On Presenting Well

5 minute read

I work in the federal government, which means that I sit through a lot of presentations.

It’s given me the time and perspective to appreciate some of the common mistakes that we all make when preparing and delivering our presentations — and I wanted to take this chance to explore the three big buckets that I see good presentations consider.

More often than not, the pure-of-heart objectives of telling a story to a group of people is done through clunky technologies, text dumping onto PowerPoint slides, and first draft ideas that meander about (and usually go long).

Let’s just take a moment to remind ourselves of three key points to make our presentations as effective as we imagine them to be.

1. Technology

Remember, the role of any technology is to support your argument — not carry it for you. Work with the medium in the way that it’s supposed to be used, and don’t force yourself against it.

Be prepared for the technology to fail. Actually, you are often better off assuming it will fail. You should be able to deliver your message Homeric-style from memory like the days of yore.

Basically, don’t be like Michael Bay.

The technology is not your magic bullet.

You might be thinking, “oh man, having the text swoop in with flames is really going to bring the room together.” Meh.

Novel digital technologies end up being novelties with the wrong audience.

Prezi is a great example of this. I really like Prezi (non-linear presentation format), but my advice for 99% of the folks who ask me if they should use it is not to. If your audience isn’t primed for it, you’re going to give them vertigo, and have them trying to follow the medium, before they can appreciate the message.

Finally on tech — you’re probably spending too much time on it. Nothing says poor time management skills like seeing folks who are not (and have no interest in becoming) a graphic designer nonetheless spend hours and hours pushing pixels into alignment on a bloated slide that will never be used again…and is only on screen for two seconds.

Don’t do that.

Standard disclaimers: Have backup versions. Have multiple formats. Set up the technology prior to the start time. Practice with the technology — multiple times.

2. Message

For the love of all that is boring, please don’t fill the slides with text.

Look — I get it. You know the subject matter. You’re proud of knowing the subject matter. You’ve done a lot of work. You want not only to demonstrate your bad-ass-ery on the topic, but you also want to be a “professional”. Plus, why recreate the wheel when you can copy-paste from text you’ve already prepared?

But you’re doing yourself and the audience a huge disservice. Text walls cause eyes to glaze over, phones to emerge from pockets, and doodlers to start doodling. You’ve lost.

“If I’d have had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” — Mark > Twain

Take the time to think through your presentation anew — soup to nuts. Last quarter’s shouldn’t be this quarter’s — and last years curriculum will feel stale and moldy if you don’t refresh your approach.

I know — you’re like, “wait…but I have a ton of content that needs to be delivered. That’s my job here!”

I get it. Do what I’m seeing more and more of — create a short memo or handout (you can even make them as little slides!) and offer them digitally or as a handout.

It sounds like a little more work, but a little extra elbow grease at this stage helps clarify the story you are trying to tell and will thrust your engagement from utterly forgettable to fantastically fresh.

3. Delivery

If there’s one thing I can convey, it would be to pause, take a deep breath… (did you take it yet?) …and ask yourself this:


So often presenters are so wrapped up in the logistics, in the text, in the handouts and technology, that they spin their words in circles and never land on a clear, concise message or takeaway.

It sounds more existential than it ought to — but I feel like this has always helped me to zoom out, to clarify what I’m trying to accomplish, and in doing so and reflecting on it, I ask myself “What. Does. My. Audience. Want?” as well.

If you can start to walk down this path, then you simultaneously allow yourself to make things simpler, to cut out extraneous and/or repetitive information, and to put laser focus onto what your objective for the presentation actually is and how best you can achieve it.

This obviously isn’t comprehensive, just a healthy reminder of some tips that always help me (now if only I practiced what I preached).

Some helpful resources for better presentations

  • My all-time favorite forever has been Death by PowerPoint — all the more amazing given that it’s nearly 10 years old now!
  • Want a Better Pitch? Watch This. — I mean, this is basically just a redirect to watch Elon Musk’s Powerwall presentation — but you get the idea. And hey, don’t say, “Yeah but that’s Elon Musk, we are just this small puny organization…” No ‘imposter syndrome’ allowed here.
  • Also in this category I’ll put these: How to Make a Presentation that stands out?
  • An Introvert’s Guide to Better Presentations — know your subject, tamp down self-doubt, tell a story, prepare, use visuals, and slow down. (Note the author does the same thing with their slides that I do in producing a second version for takeaway.)
  • Some free stock photo sites Unsplash and Pexels are the ones that come to mind. But really, really look to find actual photos of actual relevant subject-matter that you can use before leaning on stock photography!
  • On the subject of graphics, don’t use MS Paint if you can help it — use an online graphics editor like Pixlr.
  • The Data Visualisation Catalogue — Useful for designers and also anyone in a field that requires the use of data visualization regularly — you can select by function and get a description as well as links to tools that you can build that visualization in.
  • 20 Websites to Get Free Vector Designs, Images and Icons — Links to links. Very useful.
  • Finally, I’ll always check out what others are doing on the topic I’m speaking on to get inspiration. My two favorites are Slideshare and Speaker Deck.