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How to Not Feel Like an IT Geek When You’re Giving a Presentation

on June 17, 2013


To paraphrase Shakespeare, presentations can make cowards of us all. Rather than make your slides a crutch, there are techniques that you can use to boost your confidence and empower you to deliver your most important message like a professional speaker – even if you are an executive geek.

Vintage MicrophoneEven in 2013, corporate presenters are still arguing about whether and how to use PowerPoint (and now you can add Keynote and Prezi to the mix). And yet these programs, when used correctly, can instantly make an important idea explode in the audience’s head. Just ask Steve Jobs, Al Gore, or the presenters at TED – all of whom you should study and model if you’re reading this article.

The key point of presentation tools is that these tools are visual. They are not like Microsoft Word. They are testimony to the well-known axiom that a story is worth a thousand pictures. And you should not be up there “showing slides;” you should be telling your story.

That should not be a story about how great you are. But rather, tell the story that you’ve discerned that the audience wants or needs to hear. And if used correctly, these tools can make that happen.

(Such discernment can be accomplished with the strategic use of social tools – but that’s a different story.)

Don’t Let Tools Get In The Way

Before we get started with “tips and tricks,” let’s make a point about those presenting in the field of technology. Because your mishandling of the tools should not become the story.

PowerPoint is not the PowerPoint editor during a presentation; that’s where you created your slides. The audience should never see that part of the program. They should not see you fumbling with the little slide thumbnails in any way. You should seamlessly show your presentation, and you can do that by right-clicking on the shortcut to the file.

The audience also should not watch as you and your team try to synch up a projector and curse quietly to yourself. You should have prepared that well prior to the event. Find out the projector’s native resolution and the toggle key on your laptop to connect instantly (often F8 or F5 in the top row coupled with the Fn key in the lower left).

You should also not be taping cords to the floor or connecting cables. You should be calmly greeting your guests and asking them what they are most interested in hearing about today.

What Should You Say?

If you’re speaking about technology, there are two things to focus on: the benefits to the audience and the features in your product or service that provide these advantages. Again, a good way to discover this is to ask (via social media, interviews with your users, or other research prior to the event) what the biggest pain points or challenges are facing your audience.

You should have known this before creating your slides – but if you didn’t, you can still learn some of it as long as you’re not fumbling with cables or the projector.

A great first slide is a visual that emotionally and humorously portrays what you’re trying to say. For example, what if you were speaking about making important decisions? Often you are faced with…

Figure 1This is the essence of PowerPoint – or Keynote. Prezi is a newcomer in this field and offers the additional advantage of letting you “drill down” into your story.

But the important concept here is to focus on the visual. (Cliff Atkinson’s book Beyond Bullet Points and his website of the same name are classics in this field).

If you fill your slides with bullets, you are creating a Word document, and your audience will hate you.

If you actually read the bullets aloud and use the slides as a teleprompter, homicide is justifiable.

But if you creatively show the audience the solutions to their problems, you will be a Presentation God.

In the technology field especially, remember that you are not limited to static slides. You can show a video of a product demo or the application you’re building for your users. You can use a program like TechSmith SnagIt to create screenshots of the product, or, and get this, you can exit PowerPoint and show the product directly.

With a bit of practice, you can use the ALT+TAB key to alternate between the presentation and any other program you might want to run, including anything that works in a Web browser.

Another thing you can do during the presentation is to press the “B” key on the keyboard, and BLANK THE SCREEN. Now you, and your story, become the focus of audience’s complete attention. Use this technique to break the spell of PowerPoint and make them love you – if you have something compelling to convey.

Another thing to consider is letting the audience ask questions. Decide early whether you can handle interruptions or if you prefer to save questions until the end—but make sure there is adequate time.

If you find yourself in a time crunch, due to questions or some other detour, never say “let me quickly go through these slides” and blast through a bunch of slides that no one understands or in which they’re disinterested (at the moment anyway).

Have a calm series of closing slides, where you have your action items and ask for whatever results you want, rehearsed well in advance, and know the slide number where this ending sequence begins. If you know you have only 10 minutes left, calmly walk to the laptop, enter the slide number that begins the “10-minute closing sequence” and calmly conclude your presentation.

There is also a feature in PowerPoint that lets you present various “Custom Shows” from a set of slides. This allows you to have various versions of the same material for different audiences or time scenarios. You just name each “subset” or Custom Show (for example, “Quick Sales Demo”) and there is no need to create another presentation.

If you see that there are too many slides for the time available or the audience interest (“Uh-oh, I thought the people attending would be more technical…”), you can also use the Hide Slide feature to skip past some extraneous material. You can always go back to show a “hidden” slide that addresses an audience question and it will make you look like a star.

To make this process easier on yourself: Make sure you provide titles for your slides so you can find them easily by title by right-clicking on the screen, or by number. (For purely visual slides, hide the title behind a picture or drag it off screen.)

Don’t Wing It

And this brings me to the most important point: To get out of your feeling of Dorkiness you must PRACTICE.

The Dork is the guy who says to his assistant, “Just give me the slides; I’ll go over them on the airplane.”

The Pro practices, makes sure the equipment works, and knows how to use it. You should have extra batteries for your presentation mouse, and keep your backup files on a flash drive in case something awful happens. (You can always borrow or rent a laptop, but you can’t recreate your work.)

Yes, did you catch that? A pro has a portable mouse so he can walk around the room a bit, drift into the audience, and click in perfectly timed rhythm to the appearance of key slides.

You don’t need to spend hours and hours on practicing your presentation, but you should know which slides come up when, and what you want to say (so you don’t end up murdered for reading them). And when you click a slide about System Memory, maybe this can flash on screen:

Figure 2And you can tell a clever story about how your product “never forgets.”

Telling Your Story

One of the most valuable aspects of presentation programs is that they “move” – remember that motion is a big part of emotion – which is the whole “point” of presenting. Creating a feeling of desire in your audience, or satisfaction (or whatever helps you teach, sell, or persuade) enables you to achieve your goals.

Sophisticated audiences may already be jaded and turned off by gratuitous animation, but giving your information out strategically and sequentially is very effective. Using “animated” diagrams, you can also build an idea from the ground up, thereby having your audience follow your thought process.

Shapes and pictures don’t need to fly in from all directions or twirl around. The simple “Fade” entrance is very effective and subtle. And don’t forget that you can also have objects Exit, add Emphasis, or move them along paths. For example, moving a shape named “Research” along a Timeline, while you make the appropriate point, can crystallize a process in the audience’s mind better than a static flowchart.

PowerPoint professionals can spend hours building and tweaking a single slide with these effects, and if you have the time or someone on your staff to whom to assign the task, you can tell a very effective story.

But in terms of simplicity, you can simply have one word come in, and then leave as it’s replaced by another. For example:

Enter: Malware Infection – Exit as Acme Security Suite Enters…. With logo and supplemental material as you prefer. Please – no screeching car sound effects….

If your story involves “drilling down” into a concept or idea, or zooming out to get a big picture, I suggest you look into Prezi, a relatively new Web-based presentation tool that can effectively show details and context.

Finally, pay some attention to file saving and backup. Save multiple copies of your presentation, and not just for “in case” scenarios.

You certainly want one copy of the presentation to actually present. Use another on which to practice (and save) your “Rehearsed Timings;” PowerPoint has a Rehearsal feature that lets you do this. You don’t want to use the same version for both purposes, because your “saved” animations can then begin to move before you actually trigger them with the portable mouse (which you have now mastered, right?).

You might also want to print out a hard copy of your slides with which to practice. You can use its Notes panel to remind you of the witty remarks and profound stories which highlight your presentation.

Finally, on yet another hard copy version (without your notes), the same Notes panel can be used for commentary. This would be your handout, leave-behind, or manual in PDF format. This can represent the “document” (or Microsoft Word) version of your story; remember, PowerPoint and its cousins are all about visuals, so if you do want to include references to which your audience refers later (such as URLs for the sites you mention in your talk), this is the place to do so. If you want to leave “clickable” reference URLs and respond to potential requests for your slides, be prepared to email or post a *.PPS (slide show only) version of your presentation online.

In such a printed document, however, you can come full circle and use the design capabilities of a program like PowerPoint to print an actual booklet, doing the job of Microsoft Word. (The Create Handouts option in PowerPoint literally creates a Word document from your slides, with which you can then use word processing features to fine tune the text version of your concept).

Finally, you are best advised to focus on a few key points that you need to make and build your story around them. The most prominent trait of a dorky presenter is redundancy and unnecessary content.

Particularly with respect to PowerPoint, remember the counsel of Mark Twain who famously said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Just a few powerful visual slides are much more effective than a long presentation filled with boring bullets. Save the words for your speaking portion; use PowerPoint for visual and emotional support.

Here at Mendix, we give a lot of presentations; we still think there’s no better way to explain an application than to show it live. Using visual models, Mendix allows both engineers and business people to understand the data structure, business logic, and page design of a Mendix application. That’s what makes our demonstrations win over customers time after time. Learn how to build your first Mendix app in this short video.

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About Tom Bunzel

Tom Bunzel is a speaker and nonfiction writer in high tech, and a consultant and technology coach in the fields of digital video, multimedia, presentations and social media. His books Tools of Engagement: Presenting and Training in a World of Social Media and Presence of Mind: Journey to a New Operating System are available on Amazon. His web site is and his blog is Tom Bunzel has long specialized in knowing what presenters need and how to make technology work. He has appeared on Tech TV's Call for Help and has been a featured speaker at InfoComm and PowerPoint LIVE, as well as working as a "technology coach" for corporations including Iomega, MTA Films, Nurses in Partnership and the Neuroscience Education Institute. He has written a number of other books including "Easy Using Office 2010" and "Master Visually Microsoft Office 2007" and served as the Office Reference Guide for Published in 2006, "Solving the PowerPoint Predicament: Using Digital Media for Effective Communication" is a detailed, project-oriented approach to creating effective multimedia presentations. His eBook, "Do Your Own Ning Thing: A Step-By-Step Guide to Launching an Effective Social Network" is on his website.

  • Adrian Cherry

    All good points, however a final one to check the correct attribution of quotes may be in order, as there will always be one pedantic s** who will correct you. For example the quote about not having time to write a short letter is often misattributed to Mark Twain. This should be correctly attributed to Blaise Pascal, if the information on the internet is to be believed.