Thursday, March 15, 2012

Some Presentation Tricks I Have Learned

I've delivered about six hundred presentations in the past twenty-five years, ranging from brief webinars to four-day classes. I've applied a number of techniques during these talks, some of which I figured out by myself and some of which I picked up from observing other presenters. In this post I will share some of those techniques and tricks with you.

Open Big: The first thing you need to do is get the audience's attention, to get them on your side so they're receptive to your message. Try to think of an opening for your talk that will get the audience smiling and nodding in agreement immediately; then they're yours for the rest of the show. Several of my talks begin with a short survey. I list ten typical problem areas that frequently occur in the domain of my presentation, be it on software requirements, process improvement, or something else. I ask the audience members to note which of these problems they've experienced on their projects. Then, by show of hands, I ask which have experienced none of the problems I described, then one, and so on up through all ten. Because these are such common problems, I know that many people in the audience can relate to them. In other words, they start nodding along with me from the beginning of the talk: we have a bond of common experience, a bit of rapport. I think this helps make the audience members receptive to hearing suggestions that help them address those all-too-common project challenges, which constitutes the rest of the presentation.

Colorful Flipcharts: In some presentations, I write items on a flipchart, such as ideas and comments contributed by the audience during a group discussion. I picked up a useful technique from someone I saw doing this at a conference once. She used two flipchart markers, alternating the colors as she wrote each item on the chart. This makes the contents of the flipchart easier to read, as the items don't all blur together visually. I now use this simple but effective technique regularly.

Quiet Questioners: Here's another trick I saw a speaker use once. A member of the audience asked him a question. The room was fairly large, and the questioner was sitting fairly close to the front. Therefore, the questioner was speaking too quietly for people in the back of the room to hear. As the speaker listened to the question, he slowly walked away from the questioner. The speaker’s body language clearly indicated that he was listening attentively and thinking carefully about the question. Probably unconsciously, the questioner began speaking more loudly as the speaker grew more distant. This made it easier for other members of the audience to hear the question. I'm not sure if the speaker took that little walk deliberately, but it seemed like a good idea to me. Now, whenever I'm in a similar situation, I do the same thing. Most people really do start speaking louder as they see you moving away. Subtle, but effective.

Let's Get Moving: Listening to a presentation is a passive activity. It's easy for your attention to wander, to drift into a daydream, or even to nod off into slumber. One way for the speaker to combat this is to get the audience members to interact from time to time, either with the speaker or among themselves. Sometimes I will ask them to spend a few moments talking among themselves about a particular topic and then sharing their thoughts with the rest of the group. I also do surveys periodically. I might describe a particular technique or practice in a class and then ask how many members of the audience have used that same method. This gets them moving their bodies a bit with a show of hands.

I have some ulterior motives here, as well. These informal and totally unscientific surveys help me calibrate the audience’s past experience and knowledge. Also, if I'm describing some unfamiliar technique and a skeptical audience member sees that other people around her have also tried that method, maybe my suggestion doesn't seem so strange. It's not just Karl's wacky scheme anymore. She might even be able to ask one of those people who raised his hand about the practice at the next break.

Door Prizes: When I'm delivering a presentation at a conference or a professional society meeting, I sometimes give away door prizes. These could be a copy of one of my books, a CD containing one of my eLearning courses, or some other product. Giving away such prizes is a way to advertise my products and services. Here’s one trick I’ve come up with: If the lucky winner is several rows back in the audience, I pass the item to someone in the front row and asked them to hand it back. This way numerous people have a chance to touch and look at the item, which might stimulate their interest in it.

If you're an experienced trainer or speaker, you’ve no doubt accumulated your own set of tricks that help make your presentations more effective and enjoyable. I invite you to pass those along by commenting on this blog post.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)


  1. Nice to read & implement as well Karl. One more suggestion Karl, I would like to follow your posts either thru RSS or blogpost email, but their are no preferences that are available on your blog.

    1. If you go to the very bottom of the blog page display, you can click on the link in the phrase "Subscribe to: Posts (Atom)" to subscribe. And if you view the comments for a post, you can both click on "Subscribe to: Post Comments (Atom)" at the very bottom of the page and click on the "Subscribe by email" link. Not obvious, I know.... Karl

  2. My advice is to use the Socratic Method whenever possible. It works well with professional audiences (smaller ones of course where you can interact with individuals more easily).

    Second piece of advice: be prepared!

  3. I always integrate an interactive activity based on Innovation Games®. Sometimes I design a solitary game in which participants share their results when finished. Sometimes I create a group activity.

  4. Hi Karl,

    Since some of the topics I teach are inherently dry I use historical analogies to liven them up a bit. For example, in discussing QA strategies I'll use the QA programs of the Roman Empire and of the Danish navy in 1600. I then tie them to what people do today - what works and what doesn't.

    I'll also insert images of classical art but with captions, hopefully humorous, relating to the topic.

    These stories and images act as mnemonics to help the attendees understand and remember the keys points I'm trying to make. I've had people come up to me decades after they took one of my classes and say they stil remember the essentials since they are linked forever in their brains via these stories/images.

    Also, I always start each class asking the attendees what issues they encounter related to the class topic. I solicit this in an open ended manner so as not to bias what they come up with. I write these down on flip chart paper as they give them to me. That is then hung on the wall for the duration of the class. It allows us to tie the course materials to the issues that most concern them.

    Obiously exercises are key to any learning experience. All of the examples and exercises in our courses are taken from real projects/systems - scrubbed of course to protect the guilty and not breech confidentiality. Real world examples do not work out as tidey as made up ones. However, that is what they will run into once they get back to their projects. The exercises are a blend of individual and team efforts.

    Some of the things we teach result in changes in how you plan and track projects - e.g. testers get involved in projects much earlier than they do in most organizations. So we have versions of the courses aimed at the Management team, not just the technical staff. These are shorter, focused sessions instead of the multi-day versions attended by analysts and testers.

    Finally we make clear that you rarely master any topic in class. You need to apply it to real projects, preferrably under the guidance of mentors with strong experience. This avoids the learning curve penalty and locks in the skills. We, therefore, view the training as just one step in the process of deploying improved process as opposed to an end in itself.

    Best regards,

    Richard Bender

  5. Hi Karl,

    Use language and metrics that evoke memorable images in the audience's mind, especially important if you are presenting by audio only.

    Example: we had a call yesterday where our Corporate Controller gave an update by audio-only conference call on Dodd-Frank financial reform and the pace of implementation. To convey the scope and breadth of the legislation, he worked with visual imagery around the page count (2,300+) of the legislation and gave context by comparing to past landmark reforms (Gramm Leach Bliley: 145 pages; Sarbanes Oxley: 66 pages; Glass Steagall: 37 pages).

    - Frank

  6. Hi Karl,

    We do something similar to your "Open Big" in most of our courses/tutorials. After the intro and agenda slides we have a "Top-Five issues in X" slide. X is the domain we're discussing. We split folks into teams that identify and prioritize their issues for presentation to the other attendees. This gets the students engaged early on. We capture the team results on a flip chart to prioritize the material for the remainder of the session.

    bill deibler

  7. After seeing Richard Bender's post, I couldn't resist. People still confuse us, but despite our common interest in testing and requirements, we are not evil twins.

    1) I was trained as Motorola University stand-up instructor and did that for several years. There are a few key elements of this style, which I continued to use for my professional development seminars (60 days of content, delivered 100s of times.)

    * First thing, have each participant introduce themselves and state goals/questions/expectations for the course. Write these on a flip chart, tape up when done. Then lay out the goals/structure of the course and comment about when/how the participant's goals will be met.

    * After the intro and before the first break, be sure to articulate WIIFM -- what's in it for me -- what benefits the participants will gain. However, do not parrot the party line -- personalize it and don't say anything you can't say with conviction.

    * Structure course segments so that lectures are not more than 1 hour. Conclude each lecture with an exercise which asks the participants to apply the concepts to a case study problem, preferably as a group exercise "break-out" (3 to 6 participants). Allow 15-45 minutes for the exercise, then 15-45 minutes to debrief with the whole group. Ask for a 5-minute presentation of results from each breakout group. Then provide written solutions to the problems and discuss these after the group debrief. This strategy keeps the energy level high, even when slogging through dense and deadly boring technical content (I've done a lot of that.)

    * Summarize each segment (or key point) and write it down on a flip chart page. Use a BROAD tip colored markers - put a header at the top. Print clearly in BIG letters and sketch concepts. Pin or tape these up in succession. At the end of the course, then entire room should be wall-papered. This provides both a reference and reminder to the participants of content and progress.

    * Before making a point, poll the group for stories "Has anyone ever had to x?"

    * When a question is asked, try to avoid giving a short prescriptive answer. Answer with a question, or hand the question back to the group. Then, be quiet -- don't jump in with an answer if you don't hear back in five seconds -- especially the first few times you do this. Just wait until someone cracks and blurts out an answer. Then keep the ball in play. Don't shut down discussion with "the answer". Let the participants suss that out from the presentation, or ask you again.

    * Use a "reveal" for slides -- if you have six bullet points on a page, don't show them all at once. Show them one at a time (easy to do with Power Point. When I frist learned this, we simply put piece of paper on top of the overhead transparency projector.)

    Use two screens/projectors -- same idea as a collapsible menu: structure on the left, details on the right.

    Start and stop on time. Give notice about this in the intro. Follow through, even if the room is empty.

    If you're doing the course on the road, find your way to the place the day/evening before. Plan to arrive two hours before show time on the first day.

  8. 2) For short talks:

    * Illustrate concepts/issues with images and video clips, instead of words/bullet points. Look for the emotional connection to an issue and find an image that conveys that. Talk to the audience about the idea.


    * Remember the Kawasaki rule: estimate the average age of the audience, then divide by 2 for the minimum font size - 14 point is a floor in any case.

    * Power Point is NOT a document tool. I have seen many "decks" in 10 and 12 point font, hundreds of words per slide. This is like using snow shoes to run a marathon --doable, but ridiculous. For slides, less is more -- put the detail in a white paper, handout, brochure, web site.

    * I'm a Power Point man, but my daughter Emily, who is a Director of Marketing loves prezi

    * Start with a story -- personalize it if possible.

    * Structure the talk as a story (not the same as the lead-in)

    * Conclude with an ask of some kind -- a call to action, invitation to discuss, etc. Be sure your contact info is readily available.

    * Assume Murphy is alive and well -- have a backup and/or workaround for all files and equipment. I always copy my deck to a USB stick and carry it in my pocket.

    * Practice, practice, practice.

  9. First,I get the class involved with the topic by showing a cartoon about the topic. Dilbert or Non Sequitur or something. The Japanese reported, back in the 80s, that teams and/or groups which laughed together were more open to receiving the message and to cooperate.
    I use the Notes section on PowerPoint to write the abstract of what I want to say about the slide.
    I try to use the Hear-See-Speak-Touch learning model. They hear the message from me. They see the message on PowerPoint. I get some of them to speak the message content. If there is a touchy-feely component then I use it. Hands-on, even if it is note-taking, is effective. Then I use a review later on to reenforce what was presented.

    I use the US Army's teaching method: Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em; Tell 'em; Tell 'em what you told 'em. It is very, very effective. I use an "Advanced Sheet" at the beginning. I pass out copies of the PowerPoints to take notes on. I hand out the Summary Sheet at the end.

  10. Sometimes your best presentation is yourself....and nothing else.

    Shut down the slides, turn down the flip charts. Have nothing distracting in the room, except for you, your voice and your body language.

    Now, command their attention with a riveting topic that will leave them overawed and spell-bound

  11. I go kneel or sit on my haunches by where early arrivals are sitting and I introduce myself and ask the person what specifically they hope to learn. Then, I comment on how likely he is to do so, and if he wants something I won't cover in the presentation then I try to figure out how to help him to get it. That makes one more "happy face" in the audience with whom I can make eye contact and smile.

    I try to hardly ever talk for more than a couple of minutes on end. I stop and ask the audience something even if it's only "have you every heard of ... " or "did you see the movie ..." -- whatever keeps it interactive even if it's superficially so.

  12. Hi Karl,

    Great tips. Regarding the "Quite Questioners", I always appreciate when the presenter repeats or paraphrases the question for the audience. Since the presenter usually has voice amplification and the questioners do not. This way everyone can hear the question, and it also gives the presenter time to think about the answer, or frame the question into one he or she wishes to answer.

  13. Hi Karl
    Thanks for the presentation tips. To those, I'd like to add this comment: Lately, what I've found to work really well is almost revolutionary these days: to ditch the PowerPoint. I've found it amazing how it immediately puts me more in touch with the mood in the room, brings out my own personality, keeps me and the trainees more engaged, and allows me to better pace the lecture in tune with the energy and needs of trainees. It's like throwing away a crutch. Best thing I have ever done.
    - Howard Podeswa