Tricks for giving presentations at work

One of my peers–he does exactly what I do at work, but for Unix machines while I cover Windows–asked me for some tips for giving presentations after he gave a presentation last week. I’ve presented a couple of times myself, and from the feedback I received, I didn’t make too much of a fool of myself, so he asked for my feedback.

I gave him a few tips that have served me well over the years.

People expect me to be able to present because I have a journalism degree. Speaking wasn’t my specialty, but even in the 1990s they expected print guys like me to be able to speak on camera if needed, and of course we had to pitch our stories in meetings. I’m reasonably well spoken, but most journalists are.

He asked me if I could tell he was reading. I couldn’t, until he mentioned he was reading. Indeed, it’s entirely possible to read in a way that it doesn’t sound like you’re reading. It just takes some practice. The only thing to watch for if you choose to do this is to not stray off script, because he did lose his place once when he did just that, and it was the only awkward part of his presentation. So my advice if you’re going to read is to stick to reading until you’re really comfortable speaking.

There are a couple of a typographical tricks you can use to make your presentation easier to read, and make it harder for you to lose your place. First, use a serif font, along the lines of Times New Roman, Garamond, Bookman, or Georgia. The feet and ears guide your eyes along. Second, increase your line spacing to 1.5 or 2.0. The whitespace underneath each line of text makes it easier for you to keep your place. You’ll use more paper, but it’s probably worth it.

If you do get lost, it’s probably better to pause for the half second it takes to find your place again rather than stumble. It’s a little less awkward, and when you’re presenting, especially when it’s technical material, the audience does expect you to have notes and to need to consult them.

I prefer to use an outline or notes, as long as I know the material well enough in order to do so. It usually requires more practice and more prep time, but if you can pull it off, it will result in a better presentation.

He also asked me about nerves. Everyone has different ways of dealing with that, but I have a couple. The first thing is that I ignore most of the room. I find two or three people I’m comfortable talking with, spread out across the room, and I talk to them. By switching my gaze between three people, I can look like I’m looking at the whole room.

The other thing I do is lose myself in the content. I get fired up enough about what I’m talking about that I end up not being able to think about being nervous. For that matter sometimes I forget I’m talking to people two or three or four pay grades above me. That means sometimes I get a little too far into the details, especially if I’m talking to senior directors, but when the alternative is sweating like Chris Farley in his motivational speaker Matt Foley routine, diving a little too far into the tech for a couple of minutes is the smaller of the two mistakes. And with peers, of course, that’s not a problem at all.

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