Information

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of attending a series of technical talks as a student at the Flatiron School in NYC. They brought to mind a number of tricks and tips I learned in grad school which I like to use to make my presentations more concise and poignant.

Below I will lay out some skills anyone can apply to improve a presentation or talk, technical or otherwise. Key is that you should understand your audience well enough to know what they want. Then deliver this and nothing more.

  • Tell a story. Your audience is far more likely to remember what you have to say if it’s presented in a narrative. (This post is a reference guide, so I won’t apply the principle here.)
  • Aspire to inspire. Don’t just show how something is done. Show how it's of value to your audience and how it can improve their lives.
  • Be positive. People open up with humor, are more accepting of ideas that will positively impact them, and think more highly of those who don’t deride others.
  • Know your intent. Know the story you want to tell or the information you want to convey. Keep this in mind as you craft your content.
  • Less is more. When your presentation is done, walk away from it for as long as you can. Come back and look for any information that isn’t absolutely vital to your original intent. Be ruthless about removing clutter. That which remains will have a much more substantial impact.
  • Refactor to refine. As you look for content to cut, think of what could be reworded to use fewer words or sentences. Remove excess adverbs and adjectives. Ask yourself if you need any word which ends in “-ly”. Avoid jargon and buzzwords which obscure meaningful concepts.
  • BLUF it. BLUF is a great acronym, which stands for Bottom Line Up-Front. The same way I’ve stuck bold action phrases at the start of each of these points, and just as I’ve stuck a brief summary at the head of this post, place your most important elements at the beginning of each section. Respect your audience’s time and provide the gems first, then dive deeper as you go.
  • Keep it clean. The more information, fonts, graphics, or “stuff” you include, the harder it will be to interpret. This is especially true on any given page or slide, but applies across the entirety of your content. Use color to make important information stand out. Use negative space to highlight content.
  • Stand-alone slides. If your presentation has slides, each one should make sense if seen by itself. Strive to contain a single, but whole thought on a slide.
  • List resources. This is important for any presentation to establish your credibility as a speaker. Show what you have to say is based on solid foundations. Also use this as a way to minimize technical content. Code snippets, mathematical figures, or other technical inclusions will very quickly cause your audience to lose focus. Point toward your sources or repos where interested individuals can dive in on their own.
  • Be confident. Don’t use words such as “try”, “maybe”, “could”, etc. Tell your audience what to do. Leave it to them to decide whether or not to follow through. When it comes to your live presentation, avoid “self-comfort touches” in which you absent-mindedly hold your own hand, arm, or neck. Stand and speak like you know what you’re doing and own the room, whether it’s true or not.
  • Present, don’t read. Presentations are about communication with your audience. Interact and engage. Your audience can read the slides on their own.
  • Face the crowd. Never turn your back on your audience. Even if you have to point out content on your slide, keep your body pointed toward the people who are there to see you.
  • Stay in line. If you are presenting with someone else, don’t interrupt them and don’t undermine what they say. Show unity or else appear unprepared and inconsistent. If you know your partner has made a mistake, wait for another opportunity to provide correct information and clarification on the earlier statements.
  • Keep it real. If you don’t believe what you have to say, why would your audience? Not only does this illicit questions of ethics, but it will come across in your presentation and potentially mar your reputation. If you’re asked a question for which you don’t have an answer, say so and that you’ll get back with an answer.
  • Be active. Use active verbs to encourage action on the part of your audience. They sound direct and powerful when placed at the start of sentences. To a similar effect, limit your use of “to-be” verbs and use instead stronger, more specific verbs.
  • Be consistent. No matter what rules you follow, maintain their use throughout your content. If you switch styles (in any sense of the word) without an intentional segue, your presentation or talk will come off as disjointed and lose coherence.
  • Wrap it up. Close with a brief summary of the main points. This will help your audience remember any topics for which they had questions and reinforce your content or story in their minds.
  • Say “Thank you.” Let your audience know when you’re done. Don’t leave the presentation hanging without certainty that it’s time to applaud.

I hope you find this short list helpful. Whenever I have a presentation to give or informative essay to write I’ll use these directions to hone my content to the bare essentials. As long as I’ve got a good sense of who I’m writing for and what my goals are, it’s easy to trim the fat and leave nothing but goods.

Feel free to leave suggestions with any other relevant tips or tricks!