Five things you can do today to improve your seminar presentation – and none of them involve a typhoon

Steve speaking at the 13th National Public Relations Congress in Manila, The Philippines, during Typhoon Milenyo, 2006.
Steve speaking at the 13th National Public Relations Congress in Manila, The Philippines, during Typhoon Milenyo, 2006.

I shoot video at lots of conferences, which means I see a lot of conference speakers. Some good, some, well, hoo-boy…

I have been one myself many times. Sometimes I’ve been good, sometimes, meh.

I have (tried) to train Wall Street bond analysts how to give more effective presentations, with decidedly mixed results.

(Aside: I was explaining the difference between passive and active voice, and I said to a room full of muni analysts, “Look, you wouldn’t say ‘Lunch was had by me with Steve Lubetkin,'” and one of them looked at me and said, in all seriousnes, “I speak that way all the time.” #fail)

So maybe you are not ready for a TED Talk, but here are five things anyone can do to make any presentation just a little better.

  1. Don’t use slides with words on them: Nothing kills the buzz in the seminar faster than someone reading the bullets off their PowerPoint slides. Get some 3×5 cards, TURN THEM PORTRAIT STYLE, and hold them in your hand. Write your notes on them, not on your slides. Use slides to illustrate your talk with images you have licensed or received permision to use. Don’t steal other people’s work product.
  2. Don’t use a white background and black type on your slides: You are going to be in a dimly lit room. If your slides have a white background, you are going to be blasting out your audience’s “visual purple,” the magic retinal chemicals that let our eyes adjust to dim light. They will only see the white blast from the screen and be unable to make out your face. Slides should be made with a dark blue, grey, or maroon background, and the type on the slides, if any, should be white or yellow, with a shadow to improve visibility. Use Sans Serif fonts for titles, but use a Serif font for bullet points to make the letters easier to read.
  3. Wear the damned microphone: Too many speakers think their voice is loud enough to project over the 300 seat ballroom. Sorry to disappoint you, but it is not. You NEED the microphone, regardless of the size of the room. Hotel and conference center acoustics are just too wicked for you to think you can surmount the obstacle without electric amplification. Use it. Besides, if I am recording your presentation, you have to wear the mic to be heard on the recording! Ask in advance for the conference to provide a wireless lavalier mic. This is the one they clip on your clothing. Put it very high up your shirt or jacket, or right at the knot if you wear a necktie. Put the wires under your clothes. Yes, you may have to go to the restroom to loop the wires under your shirt or dress or blouse, but it looks much more professional than having wires dangling all over you. And the same goes for the audience member who’s asking a question without using the handheld mic offered to them. Ask them to use the mic so everyone can hear them. If they still refuse, repeat their question. Remember it’s being taped, we can’t get the audience question on tape if they don’t use the mic.
  4. Prepare the presentation—at least a little bit—for the audience at hand: Don’t take your company’s latest 60-slide deck and think you can tailor it on the fly. You will invariably discover that too many of the slides are irrelevant to the audience, and say something like, “I’m going to try to go through this quickly,” which translates, “I don’t know what’s in here because I didn’t look at it before I came today.” Do something that’s at least partially customized for the audience.
  5. If it’s going to be hard for the people in the back to read the slide, don’t use it! We’ve all been at the presentation where someone says “I know this is hard to read, but…” If it’s hard to read, why are you making me strain my eyes? No tables of numbers, either, please.

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