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4 Tips To Improve Your Next Speaking Engagement Or Presentation

So you are the subject matter expert on a particular topic and are so awesome and so vocal about how much you care about it that you get invited for a speaking engagement and/or presentation. You’re thrilled to have the opportunity to share this topic with others and hopefully get them to care about it, use it, apply it to their daily lives or jobs.

But things can happen on presentation day…very bad things. Maybe your laptop is out of commission and you need to use someone else’s. Maybe you start to notice attendees are tuning out in the middle of your presentation and they stare at their laptops. Or maybe your presentation wasn’t promoted enough beforehand and nobody shows up.

There are a lot of tools available to you and preparations that you can take to ensure no matter what happens, you are prepared, stress-free and engaging on presentation day. In addition, by using these tools and prep, your talk may resonate with others not in attendance on gameday, enabling a broader resource with a long tail. You’ll also be able to quantitatively measure which parts of your presentation resonated the most with your audience.

As I did several presentations this year (including my first keynote), I recently presented on this very topic at Dyn so be sure to check out my full slide deck.

With all that said, here are four tips I picked up along the way that will help you improve your next speaking engagement or presentation.

Make your file foolproof

Alleviate any potential stress by making your presentation file foolproof ahead of time.

Use slide masters

By creating slide masters (PowerPoint) or master slides (Keynote), you can have a default template for various kinds of slides you want to use in your presentation. Ask your company or conference if they have slide masters to start from. If not, create your own. Check out PowerPoint Slide Master instructions and Keynote Master Slides instructions to get started.

To take them to the next level, create new slide masters for unique but repeated slide designs that you need to use in your presentation. For example, when I presented on A/B testing, I created a slide master for when I presented A/B test results on the left and one for when the results were on the right.

It made it much easier to create my presentation and add new slides with these masters, since I didn’t have to worry about fixing alignment or font sizes with each new slide. Everything remained consistent.

Know your aspect ratio

Your aspect ratio is the ratio between the width and height of your presentation. Ask the conference ahead of time what your aspect ratio should be and create your slides with the ratio. This will help make sure you don’t have any strange black bars on the sides of your presentation as you present, allowing you to utilize all the space you’ve been given. Keynote asks for pixel dimensions, so make sure you also have checked “Scale slides up to fit display” to ensure even if the display is larger than your pixel dimensions, it’ll still fill the screen nicely.

In PowerPoint under File > Page Setup, you can choose your “Slides sized for” aspect ratio. Note that in both Keynote and PowerPoint, you can always change the aspect ratio of your existing presentation if you find out that you were misinformed. I’ve had to do this on presentation day, but because I had well-designed slide masters and knew how to change the aspect ratio, it was very easy. Make sure you’ve plugged in and checked to make sure you have the right aspect ratio before you present; I like to sneak in before the conference day begins and request access to quickly test my presentation on the actual projector I’ll be using.

Optimize your type

Don’t let your slides do your job for you. You are the subject matter expert and the person who people are coming to learn from. Your slides shouldn’t be giving your audience all your information. Both yourself and the audience shouldn’t be reading from them.

Use a maximum of 140 characters per slide and aim for five word bullet points. Never use ALL CAPS as they’re actually harder to read.

If you’ve got code slides, break up the code into many different slides. It’s hard to read and absorb code from the audience and no one is counting the number of slides that you have. Keep it as short as possible and make sure that your font is readable from a distance.

Save your colors to repeat throughout your presentation. I don’t recommend using more than three: one for most of your content, one as accents like headers, notes and code and one for transitions. By saving your colors to reuse later, you can ensure you maintain consistency in all of your slides. On the left screenshot below, I’ve saved colors to the bottom bar of the Colors palette in Keynote.

In the right below, PowerPoint allows you to save accent, hyperlink and other colors to use throughout your slides.

Avoid transitions and animations

I’m sure you’ve seen the poor presenter who is staring at the screen, clicking furiously to try and force her computer to advance to the next slide…and we wait…and we pray. Sometimes fancypants transitions and animations create click lag and the best way to avoid this is to break up your bullets into multiple slides. Again, no one’s counting the number of slides that you have. I find that this makes it really easy to export your presentation to a PDF too.

Save to Dropbox and/or a USB drive

Speaking of PDFs, every computer can show them. If you can’t use your computer on presentation day AND the computer you have to use doesn’t have the software you need, at least you can show your PDF. Create a public Dropbox folder with your presentation file (.key, .pptx or what you’re using), your PDF and also a folder of your fonts used in your slides.

Email this link to yourself and a buddy. Also, save these files to an external drive (thumb drive, backup drive, etc.). You can access these from anywhere on any machine. If you’re able to show your presentation in the software you prefer to use. You’ll also have the fonts ready to install on that new machine so everything looks as planned.

Create an online presence

By creating an online presence for your presentation, you’ll allow a broader audience to learn from and appreciate your topic, and you’ll also be able to measure the impact of your presentation and what resonated the most with your audience.

Convert links to bit.ly

First, create a profile on bit.ly. Next, start saving all of the links that you have in your presentation as bit.ly links and embed them in your presentation. Bit.ly will save those links in your profile so you can quickly check them and see stats on who clicked them over time. It makes it much easier to track what resources were most interesting to people.

Upload your presentation

Speaker Deck is my online slide sharer of choice. It’s really slick and adds an extra bit of fancypants to your online presence. I find it’s also supremely easy to re-upload an edited version of your presentation as you make changes up to presentation day.

Some presenters are nervous about sharing their presentation online, especially if you make it public before you give your talk. I find that these are the presenters who also allow their slides to do their job for them. Remember, you are the subject matter expert and people are coming to see you talk. If your slides support you (rather than do your job for you), you have nothing to fear by making your slides public.

Add yourself on SpeakerRate

It can be very difficult to receive feedback, but any good presenter welcomes constructive criticism. SpeakerRate is a service that a number of conferences use to gather public feedback on content, delivery and any qualitative feedback on each talk. I love it sd people are generally constructive and I’ve learned a lot from the feedback I’ve received. It can really help you shape your talk over time.

Create a page on your company’s site

Create a page that’s easy to get to (use a short URL like dyn.com/abtest/) where you can put all of the resources for your presentation. I embed my slides from SpeakerDeck, create a list of links that I refer to so people don’t have to click through the presentation to find them and also add a list of “Additional information I couldn’t cram in” to the presentation. This helps create a broader resource for a larger audience of people who really want to learn more. Check out my example from a talk on web performance.

Be engaging

Engage your audience

There are three straightforward ways to keep your audience engaged:

  • “Raise your hand if…” This is often-used and people see right through it. Use this sparingly unless it really drives your point home. This was successful for me when I had people vote for which version they thought won of an A/B test. It got people really thinking and almost playing a game.
  • “Send me your results for XYZ challenge on Twitter and the winner gets a Dyn shirt.” I like to close a presentation with a challenge as it keeps people thinking about how they can implement what they learned. And who doesn’t like a t-shirt?
  • Make a little joke with words or images on the slide. This is subtle and can really keep folks engaged, especially if you do this every five minutes or so. I used this second grade photo of me when I was talking about A/B test results and it made people laugh. I typically like to have the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness on the screen when I talk about who I am at the beginning of a presentation. It’s little things like that that keep folks engaged.

Tweet Automatically

If you use Keynote, you’ll be able to send out tweets from your Twitter username automatically as you advance through slides. Here’s my how-to on getting set up with automatic tweeting.

This helps me measure what resonates with my audience because I can see what gets retweeted, replied to, favorited, etc. It helps spread the word about my presentation and the links to my presentation page. I also find that my audience is more engaged because instead of typing out quotes, they can simply retweet the highlights I’ve chosen from the slides.

Analyze after your presentation

I like to do the following after my presentation’s done:

  • If there’s video or audio, export slides from my presentation as JPGs to overlay. Upload this to the web.
  • Check Google Analytics stats for your page.
  • Check Twitter for links to your page, retweets of your automated tweets.
  • Check bit.ly for clicks on your saved links.

My post-presentation data usually looks like this:

It really helps me measure the impact of my presentation and what parts of it I can improve or what parts worked really well. I find that I’ve improved as a presenter with all of this quantitative data and by creating less stress for myself on presentation day.


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Whois: Lara Swanson

Lara Swanson is the lead front-end web developer for Dyn. You can follow her thoughts on coding semantically, nitpicking page load time, and the importance of baking for coworkers on Twitter.