Recently, I and a colleague were asked to prepare a presentation for a sales pitch. The goal was to convince a client we knew nothing about that ours was the best approach to face his company’s challenge. We didn’t know the company, and we were expected to sell a service we knew nothing about. We were given 3×15 minutes with the client, and about 10 minutes to prepare the presentation. Yes, this was an exercise.

Well, it was no surprise, to me at least, that we didn’t win. What did surprise me was the feedback we were given. Apparently, the client was quite happy with the content: We came over as knowledgeable. He just wasn’t happy with us: we weren’t selling it. We just didn’t come across as enthusiastic. We hadn’t convinced him we wanted it. Also, I was told that I was monotonous and that I said a lot of “eh”s when I paused.

Now, that’s good, actionable feedback. I can – I hope I can – actually do something to improve. Tone, and irritating “eh”s can be fixed.

As it happens, this all got me thinking about what I like and don’t like about presentations – and I thought I’d share my experience with you. Take it, as always, with a grain of salt.

Bad practices

  1. Never, ever, speak with your back to the audience. You may turn your head to look at the screen – you may NOT talk to the screen! If you don’t have a microphone, I probably won’t be able to hear you when you turn your back to me. But even if you do have a microphone, it feels better when we can match a face to the voice.

  2. Never be boring. In most cases, this can’t be helped – but there are a few things that can be done. Specifically, never speak longer than you have to. If you have to talk more than 20 minutes, let people ask questions before you continue. Or – better yet – have a coffee break. I like my coffee. If you go on beyond the 20 minutes, rest assured I will be asleep. I have mastered the art of sleeping with my eyes open. I’m now working on nodding and making agreeable sounds at the same time.

  3. Never bullshit me. I know this can’t always be helped. Try anyway. People can tell. If you’re standing in front me giving me a presentation, chances are I am about as smart as you are. If I’m not, then I probably can’t buy whatever it is you’re selling. There’s nothing more embarrassing than getting called brown-handed.

  4. Never put anything on the screen that you don’t understand. If you don’t know what it is, why are you showing it to me?

  5. Never put anything on the screen that is not needed. “Everything in it’s right place” is what I want. The rest is clutter. This means, by the way, that PowerPoint templates with the company name and copyright notices on every sheet are just stupid. We know who you are. We didn’t just walk into the room accidentally. And enough with the transitions already. Unless they are actually relevant (and you can give a good answer when you are asked why you are using this transition and not that) then do not use them.

  6. Never give me a migraine with your tiny font size. If there is too much text on the slide, I will read none of it. And if your presentation consists of repeating the text on your PowerPoint sheets (which, inevitably, it will if you have too much text up there), then why not just give me the presentation to read at my leisure and let us leave?

  7. If you aren’t Spielberg or a Wachowski, don’t make a film. Or, at least, don’t show it to me. Video clips have been a part of presentations for a long time, but I’m talking about the new trend of making introductory films that just take up time and don’t have any relevant content whatsoever. If you show me a video that has nothing to do with the topic you are supposed to be presenting, then you are just wasting everyone’s time. And you’re showing me that you’d rather waste your own time making videos than doing something productive.

  8. Everything you think you know about body-language is wrong: The guru talk about where to keep your hands, or the NLP nonsense about how to manipulate others – it’s all bullshit. The science is conclusive. So stop trying to second-guess yourself all the time.

  9. Never talk faster than your audience can digest. What’s the point? If you don’t care if I can keep up with you, why are you talking to me? People try to talk fast so that they can go through more in the little time they have available. That’s not they way it works.

  10. Never invite me unless your presentation was meant for me, personally. I’ve had to sit through too many presentations just because people think they should invite everyone. They shouldn’t. Some people need to be in the room. Others don’t. True, a lot of people will do anything to get out of work and they will accept any invitation sent to them. Ask yourself if these are the people you want to have there.

Good practices

  1. Tell the audience who you are.
  2. Tell the audience what it is you are selling before you try to sell it.
  3. Tell the audience they can ask questions at the end.
  4. Talk clearly.
  5. Select your audience: You have little time, and you can only put it to good use if you present the right arguments to the right people.
  6. Know your audience: know what matters to them. Ask yourself: why should they care? Why do you care?
  7. Know what you want to achieve before designing your presentation.
  8. Keep it shorter than people can tolerate.
  9. Stop when you have made your point.
  10. Be prepared (that’s from my scouting days, but it always makes good sense.)
  11. Be approachable: Always make yourself available to your audience after the presentation.
  12. Keep it simple: less is more. People can only be convinced of a few things at a time.
  13. Repeat the important important bits as many times as you can short of becoming irritating.
  14. Share your presentation with your audience: Make sure your audience know how to find your presentation before you leave.

These are just good practices – they are not best practices. I don’t know why people keep going on about best practices. That makes little sense to me.

I’m not going to explain my good practices - I shouldn’t have to. If they’re not clear, then you should just ignore them.

Two great approaches The following two approaches are the ones that left an impression. After years and years of sitting through presentations, these two approaches have been the most memorable to me.

First approach: Dazzle the crowds

Just watch her. Erin McKean is a lexicographer. She talks about dictionaries. Her presentation is simple, she leaves you wanting for more, and everyone gets it. I bet this lady could talk about anything to anyone and make it interesting.

Second approach: Sell the few

A few years ago, Miko Matsumura gave a presentation about SOA to a small group of Solution Architects at the Fortis HQ in Brussels – I was one of them. Miko obviously did this for a living, and his presentation was the diametrical opposite of Erin’s. He walked into a small room, greeted everyone around the table, and asked us to tell him who we are, what we do, and why we are interested in SOA.

Miko came prepared. He had a PowerPoint presentation with him that had about 60 cards. He picked a few from the beginning to show us – my guess is he always did those. But he didn’t do all the others. The rest of the cards he showed where swiftly and expertly hand-picked to match our backgrounds and interests. He had noted our names, but he remembered what we wanted to know – and he tailored his presentation to our interests.

The slides were crammed with acronyms and colourful drawings – but that was all alright. We knew the acronyms, and the drawings were meaningful to us. It was a lot of information – but we were the right audience for it.

Well, at least that’s the impression we all left with.

It takes a lot of raw skill and experience to pull a stunt like this. I don’t think I will ever be able to do it. That’s ok. I’m not a professional. Still, a lot can be achieved with a practice and a few rules.