Cogent Communicator: Presentation Skills – Beyond the Basics

Cogent Communicator: Presentation Skills – Beyond the Basics
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When it comes to technical presentations, the norm in many companies is that they’re expected to be dry, lifeless occasions brightened now and then by disagreements between the presenter and subject matter experts in the audience, or between the presenter and a ranking manager in the room. The energy level lifts a bit when subject matter experts argue with the data or the proposal, or a manager pushes back on a request for more time or more money.

Aside from those brief, colorful moments, most technical presentations are, frankly, pretty drab. Many in the audience check their phones and do other work while the presenter is speaking, tuning in and out, missing important points, maybe even missing all of it.

But just because everyone’s settled into this routine doesn’t mean you have to perpetuate it. What if you made a presentation that was not ho-hum? What if you made a presentation that was engaging, well-expressed, and worth paying attention to?

There’s no rule against that, is there?

Turn up the quality of presentations in your organization. Here’s how.

First, About Slides …

  1. Minimize the number of slides you use. Use slides to elucidate technical material that requires a visual to explain it. Your slides should convey information that can’t otherwise be understood without the visual. That means you should eliminate all the slides that are bullet lists of your talking points. Your slides should add value. They should explain to the group your proposal, idea, problem, or current status in a way that uses graphs, charts, or visual depictions of abstraction or things that are too small to see.And never open with a slide like this one.


That slide is YOUR outline. It’s for you, not the audience. And it’s exactly the kind of slide that turns an audience off.  There’s nothing visual about this slide.

  1. Never read your slides. I think that should go without saying, but I hear it’s still happening, so I guess I can say it again. Never ever read your slides. Never ever. The audience knows how to read. You’re there to explain, expand, answer questions, and lead them logically through your material. You’re not there to read them.
  1. Lose the template. The artistic “design” that Powerpoint (and other slideware) suggests to beautify your presentation are just a waste of real estate. They’re useless visuals that add no information and take up space needlessly.

If your company requires that you use a template with your logo on every slide, tell your slidemeisters that, after the first page, no one reads the logo. It’s just “visual clutter,” as design guru Edward Tufte says. Many engineering slides have plenty of necessary, sometimes urgent, visual information to convey. Visual clutter won’t help you get your points across.Basically, remove anything that’s meaningless color, swoopy swirlies, logos, and artistic doodads. Cleaner is better. The more complex your information, the truer this is.

I once had a client whose company was adamant that their corporate template (dark background, decorative doohickey and logo in the corner) be used on every slide; no exceptions. The person I was working with had to make a client presentation which included screenshots, and the screenshots looked terrible on the template, very confusing. Where did the screen end and the template begin? It looked like the doohickey and the logo were part of the screen.

But the presenter was certain that the template was a hard and fast requirement for every slide. I eventually talked him out of using the template for the screenshots, and they were no longer confusing. More importantly, no one in the audience (not even the marketing department!) said a thing about the missing “required” template.

  1. Use the “b” key. At any time during a Powerpoint slide show, you can hit “b” and blank the screen. Hit it again, and the screen comes back. It’s a wonderful feature. So when you’re not referencing slides, turn them off. Instead, make eye contact with the people you’re talking to. (That’ll surprise those guys who aren’t paying attention!) Speak without slides. You’re an engineer, which means you know your content. You don’t need your slides as a crutch.

Second, About You …

Two more things that will keep your presentation from being dull and lifeless, one about how you come across and another about how you prepare.

  1. If you’re interested, and you’ll be interesting. The thing that kills the interest level in most technical presentations (besides over-reliance on cluttered, purposeless slides) is the presenter’s apparent disinterest in the topic. That is, the presenter looks grim and never smiles. So the audience looks grim in response.

Turns out there’s a reason for that, according to some neurologists. And that is that we have within our brains mirror neurons which may be the source of our empathy. They’re why we reflect expressions of pain or joy when we see certain kinds of experiences or expressions, why we wince when we watch someone slip on an icy patch and land on their butt. Or why we grimace when someone tells us they’ve just totaled their car. It’s also why, when someone smiles at us, we’re likely to smile back, reflexively.

So when you, as a presenter, stare grim-faced and unsmiling at your audience, guess what: they stare back at you grim-faced and unsmiling. Pretty soon, you have an audience full of people with dreary expression. But if you give them a smile, you’ll likely get one in return. If you’re enthusiastic or optimistic about the topic you’re presenting, let that come through, both in the expression on your face and in your voice, in what you say (“We’re pretty excited about this”).

Put yourself in the audience’s position: do you want to watch a listless presenter go through the motions? Or would you rather see some energy and genuine interest shining through?

  1. Never wing it. I’ve said this in this space before, but I’m sure it bears repeating because some of you are ignoring me. Practice aloud, even if it’s just a portion of what you’re going to say. I realize you don’t have time to practice the entire thing, and for most in-office presentations, you don’t need to. But practice the first thing you’re going to say, at least the first five or six sentences. For one thing, that’s when most people are nervous, and practicing can go a long way towards quieting nerves. Also practice anything you’re going to be talking about that’s complex. You don’t want to be figuring out, in the moment, how to explain why this interface, as designed, would be risky to implement or why performance parameters, as defined, are insufficient. The time to figure out how to explain that isn’t when the slide comes up. It’s before you walk in the room.

Practice, practice, practice.

And if you’re making a presentation outside your company — to a client, say, or at an industry conference — this advice goes triple. Practice aloud, every word, phrase, and turn of the head, and you’ll help insure you don’t lose your place, stammer, or succumb to nerves. If you walk in without having practiced, you risk of all of the above.

The better prepared you are and the fewer slides you use, the more interesting your presentation will be. Overreliance on text-heavy slides is a terrible habit. And when it comes to smiling, I know you can do it. Try this simple, kind expression the next time you give a presentation, and watch your audience’s engagement level improve.

Except for those who are checking their emails. You may have to work harder to get their attention.

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.

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