The Art of the Presentation

Over the span of ones career, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll one day be charged with the task of giving some sort of presentation. This month the Expert Roundtable Discussion focuses on “The Art of the Presentation”.

Our Panelists:

Dennis Kennedy (DK), Allison Shields (AS), Greg Siskind (GS), Steve Embry (SE), Mark Rosch (MR), Sofia Lingos (SL) and Dan Pinnington (DP).

What software do you use most when giving presentations? Why?

DK: I generally use PowerPoint because I have it on both my home and work computers and it’s familiar for me. I did my first PowerPoint presentation to lawyers about how to use PowerPoint in 1996. I’ll occasionally use Keynote because it has a great chalkboard template that I like to use when speaking to non-techie lawyers. Making the points seem like they are written in chalk on a chalkboard seems to make the topic less threatening to lawyers. I use Snagit for screen captures of websites so I don’t have to take the risk of going live on the Internet.  I don’t like Prezi presentations because of the “prezilepsy” factor – like quite a few people, I tend to experience a bit of nausea watching Prezi slide transitions. Ultimately, though, your content and how you connect with your audience are way more important that what software you use.

AS: I use PowerPoint because I use mostly PCs and use the Microsoft Office suite of products with Microsoft Office 365. I find that PowerPoint has all of the features I need for my presentations, whether they are given live or via webinar, and PPT is compatible with pretty much any system.

GS: I often prepare the presentation in Evernote before moving to Powerpoint. We’ve recently started doing webinars for clients and are using the webinar platform provided in Ringcentral which is pretty user friendly and included in our monthly fees.

SE: I most often use PowerPoint mainly because its often the path of least resistance and I know how use it. I can say I like it the best. The most persuasive and illuminating software is Prezi. But since I don’t use it much, the time I need to prepare something on it makes me reluctant to do it. But the results with Prezi can be quite impressive.

MR: My partner Carole and I have done nothing but Continuing Legal Education seminars since 1999.  I’ve been a Mac user since the late ’80s who started using Powerpoint to give presentations in the mid-’90s. My partner’s a Windows user. Initially, Powerpoint was an easy way to bridge the gap between the two platforms and share files/presentations back and forth with very little loss of formatting or features (like animations).

Since then, I’ve used Apple’s Keynote, Google Slides, Prezi, and probably one or two other cloud platforms that I couldn’t name to save my life. I might be the worst kind of dinosaur, though; I continue to use Powerpoint because it’s the path of least resistance for me. My partner’s still a Windows user and we still share presentations cross-platform. I know where the features are that I’m most-likely to use and can physically put my slides together very quickly. One other reason I continue to use Powerpoint is that we built our new site using Adobe Corp.’s Adobe Connect technology. Powerpoint files  are the most compatible to upload to their servers for our webinars.

SL: Power Point is my go to presentation tool.  I have a firm branded design that I like to use whenever permitted.  I also find that when presenting from devices other than your own, it is the most universally recognized.  From the creation aspect it has enough bells and whistles to keep your audience engaged, and from a presentation perspective it permits you to easily execute your address.  When I collaborate on presentations I have used Google Slides which works well if you create and present from the platform.  I also love the Prezi themes, but have seen and experienced too many glitches when it comes to game day.

DP: The vast majority of the time I use PowerPoint. It was the one I first learned, and I now have hundreds of PowerPoints on my computer. I’m very familiar and comfortable with it, including most of the more advanced features that can help with creating interesting and varied slide decks. I’ve used Prezi on two occasions when my co-presenter took the lead on creating the deck for the presentation. I’ve used Keynote on only one occasion when it was the only option in the venue I was presenting in.

What kind of prep work do you do before giving a presentation?

DK: Timing and sequencing. I want to do enough prep and rehearsal work to be confident that I can finish the talk in the allotted time and have a plan of what I’ll do if the time has to be shortened. I also want to make sure that there is a good flow and sequences to the slides and material that I’m presenting. Very often, changing the order of just one or two slides can make a huge difference in how a presentation works. And I also want to visit the room I’ll be speaking well in advance of the time I’ll actually be speaking. Before my actual presentation, I test the microphone to understand the sound levels and I try to go to the back of the room and see how well people can see the slides.

AS: The prep work is the most important part of any presentation, whether it’s your first time presenting (or giving this particular presentation) or your hundredth time. You never know what might go wrong or what different audiences might bring to a presentation. I try to find out as much as I can about the audience I’ll be presenting to as possible – are they already familiar with the topic? Are they likely to have questions, or will I need to fill the entire time with my presentation?

If the presentation will be live, I try to find out as much about the location and equipment on site as possible to determine what I might have to bring with me, either for the presentation itself, or as backup. I’ll bring an extra copy of the presentation on a flash drive, have it on my laptop or iPad, and have a written copy of my outline or slides with me. If it’s a webinar, there’s usually at least a brief tech test-run prior to the presentation to make sure everything is working, but I’ll also make sure I have a hard copy of the outline or slides in the event that there are technical problems. If there’s a portion of the presentation that will rely on the internet or on a live demonstration, I have a backup plan for that as well – either with static screenshots of alternative slides in case there are connection issues.

I don’t generally prepare a ‘script’ for presentations, but I generally have an idea how much time I’d like to spend on each slide, or how much time I want to spend on each segment of the presentation. I try to anticipate specific questions that the particular audience might have, so that I can address them in my presentation. I usually try to have ‘extra’ material that I can cover during the presentation in case there are no questions from the audience.

GS: I try and not load my presentations up with too much information. Usually, just a headlines to keep people on track with the subject I’m talking about. Occasionally, I’ll embed web links in a presentation in order to show someone an Internet resource and I’ll usually test out the links to make sure they work and have a back up PDF version of the web page to show someone if my Internet access is spotty. I used to worry more about Internet access, but I usually use my AT&T hotspot service on my iPhone which is pretty reliable in most places within the US.

SE: I usually try to formulate my presentation before preparing the power point. This lets me know what I want to emphasize. Then, when I formulate the power point, I try not to regurgitate the presentation too much. (see response to last question)

MR: For better or worse, we’ve decided to focus on topics that change pretty frequently – Internet investigative, background, and legal research; and cloud productivity tools for lawyers – so, the biggest part of our prep work is checking all (and I do mean ALL) of the sites and resources we discuss to be sure that they still function like they did the last time we talked about them. We’re also constantly reading to be sure that we we know about new sites and resources, and new features of sites we already include in the presentations. Because we travel to more than a dozen-and-a-half states a year, our reading also includes keeping up with (or discovering) appropriate local resources and/or relevant ethics opinions or rule changes.  Once we know the material is up to date and any slides are updated (or new ones created) accordingly, we’ll review the slides – sort of doing dry runs through the presentation – to be sure we’re familiar with the new additions (and there’s always new additions).

SL: Once there is a broad topic, I select a theme.  If you can build your topic into a story line, you will make it more memorable for your audience (and yourself).  If you are using slides and can align your graphics and content with the theme, all the better (also a few animations never hurt anyone).  I find that less can be more in the slide department, both in terms of content on the slide and number of slides in the deck.  I include trigger words in the “notes” section with the broad topics to cover, and print my slides with notes turned on.  Day of the presentation, I shuffle through my slides, arrive early to test the technology, and make sure I’m in position ready for kick off.

DP: Preparation is a critical part of doing an excellent and engaging presentation. From years of doing presentations I am very lucky to have many versions of PowerPoints on many different topics. My PowerPoint decks have been tweaked and adapted over the years based on my experience with them. I believe presenters should always start with a clear picture of exactly what they want to communicate with the audience. If it’s a CLE program, you should make reference to the session description. The contents of each and every slide should be on-message. If you’re working with a co-speaker, you must communicate before the presentation to coordinate your comments. A presentation with banter between speakers is far better than a presentation that is in two or more separate parts. Check the length of your session and prepare your comments and a slide deck that will fit within the allotted time. It’s always good to arrive at the venue a bit early to check out the layout of the room, where the podium is and to make sure all technology is working as expected.

Have you ever encountered a tech glitch (audio, video, missing text) mid presentation? How did you recover?

DK: The better question is have I ever not encountered a glitch. Once a glitch occurs, I start to relax because I know that I’ve gotten that part of the presentation out of the way. There are so many things that can go wrong and I still get surprises all the time. You gradually develop a toolbox of tips and tricks, all of which come from past experiences. I don’t have time to tell the story of why I always have a screwdriver in my bag when I present, but, believe me, I have a good reason. For me, the best way to deal with tech glitches is to be on a panel with Tom Mighell and let him swing into action. He’s been a huge help on several occasions, as have other co-presenters. You have to be able to go with the flow and have options available in case something goes wrong.

AS: Yes! They key to recovery is always being prepared, which is why #2 is so important. I’ve had instances where the internet connection is slow or non-existent for live demonstrations (in which case, having some screenshots to demonstrate can be invaluable), where my internet connection cut out in the middle of a webinar (the moderator discussed some of her own tips while I tried to re-establish my connection), and more.

GS: That happens from time to time. For me, it’s not that big of a deal because I’m usually able to do my presentation from my notes and without audio or visual. The video is designed to enhance the presentation, but I don’t like to depend on it.

SE: Who hasn’t? For the most part, I try to have my power point illuminate what I am talk about so if there is a glitch I can proceed. Again by not just regurgitate  the talk in the PowerPoint, it works better.

MR: How much time do you have? Remember, my partner and I have been doing nothing but CLE seminars for since 1999. First, we try to be prepared for any eventuality. Since we present as a team, we always have two laptops – in case, let’s say, the organization you’re presenting for has a projector so old that one of your laptops cannot output a video signal of a low-enough resolution for the projector to recognize – so there’s always a handy backup we’re familiar with. (That was in 2014.)

To avoid most issues, we’ve built up a collection of almost every conceivable adapter/dongle/converter to travel with.

  • Need to convert VGA to HDMI? Check.
  • Need to present from an iOS or Android device? Check.
  • Need to connect your laptop to an old TV with RCA inputs (only)? Check.
  • Twice, we have had the bulb on the venue’s projector die. The first time, the very polite attendees didn’t mention how dim the image looked. Luckily, the CLE Director of the Bar we were working with had a spare bulb and was able to replace it while we all laughed about how nobody mentioned it – until we noticed it 10 minutes after we’d begun. The second time, the CLE Director (of a different Bar) was able to borrow a projector from a law firm in the building where we were presenting. While we were hoping/waiting for the replacement, Carole and I took questions from the attendees. What if they don’t have a back-up? For a small break-out session, we just had the attendees gather ’round the laptop to see the presentation. Now, it wouldn’t be an issue, because I literally travel with my own back-up – a tiny pico-projector that’s only slightly larger than a deck of cards.
  • We used our own 12′ VGA cable to reach from the projector to the dais more than once because the venue didn’t have one long enough.
  • Now I travel with VGA cable converters that can create a VGA connection using an ethernet cable (every venue’s got 50′ ethernet cables).

In the case of missing video or text, etc. The worst thing you can do is stop the presentation to “fix the problem.” Because while you and/or the organizer and/or AV person are very busy and engaged in the issue, the audience is not.  If whatever attempts you make in the first 30-45 seconds don’t rectify it, be prepared to just explain what the missing content was (here’s where that pre/review and familiarity with the  topic come in. There is no ext content that is so important that an audience has to read it from the screen. If the content is absolutely essential that they see – like a video – then I explain what the content is, tell them we’ll come back to it if we solve the problem, and move on. In the end, there’s always a room full of people who are there to hear what you have to say…so you’d better have some plan to carry on.

SL: While giving a presentation on “Tech Tools and the Law” the IT team was unable to get their overhead to work.  Fumble!  This was one time my preparation really paid off, as I had my printed slide deck from which I could work.  I was able to introduce the presentation with “you can’t always rely on technology, because sometimes technology fails.”  I made that the theme of my presentation and added quips throughout my slide-less speech.  I asked for audience tales about their technology fails and there were more volunteers than time to share their stories.  I knew my material and with my notes by my side was able to get through all of the “slides” from memory.  I was told it was a pretty good recovery.

DP: As a veteran of hundreds of presentations, I have encountered just about every technical glitch there is. The more common ones have included corrupted PowerPoints, the projector bulb blowing, power-saving features shutting the computer down. On occasion the PA system hasn’t worked and there are no batteries in the remote or the remote can’t be found. I’ve arrived at remote location to find the promised projector is not there, there is no screen, the cords for the projector aren’t in the bag with it or there is no extension cord to plug the projector in. I’ve also experienced fire alarms, power outages and a vendor sales rep who repeatedly hijacked the presentation from the floor. The keys to handling any unexpected technology glitch are keeping your cool and being prepared with a Plan B. If your computer crashes you should have an electronic copy of your deck on a thumb drive or in the cloud so that you can run it on another computer. You should always have a paper copy of your presentation so that you can do the presentation without any technology whatsoever. Probably my funniest recovery from crashed laptop was the occasion I had to take my suit jacket off and turn it inside out to retrieve the thumbdrive that had a backup copy of my presentation after it fell through a hole in my pocket into the lining of the jacket.

What tips can you provide to help make presentations overall more engaging?

DK: Less text, more white space, larger fonts. Apologizing because your slide “is a bit of an eyechart” is not a good way to present anything. Look at your slides from the perspective of someone sitting in the last row of the room. Interaction of some kind, even a limited way, at regular intervals of 10 – 15 minutes is generally considered the best way to be engaging. Ask questions or ask for a show of hands or do something interactive, even if it is minimal. Try to free up a good amount of time for Q & A at the end. And, please, please, please do not read your slides to the audience.

AS:It’s always helpful to have information about your audience to customize the presentation to them, if at all possible. If you can’t get information in advance, it’s a good idea to do an audience poll at the beginning of the presentation. Find out who they are and what they want to learn from your presentation. What are their burning questions or issues with the topic?  Polling or asking the audience questions during the presentation will keep your audience engaged and on their toes. Encourage questions. Give examples. Tell stories. Use props, demonstrations and videos to make your presentations more engaging, but make sure that they add to the audience’s understanding of the content; in other words, don’t just add video for the sake of adding video.

GS: For me, I usually try and put myself in the shoes of a listener and try and present in a way that helps them take away something useful. So I’ll usually flag the most important takeaways – “you’ll want to write that down”, “here are the three things you’ll want to remember about x subject”, etc. I’ll also frequently ask the audience questions while I’m talking and that can also help me see if they’re getting what I’m talking about.

SE: That’s a good question. There seems to be 2 ways to do presentation and power points. One is to what I try, have the pp illuminate what I am discussing. Others will place everything they are going to say on pp screens. The disadvantage of the former is that people need to take more careful notes instead of just listening. If you provide all the points on the pp and then let the audience members have them, they can listen as opposed to trying to write everything down. The advantage to the latter approach is that it’s a more interesting and people will pay more and better attention. So for me, it’s a bit of a sliding scale which option I will tend toward based on the nature of the presentation and the nature of the audience. But regardless, its better to have some screens that are interesting and illuminating and not all words.

MR: While these might seem like old hat, but they’re cliches because they’re true:

  1. Don’t read your presentation (or sound like your reading it) – either from a paper or your slides. Be familiar enough with your topic that you can present in a conversational tone.
  2. Make eye contact with the audience.
  3. Use humor appropriately.
  4. The easiest way to engage an audience is to ask them a question that they can all relate to (e.g., Have you ever had a client who…?)
  5. As an adjunct to asking questions, have appropriate prizes for participation. We make attendees “come up and claim their prize” always to applause from the other attendees.
  6. Know the difference between telling a “war story” that’s entertaining and makes a practical/related point versus just telling one for the sake of telling one.
  7. Use props to make your point(s). For example, I recently gave a presentation on AV/tech issues that speakers encounter at events. When I got to the part where I discussed my dongle collection, I dumped the entire bag of them on the table…corny but effective. Attendees wanted to get an up-close look at them after the presentation – more engagement. (Note to self: Make sure that the rubber bands, twist ties, or velcro straps keeping the various cables attached to their respective adapters are secure BEFORE you dump the entire collection on a table. Does anyone know what this might go to?)

SL: (1) Know your material; and no matter how well you know your material, review it before you present.  It is not fair to your audience if you are unprepared.  (2) Do not read off your slides.  This is not a book reading – attendees are there to get more information than you have written (whether in your notes or on the slide itself).  (3) Include audience participation.  If I am speaking in the morning I will often start with polling questions that requires the audience to raise their hands.  It wakes them up and gets them on their toes (especially if they are lawyers – I think it is PTSD from the Socratic method).  (4) Use your space.  If there is an option to stand, do so.  If you can step in front of your lectern and get closer to your audience do that at times as well. (5) Tell a story.  Have a beginning, middle and end (and start and stop on time).  Conclude with a few takeaways to remind them what they’ve learned and how they should use their new found knowledge.  Following these 5 simple steps can lead to a winning presentation.  Touch Down!

DP: Open with a joke. Then tell the audience in one or two sentences what they will learn and take away from your presentation. Include an agenda slide that reviews what you will cover in the presentation. Never read from your slides. Explain one point or concept per slide. Follow the 5 x 5 rule – each slide should have a maximum of five points with five words each. Move off the podium and try to present without notes (let your slides prompt your comments). Very your voice and overemphasize gestures. Vary the contents of your slide deck. Use different templates, different colours, and occasionally includes slides that have only pictures.  Include slides that are not in the handout. You can use some animation to emphasize key points, but don’t overdo it with animation or sounds.  Be prepared to deal with questions, including the difficult ones. Never prevaricate when giving an answer. If you don’t know the answer, say so, and offered to follow up with an answer after the presentation.

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