March 23, 2010

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Presentation kaizen: Seven everyday ways to become a better presenter

Talk given at PresentationCamp.

Presentation Kaizen
View more presentations from Sacha Chua

You need to have something worth presenting. Shortest way to do that is to (1) learn from others. Read books, read blogs, listen to conversations, attend talks, etc. But you’ve got to bring something unique to it, so (2) experiment, experience, and live. That gives you something to (3) share. Share what you’re learning in conversations, in blog posts, etc. This helps you figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it.

I used to tell people, “Sure, it’s okay if you don’t write, blogging might not be for everyone,” but as I help more and more people, I realize that writing things down gives you a tremendous advantage because memory is short, and a semi-permanent record will help you accumulate and organize so much more raw material. Audio and video recordings are handy for quick notes, but they’re not as searchable. So write or draw, and figure out how to build your own knowledgebase, even if that consists of notebooks and notebooks. You don’t have to capture everything, but you’ll benefit from capturing even some of the things you learn. And this can be private, although you’ll benefit much more from sharing your notes with other people because you’ll learn a lot more in the process.

Anyway, now you have a lot of material, and you’ve got to figure out how to share it. So (4) watch. Watch good presenters for inspiration (TED is great for this), but don’t stop at watching presentations. Watch movies to learn about storytelling. Watch commercials to find out about grabbing and keeping people’s attention, addressing the “What’s in it for me”. Read literature and news to see how people phrase things. Watch conversations. Everything teaches you something.

Watch horrible presentations, too. You’ll find plenty of these around. Next time a teleconference bores you, take notes. This is great for three reasons:

  • You remember why it’s important to become a better presenter when you feel the pain of an audience whose time is being wasted and the pain of the speaker whose lack of skills is getting in the way of a good message.
  • You remember what you don’t want to do: read off the slides, fill your slides with illegible text, etc.
  • You realize that even bad presentations are okay and that everyone’s learning. People still pay to go to conferences or attend webinars, even though many talks suck. Even for free sessions, people invest time and opportunity cost. So if you see speakers stuttering and stammering and stumbling over slides, but they still get their messages across, that encourages you to get started, keep going, and learn.

Another good thing to do while watching bad presentations: (5) revise. If you’ve ever told yourself that you could do a better job than the person standing on the stage, prove it. Figure out their key message and restructure their presentation. Doodle new slides for them. It’s great practice because you’re working on making things better. Do this for yourself, too. Review your presentations and figure out how you can do things better.

Now you’ve got good content and ideas on how to present it, so (6) prepare. Figure out your key message and supporting points, draft a script, turn it into an article. Storyboard ideas for slides and make a presentation. You don’t have to deliver it. You just have to practise packaging it. Post it on Slideshare or your blog if you want – great way to get feedback.

Invest a little bit more time in getting tons more value out of those six activities by (7) promoting what you know. If no one knows that you know, no one’s going to know what you know. So make it easy for people to find out how you can help them. Write about it. Listen for opportunities in conversation, and by that I don’t mean shameless irrelevant plugging like, “As I was saying on my blog livinganawesomelife.com, …” – I mean listen for ways to help people, and then offer to send them a link if you’ve got something relevant to their needs. Volunteer for speaking opportunities. Webinar and conference organizers are always looking for material. Business associations and other groups are always looking for speakers. If you can’t find a venue, make your own. There are a number of webinar services that offer small conferences for free. Explore.

If you (1) learn, (2) live, and (3) share as much as you can, you’ll build up lots of raw material. (4) Watching others and (5) revising presentations will help you improve your presentation skills. Then it’s just a matter of (6) preparing presentation ideas and (7) promoting how you can help others. You can turn every moment into presentation practice – and that’s the secret of relentless improvement, or presentation kaizen.

For more ideas, check out this braindump.

How to brain-dump what you know

Why

  • You’re going to need it. Why solve things twice? Write things down.
  • You can save yourself the time it would take to explain to lots of people.
  • You can save other people time.
  • You improve your understanding and your communication skills.
  • You can build your reputation.
  • You can meet interesting people and find new opportunities.
  • You can train other people to do your work. Replaceable = promotable. Also, you can move on to other roles without feeling stuck or guilty.

How

  • Just write. Paper notebook, big text file, blog, wiki, wherever. It doesn’t have to be organized. Just get things out of your head. Rough thoughts, doodles, step-by-step instructions, solutions—whatever you can. Don’t get into trouble, of course. Strip out sensitive information. There’s still plenty to share.
  • Plan for search. Number the pages of your paper notebooks and keep an index at the back. If you use a blog or wiki to store your notes, try using your tools to search. Add extra keywords to help you find things.
  • Be lazy about organization and refinement. Your notes don’t have to make sense to other people in the beginning. If other people ask you for that information, then you know it’s worth revising and organizing. Build links when you need them.
  • Share with as wide an audience as possible. Even if you don’t think anyone would be interested in what you’re writing, who knows? Maybe you’ll connect the dots for someone. Put it out there and give people a choice.
  • Write, write, write. You may catch yourself writing about something for the sixth time in a row because the past five times didn’t quite capture what you wanted to say. This is good. The more you write about something, the more you understand it, and the better you can communicate it to others.
  • Keep a beginner’s mind. Write earlier rather than later. Write when you’re learning something instead of when you’ve mastered it. Experts take a lot of things for granted. Document while you can still see what needs to be documented.
  • Think out loud. Don’t limit braindumping to the past. You can use it to plan, too. Write about what you plan to do and what you’re considering. You’ll make better decisions, and you’ll find those notes useful when you look back. Other people can give you suggestions and insights, too.

Other notes

Many people use these excuses to avoid sharing:

  • I’m new and I don’t know anything worth sharing.
  • I’m an expert and I’m too busy to share.
  • No one will read what I’ve shared.

If you’re new to a topic, awesome. Sharing will help you learn better. Also, as a beginner, you’re in a good position to document the things that other people take for granted.

If you’re an expert, sharing lets you free up time and enable other people to build on your work. You can make a bigger difference. You’re probably an expert because you care about something deeply. Wouldn’t it be awesome if other people could help you make things happen?

Don’t worry about people not reading what you’ve shared. You’ll get the immediate personal benefit of learning while you teach, and you might find it handy later on. You can refer other people to it, too. People can find your work on their own months or even years later, if it’s searchable.

Share what you’re learning!

Thanks to Luis Suarez, John Handy-Bosma, and John Cohn for the nudge to write about this!