October 18, 2012
The art of presenting
Nobody is born a Cicero
At some point in their lives, everyone has to give an oral presentation. In my case, even in high school, we were required to give oral presentations all the time. I remember it was the terror of all students: the oral exam.
Some students were so clever that they pretended to have stomach aches or some terminal illness to get out of the classroom and avoid speaking in front of everyone. But if the trick was discovered, you had to go forward. That's when everything became visible: whether you had studied, whether you recited from memory, whether you could read, whether you got nervous, etc.
This kind of discomfort can occur in a work environment, at school, or with people who can barely express themselves or explain their ideas correctly. This is partly because we were never properly taught or prepared to practice this important art: rhetoric and oratory. They simply force you to go up front and regurgitate everything based on memorization. Imagine doing this in front of an audience or a few investors. That's why nobody is born a Cicero.
That's why we need to put an end to this lack of oratory sensitivity. We need to start working on that "Cicero within us" and make the most of it.
There are many presentation recipes floating around on the internet. You could go to Google and search for them, but here I'll give you a summary of the most basic ones that will likely help you practice and make better presentations:
If you really want to give a good presentation, start by preparing it well. Some people get on stage and have a big problem with their delivery. Their topic is poorly prepared, they are missing parts, it is not well organized, lacks story, fundamentals, or they simply say foolish things.
We've all been through this stage, and it's due to a lack of preparation or understanding of the topic. Enrique Dans, who has so many conference speeches that he could crush anyone, said in his post on presentation preparation:
How do I approach a presentation? Firstly, and although it may seem obvious, by accepting to do the presentation only when I know the topic and have something to say about it. It may seem silly, but I think the success of a presentation comes from having clear ideas in your head, and that the presentation is only a way to organize them for public exposition.
Based on this quote, I will tell you a little story.
Some time ago at a conference...
In 2006, the University of Deusto hosted Blogak 2.0, a series of presentations on the world of 2.0. It was an unprecedented parade of personalities of all kinds presenting their projects, and some were there to talk about general topics. I remember a particularly late 2.0 politics panel.
This panel was supposed to have qualified people, so they sat Idoia Mendia (Minister of the Interior of the Basque Government [who was not at that time, correct me if I'm wrong] from the PSE), Borja Sémper Pascual (Member of Parliament from the PP), Ricardo Ibarra and Rafael Larreina if I remember correctly. However, not all of them could speak fluently about the internet, technologies, and the future. Except for Rafael and Ricardo, who were great, the rest had little to explain about so-called 2.0 politics. I remember that the youngest person on the panel was Borja Sémper, who, with a friendly tone and an empathetic attitude that bordered on absolute hypocrisy, said that he was a lover of computers and then boasted that he used Excel and Word (implying that this was his entire involvement with computers), and so on. And all of this was said in front of an audience of bloggers, internet companies, ongoing projects, etc. It couldn't have been more frightening. I couldn't contain my amazement at such naivety, unfortunately, no one went crazy and hurled abuse at the poor official (there were only 15 of us in the audience).
But that was nothing.
The cherry on the cake was when it was Ms. Mendia's turn to speak about 2.0 politics. Using her most reserved and dry tone (as if we were bothering her by making her speak), she vomited out something like:
"My secretary is in charge of reading, selecting, and printing all incoming emails. My contact with the internet is rather limited."
You can imagine what it must be like to be prepared. It's not just a matter of having a good script, but of being prepared to speak about the topic with authority and to contribute.
If you have no idea what you're going to talk about, it's better not to show up. It has happened to me that I have been invited to give talks on things that I don't really know about, and my refusal has caused surprise, but the reality is that I prefer to talk about something that I am sure and convinced about and that I would like to talk about, rather than to talk about pigs with wings at a vegetarian food exhibition.
How can we improve this? Try giving the presentation to friends before presenting it to the public. Get together with 3 or 4 trusted friends and observe their reactions and then pay attention to what they tell you. Their opinion will be valuable in helping you adjust the parameters of your speeches.
Another interesting method is recording yourself. You can find out if you're talking too much, if you have trouble speaking in a specific part of the presentation. It's an excellent method for preparing a good script to deliver.
Being able to explain yourself is, in my opinion, the most problematic point for any speaker. I know people who are capable in their field but give a terrible speech that is difficult to follow.
When you stand in front of an audience, your message must sound completely convincing. Confidence must come from your lips, and people must not perceive any doubt or conflict in your message. You should talk about the topic in question without feeling like you're reciting something from memory, and your voice level should be high and clear. Something that you could say without reading the presentation among friends at a bar or in your living room. Bad speeches put people to sleep.
The great rhetoricians of history have taught us that speaking in a complex way doesn't make you a better speaker. Everyone must understand you, even if you're speaking to people who don't understand the topic.
Asimov, an exceptional science communicator and renowned writer, stated that no one should complicate the message, and all knowledge should be disseminated in a language that everyone can understand. Marcus Tullius Cicero, one of the most renowned rhetoricians in history, also advocated for this type of speeches, using a language that everyone could understand. His success was based on a simple language without excessive flourishes, without too many metaphors, and with content suitable for the city.
Your presentation should be simple, direct in its message. You don't need to become a laconic character on stage. Just don't go round in circles explaining something.
Many still believe that great presentations can only be given by great personalities. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just watch Rajoy speak on television to fall asleep or give yourself a big ulcer. Without going any further, the visionary and successful entrepreneur Evan Williams (creator of Twitter) is one of the most soporific on stage, as are other characters in the technology scene. It's not always like this, but it can change, that's for sure.
The presentation part also has its important role in the story. Great speakers recommend few slides, little text, few drawings. Everything should be kept to a minimum, and almost everything has a reasonable explanation.
Guy Kawasaki, a well-known VC on the internet for having worked at Apple and invested in a few projects, has delved into the subject of presentations, explaining to people what really works for giving presentations (and generally oriented towards project presentations). According to him, the best method he uses is the 10/20/30 rule, which consists of:
- 10 slides.
- 20 minutes of presentation.
- 30pt font size (which would be equivalent to 40px, 2.45em, or 245%)
The vast majority of the talks I've been invited to always end up with people skipping slides and saying the classic phrases, "Well, since we don't have time..." or "I was going to talk about this, but we're running out of time..." and we can also see how some even, with time, skip through 10 or 20 slides at a speed of 600fps, in a clear example of why they haven't prepared the talk well or didn't know how to summarize their talk in 15-20 minutes.
That's why Guy mentions that 10 slides (to present projects for investment) is the ideal number to convey your idea in general.
The vast majority of the presentations I usually see don't last more than 20-30 minutes of oral exposition, followed by questions. After this time, you see the moderators making signs of "it's catching fire", or they warn you to stop. Even in many talks, they put a guard on you, who doesn't speak but signals you when you're going off topic. Occasionally, a talk lasts an hour, but in today's times, it's difficult to see presentations that last more than 20 minutes. So you should prepare your material for that, to not bore your audience for an hour of non-stop talking.
I've seen some champions of this, of course, going with the staggering number of +100 slides and sitting down to talk while passing slides, knowing they only have 15 minutes to talk. Please, no one will call you to explain any topic in great detail. They just call you to present an idea, explain it well, and not exceed one hour, even.
30 font size is the typographic base that Guy recommends, and I would say the bigger, the better. I think anyone with a reasonable degree of sanity would recommend it. Your eyes struggle when you're in an auditorium and have to read small text, and especially because small text is what invites you to put and fill slides until it's nauseating to see them.
If you want people to read the content of your slides, big text, short sentences are the best. What matters is what you say live and not what can be read in small text. If 30 points seems excessively big for your sentences, it's a sign that you should summarize your texts.
I agree, telling a good story is essential for a successful presentation. Stories have the power to capture the audience's attention and make information more memorable. Additionally, the presentation should be designed in a way that reinforces the story and doesn't distract from it.
TED is undoubtedly a great place to find inspiration and learn about how to give a good presentation. TED speakers are known for their ability to tell stories and deliver compelling presentations.
It's also important to keep in mind that preparation and practice are crucial for a good presentation. Most great speakers spend many hours preparing and rehearsing their presentations to ensure they are well-organized and effective.