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Presentation skills and why you need them

It's hard to imagine a high-tech career going anywhere with poor presentation skills. Yet, most tech people give terrible presentations. Here are ten rules for giving great presentations and ten pointers for making killer slides.

It's hard to imagine your career going anywhere unless you can deliver an effective presentation. Unfortunately, most technology industry folks seem to be missing the presentation gene. How can I generalize like that? Because, I've been watching them struggle for a quarter of a century.

Why they're so deficient in this regard, I have no idea. But they stand there, like they're glued to the floor, with their 90-slide presentation with a dozen bullets and sub-bullets and a book of text on each slide. Then they complain that executives and salespeople make all the money.

Look, a presentation is a rare opportunity to make an impression that might impact your future. It can be a gateway to big things ahead, but it can just as easily be a roadblock to professional growth. As for becoming a project leader, manager, or executive, good presentation skills are a requirement.

I've seen presentations that were so inspiring I left the room with adrenaline squirting out of my ears. A great presentation can change your life. From the presenter's perspective, connecting with an audience, communicating your vision and passion for a subject, well, it's a beautiful thing.

Conversely, I've sat through presentations that were so bad I wanted to strangle the guy just to put him and the audience out of their misery. I'm not sure what it's like to bomb that badly, but I suspect its effects can linger for a long, long time. You definitely want to avoid that.

The last Train Wreck post was about overcoming your fear of public speaking. This one's about giving a great presentation. You can spend days in training to learn this stuff; I'm going to give it to you in five minutes. And the best part is it's free.

Ten rules for delivering a great presentation:

Developing the pitch. When you sit down to develop the pitch, first come up with your point of view and a handful of key points you want to get across. Then build a storyboard around that, one slide per thought. Keep the number of slides to a minimum. Allow for two to four minutes per slide, depending on how much dialog or interaction you expect.

Getting off to a good start. You can start your presentation with a big gesture, perhaps an open-armed greeting. It may seem uncomfortable at first, but it's a great way to break the ice and it comes across way better than you think. You can start with an engaging or humorous anecdote, or an ice-breaking graphic or video, but keep it relevant and appropriate or it may backfire. Most people should not tell a joke. I don't.

The old axiom. Start out by telling the audience what you're going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them. It's old advice, but I've followed it for 25 years and it works.

Don't read what's on the slide. If you occasionally want the audience to read what's on the slide, turn to look at the slide and read silently along with the audience. Otherwise, know your pitch cold (which means without having to look at it except for the briefest cue) and speak in your own words.

Engage the audience. Ask questions. If they don't respond, try offering an answer and asking for a show of hands. Then ask easier questions. Make the audience feel like they're part of the experience.

Be accessible to the audience. Don't stand behind a podium. If you need a microphone, use a wireless one. Get close to the audience. Move from one side of the room or stage to the other, from time to time. Try to maintain eye contact with an individual as you walk, like there's an imaginary rubber-band between you and that person. But don't bounce around like a ping-pong ball.

Make eye contact. But do so only for a few seconds per person. Too short and you'll seem uncomfortable and fail to engage; too long and you'll make the audience uncomfortable. Don't bounce your eyes around constantly. There's a trick to finding the right balance that comes with experience.

Make liberal use of hand gestures. They're very engaging and interesting. But when you're not doing that, keep your hands at your sides. Do not hold onto the back of a chair or a bottle of water or put your hands in front of you, behind you, or in your pockets. Avoid nervous habits.

Don't block the audience's view. Do not step in front of the screen or block it from view (unless you're doing the occasional walk-across). Gesture with your hand, but don't touch the screen. Don't use a pointer unless you're far away from the screen. Better still, just don't use one; they're unnecessary and distracting.

Learn to pause for effect and emphasis. Practice being comfortable with silence for two or three seconds. It's the most dramatic way to make a point. Avoid ahs, uhs, and other fillers of uncomfortable silence; they're incredibly annoying and detract from your presence.

Ten pointers for developing killer slides:

1. Keep your text crisp, brief, pithy, crystal clear; do not be wordy or verbose; I can't emphasize this enough
2. Don't overdo the slide template. A solid background with contrasting text and a logo in the corner works best
3. Make one key point per slide
4. Have no more than six bullets per slide, preferably a lot less, and one line of as little text as possible per bullet; avoid sub-bullets entirely
5. Just capitalize the first letter of each title, bullet or phrase; left justify all text
6. Bullets are not sentences; they can be phrases; omit periods and needless words
7. Text should be a minimum 24 points for bullets (28 or 32, if possible), 36 points for the title; don't mix fonts or point sizes
8. A picture really is worth a thousand words
9. Mix it up; a graph here, a picture there, a quote, whatever; it's all a nice change from slide after slide of bulleted text
10. Animation's a nice touch, but don't go nuts with it; it can be distracting

If possible, videotape yourself presenting to an empty conference room. Put a yellow stick 'em on each chair to represent people. Try to get someone who knows something about this sort of thing to provide feedback. Most companies hire speech coaches for executives and up-and-comers. Try to get in on that, if you can.

Remember, learning to give effective presentations will boost your career. Moreover, you weren't born with the ability. That means, just like with anything else, you have to make an effort to learn the skills. Learn them; it'll make a difference.