Most people suck at presenting to big groups. It's a shame because the ability to nail these presentations at key conferences can be once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to influence journalists, business partners, potential employees, customers, and VCs.
So, I thought I'd write a piece on how not to suck when you give a presentation.
1. Show some energy! No great presentation can be delivered like a conversation. You're not lecturing to a college class, you're not at a cocktail party and you're not chatting with a small group in a board meeting. You're on stage! Many of them have their iPhones and laptops ready to command their attention the moment that you start sucking. You're on stage, so you better act like it. Get out of your comfort zone, be perky, and make us laugh. Project your voice. Use your hands. Don't mumble. Speak quickly sometimes and speak slowly to emphasize a point. This is called "vocal variety" and it's critical. Speaking in a monotone voice is, well, monotonous.
If this isn't how you speak naturally, you need to learn it. Go join your local Toastmasters, which is the best way to learn and actually how I did. If you care about being a compelling presenter you need to work on it. Monotony. Kills. Speeches.
2. Tell a story. Every great presentation tells a story. A story has a beginning, middle, and end. They humanize issues and stir emotions. They bring your product to life, but are not buzzwords or bullet points. Be human and try to connect with your audience through a narrative (click here to read more on the importance of a narrative).
I always tell people that if you're not creative in how you tell stories, the simplest way to do so is by telling "a day in the life" of your potential user: establish the persona of the person who would be using your products and help us to get to know him or her. Tell us what their life is like without your product--how they struggle. Tell us about the breakthrough they'll have when they're using your product. You should never lead with features, no one cares about them other than your product manager and your developers.
3. Learn how to structure. Telling a story is one thing, but make sure that you have structure. You need to break down your message into key components, which all follow a theme or thesis. You then need sub-themes or supporting evidence to reinforce your key theme. These are weaved through your story. If you're not naturally talented at good, logical structures you may consider purchasing "The Pyramid Principle" by Barbara Minto.
4. Know your audience. I always try to find out something about the audience before I present. I ask the conference organizer all the details I need to know:
How many people will be in the audience?
Who is speaking before/after me and on which topics?
Is there a theme for the event?
What level will the audience be in terms of knowledge/experience?
What do you think they'd want to hear about?
You are there to speak to the audience, so make sure you know what they care about and how to entertain them. If you don't, you're wasting your time and theirs.
5. Be unique and memorable. Remember that most speaking events have a ton of other speakers--most are exceedingly boring. They all start to blend together. Make sure you do something that makes you stand out. This advice is for almost everyone: if you're not really funny, do not attempt humor on stage. There's nothing worse than bombing a joke in front of a large audience. That said, find something creative and memorable you can do on stage, but nothing overwhelming or inappropriate.
6. KISS (keep it simple, stupid). The goal of the presentation is just to give the audience a basic sense of what you do and why it matters. Don't confuse this with a tour-de-force education on the finer details of how your company's operates. They simply need to know who has a problem, how are you solving this problem, why it matters (put it in context).
So, I recommend that you greatly simplify your message. The conventional wisdom is that the audience can only remember three simple things about any presentation 10 minutes after they've seen it. You're there to leave an impression--not to educate.
7. Summarize. The old line about presenting was, "tell us what you're going to tell us, tell us, and then tell us what you told us." If you do this it will be very boring, but the core idea is right. If you want the audience to remember what you covered you need to be slightly repetitive with your key takeaway message. I like to have an "anchor line" which is my big take-away point and have it repeated three times throughout the presentation.
8. Make it visual. Bullet points were the worst thing ever created for group presentations. Nobody wants to read your text on a big screen. The way to capture an audience's attention is visually. Pictures set the image, your voice tells what would have been in the bullet points.
This means you need to memorize what you're going to say when each image comes up. If you want some words to support the image make them sparse and make them big. If you really get nervous and are afraid you'll forget your lines have one cue card in your hands for each slide. Don't write sentences on them--only key words to help you remember what you're going to say. If you write sentences you'll read them and you'll suck.
9. Practice. You actually need to do a dry run in front of friends, colleagues, and others. There is only one way to know how your presentation will go and this is by getting real feedback from your listeners. Ask them to be harsh, it's better that you know now than when you deliver it in front of 300 people.
10. Stick to your allotted time. If you've been given six minutes then plan a presentation that can be done in five. Trust me, whatever amount of time you've gone over in practice it will be longer when you're on stage. And if you're done a minute early, bravo! The audience will love you. So, practice with a stop watch. You don't want to be cut off because your presentation ran long.
A longer version of this article was originally published on Mark Suster's blog, Both Sides of the Table.