Jazzing It Up: Constructing a Better Presentation to Engage Your Peers

This morning, I'd like to welcome back Ryder Daniel's, Spend Matters' resident Tech-Ed expert.

We've all been subject to "Slow Death by PowerPoint" while listening to a pitch or a talk so tedious it makes your organs hurt. Sometimes the pace is like the speed of trees growing. If you’re lucky. Sometimes it's clipart from hell, or the dreaded reading of every bullet point -- and they're all in 8-point font.

Presentation tools, as with desktop publishing in the 80s, brought design and communication abilities to anyone with a PC. The problem is, we haven't quite caught up on teaching folks how to actually use these tools. Learning to present effectively is an ongoing process; when I look at presentations I did even four years ago, I cringe. It's always a good idea to take some time with Google to see whether you can improve your presentation kung-fu. Presentations, like it or not, have become the default metaphor on how to communicate in a business context, in front of a large audience.

So how do you create better presentations? Here are some links and places to start, as well as some tips:

  • Garr Reynold's Presentation Zen is the best place to start. Check out the Top 10 Slide tips. You could spend hours on this site and following links – and it's worth it.
  • TED conference presentations are always interesting, if only for the subject matter. And yes, there's an app for that. Several years ago, Bill Gates released a jar of mosquitoes into an audience to talk about the global malaria epidemic. Most of us don't have the time or budgets to do things quite this sophisticated, but spend some time on TED and you'll often find great ideas on how to be more effective at giving a talk.
  • Edward Tufte is as close to a guru as you can find on the topic of displaying information. He's had a huge impact on how I approach data visualization. He's also got some thoughts on PowerPoint.

After you've looked through some of the materials above, here are a few macro tips:

  • It sounds basic, but the very first thing you need to decide is "Am I presenting this live, or is it to be emailed?" This question is key. Live presentations can take on a Steve Jobs elegance and simplicity –- but if you got the presentation as an email without Steve as the Sherpa, you might say "Um, Huh?"
  • Live presentations I see almost always need to be more minimal. “Less is more” is true. When you finish your presentation, go back and take out a third of the words. I know it's hard, but you need to do it.
  • If you need a deck that does both live and take-away, write the take-away first, and then remove half of the words and slides for your live presentation version. Use the take-away version as your notes.
  • Don't be afraid to try new tools. My current favorite presentation weapon is prezi.com . It creates a whole new set of visual metaphors, and you can use it in the cloud or offline. Microsoft Labs' PPTPlex is also a great add-on, though somewhat buggy in beta. It challenges the way you organize thoughts and present them.
  • I also use PollEverywhere to embed surveys in PowerPoint and conduct fast live audience polling. Audience members can respond in real-time via SMS or even Twitter, and results are shown live in Presentation Mode. Very effective at engaging an audience. I often ask questions about what's important, or even lead off a talk a few slides in to have the audience set the direction.
  • Crystal Graphics is the big player in PowerPoint templates, and worth checking out.
  • If you're not a designer, just keep it basic. There's nothing wrong with a simple white background and minimal text, or a dark background with white text. PowerPoint has some good, basic templates to use.

Here is an embedded live poll. Of course, if we just did the web, we wouldn't need texting because we'd just click on a response, but you get the idea of how you can use this in a meeting. Directions on how to text your live response are on the widget below. Try this audience polling system at Poll Everywhere

Can Spend Matters readers share some links on best and worst presentations they've seen? What other resources have readers used to improve their presentations, and presenting skills?

- Ryder Daniels, Capsaicin, LLC

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