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How do I improve as a presenter?

A good friend of mine, whom I consider a great presenter, recently emailed me the above question.  Reading her email, I was struck by the fact that perhaps the question itself is what separates the good from the great; great presenters never stop trying to find new ways to improve.

Indeed, I saw this up close and personal a few years back after Tom Guskey presented at our national CRL conference.  Tom gave an outstanding presentation; he was entertaining, highly engaging, moving, and he based his presentation on solid research. Tom had an important message to communicate, and he did it in a way that kept our attention from start to finish. When his time was up, he received an enthusiastic standing ovation.

I had the pleasure of driving Tom back to the airport after his talk, and I asked him how he became such a great presenter. I’ll never forget his response.  He said, “I’ve read every book on presenting I can find.  I’ve done everything possible that I can to learn and improve.”

From that day on, inspired by our conversation, I’ve also made it my goal to read as much as I can about presenting.  In this post, I’ll comment on a few of the best books I’ve read, and include some of the most useful ideas I’ve discovered over the years, either conducting research on Partnership Learning, my next book, or reflecting on my own presentations.  If you haven't done it already, you can download a copy of the Partnership Learning fieldbook free, here.

1. Be Passionate: Carmine Gallo, who interviewed many of the world’s greatest presenters, describes passion as one of the most important secrets of great presenters. Of course this makes sense. If you don’t believe in what you’re sharing, you can bet your audience won’t. 

So how do you make sure you’re passionate about your topic? In my case, when I talk about instruction or coaching, I remind myself of why I think the topic is so important. Improving instruction is a powerful way to do good in the world. Coaches have an impact not just on teachers but on every student those teachers ever teach.  Coaches help us to communicate better with each other, help bring diverse groups together.  I believe these ideas deeply, and on those days when I think present well I think it is at least because my passionate commitment to those topics comes through.

In any presenter there must be some powerful reason for talking. Dig deep, remind yourself of the reason, and then make sure your audience sees your passion for your subject.

2. Be Prepared: Bert Decker, Nancy Duarte, Garr Reynolds, and Cliff Atkinson have all written great explanations about how to plan and organize presentations. I recommend any of their works on this topic.  Let me note a few ideas they all suggest.  (a) Use pen, paper, and post-its to map out your presentations ahead of time. Nancy Duarte suggests using sharpie markers to write on post-its because it forces us to write only a few words for each thought. (b) Bert Decker has this great idea of identifying trigger words, simple words that capture an entire concept, story, anecdote or idea. The goal of preparing is to get all of your good ideas, learning structures, stories and anecdotes out, and then organizing your information into a tightly put together presentation.

A second form of preparation, however, is to review books and notes about how to be an effective presenter. Taking an hour or so to skim through high-lighted sections of Carmine Gallo or Bert Decker’s books, prior to presenting, will remind you of the many communication strategies you want to use while presenting.

3. Make Sure You Are Presenting, Not the PowerPoint.  Duarte and Reynolds give great advice on how to create great slides that compliment your presentation. Cliff Atkinson clarifies that when our slides have too many words, the audience has to choose between reading the slides or listening to us.  Since you’re presenting, you likely want folks to listen to you, so you should put as few words on the slides as possible.

You should give the design of your slides a great deal of attention. I believe that in the next two or three years poor quality slides will be seen as a real presentation weakness. Audiences will no longer tolerate slides that are ugly or that have too many words or distracting images. Both Reynolds and Duarte have great books on this topic. You can follow Duarte’s blog here.  You can follow Reynolds' blog here.  Both authors are also on Twitter at Reynolds and Duarte.

Also, good presenters should use slides only as an aid, and focus on connecting with the audience.  Forget the notion that you have to talk about each slide and cover every planned idea. If you start to rush through your ideas, you’ll lose your audience. A better idea is to take the time you need to cover key information, and if you have to cut info, do it for the sake of keeping people engaged.

4. Use Simple Language.  I don’t mean you should speak simplistically. What I mean is you should find the simplest way to say exactly what you mean.  As Einstein famously said, “make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.”  I've read two books about simplicity and both are worth reading. Bill Jensen’s Simplicity is one of my favorite books with many applications far beyond communication.  John Maeda, the former MIT professor who is now the new director of the Rhode Island School of Design, has also written a great book, The Laws of Simplicity, and he also has a blog I visit frequently.

Part of looking for simple language is finding the precise, correct phrasing, or wording that is memorable.  Steve Jobs is a master at this: when introducing the iphone at the MacWorld conference in 2007, he said, “today, Apple reinvents the phone,” and the iphone “puts the internet in your pocket.” Short, punchy phrases that capture the essence of your message are memorable and engaging. Good presenters are on the look out for just the right turn of phrase.

6. Recognize the Power of Non-verbals.  Be sure to turn toward your audience and make eye contact. Bert Decker suggests making no more than 5 seconds of eye contact, but being sure to sustain eye contact.  Everyone suggests stepping out from behind the podium or desk, making sure nothing stands between you and your audience. Everyone also suggests paying attention to your clothing—dressing down suggests either your don’t care enough to look your best, or you’re so confident that you can’t bother to dress up for the session—and neither message is one you want to send to your audience. You can link to Bert's blog here.


7. Speed Up/Cut back.  As Anita Archer has said, presenters are most effective if they maintain a “perky pace.”  If you’re speaking too slowly, you’ll lose your audience, so it is important to monitor the energy of your presentation style. To do that, you need to record your presentations and take a hard listen to your pace.

Also, even the most engaging presenters will struggle to maintain an audience’s attention if they don’t provide some process time for their audience. Build in activities that will keep your audience engaged. I find more than ten minutes of talk without some process time is too much.

7. Get Feedback. This is the hardest and yet probably most important method of improving.  Bert Decker talks about the power of watching yourself on video tape, and I can testify that video feedback is very useful.  But every presentation, whether or not you’re taping it, is a chance for feedback.

Every time you speak you should read your audience.  Are they engaged? Are people resting their heads on their hands?  Are people taking multiple bathroom breaks? Are people drinking a lot of water or pop? Are there side conversations?

Facing the brutal facts during a presentation can be tough on self-esteem and some situations are beyond our control, but the best way to improve is simply to monitor what works and what doesn’t work.

These are only a few ideas, and, probably not the most important, but I did want to point out the several excellent books I mention here. If you’re looking for one book on how to present, you can’t go wrong with Bert Decker (and you can follow him on twitter ).  If you’d like a book about creating slides (an essential skill), both Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynold’s books, mentioned above, are outstanding. 


References (1)

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  • Response
    Incredible post. Obviously I had include several things like utilizing Black Slides as a part of PowerPoint's and stress video input much more. Watched conduct changes! In any case, you hit the nail on the head, and value the reference to the book. You book was a major impact on my ...

Reader Comments (11)

Great post Jim. Of course I'd add a couple of things like using Black Slides in PowerPoints and emphasize video feedback even more. Observed behavior changes!
But you got it right - and appreciate the reference to the book.
December 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBert Decker
Thanks to you Bert. You book was a big influence on my thinking and it is one I highly recommend, not just for the ideas, but for the accessible way it is written.
December 30, 2008 | Registered CommenterJim Knight
Hi Jim: This is a really great post. Thanks for all of the great information and references. There are several things I am going to follow up on. I completely embrace the partnership philosophy and ideas. I do feel like that is becoming second nature to me. However, it wasn't at first. That just goes to show me that you can choose to change your thinking and ideas as well as behavior! I think I am going to start with some of your ideas when redoing a few of my powerpoints. I really like the idea of using post-its to map out a presentation as well as using a Sharpie to get to fewer words. I've heard you talk about your conversation with Tom Guskey before. I also heard him speak, and he was amazing. He made it look SO EASY! Of course, you do, too. Careful planning is SO important. Thanks again for your post. It is very helpful. My head is already spinning with ideas. Happy New Year!
December 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSue Woodruff
Hey Jim

Excellent work! You turned me on to "Presentation Zen" last year and now I'm hooked. I have since put much more thought into my presentation techniques and have found it to greatly enhance my planning and organization of not only the presentation itself, but the content, too.

One tip that has really stuck with me (I think it was Garr's, but am not certain) is the notion that slides and handouts are not necessarily the same thing. The slides themselves should guide your presentation, attract the audience, or almost direct traffic. However, "handouts" should include references, further readings, more specific statistics, quotes, or other information. I have found that it is this latter group that traditionally creeps into slides when they shouldn't. So now, I try to cater my slides to captivate and sustain my audience, and a separate, different handout with information that supplements my presentation. Thanks again for your work.

December 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel T. Pollitt
Thanks for the well-written, great tips, Jim. A couple of years ago I presented at Michigan Reading Association annual conference. It was an action-research project that I did with another teacher. It was one of the best presentations I've ever done because of reason number 1: passion. I was excited to share what we did and what we learned. I also realize that working on the project had been one of my most positive coaching experiences to that point, which I believe added to the passion of my presentation. In my excitement, I forgot to pass out the evaluations, but people were heard saying "I'm going to try this on Monday" which is pretty positive feedback! Thanks again for sharing your learning.
December 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLinda704
Great post, Jim. I think simplicity is something we need to embrace across everything we do at CRL--not just our presentations. I don't know if it's the "curse of knowledge" (to borrow from Made to Stick) or just that academia has been so thoroughly ingrained in us, but I worry that too much of our message gets lost in the delivery. Edward Tufte's story about the NASA scientists who were trying to warn decision makers about launching the Challenger in cold weather comes to mind.

December 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAaron Sumner
I would suggest one additional way to better your presentations...use handouts. My argument for handouts is summed up here:
December 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJoel Heffner
Oh my so many great comments, and I agree with everyone. Dan is right on about Garr Reynolds idea of avoiding using what he calls Sliduments (handout of PowerPoint). I'm grateful for everyone's comments, and look forward to hearing more from all of you. Thanks.
December 30, 2008 | Registered CommenterJim Knight
Thank you. Mary Lou Parker and I have been reading Slideology. We both train for the distirict and have wanted our presentations to be memorable. Because (unfortunately) these are stand alone staff developement sessions (with no followup coaching in place), we want the teachers to feel that they can go back to their respective schools and implement what was trained. Your information in the article both validated some of our practices and given some very good "food for thought" and implementation ideas.
Thank you again for taking the time to share your thoughts.
December 31, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterOdesssa L. Wood
The word "presenting" sends the message that the work of learning is one-way rather than two-way. Presenting connotes that the presenter conveys a message without holding the receiver accountable for receiving it. Learning for me is a two-way process in which both the learner and teacher share responsibility for the success of the learning process. So, I wonder if the question raised in this blog is about presenting or learning.

I agree that there are ways to make presentations more enjoyable for the participants, yet it is what extends beyond a presentation that genuinely moves new information into practice. Presenting alone, as the research from Joyce and Showers has long held, does little to move new content into practice. Presentation design begins first with understanding the end results sought. Some presenters within the arena of professional development seek only to entertain rather than to produce changes in practice and learning for participants' students. Without a clear understanding of the purpose and goals for any professional development that reach well beyond the presentation itself, presenters may entertain with few results. It is far more crucial, from my perspective, to examine and determine the changes desired, the full scope of the learning experience including the presentation, authentic application of the learning in practice, and ongoing support with feedback before planning any presentation.

Another useful study is by Cohen and Hill who report, in their extensive research on teacher professional development in mathematics content and pedagogy, that when learners experience discomfort in the learning process more change happens in their practice and their students' learning. So presenters may benefit from worrying less about making their participants happy and more from ensuring they are learning,

A favorite book on presenting is The Presenter's Fieldbook by Robert Garmston.
January 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoellen Killion
Thanks for summarizing this information in such an accessible manner. I agree that the science of presentations/communications is advancing and changing--particularly in how new media (e.g., podcasts, on-line video, etc.) are used to supplement traditional presentation approaches. I appreciated the book references you provided and look forward to reviewing several of them.
January 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterReed Deshler

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