February 2020
Text by Nicky Bleiel

Image: © kasto/123rf.com

Nicky Bleiel is a Watson Information Developer at IBM. She is a Fellow and Past President of the Society for Technical Communication and has more than 20 years of experience writing and designing content for software products in a variety of industries. She has given over 100 conference presentations, webinars, and workshops.



25 tips for successful presentations

Presentation skills are important for professional success. Delivering clear, professional, and useful presentations will help you share knowledge, drive initiatives, improve communication, and advance your career.

No one is born a great presenter. Giving a successful presentation takes a combination of planning, preparation, and execution. These 25 tips cover developing content, preparing slides, effective rehearsing, and tips for the day of the presentation that will boost your confidence and impress your audience.

Lay the foundation

1.     Identify your audience
Follow the technical communicatorís mantra ó "know your audience." For example, a presentation at your company may be less formal than a conference presentation, but the internal audience could be less homogeneous and create different challenges. These questions can help you identify your audience: What are they like? Why are they here? What keeps them up at night? How can you solve their problem? What do you want them to do? How can you best reach them? How might they resist?1

2.     Determine your purpose
Speaking provides an opportunity to inform, persuade, motivate, or celebrate2 (or a mix of two or more). Determine the goal of your presentation and write a purpose statement. Doing so will make it easier to decide what to include, and what to leave out. Examples of purpose statements:
"I want to teach tcworld participants how to collaborate in GitHub."
"I want to convince my manager that our team should switch to Markdown for our new project."


Preparing your presentation

3.     Donít start your slides in PowerPoint (or KeynoteÖ or PreziÖ)
Start in Word or Notepad instead. Write down all the points you want to cover, everything you need to research, and graphics you need to create or find. Listing each of your points on sticky notes can help you arrange your ideas quickly.

4.     Avoid information overload
Cull your content so you arenít overloading the audience with every fact and figure you know (and have gathered) about the topic. Your purpose statement can help you narrow down what you should include.

5.     Keep slides simple
Unless you have a slide template you are required to use, you should consider a simple template that has good contrast, or a plain white background. This will give you more space for content, and wonít distract from your message. Using animations (fly-ins and other effects) can help keep your audience from reading ahead, but avoid using them on every slide to vary the rhythm of the presentation. Donít overload slides with content. Bonus tip: Good sources for photos include Flickr (search "Commercial use and mods allowed" license) and Unsplash. Always follow the license terms.

6.     Consider the venue
Room size and equipment should be considered when creating slides. The room may have a monitor instead of a projector and screen. Monitors can have a smaller display area, which is fine in a small room, but an issue in a large one. If you plan to include videos, confirm that the room has an audio cable and speakers.



7.     Install and test your software
Confirm that everything you need is installed on your laptop, including video conferencing software. Test any software you arenít familiar with. Know how to adjust the screen resolution on your laptop (conferences will usually post the screen resolution for their projectors).

8.     Plan your demos
If your presentation will include a live demo, run through it and document the steps. It is easy to skip an important point (or include unimportant ones) if you donít have your demo planned out.  As a backup in the case of technical difficulties, take screen captures of your demo and save them in a separate presentation.

9.     Practice, practice, practice
Preparation will give you confidence, and will also improve your presentation in a number of small but important ways, including pacing and flow. Commit portions of the presentation to memory. If you are working on a conference presentation, you could ask your work colleagues to attend a "lunch and learn" where they listen to your presentation and critique your talk and your style. Practicing will give you confidence, which will help ameliorate nervousness.

10.  Strategize your segues
The flow of your presentation is important. When rehearsing, write down logical verbal transitions between slides. If you canít segue smoothly between one slide and the next, you might need to adjust the order of the presentation. After you have documented
your transitions, you should add them to the "Presenter notes" area of your slides and (using Microsoft PowerPoint as an example) print the "Notes pages" for offline review.

11.  Time your talk
Do a complete run through of your talk using the stopwatch on your phone or the "Rehearsal mode" in your presentation software. You donít want to run too short or too long.

12.  Tackle fillers and nervous habits
"Fillers" are meaningless sounds or phrases we use to fill the silence. "Ummm" and "ah" are distracting and unprofessional, as are other nervous habits such as twirling your hair. The best way to break these habits is to record video of your rehearsal with your webcam or phone and analyze it for issues. Once you are aware of these behaviors, you can eliminate them with practice.

13.  Anticipate questions
Take the time to consider what questions the audience might have and research the answers. Donít be caught off-guard by a question you should know the answer to.


The day of the presentation

Before anything else, make sure to eat. Skipping a meal may interfere with your focus. 

14.  Keep it neutral
Wear comfortable clothes and shoes that are appropriate for the event. Avoid wearing anything that will be distracting and take the focus away from your message. If you are at a conference, remove your badge Ė it can shift around and twist Ė and the noise may get picked up by the microphone.

15.  Get there early
Arrive early so you have time to set up and get a feel for the room. If the preceding speaker gets caught up chatting with a group after their time is up and their laptop is still on the podium, politely interrupt and ask them to move it. You want to make sure you have adequate time to set up without rushing. Bonus tip: Bring all your adaptors (VGA, HDMI, Ethernet), power supply, presentation remote, and mouse.

16.  Prepare your laptop
Open all the resources you will need, including videos, websites, and applications. If you are showing a video, confirm that your laptop volume is on. Log off messaging applications and email so that notifications donít interrupt your presentation. Put your phone on silent.

17.  Timing is everything
Commit the end time of your presentation to memory, or write it down. Never ask the audience. Always be aware of the time Ė place your watch or phone on the podium. Or use the "presenter view" (or mode) of your slide presentation software to check the time. If you have traveled to the venue, make sure to set your laptop to the proper time zone.

18.  If there is a microphone, use it
If a microphone is available, use it, even if you believe you have a loud speaking voice. Donít take the risk that some audience members canít hear you.

19.  Take a deep breath
Before you get started, go in a corner (or turn your back to the audience) and take a deep breath to prepare yourself. The blog post "A TED speaker coach shares 11 tips for right before you go on stage"3 has excellent advice for getting focused before you begin your talk. The tips apply to any size or type of presentation.

20.  Start strong
Start with something that can catch the audienceís attention (facts or statistics, narratives, rhetorical questions, quotes) that you can tie to your topic.4 Make eye contact with the audience Ė it builds trustworthiness.

21.  Donít be negative
Avoid self-deprecating comments; never say you are nervous, sick, or tired Ė you will place that thought in the audienceís minds and distract them from the topic. Never joke that you just finished your slides Ė you will decrease your credibility by implying that you did not prepare.

22.  Never stop talking
Remember: No matter what happens (blue screens, projector problems, etc.), keep talking as you work to solve the issues. The audience will appreciate your perseverance and you wonít waste their time. This is where practice, slide notes, and a cloud or flash drive backup can save the day.

23.  Close strong
Donít just trail off at the end of your presentation. Summarize your main points, thank the audience, then smoothly transition to Q&A. If speaking at a conference, encourage the audience to complete the evaluation form.

24.  Manage the Q&A
During the Q&A, donít spend too much time on one question. If a question is too detailed or specific (or a questioner is dominating the Q&A), offer to answer it after the session or by email. And it is fine to say that you donít know the answer to a question; offer to research it and get back to them. Keep the Q&A moving, and end your presentation on time.


After the presentation

25.  Do the follow-up
If it is a work presentation, post the slides (and recording, if you made one) immediately and distribute the link. If it is a conference presentation, post your slides and any other required materials by the date promised. Review your evaluations and document the name of your presentation, the conference, the city, and the date for your records.


1slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations by Nancy Duarte. OíReilly Media, 2008. Also see her TED talk The Secret Structure of Great Talks, www.ted.com/talks/nancy_duarte_the_secret_structure_of_great_talks

2The Art of the Speaker by Johnson, McCullough, and High. Pearson, 2015.

3A TED speaker coach shares 11 tips for right before you go on stage by Kate Torgovnick May and emludolph, TED blog, February 14, 2016, blog.ted.com/a-ted-speaker-coach-shares-11-tips-for-right-before-you-go-on-stage

4Engineered to Speak: Helping You Create and Deliver Engaging Technical Presentations by Alexa S. Chilcutt and Adam J. Brooks. IEEE Press/Wiley, 2019


5 quick conference proposal tips

Iím often asked for tips on submitting successful conference proposals. I have been on both sides of this process, as a speaker and an organizer. Most conferences receive far more submissions than they can accept, and have other constraints (number of tracks, available rooms), so donít be discouraged if your proposal is not accepted.

1.     Pick a topic that suits your strengths
Analyze your current projects for potential topics. The best talks are those where you share your first-hand professional experience with the audience Ė and conference organizers are looking for experts with practical knowledge. 

2.     Select a suitable conference
Choose a conference that is a good fit for your topic, and for you. Research the topics covered the past few years and review the conference theme. If there are expectations other than the talk Ė uploading slides, a proceedings paper, for example, Ė confirm that you can meet those obligations.

3.     Follow the instructions

Every conference has a slightly different submission process. Read through the requirements and follow all the steps. Read past programs and craft your talk title and description thoughtfully, with the audience in mind. (That same title and description will be used in the conference program and attendees will use it to decide whether or not to attend your session.) Cover the concepts you will address and the problems your session can help solve. Your biography should summarize your career and expertise in a compelling manner. 

Bonus tip: Write and store your submission answers in a separate document (I cut/paste the requirements in the document first). It makes it easier to iterate on your content, and if the submission form fails, or the battery of your laptop dies, you will have everything you need to quickly submit again. This also makes it easier to start your proposal well before the deadline, and work on it incrementally over a few weeks.

4.     Meet the deadline
Technical communicators understand deadlines. Donít expect a deadline extension from the conference organizers, and do your best to avoid requesting extra time. Conference organizers often work on tight schedules and canít grant extensions.

5.     Show up
When you submit to a conference, the organizers will expect you to attend and give your talk if it is accepted. (This is often noted in the submission guidelines: look for it.) Make sure when you submit that your schedule is clear and block your calendar for that week. If your talk isnít accepted, try to attend anyway. Youíve already determined that the conference is a good fit for you and your professional interests. And submit again next year!


Additional Resources

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? by Alan Alda. Random House, 2017.

Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun. OíReilly Media, 2009.

How to Give a Better Speech: Talk to a Dog by Nicholas Fandos. New York Times, August 5, 2016.


9 Tips For More Powerful Business Presentations by Michel Theriault, Forbes, www.nytimes.com/2016/08/07/education/edlife/how-to-give-a-better-speech-talk-to-a-dog.html?_r=1