PresentationFollowing up on my recent post Why your conference sucks, here is a great list of tips and hints for presenters. There are a couple of reasons I think the source is cool – I found it via Steve Rubel’s blog, illustrating how social software often digs up “gem” resources out of nowhere (i.e. I would have never found this web page if not for Steve’s blog). Secondly, it is pretty old – ten years old I think – which explains the reference to the overhead projector. And yet, these simple principles are so often overlooked by even the best presenters.
Hope you enjoy it…

Presentation Tips
This collection of tips was transcribed from a seminar given in Seattle by Edward Tufte. He attributes these tips to another author (but I can’t remember who it was).
* Show up early, and something good is bound to happen. You may have a chance to head off some technical or ergonomic problem. Also, whereas at the end of a talk people are eager to rush off and avoid traffic, at the beginning they filter in slowly. It’s a great time to introduce yourself.
* Have a strong opening. Tufte offers a few ideas for structuring your opening:
o Never apologize. If you’re worried the presentation won’t go well, keep it to yourself and give it your best shot. Besides, people are usually too preoccupied with their own problems to notice yours.
o Open by addressing the following three questions: What’s the problem? Who cares? What’s your solution? As an alternate but more sophisticated technique, Tufte offers the following anecdote. a high-school mathematics teacher was giving a lecture to an intimidating audience: a group of college math professors. Early in the presentation, the teacher made a mathematical error. The professors immediately noticed and corrected the problem. And for the rest of the lecture, they were leaning forward, paying attention to every word, looking for more errors!
* PGP: with every subtopic, move from the Particular to the General and back to the Particular. Even though the purpose of a subtopic is to convey the general information, bracing it with particulars is a good way to draw attention and promote retention.
* Not so much a tip as a law: Give everyone at least one piece of paper. A piece of paper is a record, an artifact from your presentation. People can use that artifact to help recall the details of the presentation, or better yet to tell others about it.
* Know your audience. This is of course a general piece of advice for public speaking, but Tufte adds his own twist: know your audience by what they read. Knowing what they read tells you what styles of information presentation they are most familiar and comfortable with. Adapting your presentation to those styles will leave fewer barriers to the direct communication of your material.
* Rethink the overhead. Tufte spent a lot of time explaining why the overhead projector is the worst thing in the world. There’s a lot of truth to what he said. Bulleted lists are almost always useless. Slides with bulleted lists are often interchangeable between talks.
* The audience is sacred. Respect them. Don’t condescend by “dumbing down” your lecture. Show them respect by saying what you believe and what you know to be the whole story.
* Humour is good, but be careful with it. Humour in a presentation works best when it actually drives the presentation forward. If you find you’re using canned jokes that don’t depend on the context of the presentation, eliminate them.
Also, be very careful about jokes that put down a class of people. If you’re going to alienate your audience, do it on the merits of your content.
* Avoid masculine (or even feminine!) pronouns as universals. It can be a nuisance to half the audience. As universals, use the plural “they”. The Oxford English Dictionary has allowed “they” as a gender neutral singular pronoun for years.
* Take care with questions. Many people judge the quality of your talk not by the twenty minutes of presentation, but on the thirty seconds you spend answering their question. Be sure to allow long pauses for questions. Ten seconds may seem like a long pause when you’re at the front of the room, but it flows naturally from the audience’s point of view.
* Let people know you believe your material. Speak with conviction. Believing your subject matter is one of the best ways to speak more effectively!
* Finish early, and something good is almost bound to happen. If nothing else, people will be able to leave early, and suddenly they’ll have an extra couple of minutes to do things they didn’t think they’d get to. People will really like you if you do that.
* Practice. Practice over and over and over. If you can, record your presentation. Play it back and watch yourself. You’ll discover a thousand horrible, horrible things you never knew about yourself. Now watch it again without the sound. Why are your hands flying around like that? Now listen to it without the picture. Get rid of those ums! Now watch it at twice the normal speed. This emphasizes low-frequency cycles in your gestures.
* The two most dehydrating things you can do in modern civilization are live presentations and air travel. In both, the way to stay sharp is to drink lots of water. Take care of your body, especially your voice. If possible, avoid alcohol too.
Post scriptum
October 18th, 1999: Amazing. Seems my good deed of providing this list over the web has been carried out before, and pretty close to home. Ted Romer, a former student in my department, transcribed almost the exact same list back in 1995!
October 24th, 1999: I guess the trend is catching. Recently, AJ attended the Tufte seminar. She transcribed a more extensive set of notes that you also might want to look at.
October 24th, 1999: Thanks to Shimon Schocken from Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya for pointing out a typo on this page. I’ll sleep better tonight!
October 4th, 2001: Bernhard Reiter points out that the above links to Ted Romer’s home page are now defunct. I don’t even remember how many years ago he left the department.
Craig S. Kaplan
For a bit of comic relief, see my recent post at TomorrowConnecting – Ode to the Overhead

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