Presentation Tips: Lessons Learned from Giving 100+ Talks and Webinars

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At Litmus, we pride ourselves on having lots of first-time speakers at our Litmus Live conferences in Boston, San Francisco, and London. To help put these very talented—but often very nervous—email marketing experts at ease, we do everything we can to provide them with the information and presentation tips they need to make their sessions successful. Along the way, we introduce speakers to each other, give them plenty of opportunities to get feedback from Litmus staff, and even run one-on-one calls where speakers can pick our brains, throw around ideas, and even present a complete dry run of their talk.

The advice we offer our Litmus Live speakers is based on producing more than a dozen Litmus Live conferences, as well as our personal experiences. Between Justine Jordan, Jason Rodriguez, and me, we’ve given well over a hundred presentations and webinars. Along the way, there have been high points and there have been low points.

A recent personal low point reminded me that I still have improvements to make, and spurred me to reach out to Justine and Jason so the three of us could share some presentation tips based on those lessons learned.

Presentation Content

Justine Jordan: All presentations start with an idea, with a topic. Make sure your topic is a good fit for the intended audience. Event organizers can help with this. For example, while we were accepting speaker submissions for Litmus Live this year, we published a blog post about the topics we’d love to see at Litmus Live 2018. Here are some other things to consider:

Know your topic well.

Jason Rodriguez: People want to hear from the experts, so make sure you know your topic inside-and-out when giving a talk. The better you know your topic, the more comfortable you’ll be. Plus, if things do go wrong—like you lose your notes or your slides stop working, etc.—then you can still speak confidently about your topic.

That being said, don’t be afraid to show some vulnerability or present on newer topics. Even the experts are always learning, so it’s OK if you don’t know everything. And sometimes, the best way to learn deeply is to teach, so don’t hesitate to give a talk on something you’re just starting to dig into.

Be passionate about your topic.

Justine: You shouldn’t just know your topic, you should have a passion for it. We’ve all seen presentations where the speaker just didn’t seem to care that much about what they were talking about, even though they seemed really knowledgeable. They were just going through the motions.

If you want the energy and attention of your audience, you have to give it to them first. That’s nearly impossible to do if you’re just not into your topic.

Stay true to yourself.

Justine: Don’t force humor if you’re not comfortable with it. Humor is just one way to connect with an audience and be memorable. Being insightful, helpful, relatable, emotional—those are just a few other ways to make an impact on your audience.

Presentation Design

Jason: When it comes to slide design, I wrote up some of my most valuable presentation tips over on my personal blog. However, that only covers a small amount of what goes into creating a successful presentation. Here are some more presentation tips:

Keep things simple.

Jason: Put the focus on your content and what you’re saying, not on the slide designs themselves. The simpler your slides, the more easily understandable they are. Bonus points: minimal slide design doesn’t date as rapidly as over-designed slides, making your presentation that much more evergreen.

Chad S. White: I also recommend avoiding audio, video, and demos—anything where you have to link out to the internet or anything that invites A/V problems. About half of the presentations I’ve ever seen that included those elements had a problem during the live presentation.

Lead with content, not your bio.

Chad: Traditionally, presentations begin with a title slide and then a bio slide. One of the great presentation tips that I got from reading As We Speak by Peter Meyers and Shann Nix is to lead off your presentation by jumping right into your topic. Make your central argument. Set the scene. Make a connection with your audience and start delivering some value—and then talk about who you are and why people should care.

I’ve been doing this in my presentations for a few years now and really like it. It feels very natural now. You can see this approach in our Email Workflows that Work (bio on slide 7), Email Tactics Customers Hate (bio on slide 14), and The Root Cause of Poor Email Deliverability (bio on slide 12).

Don’t date yourself or your content.

Jason: It can be tempting throw the hottest memes and GIFs in your slides, or make a funny topical joke. But if you expect to give your presentation again in the future—or if you post your slides online—then topical content can quickly date your talk and slides. Avoid quick, easy wins with topical content and focus on your message instead. It’s hard (I’ve used many an animated GIF) but usually worth it.

Keep things readable.

Jason: Keep your slide text big and high-contrast. Screen projector quality varies wildly, so the bigger the text, the better. Bigger, bolder text will also help keep your slides succinct. Too much copy forces the audience to read your slides instead of listening to you. Big text helps keep copy short and puts the focus back where it belongs: the speaker.

Have a post-presentation strategy for sharing slides.

Chad: Most presentations end up shared afterward—either directly with attendees or via SlideShare, or both—so you need a strategy for this. Some people create a live presentation deck and then a separate, expanded one that’s optimized for online sharing. Some people make copious use of slide notes. The event organizer may have some preferences here.

I personally like creating a single slidedeck, with nothing hidden in the notes. What you see is what you get later. That means there’s some extra narrative text along the way, but it allows me to focus on a single deck and provides me with stronger guide rails so I’m less likely to forget something important. Those are both important considerations for me because I do a fair number of presentations—five during the first six months of 2018—and it’s rare for me to give a presentation more than once. Your considerations may be different, but that’s my calculus.

Presentation Prep

Chad: You’re not done once you’ve created your slides. Now you need to give the presentation. That involves practice.

Ask organizers EVERYTHING.

Jason: When preparing for your talk, don’t be afraid to ask organizers any question that comes to mind. In particular, be sure to ask about the technical details for your talk or webinar. Things like:

  • What aspect ratio should slides be in? (standard vs. wide)
  • What software can I use to present? (Keynote, PowerPoint, Google Slides, etc.)
  • Is audio supported? How about video or slide animations?
  • Will I be using your machine or my own?
  • What kind of microphone will I be using?
  • Will I have control over slide progression? (keyboard control or a clicker)
  • What fonts can I use?
  • What webinar software will we be using?

Having these details spelled out up front will prevent a lot of problems that novice speakers typically run into.

Don’t stop at technical details, either. Event organizers are (or should be) there to help make your talk a success. Feel free to ask them about attire, audience demographics, what kind of snacks are available, or damned near anything else. Organizers are a resource not only for attendees, but speakers, too.

Make sure that your timing is good.

Chad: Practice your session with a timer running to ensure that you’re filling your time slot, as well as not blowing past your allotted time. Ending your presentation 20 minutes early doesn’t make a great impression. And don’t expect to fill big shortfall with Q&A, as sometimes there are no questions. Because it’s such a wildcard, I wouldn’t recommend leaving more than 10 minutes for Q&A, if the event organizers even allow it.

We’ve done away with Q&A at Litmus Live, in part because being put on the spot on stage with a question you can’t or don’t want to answer is a huge turnoff, particularly for novice speakers. Instead, we have an Ask an Expert time slot where all the speakers and some invited experts have two-person tables where they can meet with attendees one-on-one and address any questions they might have.

I personally love our approach because then sessions end on strong notes, rather than the unpredictability of questions. Plus, people can ask much more pointed, nuanced questions in a one-on-one setting, so it’s more beneficial to attendees.

Review your past presentations.

Justine: Want to get better? Watch videos of your past talks to improve. Pay attention to:

  • Body language, particularly how you use your hands
  • Eye contact with the audience
  • Use of the stage and the lectern, if there is one
  • Verbal tics, like saying, “Umm”

I rewatched a presentation I gave at WistiaFest and realized that I had a verbal tic. I kept saying, “Right?!” throughout my presentation. Once I was aware I was doing that, it allowed me to fixed it. It was painful to watch, but my presentation style has improved dramatically from (let’s face it) forcing myself to watch each presentation video.

Get some rest.

Jason: Finally, don’t underestimate how draining giving a presentation can be. Get plenty of rest the night before your talk, eat a little bit of food a while before you go on stage, and stay hydrated. A lot of conferences have parties and open bars. It can be tempting to eat, drink, or stay out too late, but be conscious of what you’re body is telling you before you give your talk. Feel free to attend the parties, just know your limits and don’t go overboard. The last thing you want is to be tired, hungover, thirsty, and sluggish on stage. That’s the last thing attendees want, too.

Presentation Contingency Planning

Justine: Be prepared for anything to happen, and have a mental plan for how to handle it. What have I had go wrong? Well, I’ve had…

  • The clicker not work (which was captured on video for future generations to enjoy… ehhhhhh)
  • My slides blink endlessly because of a faulty projector
  • My slides not display my graphics
  • Laryngitis so that my voice sounded like Kermit the Frog
  • My time slot expanded and shrunk
  • My audio or video not work

If it can go wrong, eventually it will go wrong. Here are some presentation tips to protect yourself:

Have multiple copies of your presentation handy.

Chad: Have your presentation on a USB drive, and send in your presentation ahead of time so they can load it onto a conference computer, if one is being used. It doesn’t hurt to have your presentation saved to Dropbox or OneDrive. If you used Google Slides, export your presentation to PPT and save it to all those places, too.

Know how to lengthen—or shorten—your talk on the fly.

Justine: In the event that your time slot expands (hey, it happens!) or shrinks (due to another speaker going over, technical issues, or something else), have a plan for how to adjust your talk accordingly. You’ll be the event organizer’s hero if you can get their schedule back on track. Know where you can add (or subtract) details from a story, cut an example, or dive deeper into a topic.

Bring extra adapters, clickers, etc.

Chad: Don’t rely on the event organizer or the venue to have all the equipment you might need. For instance, before a recent conference that I was speaking at, I put in an A/V request indicating that I wanted to run my presentation off my own computer, and specified that it was a MacBook Pro—one of the new fancy ones that only has USB-C ports [cue ominous music]. However, when I got to the room, they didn’t have the right adapter. It didn’t help that the previous speaker had gone five minutes over, giving me just 5 minutes to set up. It then took at least 5 minutes to find an A/V person from the hotel, so by the time I got help, I was into my presentation time.

I’d brought an USB-C networking adapter with me with a HDMI port, but they didn’t have a HDMI connection for the projector. I tried running the presentation via Google Slides, but it wasn’t displaying correctly in the organizer’s computer’s apparently outdated browser, so we next turned to the PPT version of my presentation that I’d saved to Dropbox. Eventually, we got that to work…but it made me 10 minutes late in starting, which caused me to rush to make up time.

Test your presentation at the event before your session time.

Chad: Some conference organizers insist on this. If they don’t, you should insist. If I’d done that at the event I just mentioned, it would have alerted me to the adapter issues. It would have also alerted me to the fact that the projector was washing out my slides, making some of my charts next to impossible to read—a problem that went unfixed because of how late it was already running.

That presentation was frustrating for both me and the audience, as the attendee feedback made clear. Some saw that I was trying to make the best of a bad situation. Others felt more or less like the person who said, “Presentation was not QC’d and much of it wasn’t visible to audience. Speaker was defensive and rejected responsibility, which was off-putting.” Ouch! And it was all the more painful because it was true. I didn’t take enough responsibility for the situation I was in and I regret that. I’ll certainly be better prepared next time.

Don’t apologize.

Justine: When things go wrong or you feel like you’ve made a mistake, it’s tempting to apologize or make excuses. Don’t apologize for being nervous, for technical issues, or for that faulty clicker. Remember that “the show must go on” and you are the star—so make the most of the situation.

In nearly all cases, you are much more aware of the issue than the audience is, and apologizing will only serve to draw their attention away from your content and toward whatever you are apologizing for. Keep the audience focused on your content.

When my slides flashed constantly throughout my 45-minute talk, I made a silly joke about render testing for slides (a nod to my topic, email rendering) and moved on, ignoring the blinking. When my graphics completely disappeared I painted a verbal picture, saying, “Imagine this is a photo of your email on an iPhone…” When the audio or video doesn’t work, explain what should be playing, or skip it altogether. Take a deep breath and keep moving—it will be over soon!

Chad: Whew. That was cathartic. We hope our hard learned lessons help you to have more successful presentations, whether you’re presenting at Litmus Live or another event.

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