Jul 11, 2017 · 7 min read

Why the best presentations are always audience first

If you’re going to give a presentation, make it worth receiving.

Interested in selling your ideas to a big room of cross-functional stakeholders? Wish you could give short, pithy presentations? Really love rhetorical questions? Great, this article is for you.

A few weeks ago, I gave a five-minute presentation on how to give a five-minute presentation. It was very meta. But the reason for it wasn’t meta at all. At Uber Design, we use short presentations to share intrateam work and learnings at our monthly Design all-hands. It’s a great chance to see both the deep well of talent and the global breadth of projects that our Design team is tackling across 600+ cities on 6 continents.

Scale your storytelling

Back when we had fewer teams and projects, we gave 15-minute presentations. But as our Design team grew from a few dozen people to a few hundred, we realized we needed to give shorter, higher impact presentations to give everybody a quick snapshot of the work across the entire org. At first, we were a little worried by the much tighter timelines, then we remembered — designers love constraints. Here are Uber Design’s five tips to make the most of your five minutes in the spotlight:

Step 1: Know your audience

Before you start your presentation, you need to know who will be receiving it.

You are not the audience

Usually when people need to give a presentation, the first thing they think is, “what do I know? What is something I could talk about for 5 minutes?” Don’t do this. You aren’t giving yourself a presentation. Start with them. Start with, “what does my audience want to know?” Take yourself out of the equation and think about the people you’ll be speaking to. Before I could start building my presentation, I needed to identify my “in,” my angle that would make the presentation interesting and relevant to the people receiving it.

What does my audience want to know?

I started by thinking about my audience: who is Uber Design? We have people on our Design team across the world: from San Francisco to Singapore, Amsterdam to Rio, New York to Mexico City. And, within this greater team, we have an array of disciplines represented: Product Designers, UX Designers, UX Writers, Content Strategists, Producers, Copywriters, Researchers, Production Designers, Communications Designers, Art Directors, and Motion Designers.

That’s a lot of different people with a lot of different skill sets. So, what did they all have in common? Well, every single one of them needed to know how to give a good five-minute presentation.

Now that I had my what, I next needed to decide how I wanted to give them this information. The first step towards this decision is to make a conscious effort not to assume my audience has any familiarity with my chosen topic.

Avoiding the fallacy of familiarity

We naturally assume that our deep knowledge of something is shared by the person we’re talking to. Don’t worry; we humans are all guilty of this. It’s especially easy to do when we’re already in a subgroup, like “designers” or “coworkers”. We assume that because we care or think or know everything about a certain subject, that other people share at least some level of familiarity: “Oh, you work at Uber, too? Then you obviously have a strong opinion about the efficacy of our UberEATS poké delivery campaign in Singapore. Right?”

Not right

Just because we have some things in common with our audience doesn’t mean we can assume they are familiar with what we are about to present. After all, if they already knew this, why would you be giving the presentation in the first place?

Step 2. You are a storyteller, not a data relayer

Presentations are stories. Act accordingly.

People love stories. People remember stories. They forget facts and figures. Facts and figures can help your story, but they can’t be your story. Our brains are attuned to narrative. Stories help us relate, remember, and care.

For example, this isn’t Odocoileus virgininus. It isn’t a ruminant mammal that weighs 17 kilograms and stands at 79 centimeters. This is Bambi. Bambi is a fawn, as precious as he is precocious. Everybody is invested in this little survivor because Bambi is not a statistic. Bambi is a story. Your data might be interesting, but if you want other people to be interested in it, you need to tell a story. Figure out what that story is and make your data a part of that narrative. Admittedly, it is easy for me to tell you to tell stories, to be a storyteller, but how do you actually do that in practice? Good question. One tactical way to do that is to think about why what you’re saying matters to your audience. A good way to uncover the why is to think about benefits over features. Let me explain.

3. Focus on benefits, not features

Features tell you what a product does. Benefits tell you what a product does for you. Features are technical. Features are facts. Features are figures. And features can be impressive and cool. But they are the most impressive and cool when they are tied explicitly to their benefits. Check out this sophisticated camera with lots of features:

I’m sure that all of these features are technically interesting, and if I helped build any of them, I’d definitely want them showcased. But where features end, benefits begin. Features tell me the camera is good at taking pictures. Benefits show me why a good picture matters. It’s the difference between the picture above, and this…

Benefits get directly to why you’d want a good picture in the first place: To capture every freckle. To make summer last forever. To stop time. To freeze the fleeting ephemerality of your children’s youth.

To recap: Features are facts. Benefits are stories.

Again, just because you’re an expert on a topic, that doesn’t mean that everyone in your audience is. If my creative team spends two weeks on a project, it’s obvious to us what the end benefit of that project will be — otherwise, we wouldn’t spend our time working on it. But your audience hasn’t been immersed in your process. They want to be told not just how something is going to work, but why that should matter to them. If they don’t understand the problem, they won’t care about the solution, no matter how interesting it seems to you or how many features fill your onscreen menu.

4. Practice. A lot.

Still nervous? Keep practicing.

Time yourself. Speak out loud. Give your presentation in front of people. Then do it again. Find more people. Repeat. Don’t memorize your script, but do familiarize yourself with it. The script is like a GPS — a suggested route, but not the only way to get there. If you memorize every word you won’t sound or feel natural in your delivery. So do learn the rhythms. Pay attention to your setups and transitions. Be present and allow yourself room to react. If, say, in the middle of your presentation, the lights go out for a second and you don’t mention it because that wasn’t in your script, it means you haven’t practiced enough.

Most importantly: stick the landing.

It’s like he planned it.

The end of your presentation is what people will remember the most. For example, I should definitely have a really strong last sentence to sum up this whole article. And now that expectations are mounting, you’ll have to keep reading to see how well I landed.

Read the room, not your notes

You talkin’ to me?

If you want to read something, read the expressions of the people you’re talking to. Make eye contact. Talk to them, not your notes. After all, people love the attention. It reminds them that they’re not being talked at, but talked to. Think of it as the difference between telling them something and sharing something with them.

5. Simplify your slides

In retrospect, we probably could have lost the period and kept the font all in the same weight.

Make concise slides. Almost every word in your presentation should be spoken. Please don’t ever just read your slides aloud. The slides are support. They are accent. They are flavor, they are not the main course. If you can send me your deck and it’s the same as attending your presentation, then just do that and save everyone some time

This is what it looks like when you stick the landing.

A good presentation is a gift

The best presentations make your audience appreciative, because they feel appreciated: you’ve thought about them. You’ve considered what they care about, what they want to know. Remember that you give a presentation: so it should feel like a gift, tailor-made for them. But this gift isn’t totally free. Because you’re asking them to pay attention. And ultimately, it’s up to you to give them something worth paying for.

Uber Design

We are passionate about the pursuit of ideas that put people first. Work with us: Follow us on Twitter: @DesigningUber.


Written by

Creative Director at Opendoor| Ex-Sandwich Artist, Movie Projectionist + Concessionaire

Uber Design

We are passionate about the pursuit of ideas that put people first. Work with us: Follow us on Twitter: @DesigningUber.

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