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How to give a PowerPoint presentation?


Dad - I have to prepare a PowerPoint presentation for my class. Can you give me some tips?


Dad's response:

Presentation skills are essential for all knowledge workers if they want to avoid getting stuck somewhere in a back office. There are a few simple rules:

Never speak for more than 15-20 minutes! The duration of a presentation can vary depending on the subject and the context in which it is given. Presentations at scientific conferences usually should not be longer than 15 to 20 minutes. In the business world some bosses actually require you to make your point in three sentences. Whatever it is, if you can't say it in 15 to 20 minutes you probably are unsure of what you really wanted to say in the first place.

Concentrate on only two or three arguments! No one can remember more than three things in verbal communication! Also, people are increasingly conditioned to absorb only short info-bites. US-style TV, which slices and dices everything into 2 minute info-packages (with 3 minutes commercial "breaks") has ruined peoples' attention spans. The famous "short attention span disorder" has now become the prevailing mode of operation in many business environments. No one has the ability to listen for more than a few minutes.

You must (hear me: you must!) rehearse your presentation. Everyone, except perhaps the most experienced presenter, is initially preparing far too many slides. So you must go through all your slides in a rehearsal. As a rule of thumb, you have to throw out at least half of all your slides during the rehearsal because the presentation is usually twice as long as you thought.

Speak out loud - with a firm voice! Especially women must train their vocal techniques! Most women are genetically programmed to have a soft, soothing voice. This is why professional female speakers have all systematically learned how to speak much louder and at a lower-pitch. If nervous, women speakers often talk very fast and in a high-pitched tone, which communicates insecurity or even hysteria. See some excellent female speakers below:


Prepare thoroughly, especially test the presentation equipment - and then test again! Nothing is more distracting than a speaker who fumbles around with the overhead projector, the laptop or the USB stick. You probably know these people who are proud of themselves that they "don't know anything about technical details" and have no clue how to maximize their PowerPoint window so that anyone can see their five skimpy slides. They want to communicate the message that they just deal with the "high-level" issues and would leave the technical details to some clerk. But in reality they are just pathetic jerks or too lazy to learn how to use the "tools of the trade". You better learn how to use the PowerPoint software and how to set up your laptop and video projector if you want to make a professional impression.

Speak slowly! Speaking too fast is a typical mistake of inexperienced presenters. Particularly when you start your presentation, don't start talking immediately like a machine gun. Make a pause! Wait a few seconds and take a deep breath until you have everyone's attention. Nothing can calm down a room more quickly than a speaker who doesn't say anything for the first few seconds. The best speakers have a natural talent to strategically put pauses into their presentation - just before they make an important point.

Know your subject! You may be surprised that this is just number seven of my recommendations - but in my experience real substance is only a secondary priority for giving a successful speech. I have seen more than enough "bullshitters" who delivered brilliant presentations and received roaring applause. Only later the audience realized that it was all "hot air". However, in the long run you will not get away with "hot air"! Bluffing your audience may work once or twice - but then people will start asking questions and you will stand exposed as an idiot if you don't know your subject.

Look the people in your audience in the eye! To be really successful in a presentation you must connect with your audience. They must feel your passion for the subject. Don't talk over their heads! My advice: Pick out two or three members in the audience and talk to them directly - like in an intimate one-to-one conversation. This has a very subtle effect: The rest of the audience gets the impression they would be watching a very private conversation between you and someone special among them. They become curious and listen up more closely.

Forget the nonsense of making jokes! Do you want to be perceived as a stand-up comedian? You may get some laughs - but you will loose your aura as a professional. I have known very few people - and I really mean only a hand-full - who were able to combine humor and professionalism.

Clean up the content of your slides! Inexperienced presenters clutter their PowerPoint slides with tons of details - charts, maps, labels, icons and whole paragraphs of text. With such overstuffed slides the audience must get distracted as they try to read and visually absorb all the junk on the screen. Effective PowerPoint presentations have slides with carefully selected content. Often it is enough to have just 5 keywords on the screen - nothing else! Of course you may use graphics, tables, maps or even animations. Just make sure people can actually read the labels from the back of the room and understand the content within one minute.

Don't use over-designed templates and animated slide transitions! Amateur presenters are fascinated by the thousands of colorful templates you can use in PowerPoint or from dozens of web sites. Don't do it! Use the most simple "professional looking" design - and use it consistently throughout your presentation. The keyword is consistently! It is extremely distracting when you change font sizes, colors, layouts, or placements of headers and footers. You want your audience to listen to you and not getting absorbed by some fancy slides. Also forget about those animated slide transitions you can use in MS PowerPoint. Are you the director of a TV commercial  - or are you going to give a professional talk? Leave animated slide transitions to the guys from MTV!



Jeremey Donovan (2013)
How to Deliver a TED Talk. Secrets of the World's Most Inspiring Presentations.

Carmine Gallo (2009)
The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience.

Oren Klaff (2011)
Pitch Anything. An Innovative Method for Presenting, Persuading and Winning
the Deal.

Peter J. Feibelman (2011)
A PhD Is Not Enough!
A Guide to Survival in
Basic Books

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Copyright 2014, 2015 by Gerhard K. Heilig. All rights reserved.

Updated: 3 February 2015