Home :: Giving More Engaging Presentations

Latest Update: A link to Merlin Mann’s various presentation tips.

Giving a presentation can be a great way to use a bit more creativity at work than you might usually be able to do – or it can be a chance to drone on at the front of a room full of people, reading from the slides on the screen, that they’ve just read slightly ahead of you.

You choose.


  • Listen to Merlin – Good advice generally. Check out his article on how he made his presentations better.
  • Don’t make your slides too ‘wordy’ – if they contain the full text of what you want to say, you’ll be tempted to just read from them, rather than communicating with the people in the room, and most of your audience will be reading them instead of listening to you.
  • Move about – standing in one spot for the whole presentation is dull – wander around a bit – if nothing else, it keeps people awake because they have to keep turning to face you. Strike a balance, though – don’t make them dizzy.
  • Make eye contact – it’s easy to slip into avoiding it, but it really helps to engage people.
  • Involve people where relevant – even if it’s just little things like “…I know this is a problem that Bill has run into a few times…” – hopefully the person indicated will at least nod to people and confirm what you’re saying. This might not work in a large crowd, and could be tricky if you don’t know the people concerned, but could work wonders if you’re presenting to your colleagues.
  • Use props if possible. Gary at Thumbrella likes to put toys in the middle of the table for people to play with, but even a few sweets might get people interacting a little – even if it’s only to ask someone to pass them the Haribo.
  • Give out handouts at the end – that way people can’t sit and read them instead of listening to you.
  • Use humour – not too much, but a few jokes can keep the mood light. The best part is that in the middle of a presentation, people will laugh at almost anything, so the jokes don’t even have to be good.

Gary expands on the matter of toys and sweets a bit further…

I also like to give prizes as part of icebreakers – sometimes this is a bag of special sweets – Cadbury’s Chocolate Eclairs are favourites (if I already have sweets on the table, which I usually do), or a nice pen, or an unused version of one of the toys on the tables. Three times I have actually sent people toys after the events, as I have noticed how much fun they had with them. This has lead to good feedback, and in one case the guy has asked me to be involved in a high level project because he remembered my training, the toy I sent him, (which he keeps on his desk) and me (though I’m not sure what order they came in!)
Another good idea instead of sweets is to have fresh fruit on the tables – grapes are favourites – in fact I’ll be doing that tomorrow at a training session.

Gary’s Top Tips

Along with giving presentations and training sessions himself, Gary has also delivered training on giving presentations – here’s his top presentation tips…

  1. Powerpoint slides are not a presentation – if they were you could just mail everybody the presentation and save their time and yours
  2. Great content is important – know your stuff – but…
  3. Great content is useless without great delivery – Practice, practice and practice again
  4. Have a Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D, for when things go wrong – and they always will.
  5. Be “in the room” – a little new-age, but if you are thinking about the other work you need to do, the meeting you cancelled, the next presentation you are going to make, you will not be giving your best.
  6. Be flexible – if you can tell that the audience is glazing over or losing interest, ditch the bit you were doing and move on to something else – get people active and moving.

The idea of having plans B through to D seems like an especially good idea, knowing how our technology loves to let us down. Remember that your laptop can fail at any moment, and it might just pick the moment when you’re about to present – it’s worth knowing what you’ll do if that does happen – do you have a spare available at two minutes notice? Will your presentation carry itself without any slides?

One last quote from Gary…

I have a style which is “no-style” – I am just me, and people seem to like it

Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint

Gary also pointed me to this excellent article from Guy Kawasaki, explaining why you shouldn’t have more than ten slides. His advice is specifically about pitching to venture capitalists, but the rules should hold true for anyone…

It’s quite simple: a PowerPoint presentation should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points.

Specifically, the reason there should be only ten slides…

Ten is the optimal number of slides in a PowerPoint presentation because a normal human being cannot comprehend more than ten concepts in a meeting

Unusual Tactics

  • Josh was at Gnomedex 2006, and witnessed an unusual presentation from Tara Hunt and Chris Messina – they didn’t speak at all. He says “It was powerful.” You can see for yourself – there’s a video of the ‘talk’.

Other Resources

  • Presentation Zen compare the presentation tactics of Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki and Tom Peters. They’re known as some of the best, but all have very different styles, showing Gary’s point that it’s important to be yourself. There is video footage of each of them in action, to give you a real idea of how they work. (Thanks to Open Loops.)

More Presentation Tips and Tricks

It has to be said – we don’t know much about presenting ourselves – we’ve learned from some of these people, and they’ll give you better advice than we could…

  • Lifehacker tells of a trick used by Leisa Reichelt – she made the presentation out of Post-it notes, photographed them, and turned them into the presentation. It was all still computer-driven, but looked natural and hand-made.
  • Cory Doctorow is best known as a science fiction writer, but he does a lot of speeches and presentations to different audiences. He has shared some tips with Wired – see the Rock the Podium section.
  • Chris Brogan – Chris has written a lot about presentations, and it’s all been great – this page started out as a link to just one of his posts, and there’s a wealth of information and ideas in his writings…
    • Considering Presentations, where Chris goes through is thoughts when preparing to give a presentation at Bar Camp Boston. “Be genuine about that. Don’t pretend to love these people. For the duration of the presentation and the follow-up, LOVE these people. Give them every bit of your fiber in this presentation.”
    • My Best Presentation Tricks – a great collection of tips and tricks that Chris posted over at LifeHack.org.
    • Give Presentations like David Lee Roth – where Chris argues that a good presentation should be about unleashing your inner rock star. If you have an inner rock star. I tried to unleash mine once, but it turned out he was just another geek.
    • Present Zebra Style – Chris suggests sticking to black and white slides, with nothing but a few words on them. Nothing else. Keeping the focus on the message and on you. Also great for annoying the hell out of your marketing people, which is always fun 😉
    • Present Without Being There – some tips on how to give a presentation when you can’t all get together – using presentation-style tricks in a message delivered other ways.
  • Lifehacker
  • Presentation Blogs – sites where you can keep up to date with more ideas…
    • Presentation Zen – seems to be highly rated by just about everybody.
    • Maniactive – another great blog of tips and tricks, with some original ideas.

Sources of ClipArt

Personally, I think photos work better than all those little cartoon pictures you got with MS Office, but it’s all a matter of choice – here’s some good sources Gary suggests for finding more clip art…

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