on presenting


This is totally not confined to at-work presentations.

The number of sessions I have sat through that could have taken 5 minutes instead of 20,30,40 or even 60 is amazing. Remember: I have not flown half way around the globe to see you read. I have come to hear a story, to see how conclusions were formed and interact.

Often, the tools are deficient. Powerpoint encourages bad habits (you can use PowerPoint for excellent slide decks too, but ignore the temptations of boring templates, bad effects and dot lists). The dot point list is more often than not your enemy. I (and anybody else in the audience who has learnt to read) can read your dot points faster than you can. While I’m reading, I’m not listening to you. If you spoke a cure for all forms of cancer just after having put a slide up filled with dot points… 90% of people will miss it.

Now, dot points are an excellent way to remind you what the heck you’re meant to be talking about (and in what order). Use presenter notes! They are really useful.

If your laptop/presentation software doesn’t support a “presenter” mode that lets you view presenter notes but not the whole room, simply write them down, print them out, or anything like that. One simple practice run through will make you be able to do this seamlessly.

The last couple of presentations I did were completely assembled using 280slides.com. An excellent web app for doing presentations. It will import and export ODF (and other formats) so you’re not tied to a (unfortunately) non open source web app. That being said, it ran fine in my browser and unlike OpenOffice.org, did not make me want to stab people repeatedly every time I used it.

So, Stewart’s quick tips:

  • Tell a story. How did you get to your conclusions?
  • Don’t just read. Use visuals to accompany the talk. Visuals aren’t the talk.
  • Practice. Just once or twice through will make things a lot smoother.


  • Make sure your equipment works beforehand. Nobody wants to see you fiddle around with your Windows/OSX laptop only to find out you didn’t bring the dongle or can’t operate the Displays control panel. (Interestingly enough, I see Linux “just work” more than Windows or OSX these days).
  • If there is a microphone, use it. I don’t want to struggle to hear you.
  • If you are constantly using a laser pointer you either have too much on your slides or the slide does not highlight the important information. (laser pointers are useful when people ask questions though)

One blog I love on the subject is Presentation Zen. I’ll also recommend the book, but you can get so much just from the web site.

Some excellent recent presentations:

  • Simplicity Through OptimizationPaul McKenney
    Paul is able to explain RCU clearly and concisely through visuals. You are left with no doubt that this does really work. The visuals are not everything, they assist in the telling of the RCU story
  • Teach every child about foodJamie Oliver
    I watched this online. Note how not everything was smooth the whole way. Also note how this was still effective. Passion is an awesome tool. Check out the simple graph showing lead causes of death: simple and effective.
  • Bill Gates on energy: Innovating to Zero!
    Historically, Bill Gates has not been the most engaging speaker. We can all forget the horrible PowerPoint slides with four hundred dot points about some release of something that nobody cared about. This is different. Clear, concise, engaging and simple visuals to make the point.