Tech Life This isn't about slides

Out Loud

It’s the calm before the presentation storm. Over the next three months, I’ve got four different presentations at Webstock and SXSW. I’m also the best man at a wedding in Washington, all of which means I’m spending most of my down-time thinking up things I’m going to say in the future.

If you’re looking for advice on giving a presentation, the Internet is chock full of endless advice. I’ve been here, too. If you’re looking for tips on writing the presentation, the Internet goes dark — for a fairly simply reason. To think about how to write a presentation, you need to think about how you speak, and that’s not what you’re doing when you read or write. I’ll demonstrate. Say the following out loud right now:

I am reading this out loud to no one in particular.

Were you surprised to hear your voice? I was. Did you actually read it out loud? No? Why not? Sitting in a coffee shop? Worried that the guy next to you will think you’re a freak? This basic discomfort is the reason it’s tricky to explain how to present in an article. The skills involved in writing a clever paragraph are completely different from those used for developing and delivering that clever paragraph to a room full of strangers.

You still haven’t read it out loud, have you?

Presentation or Speech?

What's the big idea?Developing a compelling presentation involves a series of decisions and exercises to align your head with the fact that you’re delivering your content directly to people. No internet. No weblog. Just you.

Your first decision: speech or presentation? Wondering about the difference? Take a quick look at these two entirely different appearances by Steve Jobs. The first is his Three Stories speech at Stanford and the second is part of his MacWorld 2007 keynote.

You only need to watch a few minutes of both to get a feel for the difference between a presentation and a speech. My guess is you only viewed the Stanford video because everyone has seen Steve Jobs at MacWorld and the Stanford video is a shocker. Clearly, it’s Steve Jobs. It’s his voice, he’s got his trademark bottle of water, but the delivery is completely anti-Jobs because he’s reading his compelling stories from a piece of a paper.

It freaks me out.

In his autobiography, regarding his stand-up comedy years, Steve Martin writes, “If you don’t dim the lights… the audience won’t laugh.” This subtle, paradoxical observation is the core difference between speeches and presentations. In a presentation, half of the art is figuring out how to create an environment where your audience can actively participate without knowing they are participating. In a speech, the audience may laugh or cry, but they are not required nor encouraged to participate, because, during a speech, the spotlight never leaves the speechmaker.

For a presentation or a speech, you need your audience, otherwise it’s just you in an empty room talking to no one in particular, and we already have a word for that… it’s called writing.

The Unforgivable Mistake

There is one unforgivable mistake when giving a presentation. You’ve heard it before: “Don’t read from your slides.” As you’ll see, my approach for presentation development is designed around avoiding this cardinal mistake, and it starts with picking the right tool.

For all of my presentations during the past three years, I’ve done all my content creation inside of my presentation software, which, thankfully, is Keynote. In the back of my mind, I’ve wondered if this is the right tool to iterate a presentation. Shouldn’t I follow the same process as writing and drop all my thoughts into TextEdit where I can easily slice and dice complex thoughts? No.

Start with and stick with Keynote or whatever presentation software floats your boat. First, presentation software is effectively designed to be outline software and that’s a great tool for organizing and editing your thoughts while not allowing them to become a book. By keeping your presentation in slide format, you’re forcing your content to remain a presentation, not an article. Where each slide is a thought. Where moments of undiscovered brilliance are sitting between bullet points. We’ll talk about how to find this brilliance in a bit, but for now, iterate in the slides.

Your job is to get as much of the meat as possible into outline form so that you can begin to transform it into a presentation. Don’t worry about how you’re going to say something or whether folks are going to get it. If you’re worried that the outline doesn’t allow you to capture the essential detail that you could with a blank piece of paper, start taking notes. I like the stickies in Keynote for random small thoughts. I like the speaker notes for bigger ones.

What’s going to happen as you edit and re-edit is that an initial structure will emerge from your outline. Better yet, since you’ve stuck with presentation software, I’m guessing you’re already starting to hear your voice in your head on certain slides…

  • “This is a key point. I need to say this one reeeeeeeeallly slowly because it needs to stick.”
  • “Good data that needs to be conveyed, but… dull. Needs hip.”

Once you’ve got what looks like a rough outline of your presentation, it’s time to invoke The Disaster.

The Disaster

This is the second time I’m going to ask you to do something and the second time I just want you to do it. No questions asked. I want you to go to the first slide of your presentation, stand up, and give your presentation.

Wait what whoa Rands this is rough and it’s missing thoughts and uh…

Quiet. Give it a shot. Beginning to end, each slide, I want to hear your presentation.

Done? How’d it go? There’s a reason I call it The Disaster, you know. There are three reasons you should tough out your rough presentation with zero prep:

  1. Get a feel for how it fits all together.
  2. Hear yourself speaking. This is more reinforcement that you aren’t writing a book, you’re writing a presentation.
  3. Build confidence. You now know the absolute worst case scenario regarding this presentation. There is no way it could be worse than what you just went through.

Sense This Makes NoDid you notice as you stood in your office talking to no one in particular how thoughts in your head sounded different than on the slides? Did you discover flaws in logic? Mysterious new gaps in content on the slides you’ve been staring at all morning? That’s progress.

During the Disaster run-through, I take a ton of notes. I do this on a piece of paper next to the computer because, as much as possible, I want to stick with the idea that I’m giving my presentation. If I stop to edit my slides, I lose track of tempo and momentum, or worse, I end up re-writing my presentation rather than giving it. These handwritten notes look like this:

  • No clue what slide #2 is trying to say.
  • Segue between #4 and #5 is non-existent
  • #10: Repeating myself

Your first job after your Disaster is to integrate your notes as quickly as possible. For me, the post-Disaster edit is also the single biggest change I’ll make to the presentation. In addition to major structural changes, I also find new content that needs to be added.


This is a good time to remind yourself how to not throw up. This is the topic of an article from last year I wrote on the topic of preparing to give — not develop — your presentation, and there are huge useful intersections between these articles. For those NADD afflictees out there, I present this article in three slightly revised bullet points:

  • Practice endlessly (so that you can)
  • Improvise (but never stop)
  • Fret (ting)

In terms of developing your presentation, I’m going to further modify bullet #1 for this article. It’s now, “Practice and edit endlessly”. This is the largest piece of work where I have the least advice because you need to stare at your slides at 2am for three nights in a row. You need to soak in your presentation. So, mix it up. Invoke another disaster. Pitch a friend. Print your slides and pitch a tree in the woods.

My best piece of advice is a threat: an audience can smell an immature presentation on the very first slide. It has nothing to do with the quality of the content; it’s you standing lamely in front of your slide and silently conveying the “Ok, what I am going to talk about here?” vibe, and it’s presentation death.

During this endless editing and practice, you’re looking for a reduction and consolidation of slides to occur. It’s not that you’re saying less, it’s that you’re beginning to internalize the content so you no longer need all those words to remember your point. It can be disconcerting to delete your fine ideas, so use the speaker notes or stickies if you feel you’re going to forget something important. You aren’t going to need them, but if it makes it emotionally easier to prune, terrific.

This consolidation is one of the reasons I don’t usually send my slides to folks who ask after the presentation. My slides, standing on their own, rarely make sense without me standing in front of the room furiously waving my arms.

Images say moreSecond, as part of your consolidation, you’ll want to start thinking about where you want to use images rather than words. Remember, a presentation is a visual and auditory medium, and a slide covered with words is, well, a cop-out. If you’re only going to use words to describe your fine idea, why don’t you just send everyone an email instead of wasting an hour of their time reading the same thought plastered on the wall behind you.

This presentation is only partially about you and what you think. Yes, you are the guiding force, but the goal is to present an idea with space around it. In this space, your audience is going to pour their own experience and their opinions; they’re going to make your idea their own. Pictures, charts, and graphs create structured, memorable space. I use them in two ways: either to replace an entire thought wholesale or to augment a word slide that needs more space.

A Design Aside: The visual design of your slides is an important topic that is outside the scope of this article, but know this: I’ve seen people lose their minds tweaking animations and transitions on slides. They try every single animation in the hope that just the right transition will add that certain something to their presentation, but what they don’t know is that an animation fixation is usually a sign that your content blows. The same rule for typefaces applies for transitions and animations. The less your audience sees your design decisions, the more impact they’ll have.

Third, you’re looking for an underlying structure to your presentation that you’re going to want to share with your audience. During all of this endless practice, you’re going to develop a feel for how your presentation fits together, but this structure may not be initially obvious to your audience. For any reasonable-sized presentation, you need to design a visual system that allows audience members to instantly know where they are.

Fourth, and lastly, you’re looking for audience participation opportunities in the flow and tempo of your presentation. Where are you going to turn the lights up a little bit and remind the audience that they’re sitting there, soaking in your thoughts? Let’s talk a bit more about this.

Presentation Punctuation

Participation is presentation punctuation. You’re going to use participation to accentuate parts of your presentation. You’re going to use it to break up complex thoughts into digestible, comfortable ideas. But you only have partial control of when folks will actually participate.

The most common participation technique is the show of hands opener. It’s usually done at the beginning of the presentation as a warm-up:

  • “Show of hands — how many of you own a Mac?”
  • “Quickly, how many of you think you’re paying too much for term life insurance?”

As a warm-up technique, I’m a fan of the opener. It’s an up-front reminder that this is not a speech, it’s just an opening salvo and you’ve got another hour to fill. As you’re endlessly practicing your slides, look for sections that are idea-heavy and give your audience a shot in the arm with a question. You don’t even have to ask for a show of hands, just direct the spotlight at them for a moment.

Tell me exactly what you do with your fingers when you read at your computer.

You’re only going to be able to plan so much of your audience’s participation, and therein lies the beauty of actually giving a presentation: you don’t know when your audience is going to show up. Dull, wordy slides I considered deleting often got the biggest laugh. Visual slides that I’ve poured my heart into are often complete duds. You won’t know until you’re there.

Something for their Pocket

What do you want your audience to remember? I should’ve asked this at the beginning, but I’m asking it now because you’re almost done with your presentation and I want to know what your giving your audience that fits in their pocket. I want to know what part of your presentation is actually going to leave with them.

There’s a really easy and cheap way to do this and it’s the Lessons Learned slide. It’s the bulleted list of important points slide that, when displayed, invariably results in a slew of cameras and iPhones appearing in the audience because they know this slide fits in their pockets.

Regardless of whether or not you use it, the Lessons Learned slide is a handy one to have at the end of your deck during the entire presentation development. It defines the basic structure of your presentation and represents a goal. Could you give your entire presentation from a single slide. 50 minutes, a room full of people, and you with your single slide with six bullet points?

That’s your goal, and you can have a wildly successful presentation without achieving it, but a one-slide presentation represents the ultimate commitment to your audience. It says, “This isn’t about slides. This about me telling you a great story… out loud.”

The Lessons Learned Slide

30 Responses

  1. Yes. Yes. and Yes. Also, Presentation Zen is now available in a handy-dandy book form. It’s a short read, and highly useful.

  2. Jeroen 16 years ago

    Could you give your entire presentation from single slide. 50 minutes, a room full of people, and you with your single slide with six bullet points?

    I put the bar a little lower: My aim is to get a presentation that only has words on the title page, and on the lessons learned page. In between is just a succession of slides that contain pictures to help me convey my point.

    This may sound easy, but it certainly isn’t, and in my experience it has also helped me a lot to really focus on what I want to say.

  3. James 16 years ago

    Brilliant. Everybody should read this – it will save lives!!

  4. Wonderful post. I particularly agree with your advice to actually speak aloud when you’re practicing. Doing so is quite simply the difference between getting better and just fooling yourself.

    Related advice, which comes from two of my best teachers, is to identify the single sentence that is the point of each slide as you assemble your final outline. Say that sentence aloud as you work, and if it’s a clunker, change it and say it again- speak first, then write. Doing so sets you up for your presentation; even under the worst circumstances, you’ll say exactly what you want to say, exactly how you want to say it.

  5. You still haven’t read it out loud, have you?

    No, but I actually laughed out loud to myself when I read that. It scared my dog – and myself for that matter.

  6. Great!

  7. Great stuff; it captures what I’ve pretty much learned via trial and error over ten years. And yes, I *did* read it aloud. 🙂

  8. michael 16 years ago

    This is so true. I would maybe add: never take something to read from with you. Well you can, if it gives you confidence, but if you really are prepared, if you really know what you are talking about, you won’t need anything more than the slides to give you cues on what to talk about next.

    It is simply not possible to read your notes, concentrate on the content of the slide, say what you want to say and to communicate with your audience (nonverbal) all at once. If you are unable to give your talk without the aid of notes you haven’t practised enough. Talks in which people rely upon notes are – in most cases – horrible. Why do so many insist that they need some paper in their hands?

    Yes, I, too, used the presenter notes in Keynote the last time I gave a presentation. Funny thing: I didn’t read a word from them. I totally ignored them. And gave the best presentation in a long time. Didn’t forget a thing. Even though it was about something as boring as theories that explain media usage. (Well, that isn’t that boring.)

  9. Peter W 16 years ago

    I always suck at presentations. It is interesting to learn that I just wasn’t prepared, but in a different way. I have seen presentations in which the high anxiety person read their written speech. They don’t miss a point, but bor… I can’t even read my notes. I am so high anxiety that my reading is too distracting and then I am not talking. I put notes as visual signs on my slides as reminders. You have distilled what I should have been doing from what i was doing. I just have know what I am going to say, period.

    In class, we asked students to tell a story. I guess that is still the best advice. Just don’t let technology get in the way. I shall bookmark this page (for me). Thanks

  10. I’d just like to point out that when you don’t turn in anything to conferences who ask for it, you’re screwing the conference organizers, because they get blamed for the lack of slides in the conference handouts. Not the speaker(s)– the organizers. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know.

    So at least give them a copy of the “lessons learned” slide to include, willya?

  11. OLFR (out loud for real) here! Many mahalos for sharing these interesting and useful tips.

  12. This is GREAT! I just went though this experience myself at a work conference.

    I made some co-workers sit through a dry run – *awkward* – and then it got better from there, just as you mention. I was careful not to over rehearse the whole thing, however. Once I had the shape of the talk, I could relax (and have fun presenting).

    Great post, as always!

  13. I don’t know if I can agree with the part where you suggest composing your presentation from the start in Keynote. I think the exact opposite.

    What I do is this:

    1) Write the whole thing out as pure straight text as if it were a speech, in Word or Pages. I will often paste images into the text document whenever the image is essential to talking about the topic (as in when the image is what is being discussed), but the primary focus is on building a coherent flowing, compelling storyline or narrative that, in theory, would work as a podcast or speech even without the slides.

    2) Then I move into Keynote or PPT to create slides to go with the story. The slides follow the flow of the story, illustrating it, adding humor, providing verbatim text where it’s helpful, and even occasionally summarizing key concepts into bullets. If a concept can be illustrated completely without words, all the better. Sometimes a segment of the presentation may require no slides at all, other times a small segment may require ten slides.

    3) Finally, I do what you recommend and walk through the slideshow while narrating my pre-written story. At first it will involve actually reading from the script like Jobs at Stamford… but after only a few readthroughs, whether read aloud or silently to oneself, the concepts and key phrases will burn into your brain. Soon you will be able to run through the whole presentation with minimal consultation to your notes, or even with no notes at all.

    The last thing you want to do, IMHO, is to even consider the idea of basing what you say aloud on what you wrote on a slide. This, IMHO, is the origin of bad PowerPoint presentations: It establishes a presentation rhythm where you have to talk in short slide-scaled phrases and where your idea is pre-censored to fit into a slide-sized chunk — rather than letting the concepts and words spread their wings without constraint as pure verbal ideas.

    Think of what you will say aloud first, then create the slide. The things you say are always going to be the most important part.

  14. ” I want to know what your giving your audience that fits in their pocket”

    …what you’re giving…

    Great article BTW!

  15. Peter W 16 years ago

    I always suck at presentations. It is interesting to learn that I just wasn’t prepared, but in a different way. I have seen presentations in which the high anxiety person read their written speech. They don’t miss a point, but bor… I can’t even read my notes. I am so high anxiety that my reading is too distracting and then I am not talking, but then I am also going faster and faster. I put facts as visual signs on my slides as reminders. You have distilled what I should have been doing from what i was doing. I just have know what I am going to say, period.

    In class, we asked students to tell a story. I guess that is still the best advice (and don’t let technology get in the way). I shall bookmark this page (for me). Thanks

  16. Advise-Art 16 years ago

    GREAT ! LOVE IT !!!!

  17. manitobagold 16 years ago

    Thanks for the ideas. I think that you make some excellent points.

  18. That was a great read. For the few presentations I’ve done, I followed a similar process. There’s definitely some new tips here that I’ll attempt to use for my next go. I’m quite the fast-talking mumbler in my day-to-day…so slowing it down and making sure to pronunciate are two of my main objectives. I believe I told you recently that I wasn’t speaking at SxSW, but at the last minute I got included in the book reading program. I think it’s about time to start working on my slides.

  19. I think the 10/20/30 rule is a pretty good rule of thumb. I think it’s mostly meant for VC presentations, but I’ve seen it applied to an economics seminar and it turned out to be a good economics seminar—a RARity.

    You also mentioned that you think there isn’t much writing on the topic of presentations because of the medium. I don’t think that’s true at all. The problem is that the ideal presentation is actually a speech or a lecture with slides that back you up—emphasize your point—not make it for you. And there’s is PLENTY written on the subject of oration.

    I just realized what a gross word that is. Oration. ech.

  20. sandrift 16 years ago

    Totally agree re: writing presentation in Keynote (PPT) from the outset; I rarely start with pen/paper. I also sit in my office giving the presentation out loud as I go (even before it’s done), trying to figure out if the text and visual cues make my point and are adequate to remind me of what I want to say, and making sure that I have a transition sentence in mind for what’s next.

    One of my favorite presentation tricks: an “outline” bullet slide immediately after my title slide; this usually has the major topics only, avoiding sub-bullets. This way, I remind myself of where the presentation is going, and the audience has some idea of what the topics will be. If we’re both good (me & audience), they’ll be able to know at each slide where I am in my presentation and roughly how much is left. Depending on the audience (professional or public) and/or for a longer or more complex presentation, I’ll sprinkle this slide throughout the presentation (sometimes with current topic highlighted) to remind the audience where we’re at.

  21. Marion from Paris 16 years ago

    It seems to me applying your advice takes much more time than one can spend on preparing a presentation ! For most people, the issue is not to prepare a conference for hundreds of people but a presentation for a group of 10.

    Practicing aloud seems totally artificial. It is not that hard to imagine how it will sound. You can do it mentally while re-reading and editing slides.

    The hands-up trick at the opening of a presentation is something that needs cultural adaptation. In France, it feels very “american” (which is not necessarily negative overall but in this cas means “superficial” or “artificial”). I’d suggest something more subtle, like referring to something someone just said before the presentation, something that feels more improvised than prepared.

  22. Bernadette K. 16 years ago

    What a great article — thanks for the great tips. I just started a new role at work and have been agonizing over doing presentations. I totally agree that practicing out loud helps. I’m bookmarking this and will try to apply your suggestions. Thanks again!



  23. Mark Harris 16 years ago

    At Webstock yesterday, you mentioned this post and wondered whether you would be measured against it and found wanting. Not so, sir, you walked the talk in both sessions. Thanks for coming down here. I shall make use of the Pony meeting from now on 😀

  24. Looking forward to the best man presentation. See you there!

  25. lostyand 16 years ago

  26. lostyand 16 years ago

  27. Editing rather than writing as critical thinking.

    I’m a fan.


  28. Phil C. 16 years ago

    To Marion from Paris:

    You’re right, and I would add that the “hands up” opening trick can come across as phony in America, too, so be careful. It’s overused. It’s cheap. It’s like opening up a high school essay with “The dictionary defines [whatever] as….”


  29. IAggrey 16 years ago

    Fantastic article! I’m definitely bookmarking this page and will refer back to these points! Thank you!

  30. I finally got around to reading this, and I’m thrilled I did. Presenters are always interesting to me – not necessarily because of their content, but because of their presentation itself. I could tell you some of the qualities that good presenters possess, but you’ve nailed it while giving tips on how not to suck. Well done.