Matthew Burton

Everything I Know About Giving Presentations I Learned from the Government

I love presenting, and I love critiquing other people’s presentations. I’m not Kawasaki or Conway, but I think I’m decent at it. Most of what I know is thanks to a two-week training course early in my government career, about four years ago. For 13 straight days, I watched a series of presenters stand up and make God-awful briefings. I kept myself awake by taking notes on their presentation styles. (Eventually, I ran out of criticisms, so I wrote down lyrics to Springsteen, The Who, Cream…) Therefore, most of the notes are on how NOT to give presentations. I’ve kept the notes in my desk since then. Here they are:

  1. Only use PowerPoint if absolutely necessary. Never use slides as cue cards. People don’t want to see your own notes. It distracts the audience and draws attention from what you’re saying. If you talk and show me word-filled slides at the same time, I try to read the slides and listen to you simultaneously. I end up doing neither.
  2. A slide deck full of bullet points is the hallmark of poor preparation and ignorance of the subject. If you really had a command of your subject, you wouldn’t need to read directly from your notes/slides.
  3. PowerPoint should be used in SUPPORT of a good talk, not instead of it. Use slides to clarify what you’re saying: show videos, animations (especially helpful when speaking on technical subjects).
  4. Don’t print out your slides and hand them to me. No matter what your slides are like, they are meaningless when they aren’t accompanied by your spoken words. If you want to give handouts, give me something written in standard prose. No bullet points. Remember, cue cards are called cue cards because they cue a thought in the mind of the presenter, who then fully explains the thought to the audience. I can’t extrapolate that thought from your brain simply by reading the cue.
  5. If you have any annoying habits (like saying “i.e.” every sentence like this guy does), find them and stop them.
  6. Don’t introduce your audience to a slew of new terminology and acronyms at the beginning of the presentation, and then use those terms continuously throughout the rest of the talk. You’ll leave your audience in the dust.
  7. Flowcharts: Never.
  8. Actually, flowcharts are okay if they actually show something flowing. But I don’t want to see where your office or component or directorate lies within a 26-node chain of bureaucratic nonsense. (It REALLY IS nonsense. The next time you see an organization chart in a presentation, see if you remember what it said afterward.)
  9. If someone asks a question you can’t answer, that’s fine. Tell the person you’ll find out the answer and then let them know later: “Here’s my email address. Remind me and I’ll find out for you.” You’ll instantly connect with your audience if you do that.
  10. Using people’s names does amazing things for the audience’s attention span and interest in your topic.
  11. If you’re unsure whether people will find your talk interesting, ask yourself: if this were on TV, would I watch it? (When I wrote this, it seemed odd–who would ever watch a presentation on TV?–but now, I do: 1 2 3.)
  12. Easy one: don’t condescend. The moment you do that, your audience is gone.
  13. Retractable pointers: No.
  14. Same goes for podiums.
  15. Here’s a good technique: tell your audience that at the end of your talk, you’re going to go around the room and demand a question from everyone. It keeps them engaged and lets them know they’re more important than you are. Not everyone can pull this off gracefully, though. Do it wrong, and you look like a jackass.
  16. Don’t give me a bunch of numbers unless they’re abnormal. The audience won’t remember the precise numbers anyway. I can handle a couple of numbers if you explain their significance. But don’t bother telling me how many tanks, helicopters, cargo planes, parachutes and cooks you have.
  17. It’s okay to speak from a script. But do NOT read it. Be natural. Do it in a way that keeps the audience from knowing it’s a script.

Some of the bad habits became repeated, hence the brevity of the list considering the time span. One last note: I was very frustrated when I wrote these, so that probably shines through…

Categories: Ideas & Thoughts

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1 Comment

  1. Good rules of thumb. Re. #1, though, PowerPoint is here to stay, Edward Tufte notwithstanding, and the aim should be to teach people how to use it more effectively rather than “only if absolutely necessary.” Your overall approach is proper — know what you’re talking about and use visuals to reinforce it. Re. #4, good objective but really a non-starter these days. EVERY conference organizer wants your slides in advance, to copy & distribute. So slides with sparse text are good because they leave lots of space for note-taking.

    Ralph Hitchens
    ex-DOE Intelligence & Army Intelligence

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