Notes from Totally Rocking Presentations at IBM

When one of my mentors asked me if I could do a session on presentation skills for the new interns who are coming in as part of IBM’s Extreme Blue program, I said yes, of course. =) Great opportunity to give back and learn.

Here are the key points I shared and learned in the session today:

1. Look for inspiration. It’s easier to get better at presentations when you know what good presentations look like, sound like, and feel like. Watch videos or download podcasts from to see what passionate brilliance is like. Check out to see what kinds of presentations real people put together. Pick up tips from books such as Presentation Zen (also blog), Slide:ology (also blog), Rainmaking Presentations, The How of Wow, and Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins. Be inspired.

2. Figure out what you want to say, why it matters, and how you want to say it. Let’s tackle those parts one by one.

What do you want to share? Many people make the mistake of thinking they don’t have anything to say because they’re not experts. As a result, they don’t volunteer for presentations or submit ideas to conferences.

Why does it matter? Again, many people make the mistake of thinking that all they need to do is inform their audiences. Every presentation is an opportunity to influence, to persuade. Every presentation is an opportunity to help someone think differently and even take action. Figure out what you want people to walk away with, and why they would care about your message. Talk in their terms.

Make your presentation even better by figuring out why it matters to you. That’s how you tap into your passion and energy. Why do you care about the topic? What do you bring to it that nobody else can? What do you want to get out of the presentation?

Whenever I prepare a presentation, I look for ways that I can learn a lot from it. That’s why I love handling lots of questions, because questions tell me what people find important. Questions let me pull more ideas out of my head and get them into a form that I can share. People in the audience share their experiences and insights, too. If something really stumps me, well, that points me to something I can learn. This adventure is one of the reasons why I love giving presentations. And that’s why I can bring so much energy and joy to my presentations–I’m doing it because I want to do it.

When you know what and why, how becomes much easier to figure out. You can play with your toolbox to see what fits. Bullet points are one way to do it. Try full-screen stock photography, or individual words with lots of whitespace (or black backgrounds), or purposeful animations. Try Creative Commons-licensed pictures from Flickr. Try telling a story. Try not using slides. Try using a scenario. Try finding statistics. Go ahead and experiment. Go ahead and play.

3. Practice, practice, practice.

There’s no shortcut here, and no matter what other people might tell you, stage fright never goes away. But practice can help you get better at harnessing that nervous energy. Practice can help you figure out and remember what you want to say, why it matters, and how you want to say it.

The obvious way to practice is to sign up for more presentations. But even if you don’t get that many speaking opportunities, there are plenty of other ways you can practice. You might try explaining what you do and why it matters during conversations. You can speak up during meetings. You can prepare slides and post them on Slideshare or other services, even if you don’t have a presentanion scheduled.

I find blogging to be an incredibly useful way to practice thinking and speaking. Most of my presentations start as blog posts. If you’re interested in something, write about it. If you’re really interested, write again and again. In the process, you’ll learn about the topic, and you’ll connect with other people who are interested. Then you can turn your notes into presentations, because you’ve already done the hard work of thinking about what you want to say and how to say it, and you know it matters to you.

So the next steps I want to convince you to take are:

– Look for inspiration. Start with =)
– Figure out what you want to say, why it matters, and how you want to say it. Experiment. Explore.
– Practice, practice, practice. There are lots of opportunities to learn how to present, and not all of them involve a stage. (Or a stuffed toy, which I occasionally use.)

How can I help you become an even better speaker?

(I’ve omitted the IBM-specific parts here. Ping me internally if you want a link to the presentation and the recording!)