Present it well and they'll ask for more!

Whether you are a manager or an engineer, everyone needs to have some competency in presenting their ideas. Presentation skills are critical in influencing others, articulating complex ideas, and addressing large groups of people. Even if you spend your days confined to your office writing code or finding bugs, at some point, you will need to present your ideas, maybe even to the VP when he stops by your office to see your new software features. So what makes for a good presentation? Recently, I had to give a formal presentation and had to think through my years of training to make sure I communicated key points and started meaningful conversations with the audience. So let me spend this time giving you my top 10 tips on giving a good presentation.

  1. YOU: Spend the first few minutes of your presentation introducing yourself. This is more than just your name and “rank”. You are in front of this group of people for a reason. Take advantage of it to let them know a little more about you and your career highlights. For many people, the first few minutes of your presentation will allow them to judge if they like you are not, or if they are interested in your topic or not. Ever heard of first impressions? This is first impressions to the extreme, especially if the audience is large. Don’t blow it!
  2. YOUR AUDIENCE: Know your audience. If you are going to influence your audience you need to know who they are. Not personally, but you need to know how much they already know about your topic, what points may be the most interesting to them, and what takeaways they are looking for within your presentation. Don't give details to high-level managers and don't give high-level business facts to a technical audience.
  3. YOUR TOPIC: Review your overall message with key members of the audience beforehand if this is a proposal or new idea. If this is a presentation to your team, upper management, or some other group within your company, you should be able to sample a few people before the day of the presentation, give them the highlights, and see if they are in agreement with your assertions. This is especially critical if the topic is controversial. You want allies in the audience that will speak up if the discussion heads in the wrong direction. If you are presenting to a bigger, more anonymous group (either a training class or conference) you may not be able to poll a sample of the audience beforehand, but you still should run your presentation by a few people to gather inputs.
  4. YOUR VISUALS: Your topic needs to be clear and concise – your slides will make or break your presentation. If you have verbose slides and then read them word-for-word then you are wasting the audience’s time. Couldn't you just make your point in email? The text in your slides should be bullet points. You should form what you are going to say for each bullet item and it should add more information and value than what the slide by itself says. If your slide deck will get passed around and doesn’t contain enough info with just your bullet points, you can add notes (Microsoft PowerPoint has a notes section for each slide). Just remember, your presentation is more about what you say and how you say it than what each slide says. Also, if you can add fancy visuals and animations make sure they are appropriate and don’t overwhelm your point. I don’t have that problem. As a Test Manager, the most fancy “visual” you’ll see from me is a table of data, but that hasn’t stopped me from having good, productive presentations. Also, being a Test Manager, I never like seeing presentations with spelling errors in the text or other inconsistencies so have your slides reviewed by someone before presenting them.
  5. YOUR VOICE: Show passion and excitement when you talk. Add some inflection to your voice. Being monotone can put the audience to sleep no matter how interesting the topic. Also, speak up loudly. Always loudly. A microphone helps, but you shouldn’t need one. Speaking loudly shows confidence and will keep your audience engaged. If you are soft spoken and don’t have a microphone, you are not setting yourself up for success. Inflection and volume in your voice is a great way to keep the audience engaged. There was a time at Microsoft where presenters tried different methods to keep the audience's attention. I've seen presentations from people in crazy costumes where you didn't actually know who the presenter was, and even one presenter who decided he would get his head shaved during his whole presentation. It was amazing to see how this shaving progressed and that he didn't flinch or get distracted from his presentation topics, but I honestly don't remember what the presentation was about, only that I just saw a guy get his head shaved.
  6. YOUR FLOW: Show your idea or topic in a progressive way that ends with a clear message on how it will add value. Start by giving some background so the audience is all on the same page. Explain the issues, give your proposals or examples from your experience, and suggest ways it can add value to the individuals in the audience. If you have challenges or risks, state them. If you have asks from the audience, state them. If your presentation is about the audience making a final decision (like if presenting to managers) state your expectation on the last slide that you are looking for a decision from them. Clarity makes for a productive presentation.
  7. YOUR BRAIN: Show that you have expertise in the topic and additional insight that others in the audience may not have. Don’t just present facts or issues, but draw conclusions so that you can lead your audience in the right direction. Given that, it’s also not fair to the audience to present a one-sided argument. Give counter-arguments yourself so that others in the audience don’t have to. Lay it all out from background info through technology, proposals to risks, and final conclusions. Pretend you are giving your audience breakfast in bed. You don’t expect them to get out of bed when they don’t have all that they need. Think through all that is needed and have it all on hand for them just in case. If you aren't sure, put it in an appendix. That way, you can go to it if the presentation changes direction, but if not, it is there for a reference.
  8. YOUR BODY: Show confidence in your body language. Don’t dance and don’t cross your arms. I can give you more advice here, but then I’d follow that up with don’t be self-conscious about your body language, and that will make you really confused. What works for me is pretend you are opening up to the audience, maybe even hugging them. Your arms are inviting by being beside you, behind you, or in some other position that sends the message that you are inviting people in. Crossing them says ‘stay away’ and that’s not the message your audience wants to hear if you are giving them good information in your presentation. Dance, pacing, or any other walking around can be distracting unless it’s up and down the aisles in which case you are again opening yourself up with your body language to help draw people in, so getting into the crowd is good. Movement while in front of the crowd can be distracting. If you are concerned about any of this, sit down in a chair at a conference table. That is by far the easiest environment to present from. If you want to go bigger than that, try video-taping yourself first during a practice run. You’ll find watching yourself will be priceless in improving your presentation skills.
  9. YOUR TIME: Actually, it’s the audience’s time. Watch the clock. Don’t go over the time you are allotted. If you allow questions within your presentation, make sure that you get back on topic and don’t go off on a tangential discussion. I typically count my slides and my time and make sure I have a good ratio. For example, I recent had to present 15 slides in 30 minutes. 2 minutes a slide was reasonable but even at the end I stopped before the final slide (which was less important to the conversation) and skipped any appendix items. If you have 30 minutes to present 45 slides, you aren’t going to complete it in time. Be reasonable about your pace.
  10. YOUR STAGE: The logistics are the most important part, really. Yes, microphones, projectors, laser pens, and more can make or break a presentation because your comfort level with these items will affect your focus on the topic at hand. Know what surroundings you are going to be presenting in. Sometimes I will show up a bit early or check out the facilities the day before to understand the configuration of the audience (seating arrangements) and of the speaker. If you think you will be sitting at a large conference room table with your own laptop, but instead find out you will be hooked to a microphone, video-taped, and talking from a pedestal, this can make a big difference in how you prepare, what you wear (yes, that is important to some degree), and when you arrive. Should you bring print-outs or send out the slide deck to the audience ahead of time? What about remote viewers through video conferencing? If you plan on doing any audience participation-like activity, you should think twice about this if part of your audience in remote. And questions from the audience can be really tough to hear for remote viewers so always repeat the questions before giving answers.

And a bonus tip if you've read this far: ADVANCED SKILL: Adding humor is great in keeping the audience engaged, but it’s a double-edged sword. Although it can be very powerful when done right, many times it is done wrong and the phrase or topic you thought would be funny and get a laugh, gets silence, long, uncomfortable silence, and that throws off the whole presentation. So my advice, don’t go for the jokes. As you get more confortable presenting, they actually somewhat form on their own as you make your way through your topic points.


Overall, the most important tip is to just go do presentations. You need to get out there, in front of people, and practice this skill. Some will be good and some will honestly suck. But how else are you going to get better? If you don't practice, you may have some awesome ideas and no mechanism to get momentum behind them. Good luck!