Beyond the Bullet Points: Bullet Points

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I was recently asked for tips on giving good presentations. I’ve been asked this on several occasions, so I thought I’d share. Please be aware most of this was composed on a train from Amsterdam to Tilburg, so I don’t claim it has been thoroughly thought through.

There are a ton of sites on making good slides, and rules for good presentations. However, I have found that every rule needs to be broken from time to time. So if I have advice on developing speaker skills it would be these:

  1. Always present something that you care about. If the topic doesn’t excite you, it won’t excite the audience. Speakers are too often hesitant to let themselves get out of control, or show their deep feelings on a topic – don’t be. The audience roots for passionate people and will respond to real emotion.
  2. Own what you are talking about. You need to find an angle on the topic you are presenting that you feel you own – that is, that you can offer a fresh perspective. Anyone can talk about eBooks, but what do you add to that conversation (even if it is just a little bit). Your understanding of a topic matters. Don’t just do a sort of book report or reference “read back” on a topic. The deadliest presentations are the ones where a person gets up and presents “everything you want to know about ebooks.” I can do a Google search, I don’t need a search result, I need your unique perspective. Synthesize and help me make sense of it.
  3. Related to the owning: have your presentation go somewhere. Take the audience from the light and airy to the profound and inspiring. More jokes at the front, more volume at the end. Just like a good song you want people to feel like they have reached a destination, not simply stopped.
  4. Don’t put in too much. Less is more. Pick 3 topics you want the audience to remember, not 12. Please don’t present a 30 item conceptual chart detailing the migration of catalogs to discovery systems….save that for the book.
  5. Point to a better day. No matter the scale of the topic, there is always some way or approach that will make a positive change. Find it, and give it to folks at the end – or better still, give it to them at the beginning and then remind them at the end.
  6. Never ever talk down to the audience. Never ask rhetorical questions with a leading tone…in fact never ask a question unless you know the answer.
  7. Personal anecdotes and stories/examples make any presentation better.
  8. Be an expert on your topic. Now this could be read as presenting on only things you have a great deal of expertise in, it is not. When you are presenting on new or emerging topics, you know your own reactions and experiences. You are expert in you. Think about the topic, read widely. Until you can get past the “I read this and so and so said this” to “I think that” don’t present. Loud voices and lofty words are fine, but pale in comparison to true insight. The best presentation I ever saw was given by a doctoral student as he sat quietly at a table, and softly read a paper he wrote. He violated all the rules (speak loudly, move around, never read) and it was wonderful – because he was brilliant. Content always trumps style.
  9. You never ever lose by going to the high ground. Fit what you are talking about in a larger, and nobelnoble context.
  10. Rehearse in your head, but never too much. “Practice practice practice” leads to a robotic delivery. Instead, imagine yourself in front of the audience, and what you will say based on a prepared outline (for me the outline is my slides). While a good presentation is a performance, it is more like stand up comedy than Shakespeare. Know your bits and have your stories, but don’t script the whole thing.
  11. The bigger the crowd, the easier it is to present. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but it works. Why? In a small group of 10-20 you can see each face. You often know folks in the crowd. As social creatures we naturally pull back on passion and excitement to put the group at ease. As those numbers go up, the crowd becomes more and more anonymous. Rather than a series of faces, the audience becomes like one entity allowing you to judge impact and mood without having to attend to every person. For me, the more people I know in the crowd, the worse I do. I get too much into my head wondering what they’ll be saying tomorrow.
  12. Slides are important, but for pictures, not text.
  13. Mix up the rhythm. Start slowly and casually and build to the crescendo (see 3), but within the presentation vary too. No one can be yelled at, no matter how passionately, for an hour. Speaking quietly will make people pay just as much attention as yelling.

8 responses on “Beyond the Bullet Points: Bullet Points

  1. Zootenanny

    And leave the audience wondering – like about whether that’s a spelling mistake in point 9 🙂

  2. angela scarpa

    Dave you are definitely a good speaker. I was amazed at how you could go on and on for hours and not be boring during summer 2012 mslis.

  3. Candy Schwartz

    All very useful points, and also good for students giving talks.

    Also, while is true that you are on stage, carry your behaviour to off stage as well. Don’t run off afterwards – stick around and talk to people. People will be hesitant – smile at them and draw them out. They could be you some years later.

    Another point – while it is good to move around – don’t overdo it. The “up and down bounce around” is distracting and usually feels false, Project your voice not your body.

    Right on about slides. Images – never anything you would even be tempted to read from. This is hard work, but worth it.

    Thanks Dave

  4. Jill Hurst-Wahl (@jill_hw)

    I like using images on slides, but also recognize that there are times (and audiences) where text can be important. [Example…Having sat through a presentation that was given entirely in French, it was the slides that helped me understand the topic.] That said, the more you can pull yourself away from text, the better. (And always use the 10-20-30 rule!)

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