Adding to your presentation skill set

After my LIANZA talk a few people asked questions phrased like “what do you use to make your slides?” or “what program do you use to write presentations?” The straight answer is “Keynote for Mac, on my iPad and MacBook Pro.”  And while I answer the question at face value, I always have a bit of niggling doubt: The tool is just a tool. Using Keynote won’t give you design skills, or build your confidence at creating public presentations. It’s just a tool, albeit a good one. So I feel like I’m only giving a fraction of the answer to the broader question that people may be considering, which is, I suspect, “How do you do that?”

In response to that unasked question and my concerns about it, I thought I would share a few of the things I’ve learned in the 10 years that I’ve been giving presentations to crowds.  I started down this road when I was working for the Northern Illinois Library System delivering training on the Serials and Acquisitions modules of III, progressed through doing presentations at small conferences, and now am contracted to give two more keynotes in April. It’s a path that starts in a place very different from where I’ve ended, and means I’ve had to learn about things like audience, learning outcomes, information delivery goals, and style.

So. A few things.

My process. 

Most of my presentations start in one of two ways: with a call for presenters, which requires an abstract, title, and some pre-defined made up criteria that fit the conference planners’ needs but not necessarily mine, or an invitation to speak on a one-sentence topic, which I then follow up with an abstract and session title.

That is in no way enough information for me to sit down and write. What I need is an outline. I learned this about myself the hard way, with much flailing, aborted attempts, and frustration.  Now, I sit down and outline the key points I want to communicate about the topic in question. Phrases. Ideas. Technologies. Learning objectives. Whatever it is, I write them all down on individual Keynote slides.

And then I go find images, usually using CompFight. At this point I spend a few hours harvesting images, inserting them into slides, and designing them into something I think evokes the message I’m trying to communicate. Small amounts of words, big images. My goal is always to give my audience something to stare at other than my talking head, but something which will a) not distract from my talking head with lots of words to read while I’m talking and b) be relevant. I’m not opposed to the LOLcats method of slide-decking, but it’s not what I prefer to do. For this, as I said, I use Keynote, because I think that Keynote provides the most professional, modern, clean, and flexible options for master slides — much nicer than PowerPoint.

Then I find the story. What am I trying to say? How do my ideas flow together? What’s my ordering of thoughts? I shuffle the deck, a lot. When I have the outline in story form, then I start writing.  Slide by slide, I outline what I want to say, what I want to communicate. When I have the outline in place, I go back and start again, adding in sentences, connectors, and finding the breaks and pauses in what I say. I use line breaks to visually arrange my speaker’s notes to show those pauses, breaks, segments, and punch moments. My entire speaking pattern is defined by the notes.  By the time I hit the stage, I know where my marks are, and am confident I can hit them — but I’ve used my notes to ensure I don’t forget in the heat of the moment.

And then I make sure I have an ending, because as Michael Lopp says, “Remember, they never remember the beginning. They only remember how it ended.”

I also have learned that I use the above process even when I’m giving a speech unbacked by visuals.  My slides, additive as they are, are only there to provide visual markers and support to my words. I don’t need them in order to give the talk. What I do need is to have them. I learned (again, the hard way) that I write much more effectively when I have the visual outline to follow. So now I always build a deck, even when I won’t need to use it. It helps me write, and that’s the thing I need to do to keep myself moving forward.

Hitting your marks.

Somewhere in the Find The Story phase of writing, I always go back to the abstract and make sure I’m doing what I said I was going to do — in the writing process it’s easy for me to take a hard right when I was supposed to go forward. I get wrapped up in fun tangents and fail to pay attention to the goal. So I always double check myself. I also always go back to some of the things I’ve read and learned about presentations to make sure that I’m hitting my marks. Does it have an engaging opening that make people want to listen to me? Do I have useful examples embedded in my discussion? Have I dealt with the ending appropriately? Do my visuals tell a coherent thematic story independent of my words?

Audience and venue.

Who are you talking to? A small group of librarians? A class of 20 undergraduates? First year undergraduates? 50 busy academic administrators? An audience of 10? 300? 2000? Think about what that means — are you five feet from your audience, so you can speak conversationally, make eye contact, and take on-the-spot questions? Are you going to be on a spotlit stage, staring into darkness populated by 1000 eyes? Are you going to be using a microphone, and will it be on a podium, in your hand, or on your lapel? What expectations does the audience have for your presentation? Consider all the options and variables, and deal with them as you see fit.

Presentation Zen.

All I want to say is this: Quit it with the wordy slides.  There are a zillion pieces of advice out there about how to build and deliver engaging presentations to an audience. Nearly every one will tell you to stop putting so many words on your slides. If you’re going to read the same thing I see on the screen, why do I need you? Or why do I need the slide? If you are not a confident presenter, it’s a hard crutch to abandon — I struggled with it — but make the slides additive to your verbiage, not the other way around.  I recommend that any speaker challenged by this idea watch a few dozen TED talks as inspiration, and read the Presentation Zen blog for ideas.

Software and technology.

I use Keynote. I used to use PowerPoint. Somewhere in the middle I flirted with Jessamyn West’s all-html-no-powerpoint web style. I’ve tried Prezi, and fussed with using a .pdf file. I’ve settled firmly on Keynote for now. Do what works for you — what you have the tech to support, what you’re comfortable with, etc — but know you have options. Try some stuff.  See what you like. Use something you’re confident with, and then use it well.

But be prepared for the world to try to thwart you at every turn. To give my keynote at LIANZA, I had to export my Keynote file into PowerPoint, switch all the fonts from Gill Sans to Verdana (a Microsoft-standard font), reformat all the fonts, and then save as a .pptx file on a flash drive. I then gave the flash drive to the tech support, who loaded it up for the big screen. Had I given them a straight Keynote file, they wouldn’t have been able to load it. If I gave them a straight Keynote-to-PowerPoint export, the fonts would have been totally borked as an automatic manual translation was applied for Gill Sans. And if I’d done a web-based presentation, I would have been at the mercy of their internet connection and tech setup. So: Give yourself options. Know you may need to adapt. Do not lock yourself into an inflexible solution.

Personal presentation.

Years ago I saw a presentation at Computers in Libraries in which I noticed that the speaker was wearing a lovely silver necklace that was glinting in the spotlights. I kept finding my eyes on her face because the necklace caught my attention and drew me back to watching her. Smart trick. I’ve also noticed how what you wear can affect whether or not you’re seen/noticed/paid attention to. Wearing a black suit looks professional, yes, but you often blend into the background. Men, wear a bright tie. Women, wear a color somewhere on your top half. Give people something to look at, whether you’re in a room holding 20 or 200. And present yourself physically the way you want to be treated intellectually. The Little Black Dress is a godsend for many women, but do you want to be professionally identified with your LBD? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Ditto a great suit, or your favorite dress. All make an impression. You decide which you want to make. Appearances matter, fair or not. Dress the part, whatever that means to you.


I’ve seen some spectacular temper tantrums from librarians, and also some serious dick moves from people who think they’re famous.  So, ego. I say, in the moment you swallow it. Just do the job to the best of your ability. If you don’t hit your marks, or the audience doesn’t respond, stuff it away and learn from it later, and smile and say thank you for the opportunity. If you get a round of applause and excitement, awesome — but stuff it away and learn from it later. Smile, and say thank you for the opportunity. Show some grace and style, no matter how you perform according to your own standards.  Your ego and its thoughts on the subject are irrelevant in the moment, so just put all the rest of it away until you can sit quietly with it and figure out what it means for you. You ain’t no rockstar, baby, and it’s equally true that no one else needs to know why you think you fucked up or whose fault it really is. Keep that shit to yourself.

So. Those are a few truths from my process.  What works for you?

9 thoughts on “Adding to your presentation skill set

  1. Dorothea

    Oddly, I never mind talking about how I fucked up a talk. People who don’t speak regularly get this idea that it never happens to people who do.

    It does. And that’s okay. There’s always next time.

  2. Jenica Post author

    Dorothea, I agree. Discussing failure is really important.

    I was thinking about when people come up and thank a speaker and tell her they enjoyed the talk… and then the speaker explains why it was a terrible talk even though the person explicitly enjoyed it. I think that our personal demons and failures, in the moment like that, are less important than the audience. And if the audience is good, well, smile and say thank you.

  3. Mark Kille

    I think these are really good points!

    One thing I would add from my own experience is to know one’s temperament for monitoring audience reaction/engagement during the presentation. Some folks find it really useful to pay close attention, not just from a practical standpoint, but for getting a needed energy boost (if going well) or kick in the butt (if not). Some folks find it distracting to pay close attention and get cocky (if going well) or freaked out (if not).

    Me, I can fall anywhere on that continuum, depending on the day. So checking in with myself before the presentation starts is part of my routine.

  4. Kathryn Greenhill

    All of the above, plus a philosophical attitude that influences every decision I make presenting …

    Make the presentation about the audience, not you…

    I think that if you aim to make the audience, by the end of your talk, feel like they are very clever, competent people who have interesting ideas and are powerful, then you will change your presentation to a much more interactive and participative one.

    Too often I see speakers who spend their time trying to convince the audience that they, the speaker, are very clever, competent, interesting and powerful.

    There is a fine line between being that person that the organisers have invited you there to be (ie. the keynote ) and being overbearingly smart alec-y. Part of the contract with the organisers is that you are there to perform and put on a good show, so you have to be a heightened version of yourself BUT the best speakers, who I want to see again and again, are more like choir leaders with energy, pizazz and great focus than solo singers.

  5. Pingback: Learning Styles & Presentations | The Digital Immigrant

  6. Rohini Subbian

    Hi Jenica, This blog is fantastic and boosts the confidence of new presenters. I have been thinking for longtime for presenting the paper at the conference but did not know where/how to start. Your writing is just wonderful with great ideas for me. Thanks.

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