Monthly Archives: December 2010

How to listen when you are making a presentation

Here is the most common type of presentation people make: A person spends 5 minutes introducing the speaker – telling the audience how great the speaker is, how many degrees he has, how long he has been married, how many kids he has and the names of all his house pets. The speaker then comes on and splashes a bunch of bullet points on the screen and reads them off verbatim for 50 minutes and then he asks: “Are there any questions?”.

Well – that’s one way of doing it.

Here is a better way:

Skip the long introduction. Why? Because the audience doesn’t care. The audience is here to hear about the ideas the speaker is going to tell them. The speaker should start with this line: “Good morning…my name is John Smith…I am here to tell you about this GREAT idea I have to make your life better. If you have any questions during my talk, please feel free to interrupt me any time. I will answer your question unless you are jumping ahead of my which case I will let you know.”

A presentation is a conversation with the audience.

When was the last time you had a conversation with a friend or business associate when you got to talk non stop for 50 minutes before your friend could chime in? You must learn to “listen” while presenting and the best way to do that is to have the audience ask questions DURING your presentation. This is the best way to develop rapport and dialog with your audience. In reality, very few people in the audience will actually ask questions during your 50-minute talk. But the fact that you offer that opportunity to the audience makes them feel at ease, valued, wanted and appreciated.

Also learn to “listen” with your eyes. When you see someone in the audience who has this puzzled look on his face, you know you have lost connection with him and you need to reconnect with him and the rest of the crowd. You do that by asking the audience “Does this make any sense to you?” This will give you a chance to elaborate on your idea and get your point across. If you see someone passed out in a deep coma, you will know your 10 bullet points per slide has done its trick!

Remember this: A 50-minute monolog from anyone is deadly – especially if you use bullet points.

So the idea of “we will have a Q and A at the end of the session” is sheer utter nonsense. It is like you walking up to your friend and say “I want you to shut up for the next 50 minutes and listen to me”. What do you think your friend would say to you?

Presenting data – a couple of examples

My friend Jim showed us how Nightingale presented her mortality statistics to the Army brass through the use of a rose diagram.

Her idea was to show the mortality rate of soldiers dying from infectious diseases dropped significantly from the winter of 1854 to the next winter as a result of the procedures she put in place. This was quite effective.

Most people (99.9% of the presenters using PowerPoint) would have just splashed the raw data on the screen and put the audience in a coma:

Nightingale did not do that. She was much smarter than 99.9 % of the presenters.

Another effective way to communicate Nightingale’s message to the brass would be through the use of a SIMPLE bar chart as shown below:

Very simple…no bells and no whistles….just the facts.

Don’t try to be clever

Here is a quote from Napoleon that pretty much sums up the danger of being too clever.

We see that a lot in bad PowerPoint presentations. The presenter clutters up his slides with all those animations and cheesy clip arts on top of the 10 bullet points.

All these special effects do nothing but make the audience dizzy. They distract the audience from the message. The audience sit there wondering how the next batch of bullet points are going to appear. Are they going to fly in from the left? Or from the right? Or are they just going to dissolve first and then explode? Which bells are going to ring and which whistle will be blown? It is all utter nonsense.

Listen to Napoleon! Keep it simple and don’t try to be clever.

Always give examples

In all your presentations, always give examples and be as specific as you can. Instead of telling your audience what you are saying, SHOW them by way of examples.


The fast-food chain Jack in the box has a sustainability page on its website. Most environmental sustainability statements are like mission statements – fuzzy, ill-defined with a bunch of happy talk.

Jack in the box is an exception.

It gives specific examples. It tells the world it has installed smart irrigation controls and low flow kitchen and plumbing fixtures which “could reduce water usage by up to a million gallons a year”.

It has increased the amount of recycled materials by “more than 20 percent”.

It has “diverted more than 50 percent” of its corporate office’s trash away “from local landfills”.

It has “decreased electricity usage by more than 7 percent in natural gas usage by 95 percent” at its corporate office.

The list goes on. The specific examples with numbers give the audience something to relate to. They can relate to the magnitude of the accomplishment.

It would be very easy to make a presentation on this without putting the audience in a deep coma.

Another video on good presentation skills

This video is geared towards the scientists and engineers. But actually the BASIC principles apply to everyone. The first point it makes is this: Can you still make your presentation if the power goes out? Or if your Windows computer freezes up? If the answer is no, you are not ready to give that presentation.

Another point the video makes is about NOT over-rehearsing – my big pet peeve. Do not memorize your presentation because you will sound like a dumb robot. Do you memorize your conversation with your friends? I hope not.

Here is the video:


This is my favorite slide from the video about putting your outline on the screen: