As soon as you decide to become a professional nerd, either via a university degree or simply because you sit up all night writing Python to scratch your particular technical itch, you think you absolve yourself of having to stand up in front of a group of people make a presentation.
And you might be right.
Then there’s a chance you’re going to build or think something brilliant, and no mailing list, weblog, or wiki is going to be able to contain this brilliance. Those who want to hear about your brilliance are going to insist that you stand in front of them and explain this bright thing that you did or thought.
Conflict. Yes, you want to explain your brightness, but, um, the last time you stood in front of people and told a story was Ms. Randall’s 11th grade English class, and you stumbled through an incoherent ramble about Henry David Thoreau and some pond.
Unlike that pond, you are immensely qualified to talk about your topic, but you’re totally unqualified to present in front of a group of people. It’s not just that you haven’t had the practice, but that lack of practice has given you the erroneous impression that there’s a good chance you might throw up if you have to stand up and tell a story in front of 500 people.
Not Throwing Up is a Two-Phase Process
This article is about presentations, not content. Both are equally important, but I’m not here to help you write your content, I’m here to transform that content into a presentation that doesn’t suck.
Let’s say you’ve written your 30 slides. A rookie presentation move is to: a) have too many slides, and b) stuff your slides with clutter, like wordy bullet points. Filling each slide with as much content as possible. This is your feeble attempt to get out of actually presenting. Your thought is, “Fill the slides with information and read the slides”. This makes sense to you, since I know you’re nervous, but my question is, “Why are you nervous?”
“I’ve never presented in front of 500 people.”
“So, you’re not confident you can do it?”
“Ok, so let’s focus on the confidence rather than creating more horrible slides.”
Phase 1: Practice endlessly. Confidence is going to come not when you memorize your slides, but when you move the content from one side of your brain to the other. Right now, your slides are sitting in the linear left side of your brain, the practical side. This is a fine place for the slides to be while you’re creating them, but before you get up on stage, you need to move them to the right side of your brain, the creative side. You need to be able to feel your slides.
Your presentation is storytelling. It’s a performance. It’s you on stage telling me and 499 of my friends a story about why you’re brilliant. That’s not a comforting thought since I know you’re already nervous about standing in front of 500 people and bumbling through your slides. And now you’re saying it’s a performance? My presentation regarding huge performance wins in garbage collection is NOT a performance.
Of course it is. Why else would there be 500 people sitting here wanting to hear about it? I promise there’s some art, some performance, in your presentation, and the best way to find it is to practice endlessly. The best way to do that is to stand up, walk around your office, and give your presentation to no one. Over and over again.
It takes some getting used to — pacing around your office or hotel room listening to your own voice — but that’s exactly what your audience is going to hear. You need to figure out how to listen to yourself tell a story while also critically listening to the story. You’re the presenter and the audience. Yeah, it takes practice.
Start with those three slides there about that one specific topic: Talk through it and listen to how it sounds. Does it make sense? Does it flow? Are you reading the slide or are you telling a story? How does it transition into the next point? After you’ve heard yourself verbally walk through a topic a few times, you start to hear what you’re trying to say, and you make discoveries like, “Uh, I’m making no sense” and “This is supposed to be funny, but it’s lame”, or “This topic doesn’t have any relation to anything near it.”
We’re talking hours of practice here, but you’ll slowly start to notice that you’re not just memorizing the content, you’re also memorizing the flow. You’ll start to notice where you’re repeating yourself, you’ll find key points in the strangest places, and you’ll stop to reorder and rewrite slides… a lot. Good. Keep practicing.
When you can sit at your desk with your eyes closed and talk through any one of your slides, you’re going to stop worrying about what you need to say and focus more on how you’re going to say it. This intimate knowledge of your content is going to give you confidence.
But you still might throw up.
Phase Two Throw-up Avoidance
A few years back, I gave a recruiting presentation at two different universities on the same day. Same presentation, same general age group of students, morning versus evening.
The morning presentation was in front of a packed room. Just after 10am. I was three cups of coffee into the day and so was everyone else. Three slides in and I knew this was going to be an easy presentation. Heads were nodding, laughs were coming from the least expected slides, and folks were actually taking me up on my offer: “Stop me if you have a question”. Captivated. 40 minutes of slides. 20 minutes of intense, engaged questions and answers. Mission accomplished.
5 hours later. I’m in another conference room 50 miles away in another university and everyone’s coffee has worn off. The room is half full and I’m a little tired, but I’ve done this presentation 30 times in my head, so when I start on slide #1, it’s on. I know this presentation, so why is everyone falling asleep on slide #3? There’s no laughing and, by slide #10, someone gets up and walks out. Ouch.
Hopefully, this is normally when you considering throwing up. I say hopefully because there are a great many presenters who don’t have a clue when the presentation is going badly. This is certainly a rookie mistake, but I’ve sat through a fair share of presentations by seasoned managers where they just flopped and didn’t have a clue.
You need to stop and listen to what your audience needs. If your presentation isn’t going swimmingly, stop five minutes in and look around the room. Is the audience looking at you? Or are they staring at their laptops? Has there been nodding? I know it’s been 10 seconds now and you’re still looking at the audience saying nothing — it’s ok, they’re just sitting there wondering if you’re about to throw up. You’re building tension.
More importantly, you’re figuring out the most important part of your presentation: which audience showed up? Here’s the rub: you can write brilliant, compelling slides, you can practice your slides 40 times, but you can never predict who is going to show up, and your presentation must be tailored to those who show up.
Ok, now throw up.
Phase 2: Improvise. This is hard and this is where our senior managers, with hundreds of presentations under their belts, screw up. First, they’ve stopped fretting, which means their presentations lack any sort of energy. Consequently, they don’t listen to the audience, so when the audience asks for something, they don’t give it. This is why they sound like bad used car salesmen; they’re just reciting the sales pitch and they don’t care what you think.
How do you need to improve? What is your audience going to ask for? They want one thing: they want to participate. No, they don’t want to get on stage and present your slides; they want to be included in this presentation — in this performance. I’m not talking about waves of applause, I’m talking about taking looking at a sea of people and knowing these people are listening to your every word. It’s a constructive silence directed squarely at you, and when you learn how to read it, it’s a high.
So, what are you going to do? How are you going to adapt? Maybe this crowd wants you to wake them up? How about accentuating your points loudly? How about a bit more walking around the stage waving your hands furiously? Perhaps you’re too amped and they want you to slow and pause between your words. Give them time for your words to soak in.
When someone walked out of my university presentation, I immediately stopped. I began reminiscing about my college years and the complex protocol I’d worked out for when it was ok to walk out of a lecture. This 5-minute irrelevant segue did two things: first, it reminded my semi-lucid audience that I was one of them, and second, since my segue was timely (person walking out) and humorous (maybe), we reconnected. They woke up and I dove back into my slides with my new college buds who were now clear that I cared about what they thought.
No lying. The ability to improvise takes experience and you’re going to have to live through and recover from a couple of horrific presentations in order to build up your improv repertoire. For these early disasters, I have three pieces of advice:
- When you’re presenting, talk like you’re talking to one person who happens to have a thousand eyeballs. Don’t get lost in the sea of faces, pick a person and tell them the story. Not for the entire hour, just a few seconds. Then move on.
- Use silence as punctuation. My favorite trick in the book especially since I’m a fast talker. When you hear yourself gaining verbal momentum, stop. Count backwards from 5. Walk across the stage. Resume. These breaks are going to give both you and your audience a chance to mentally regroup.
- They want you to succeed. This piece of advice is in every presentation guide out there — because it’s true. Your audience is expecting you to rock their socks. They’re expecting an A+. That’s where you’re starting in their heads and walking on stage knowing this helps.
I don’t want you to throw up.
I want you to fret about this presentation, and if you’re not losing a little sleep, you don’t care. You’re not going to be motivated. You’re going to end up perpetuating the idea that nerds can’t tell a story. If you’ve been handed the responsibility of a presentation and aren’t the least bit concerned, give it to someone who is going to sweat this thing and then be prepared for that person to end up as your boss.