Why Your Presentation Stinks (Part 1)

Powerpoint doesn’t stink. Our presentation skills do. So how do we fix it?

First, you must decide: what do I want this presentation to be? We’ve all seen the brilliant TED talks about new ideas. We’ve all seen the really cool sample presentations from those online presentation sites about someone’s trip around the world. When you’re looking at those talks, though, remember this: they are selected out of millions of talks for their content, and their content fits their format. I’ve seen folks do fairly standard slideshows with Prezy. It doesn’t work. I’ve also seen people do “let me tell you about my trip” presentations with Powerpoint. Again, it doesn’t work.

So, just like network engineering, pick the right tool for the job. Since most of an engineer’s presentations aren’t going to feature exciting trips down the River of Doubt, or even up Doubtin’ Mountain, we’re probably pretty safe to stick with a fairly standard presentation package — slides, warts, and all.

Yes, it’s important to get the flow right. I once stood in for a presenter who’d lost his voice — the material was router architecture (hardware and software), so it’s a topic I know well, so I wasn’t in the least concerned about giving this presentation. When I stood in the room and started looking at the slides, though, I realized — a bare 15 minutes before I was supposed to start speaking — that there was absolutely no rhyme or reason to the order of the slides. Individual topics were scattered throughout over 400 slides (for a 90 minute presentation!). There was no “unifying principle,” such as “begin with a packet being received on this interface, and let’s see how it’s switched all the way to the outbound interface.” Normally, this speaker knew the slide deck well enough to flip between the various sections to tell a story — the slides were a visual aid to a talk he had in his head, rather than an actual talk in visual form. There’s no way I could replicate his talk, as it simply wasn’t in my head the same way.

Almost every presentation I see has some form of this same problem — there is little thought put into a unifying principle. The audience doesn’t move from an idea, or a set of ideas, to a conclusion, they just jump around. Look at virtually any sales slide deck and you’ll see this problem illustrated almost perfectly — product after product, “see you have this problem, that product solves it.” There’s no architecture or idea of a set of business problems driving a narrative.

So focus, really hard, on building a flow. Look at a real outline of what you’re presenting, and try ordering it in different ways. Try and find major headings and subheadings. Don’t just let all the information sit there in a bunch of slides. You want a chain of pearls, where the person can walk from one slide to the next, and understand what is being said — the point that’s being made. You don’t want a random walk, as useful as they are in some situations. Even if you’re not telling a story, you’re telling a story.

Don’t just count on the story in your head, either. People are going to save these slides and look at them later — will they make sense then? Our brns fll a lt of infrmtion in — one of the mst commn prblems with spllng and edtng is that we knw wht we intnded to wrt, so we see that instd of what is actlly on the pg.

Send the presentation to a friend, completely blank on the topic, and ask them to outline the points made. If they don’t get it, you haven’t built the presentation right — plain and simple. Don’t spend time explaining it to them, redo the presentation until they can get it without you saying a word. They might not get the details, but they must be able to get the flow and the point without you telling them what it is.

It’s that important.

At some point you want to be able to see this in your own presentations — but don’t expect it to happen overnight. Like throwing the perfect pitch, or shooting the perfect stage, you must practice right to learn the skill of separating yourself from the material far enough to see the flow without filling in what you meant to say (and didn’t).

Next time, we’ll talk about some other reasons why your presentation stinks, and how to fix it.