Archives For Technical Presentations

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park, offer advice about storytelling that can help anyone creating a PowerPoint presentation.

Many Most PowerPoint presentations are ineffective, confusing, and/or boring because they lack cohesiveness and flow.

You know how it goes.

Presenters show a slide and discusses it. (You hope they don’t simply read it to you.) When they finish with that slide they say, “next slide.” Then they discuss it and say — you guessed it — “next slide.”

Entire presentations can be are a series of disconnected information and ideas: “There’s this and this and this and this and this…”

The unanswered question is: How does all of this hold together? How does one idea lead to another? Is there a logical connection?

The most important words in PowerPoint presentations aren’t on the slides: they’re between the slides.

The segues — the transition sentences — from one slide to another are what turn a series of disconnected information and ideas into an insight audiences can understand and use.

That’s where Parker and Stone come in.

In a lecture at NYU they describe how they create stories for South Park. On a large whiteboard they outline a series of “beats.” (A beat is the smallest unit of a story, a piece in which something happens.)

If the beats are linked by the words “and then,” Parker and Stone insist “You’ve got something pretty boring.”

They suggest eliminating every “and then” and replacing it with either “therefore” or “but.”

Not “this happened and then this happened,” but “this happened, therefore this happened” or “this happened, but then this happened.”

Try it the next time you prepare or practice a PowerPoint presentation. Every time you catch yourself saying “next slide,” substitute “therefore…” or “but…”

Figure out how the information or ideas on one slide lead into the information or ideas on the next. Do they build logically (“therefore…”)? Or do they logically raise an objection or another consideration (“but…”)?

As the expert you understand (I hope) how your material holds together. Don’t assume that your audience understands. Show them.

Check for comprehensinoCan you ever be sure people know what you’re talking about?

We often assume that people understand us – what we mean, what we intend, and what we want. But, sadly, it isn’t always the case.

People who are seemingly smart and good-willed all too frequently misinterpret what we say. And, to be honest, we aren’t always as clear as we think we are.

I learned this lesson from my parents. They were college professors. They were bright and articulate. They were married for 48 years, and even at the end they managed to misunderstand each other frequently.

So how can you know that you’ve got your point across and, furthermore, that people have understood you?

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Don't tell jokes in a speech.The stupidest piece of advice ever given speakers is “Always begin a speech with a joke.”

Don’t do it!

Unless you’re a professional comedian and the audience is already warmed up and primed to laugh, do not — I repeat, do not — start your speech with a joke.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, you’ll bomb. The other 1% of the time you’ll get a polite, halfhearted response. And where do you go from there?

Humor in a speech, on the other hand, is almost always appreciated.

When you tell a joke, you’re trying to make people laugh. When you use humor, you’re wanting to amuse them. You’re happy if they smile or chuckle.

Humor makes people more likely to like you. It weakens their resistance. It’s like Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar: it helps the medicine go down.

To be humorous without trying too hard, follow these rules:

  1. Laugh at yourself, your foibles, your mistakes.
    Self-depreciating humor is the safest and surest way to win people’s hearts.
  2. Write it out.
    A sense of surprise, clever wordplay, exaggeration and embellishment, amusing anecdotes, and ironic twists get better with the kind of refinement and precision that comes from writing and rewriting.
  3. Rehearse.
    Paradoxically, it takes practice to use humor so well that it sounds spontaneous and unscripted.
  4. Keep it clean.
    Avoid embarrassing, insulting, or offending your audience. Don’t laugh at others or make them an object of ridicule.
  5. Don’t tell listeners what’s funny.
    Saying, “This is really funny” is a setup for failure. Simply tell your story or make your witty remark and allow the audience to respond. If they laugh, great. If they don’t, move on.
  6. Follow the AT&T rule.
    Is your humor Appropriate to the subject and the audience? Is it Tasteful? Is it Timely?

Even if your humor meets those criteria, remember: Less is more. So keep it short. Avoid long stories or complicated setups. And limit how often you use humor in a speech.

After all, as humorous as you may be, you still want to be taken seriously.

I distinguish, somewhat arbitrarily, between a presentation and a speech.

Presentations and speeches both serve a purpose, but a different purpose. They are different beasts, and they deserve to be handled differently.

Presentations Are Informative

In the business world most people make presentations.

A presentation communicates information so that people understand it and can do something with or about it.

A presentation’s goal is to educate or inform audiences to take action.

Check out The 25 Best Slideshare Presentations of 2013 and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

The top-rated presentation is titled Internet Trends. It is, according to the description, “filled with over 100 charts, stats and trends on digital, technology and economic issues that affect us all.”

An effective presentation is clear, accurate, and detailed. You want everyone in the audience to understand exactly what you mean.

A presentation is persuasive, if it is any good. You want people to do something — preferably what you want them to do — as a result of listening to you.

PowerPoint can be an effective presentation aid, because it allows you to display information…even “over 100 charts, stats and trends.”

Presentations tend to be matter-of-fact, prosaic, somewhat unimaginative almost by default. The title Internet Trends, for example, seems designed to elicit yawns.

Speeches are Influential and Inspirational

Few people these days give speeches.

Preachers, politicians, coaches at half-time, military leaders before a battle, and motivational speakers are the main practitioners of speeches today.

A speech shapes how people think and feel about an issue or topic, and changes their behavior as a result.

Churchill’s wartime speeches portrayed the war not as a doomed effort on the part of the British, but as a life-or-death contest between civilization (the British empire and way of life) and evil incarnate (Nazi Germany). His speeches steeled people’s resistance and gave them courage and hope to carry on.

An effective speech is evocative. It uses words and phrases to activate people’s imaginations, to call forth their memories, and to elicit the feelings associated with them.

Speakers don’t — or shouldn’t — project pictures for the audience to look at.

Speakers tell stories and create images that people picture in their minds.

Words — the right words — without pictures or external visual stimuli force the mind to supply its own images. On their own, words trigger the imagination, which in turn calls forth a flood of memories and emotions.

PowerPoint is not the friend of a speech. It keeps people in their heads, in their rational, conscious minds, divorced from their imaginations, emotions, and memories.

That’s why I titled my book Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint. What I really meant to say is that real leaders don’t make presentations (which use and should use PowerPoint); they give speeches.

Speakers play with words, the way a poet or playwright does. They’re not interested in pinning a concept down to a single meaning that is the same for each person in the audience. They know — and they are pleased by the fact — that each individual hears a different message (shaped by his or her experience, wisdom, and needs), draws his or her own conclusions, and resolves to take his or her own action as a result.

Presentations and speeches both serve a purpose, but a different purpose. They are different beasts, and they need to be handled differently.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree?

People who aren’t even in sales — project managers, engineers, analysts, programmers, construction workers, designers, architects — make sales presentations all the time.

They may not be the lead presenter. They’re often part of a presentation team.

And the presentation may not be called a sales presentation. It may be called an interview, or an oral proposal, or a pitch.

To prepare yourself or your team for a successful sales presentation (whatever it’s called), begin by answering three sets of questions:

  1. What does the customer/client want?
    Why do they want it?
    How acutely do they want it?
    How will you help them achieve or obtain what they want?
  2. What does the customer/client NOT want?
    Why do they not want it?
    How badly do they not want it?
    How will you help them avoid or minimize what they don’t want?
  3. How is your solution (your product or service) different from / better than the competition?
    What is the difference?
    How does the difference benefit the customer/client?
    What evidence proves both the difference and the benefit?

There are, of course, other questions to ask (and answer) when preparing for a sales presentation. (See How to Plan an Oral Proposal.)

But these three questions get at the heart of any successful sales pitch: knowing what prospects want and don’t want, how you will help them, and why you’re better than the alternatives.

How to plan a technical presentationWhen you prepare a technical presentation, there’s one question — the most important question — you need to address.

The single most important question for a technical presentation is: What will the audience do with the information or idea you’re presenting?

Answering that question will require you, of course, to understand your audience. What are their roles and responsibilities? What do the already know about your subject? What do they need to know? How are they are affected by it?

Answering that question will determine everything you say and show during your presentation.

Answering that question will determine the level of detail you present. Do you give a high-level overview (an executive summary), or a comprehensive and detailed analysis, or something in-between?

What will the audience do with the information or idea you’re presenting?

  • Will they give or withhold permission for you to proceed with a project?
  • Will they decide whether to purchase your product or retain your services?
  • Will they make a report about it to their superiors or to a regulatory agency?
  • Will they implement a new process or carry out a new procedure?

Technical presenters often want to explain what they know in great detail and at great length. That’s what makes so many technical presentations confusing and boring to most audiences.

Most technical presentations — especially those in the business world — are not about educating audiences in-depth. They are about giving people in the organization the information and insight they need to get their jobs done.

The executives of a healthcare organization, for example, don’t want the IT director to educate them about the intricacies of the latest software update. They want to know just enough to be reassured that operations won’t be negatively affected, and to be able to reassure regulators that people’s medical records will remain confidential. The analysts in the IT department, on the other hand, may need detailed instructions about working with the update.

Knowing how the audience will use the information or idea you’re presenting will keep you on target. It’ll help you prepare your presentation. And it will help you determine whether you’ve been successful.

The success of a technical presentation can be determined relatively easily. Are people able to do what they need and want to do as a result of listening to you?

Check out How to Plan a Persuasive Technical Presentation.

Speech coaches and trainers often perpetuate myths and misconceptions about presentations and public speaking.

I begin with the assumption that giving a speech is both an art and a skill.

Public speaking an art in that it requires a certain amount of creativity.

You have to come up with (i.e. create) a good idea to begin with. You have to put it together in a logical and persuasive structure. You have to use words and phrases and, sometimes, stories in a clear and evocative manner. And you have to deliver your speech with at least a modicum of drama.

Public speaking, like any art, is also a skill.

It has its own somewhat complex, somewhat variable set of requirements, rules, guidelines, and principles to learn, practice, and master. To give a speech — a good one, at least — you have to be able to plan and create one, explain your idea clearly in a limited amount of time, connect with an audience, begin and end a speech, overcome fear and project confidence in front of an audience, answer questions, and think on your feet.

Public speaking isn’t as complex or demanding a skill as, say, performing brain surgery or rocket science. But then again it’s not as simple or easy as riding a bike.

Beginning with that assumption — public speaking is both an art and a skill — I’ve developed my list of…

5 Things Speech Coaches and Trainers Won’t Tell You about Public Speaking

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about PowerPointI’m the author of Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint (Crown Business), so you might think I’m always and everywhere opposed to its use.

I’d say I’m critical of it, but not opposed to it. Many of my clients–subject matter experts of all stripes–use PowerPoint, and they should.

But these days it’s assumed, at least in the business world, that everyone should use PowerPoint every time they give a presentation. And that’s a mistake.

I begin with the assumption that PowerPoint is a tool for organizing, formatting, and projecting information visually.

If that’s the case–you can disagree with me–then there are three questions you can and should ask about it.

1. Is PowerPoint a good tool?

Does it make organizing, formatting, and projecting information easy, efficient, and effective?

Opinions vary.

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Worst-ever elevator speechI’ve heard awful elevator pitches over the years, but today I heard the worst-ever elevator pitch.

An elevator pitch is a brief explanation of 1) an idea, product, service, or person, 2) how people might benefit from it, and 3) what those benefits are.

In networking situations professionals use elevator pitches to introduce themselves in response to the question, “What do you do?”

The whole point of an effective elevator pitch is to start a conversation, hoping people will say something like, “That’s interesting. Tell me more.”

Bad elevator pitches are:

  • Long and exhausting: Ten seconds is best. You can, if you must, take 15 to 20 seconds. But the longer your pitch goes on, the less likely anyone is to say, “Tell me more.”
  • Vague or confusing: Technical experts excel in this regard, although they’re not alone. They might say something like, “I’m a UI designer, specializing in requirement gathering, design alternatives, prototyping, and user interfaces.” As if that clarifies anything.
  • Airy fairy: Which I find particularly irritating. Something like, “I set free your inner child so you can dance with success.” Gag me.

Which brings me to today’s example of the worst-ever elevator pitch.

I was at a networking luncheon of government contractors, project managers, and engineers. When I asked the man seated to my left what he did, he said, “Stuff.”

I’m not making this up. He said, “Stuff.” That was it.

I waited for him to say more, thinking he would add something clever. But he didn’t.

So, fool that I am, I asked, “What do you mean?”

In all seriousness he said, “We design and manufacture stuff that people use.”

Can you top that? Have you heard a worst elevator pitch than “Stuff”? I’d love (or hate) to hear it.

Important element of a speechThere are many elements that make a speech powerful, effective, memorable:

A message that has the power to change lives for the better, if only in a small way.

Images and stories, words and phrases that are both evocative and provocative.

A connection with the audience that communicates understanding, respect, and a desire to be of service.

A delivery that brings the message to life.

One of the most important elements of a speech is often missing: the person of the speaker.

Who you are as a person determines the audience’s interpretation of what you say, whether and to what extent they trust your message.

Who you are as a person shapes their response: their willingness to support, endorse, or implement your proposal.

Who you are as a person influences their engagement: their emotional and intellectual investment in your presentation.

Who you are as a person is perhaps the single most important element of a speech. And that element is too often missing.

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