Keyvan Nayyeri is a Ph.D. student in Computer Science and previously held a B.Sc. degree in Applied Mathematics. He was born in Kermanshah, Kurdistan, Iran in 1984, and is currently living in San Antonio, TX. His primary research interests are Programming Languages & Compilers and Software Engineering.  He’s also a software architect and developer with focus on Microsoft development technologies as well as Open Source platforms. Keyvan is an avid community leader and contributor who has written four books for Wiley/Wrox and several articles for prominent community websites. Also he has contributed to many Open Source projects. As a result of his long-time contributions to the community, he has received several recognitions and awards from Microsoft, its partners, and community websites. Keyvan is a continues learner who loves to study, learn, and discover new technologies everyday, and is enthusiast for serving to the humankind through his research and contributions. For a long time he has been blogging about various topics on his blog that has become a rich resource for software developers. His blog is available at www.nayyeri.net. Keyvan has posted 36 posts at DZone. View Full User Profile

The Art of Presentation

05.23.2011
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If you’ve earned a university degree or have worked in industry for a while, most likely, you’ve seen some presentations by different people, and even it’s more likely for you to have watched presentations online. If other than content, you’re also interested in the quality of presentation and observe it carefully, you would agree with me that the majority of presentations and presenters suck. We all have attended presentations that made us want to go to sleep right away or even if they were better than that, we attended a presentation that didn’t have any excitement for us and most likely, we were able to predict what happens next.

This isn’t surprising because presentation is a significant task that requires different skills to be done the right way, and unfortunately, most people don’t spend much time on developing those skills. The common belief is that if you have a content, you’re able to present it but this is almost nothing. If you’re one of my loyal old readers, you would remember some of the presentations that I’ve published here on my blog and they were not any different and to be quite honest, some of them were even worse than the average level. I had all those beliefs and was thinking that presentation is all about having technical skills and a content to present, and the rest is nothing but putting a set of items in a bullet list (with a good look) and reading them! As time passed, I realized that this is not right because I could see something in my audience’s eyes implying that I’m not getting there.

Therefore, I decided to learn more about presentations and change my style. Surprisingly, when I cracked the shell, I realized that I was totally wrong about the presentations and as I read some books, articles, and blog posts, and kept watching many good presentations for inspiration, I learned how to present the right way.

While I can’t talk about all the technical details of a good presentation nor about the techniques involved, in this post I’m going to highlight some points related to having a good presentation that really delivers.

People are Resistant

There are certain things in the world that people are badly resistant about and the style of presentation is definitely one of them. Somebody without a background in mathematics doesn’t talk about it neither does somebody without an electrical engineering background in that field, but almost everyone talks about politics or economy, and also about presentations! I’ve talked to many people and had debates about presentations while they didn’t have any expertise in the field and in the end they were just resisting on the fact that because they think that they are doing the right thing, it is the right way to do that!

Here at academia I had the worst experience with people as they often have the lowest quality of presentations and when criticized about it, they respond that academia is different from business and you cannot deliver those good presentations here. We mandate having this type of styles, they say, and criticize me for having a different style. I’ve had such debates with many people while they don’t know the principles of presentations. It’s like talking about complex Linear Algebra when you don’t know how to multiply two digits!

The amazing point is that people watch my presentations and are very satisfied (as they admit that in person) and then come to me and say they don’t think this is right because it’s not like the typical presentations that they’ve seen. They keep telling me that a few words on PowerPoint slide doesn’t make sense and in some circumstances they were even trying to force me to follow their style for group presentations.

Therefore, the first step is to open your mind and judge whether you’re really delivering it or not. You have to accept the fact that somebody with more knowledge and experience in a field is better at it than you and you need to study more about it to earn the knowledge.

You Should Master It

There is a very simple rule about delivering your content: if you haven’t mastered it, you can’t make a good presentation. That’s why I don’t present anything that I don’t know in a very good level unless I spend a lot of time and effort to master it. When you master something, you’re able to talk about it for a 3 years old kid, and that’s where you can make a good presentation that lets your audiences, regardless of their background and level, understand what you speak about.

Unlike what most people think, simple slides with fewer words and content are most probably coming from a higher level of knowledge and expertise. When you master it, you’re able to drop unnecessary items from slides and only speak about them if they are really relevant to your topic.

If you’re building your slides 1-2 days before the presentation while wrestling with the content to find out what to do, you’re not going to deliver it!

It is a Presentation Not a Dictation

A presentation is different from a dictation! You’re not going to read a bunch of items to your audiences and expect them to follow. As the consequence, you’re not supposed to write down everything on your slides so they can read them through! If they can read everything on there, then there is no point in you standing on stage and talking to them even neither in having a presentation because everybody can grab those items online and read them at home.

//femineering.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/bad-presentation1.jpgThis is exactly the point where a presentation starts to make you sleep as there is nothing exciting and interesting to follow. Everything is expected and you usually read the slides before the presenter does, so you stay idle and become bored!

Slides should be a visual aid to presenter not a replacement for him, and they should be designed in a way that audience cannot know what is coming next. Putting an outline slide at the beginning spoils everything and lets your audiences know when they can get rid of this boring presenter!

Here your speaking capabilities and your tone can help a lot in stressing on important points and keeping your audience interested in what you're saying, so as I describe below, speaking skills and your level of engagement can help you a lot in moving people off the slides towards you.

Become Comfortable with Speaking to Public

Delivering a good presentation heavily relies on the speaking capabilities of the presenter, his style of speaking, and even his look. But before all of these, there is a key point that many amateur presenters are missing and that is the confidence! If you don’t have the confidence to speak to people, then most likely you’re not going to be yourself and you will lose your speaking quality and all the other factors that you need on stage.

There are two main points contributing to your level of confidence for public speaking. First, as I stated above, you should master the content that you’re going to deliver otherwise you will worry about something unexpected to come up and ruin your presentation. If you’re going to present to a public audience, there is a high chance that somebody asks questions and if you can’t answer relevant questions, you will lose your confidence on stage.

The second factor helping your confidence is training. The more presentations you deliver, the better you do that. Speaking to bigger groups of audiences makes you feel comfortable about doing that.

There are some marginal factors helping your confidence as well. Your clothing can boost your confidence as it does in all circumstances in society. Besides, if you sleep enough, you feel fresh and happy to go on stage. Also what you eat before a presentation can affect your comfort.

Simplicity is the Key

Simplicity is the consequence of two levels of expertise: the beginner and the professional, so everyone in between is unable to provide simplicity in his works. I’ve experienced that and I’m sure almost all of you have experienced that, too! If you’re a beginner, you don’t have anything so you provide the simple things that you have, but if you’re a professional, you have a very good view of your work and are able to simplify it to provide the main points only.

Simplicity is also so important in presentations and it can enhance all aspects of a presentation significantly. Simple words used by you when you speak can help all your audiences understand what you’re talking about. Simple slides free of complex diagrams and long texts help everyone get the main point easily. Simple diagrams, especially when providing statistical results, make it fast for the viewer to get the key points.

I personally spend a lot of time before a presentation on simplifying everything as much as possible. A presenter should stick to the main goal of the presentation. While there is a main topic for a presentation, the presenter should have a deeper background in the field and its related topics that can automatically find their way to the presentation while they’re not really necessary. Such additions should be avoided as much as possible.

Deliver the Motivation

//startpublicspeaking.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/Fantastic_Presentations.jpgPutting everything else aside, your audience doesn’t get anything out of a presentation if he doesn’t understand what you’re trying to do or what problem you’re trying to solve. All the presentations are being done with a motivation and if the audience doesn’t understand the motivation behind your topic, he will be lost and you can’t get him back no matter how good you speak or present.

You need to spend much time on developing the best stories to deliver the motivation of your topic and present the motivations as early as possible. This part is where you have to deliver with excitement and energy, so your audiences notice the significance your work. A simple example, some numbers, or some statistical facts are common ways of delivering the motivation and developing it.

While it’s important to deliver the motivation, it’s also important to relate the rest of your presentation to the motivation and make the relationship very clear, otherwise the audience can’t understand what you’re talking about.

You Play the Main Role

In a presentation the main role is played by the presenter, himself. Slides are visual aids for him as all the technology tools are. A good presentation will be good even if you get the projector and computers from the presenter and ask him to write on a whiteboard. You should stay in center of your presentation and force everyone to follow you, your words, and your actions rather than watching your slides or playing Angry Birds on their cell phones and tablets!

Here your speaking capabilities as well as your confidence have a huge impact on your success. You need to be a good speaker in the language that you’re presenting in otherwise you fail. This is more critical for somebody speaking in a non-native language. I’ve seen many presentations that were better than what they delivered because the speaker was unable to deliver it in English language. Learning a language, particularly English, is beyond presentation skills, but it’s mandatory for a technical person in order to deliver his work.

Conclusion

There is much to say about good presentations. A good presentation is a combination of knowledge, art, and skills. You should have a deep knowledge in your field, deliver your presentation with artistic techniques, and present them with good presentation skills that you can earn from books and training.

Most presentations in our world are very bad and I really hope that more people start to learn about presentations to improve the quality of their works. Presentation is an integral part of a professional’s life and it plays a vital role in his or her success. While we try hard to make progress with our work, it doesn’t hurt to spend some time on learning more about presentations to deliver the outcome of our work and let the world know what we’ve done.

References
Published at DZone with permission of its author, Keyvan Nayyeri. (source)

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