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Present without friction

What does it mean to give a good presentation to you?

For me, the purpose of giving a presentation is to communicate information, an idea, or a concept or to persuade people. Thus, giving a good presentation means I do these things effectively.

People are curious but lazy and have short attention spans. To communicate something to them, I need to keep it interesting, keep people’s attention, and make my message easy to follow and understand. You can make it easy to follow and understand by presenting without friction.

Friction causes difficulty in understanding your message, followed by confusion and an urge to wander away and think about something else. You don’t want any of this. So you need to present without friction. 

There are countless books, articles, and videos about presentation skills. I’ve read and watched many of them. Here are the ones I took to my heart and practice every time I give a presentation to communicate my message well without friction:

  • Have a clear purpose for the presentation.
  • Know the audience.
  • Tell the audience what you are going to tell them.
  • Have only one thing to communicate per slide.
  • Ask questions deliberately.
  • Do not use a pointer.
  • Opt for graphics and avoid text as much as possible.
  • Don’t make people think.
  • Practice out loud.
  • Stay within the scheduled time.

Have a clear purpose

Most people love to talk about themselves. They don’t enjoy listening to someone else. If you are going to ask them to quietly listen to you for 30 minutes, you should communicate to them why they should do so.

What do they learn or gain from your presentation? Tell them what’s in it for them at the beginning of the presentation to reduce friction rooted in their tendency to focus on themselves.

You might often have your own agenda. You want to convince people to do something. Or, you want to sell them something. Whatever your agenda is, translate it to the audience’s benefit. Otherwise, your audience feels friction.

Know the audience

A presentation is a form of communication, which takes two parties. If you just talk without understanding who the audience is, what they know or don’t know, what they like or dislike, etc., you wouldn’t effectively communicate your message.

Jargon they don’t understand causes friction. You don’t want to use industry jargon or acronyms they don’t understand. This not only makes it difficult for them to follow your story but also makes them feel inadequate.

A lack of empathy also causes friction. You want to be empathetic about the problems or difficulties the audience has. 

Tell the audience what you are going to tell them

You have probably heard this one before. Tell them what you are going to tell them. Tell them. Summarize what you just told them.

When the audience can’t tell where you are going or where you are now and where you are going next, they feel lost. You know what you are going to tell them, where you are at in your presentation, etc. But your audience doesn’t. This causes friction because they keep wanting to know where you are going, but you are not giving it to them.

Put them at ease by giving them the complete itinerary and map of the journey. Tell them where you are and where you are going next. Then at the end, summarize what you told them, so they will remember what you want them to remember.

Have only one thing to communicate per slide

I used to speak at a one-slide-per-minute pace. Since I started presenting virtually and learned more about how to give an effective presentation, I speak at a 30-second-per-slide pace.

There are several reasons for this, but the main one is to have only one thing to communicate per slide. I learned this technique from David Phillips’s TED talk, “How to avoid death by PowerPoint.” I learned valuable lessons from his talk. If you want to improve your presentation skills, you should watch his talk.

Imagine yourself as an audience. What happens in your head when looking at a slide showing seven bullet points and listening to the presenter talking about item #3? Can you stare at item #3 and not look at the six other things on the slide and focus on the speaker? Probably not. The six other things on the slide are distracting and causing friction.

But what if there is only one figure or one message on the slide, and the speaker is talking about just that? Now the friction is gone, and the audience can easily focus on your message.

So have only one thing per slide. The exception is when you want to show a list or compare multiple things. In these cases, show them one by one as you mention them, using animation instead of showing them at once and talking about them one by one.

You might think you will have too many slides if you do this. But the number of slides is never the problem. The number of messages you stuff into one slide is the problem.

Ask questions deliberately

I read the news on my BBC app. Several years ago, I noticed their section titles are often questions readers would ask while reading the first few paragraphs of the article. This makes me keep reading the article because the second I see the first question in the section title, I go, “Yeah, why is that?” and can’t help but find out the answer.

This formula helps you keep your audience’s attention. I learned this is also a presentation skill from Mark Robinson’s TED talk, “How to present to keep your audience’s attention.”

If you present one concept after another, the audience might feel friction simply because it is not natural to keep paying attention to someone else one-sidedly. Asking questions from time to time eliminates this friction by giving them a break from listening to you and letting them think by themselves for a second. This break is followed by curiosity and a desire to find out the answer, making them pay attention when you give it to them.

Do not use a pointer

You might be wondering what’s wrong with a pointer. There are at least two:

  1. It is often hard to see what you are pointing at. Difficulty figuring this out causes friction.
  2. If you leave the pointer on the screen and move around mindlessly, people can’t help but chase it like cats and a laser pointer. It is distracting and causes friction.

If you stick with the one-thing-per-slide rule, you don’t need a pointer in most cases because there is only one thing to look at on the slide. When you need to point at a part of a figure or one of the few items in comparison, for example, use the animation feature of your presentation software and show an arrow, underline, circle, box, etc.

I learned this lesson from MIT professor Patrick Winston’s lecture.

Opt for graphics and avoid text as much as possible

I see people have lots of text on a slide and read it. They are reading it instead of talking to the audience. It is not engaging. Having lots of text and saying something else, paraphrasing what’s on the slide, is even worse. Do you know why?

Visual is the most dominant sense for most of us when it comes to information processing. When we see text on the slide, we can’t help but read it. Reading words and listening to spoken words that don’t match the words you are reading is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

This is the friction I see most often and also find most offensive. So don’t do that.

Instead, communicate a concept by graphics whenever possible. Speak the words instead of putting them on the slide. Keep the text on the slides minimum.

Don’t make people think

Because our brains are lazy by nature, making people think causes friction. Explain things in a natural, logical, or chronological order. Don’t jump around between different things randomly. Don’t leave anything out, making people wonder about the acronym you used, where to find the literature you mentioned, etc. Explain everything not obvious to your audience. If you can’t explain it, don’t mention it.

Practice out loud

You probably think about what to say for each slide when you make a slide deck or when you are preparing for a presentation. Once you know what to say, you might feel ready.

But knowing WHAT to say and knowing HOW to say it are two different things. Even if you know what to say, it might not come out right when you say it. To avoid this, you need to practice your presentation out loud.

If you say something that doesn’t come out right, you might move on or try to say it in different ways. Either way, it causes friction. If you say what you want to say the right way every time, you eliminate friction. This takes practice.

Stay within the scheduled time

Don’t go overtime because it is unprofessional and rude. Also, when you go overtime, people start wondering how long you are going to go on, which causes distraction, which is friction.

There are many other things to do, like speaking slowly, avoiding up-talk, keeping the font size above 30 points, etc. But they all come down to eliminating friction. So to be a good presenter, strive to present without friction.

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