Category Archives: speaking

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, …” – 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.

Reflections on PresentationCampToronto

At Tuesday’s PresentationCampToronto organized by Chris Gurney, I gave an eight-minute talk on relentlessly improving your presentation skills. This was followed by a Q&A session, then four other talks+Q&A, and then an informal panel discussion.

What worked well, and how can I do things even better?

  • I really liked working with just a single slide. I felt freer to walk around, gesture, and not worry about presentation remotes. My timing and velocity felt much more flexible. It meant that there were no surprises, but that’s okay too. It was easy to put together a single slide summarizing my key points and the seven things I wanted people to do.
  • I love Q&A. I really do. People often worry about controlling the message and telling their audience things. Me, I really like focusing on people – not audience, but people, participants, even co-creators! – and learning from them while they’re learning from me. If I’m doing a really short talk, I’m fine with doing the talk straight, and then focusing on Q&A once people have an idea of what I can help them with. If I’m doing a talk that’s longer than 5-10 minutes, I like having a backchannel to capture questions, or bringing in some interaction during the talk to break up the monotony and keep me on track.
  • I liked the panel. Panels with a theme like this make me happy. I find that more interesting than a wild romp through topics.
  • I’ve been thinking and writing about this topic for quite a while, so putting together a talk was easy. Practising what I preach! =)
  • I remembered to add my short URL. Next time, I’ll add my Twitter username too. It’s a small nudge to look me up.
  • Although I braindumped presentation kaizen ideas before, I didn’t write speaker’s notes for this particular talk. The talk still flowed smoothly because I’d thought about my key points and how they flowed together. I still like being able to point people to full speaker notes, though, so I’ll go back to doing that next time.
  • I really should get someone else to take video. Leaving my camera on a tripod or a chair doesn’t work, because I sometimes step out of frame. Next time, I need to make sure someone’s capturing video.
  • I think I’ll move to asking what I can help people with instead of asking if there are any questions. I sometimes remember to do that, and it’s more fun when I do. It’s fascinating how powerful little shifts in words can be. Anyway, we had no lack of questions and tips there. Yay! Always my favourite part of presenting…
  • I’ll also move back to doing a one-minute summary at the end of Q&A. I normally remember to do this because I’m keeping track of the time myself or I’ve notified the talk organizer to leave a few minutes at the end of Q&A, but I forgot to tell Chris Gurney this time, and I transitioned to the other speaker instead of wrapping up before transitioning.
  • Doing a presentation every week (mostly new stuff each time!) seemed a little scary, but I survived. March tends to be like that – still conference season, even without big face-to-face conferences! There are a couple of things that made this conference season different from the other ones:
    • Shorter prepared talks: PresCampTO was the longest prepared talk (8 minutes) and Ignite had the most slides (20). I did three talks that were essentially one-slide summaries (one visual, two text). After the prepared talk, it was all Q&A—except for Ignite, which didn’t have Q&A, which made me realize that I really like Q&A and I feel weird when it’s missing.
    • More reuse: I’ve been digging up ideas from my archives and preparing presentations about topics I’ve been thinking about for a while. Also, I’m seeing much more reuse of presentation assets, too. For example, Remote Presentations That Rock has been getting a lot of mileage at work. I just heard from someone in IBM Italy who wants to share it with her team. So it might be worth investing the time in doing video podcasts of interesting talks, because people tend to find those useful and reusable, and 7-20 minutes is a lot better than a recorded 60-minute webinar. Depending on the webinar style I choose (talk + Q&A or interleaved talk and Q&A), I could make it easier to extract the key 20 minutes from the webinar, too. Hmm…
    • Less preparation, or at least the preparation has been moved around: It used to take me four or more hours to prepare a talk. I’ve separated the process into blogging + slides, gotten better at braindumping ideas with a simple structure, and simplified the slides I make. Also, I’m getting used to this drawing thing, so I don’t have to spend as much time correcting my drawings! ;) So it takes me two hours for a new presentation that builds on things I’ve been thinking about, and it takes me five minutes to reuse something I’ve already prepared. =) Major new topics still need research and prep time, though.
    • Less travel: I was only out for one week, and that was for a small customer workshop. I like staying home. =)
  • Biking in a drizzle was good exercise. I wasn’t drenched or out of breath. Focusing on getting there without being run over turned out to be a good way to creatively relax. My tires were a little squishier on the way back, though, because they’d been out in the cold. Rain pants might be good for heavier rain.
  • Creative relaxation makes planning easier. When a topic has latched on my mind, I sometimes “hear” snippets of possible phrasing – part of my brain experimenting with putting words together, I guess. I’m also starting to be able to quickly imagine slides. I don’t remember experiencing that when I had started blogging and presenting. It started a few years ago, I think, and it has become more and more common as I’ve done more writing and more speaking. Thinking of blog posts or planning a presentation is certainly easier when you’re doing it without thinking—not because it’s so easy you could proverbially do it in your sleep, but because your mind is so used to playing with ideas that it will sneak off and do it when you’re focused on something else. (And yes, sometimes I dream of talks.) This could mean that I’m on the other side of this particular plateau of mediocrity:
    but fortunately, there’s always more to learn:


Key tip I’d give other presenters:

  • Make the most of your last slide. Take advantage of the extra time. Don’t just put “Q&A” or “Thanks” on it. Instead, end with a one-slide summary, your contact information, and perhaps some starting questions to kick off the Q&A period.
  • Always reflect on what you did well and how you can do even better. Relentless improvement is the way forward! =) Every talk is a learning opportunity. You’ve already done most of the hard work, so invest a little more to get even greater benefits.

Things to think about and blog about:

Feedback: Someone asked a question about whether feedback forms were useful. I think they’re awesome, if the questions are phrased properly and if people have the emotional connection needed to invest time in giving great feedback. I find webinars and online surveys give me much better feedback than paper feedback forms, because people usually don’t have the time to scribble more than a few words in person when they’re rushing off to another session, while people who care enough about leaving feedback online end up writing paragraphs. Very very useful.

One of the speakers said that he seeks out someone who can be a no-holds-barred critic, and that helps him strengthen his position. While that’s helpful when you want to argue a point, I think you also need people who can help you become a better presenter through coaching and inspiration. The challenge is that critics can often tell you what you shouldn’t do, but they might not be as good at telling you what you should do and what strengths you can build on. Example: Toastmasters is great for making you conscious of your ums and ahs, your lack of vocal variety, your need to slow down… but unless you’re in a club with great speakers, your feedback might be limited to those surface details, because no one can point the way forward. You need to know what “great” looks like.

So in terms of personal growth, I accept and understand critics, but I get much more inspiration and value from mentors and role models. Anyone can tell you that you have many flaws, but it takes real depth to tell you, specifically, where you can shine and which specific flaws you need to address so that you aren’t held back by them. This is different from people simply supporting you and telling you, “Your talk was nice.” Nice is not specific. Even “Your energy is inspiring” may not be specific enough, depending on what you need. You’re looking for someone who can tell you what you’re doing well and a few concrete steps you can take to do things even better.

Control: Many people think about controlling the message, controlling the audience, controlling the backchannel. I love turning the power structure upside down. I’m not the all-powerful, all-knowing speaker. I’m there to serve. I’m there so that I can help people learn about something or be inspired to do something. I don’t have to lie if I can’t answer a question. =) I’m perfectly happy coming in with something I’d like to talk about and then talking about something completely different if that’s what people want. I don’t know if I’d let all of us be bullied by an individual who wants to take things off track, because that’s never happened. I’ve never had an adversarial relationship with participants. If I face that situation in the future, though, I think I’d check with what the rest of the people want, and we can figure thing out together.

Try that people-centered approach sometime. Ditch the concept of an “audience” and connect with people. See it as a great opportunity to learn from them while they’re learning from you. Focus on service. It’s fun, and you’ll learn tons along the way.

Appearances: Someone asked a question about appearances. It was interesting to see how much this became part of the discussion, even though none of us had specifically addressed it in our talks.

Me, I’ll dress to minimize how much we all think about it, unless I want to make a point about the way I dress. This typically means a blouse, pants (skirts can be tricky on stage, particularly with panels), a blazer (maybe; usually no), and a scarf; or jeans and a T-shirt if I’m addressing a particular audience; or something memorable if I’m expecting a crowd. A hat is nice for picking me out later, although I won’t wear it on stage because it interferes with lighting. A white suit (or a blazer of an unusual colour) is also good for helping people find me in a crowd.

There’s only been one exception to this when it came to presentations. When I mis-planned things and didn’t have my presentation clothes available, I ended up in a full fuschia skirt and ruffled blouse speaking at an Enterprise 2.0 event in Toronto. Fortunately, it was a casual crowd. I didn’t let my outfit bother me, and neither did people, although one person came up to me afterwards and asked me what that bright red LED had been. (I’d tucked a voice recorder in there somewhere, too.) Anyway, if you do find yourself under- or over-dressed, keep calm and carry on.

So I think about the basics, and then I don’t worry about it. If my hair sticks out a little, if I have pimples, if my shoes managed to pick up another scuff, I’m not going to let that throw me off balance.

Balance. That’s probably it. Part of it is being comfortable in your own skin and your own clothes. Part of it is thinking about people and whether they’d be thrown off track by your appearance so much that they can’t listen to what you’re saying. You can still be you in that situation, but you have to make sure that your bio or your reputation sets people up so that they get over the shock early. Steve Jobs shocks no one when he shows up in a mock turtleneck. “Unconventional” is a handy word to put into your bio. “Creative” also tends to adjust people’s expectations. ;) You also have to make sure that you deliver the value promised, and you’re focused on being of service. It’s not about how cool you are, it’s about how well you can help people achieve their goals. (Yes, even the people who were required to be there.)

Kaizen: There, I’ve posted my notes for that talk. =) Check them out!

Missing something I love about presentations

While preparing for PresentationCampToronto, I found myself thinking about how I turn what I learn into presentations, the different kinds of presentations I’ve given, and what was missing from Ignite and other short presentation forms that have grown in popularity.

My presentations come from life: book and blog insights filtered through the lens of my experience, experiments summarized and shared. I share these thoughts on my blog as a way of exploring the topic and getting things out there. I’ve tried recording podcasts based on that, but never persisted. I find it hard enough to listen to other people’s lectures.

If I find myself writing about a topic again and again, it’s usually a good sign that there’s a presentation lurking in there. Sometimes I get swayed by invitations or calls for papers, and I’ll write something specifically for them, too.

When I have an audience and a venue in mind, I’ll make storyboards – quick, simple illustrations of the key points. These turn into slides with minimal text. If I feel particularly diligent, I may prepare more detailed stand-alone slides for viewing on Slideshare, but I usually don’t do that if I’m planning a live presentation.

The next step is usually dictated by the venue. Sometimes I’ll invest the time in recording a stand-alone video, like the afternoon I spent recording Remote Presentations That Rock in my kitchen. Most of the time, I prefer to deliver the presentation as a webinar, getting my key points across in 7-20 minutes, leaving plenty of time for Q&A, and building in lots of interaction opportunities. Sometimes I need to give the presentation in person. Ignite-style presentations use strict time constraints. Camp-style presentations are short and followed by a brief Q&A period. Keynotes need to be more showy and they tend to not have interaction , although this depends on the size of the audience. I can sometimes play with this. Conference-style presentations have plenty of time for Q&A. Oh, and there are panels, too, which are an interesting case of conference-style – presentations need to be short conversation-starters, and the flow of conversation can be very interesting.

I was thinking about this because I realized that although Ignite-style presentations are becoming more popular (more ideas squeezed into a shorter timeslot; more focused talks; more variety), I felt like I was missing something important, something I love about presentations, something that makes the hassle of preparing a presentation all worthwhile.

My favourite way of delivering a presentation is to give it over the Web. My second favourite—if I must travel, which I don’t enjoy as much as other people do—is to give it as a conference-style presentation with as much Q&A as I can manage. And I’m perfectly happy to skip the presentation entirely, sharing what I know in a blog post or stand-alone set of slides instead.

I think it’s because the other forms feel one-way and presenter-centric. It feels a little like, “Look at me! I’m an expert! I’m clever!” And I don’t want to be like that at all. I don’t want audiences, I want participants. I love learning from the other people participating in the session. I love the questions that make me think and teach me about what people want to learn. I love the answers that surprise me as I give them, and the insights we draw from people in the room. I love the chaos of a lively backchannel during a webinar, when dozens of conversations might begin. I love the worldwide reach of blogs and webinars.

I love the intimacy of a web conference or a blog post. In person, the bright lights on a stage hide people’s faces anyway, and people forget to follow up on ideas or URLs. At least online, people can see my facial expressions, immediately check out resources, and send me e-mail or a note. It’s nice to shake people’s hands and see them, true, but details blur in the din of crowds. Online—oddly!—I feel more connected with people.

What does this mean for me? Fewer in-person appearances, more web-based ones; fewer presentations, more blog posts; fewer words, more questions and answers. And it would be nice to spread the presentations a little further apart again.

There’s been something missing in the in-person presentations I’ve been giving – that sense of interaction and connection. I wonder if it’s worth pushing the in-person presentation formats to give me that sense back, or if I should focus on deepening the presentation formats I love.

IgniteToronto video: The Shy Presenter

I’m giving up on getting the organizers to update the incorrect abstract and bio on the page, but anyway, here’s the 5-minute video from my “Shy Presenter” talk at IgniteToronto:

Ignite Toronto 3: Sacha Chua – The Shy Presenter: An Introvert’s Guide to Speaking in Public from Ignite Toronto on Vimeo.

Minor miscalculation: shy or introverted presenters-to-be are not actually likely to come out to a bar with 200 people to watch an Ignite talk. Ah well. ;) Here’s to fellow introverts who would rather catch the replay!

The Shy Presenter If you’ve ever struggled with small talk, felt overwhelmed in crowds, or wondered how to speak up at work, this talk’s for you. In five minutes, you’ll pick up quick tips about discovering what you have to say, how to say it, and why it’s worth braving the spotlight.

Bio: Sacha Chua spent grade school to grad school hiding in computer labs and libraries. She prefers bookstores over bars, close friends instead of crowds, and silence over small talk. Blogging and public speaking turned out to be excellent ways to learn, though. Today, tens of thousands of people have viewed Sacha Chua’s presentations, attended her keynotes, and read her blog (

Thoughts on presenting: I love the backchannel

One of the reasons why I like presenting online more than presenting in even the best-equipped halls is the text chat that participants can use to share what they think. I love it. I think it’s incredible how, through talks, I can provide a space for people to come together and discuss something they’re interested in, and I can listen to what’s important to them and what they’ve learned.

The value I bring to a presentation:

  • a key message
  • next actions
  • a short, energetic, engaging presentation
  • other stories and insights as they come up during Q&A

The value I receive from a presentation:

  • new insights from the conversations
  • new connections
  • the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from sharing

It’s a lot of fun. I hope I can help more presenters get the hang of the backchannel!

Paper is the new PowerPoint

… and that’s a great thing. =)

Check out these creative presentations by Betsy Streeter:

If you like my hand-drawn presentations, have fun making your own! All you need is a something to write on, something to write with, and a camera. Alternatively, you can get all fancy-like and buy an inexpensive drawing tablet. Enjoy!