I wrote this from the experience of presentations at conferences, so all of this is written in the context of a conference-scale presentation. Some details may differ (e.g., you may not have a fixed-length time slot) and some of the writing may differ.
Even if your presentation is at a meeting rather than a conference, most of this advice applies equally.
First, a list of some of the problems that this list seeks to address. Consider whether any or all are true of your presentation:
Or, from the audience's perspective, you blather on. Your presentation expands to fill and then overfill the time allotted to it.
You ramble. You explain the same thing six different ways, unsure about which, if any of them, got through. Worst case, some of them might conflict.
This includes both forgetting something while its slide is up and talking about something before its slide comes up (it's often the very next slide). If the words “Oh, also,” ever come out of your mouth, you're hitting this problem.
Instead of listening to you present from rehearsed memory or from the presenter display, the audience reads your slides ahead of you.
You've managed to avoid using a bulleted list (at least on this slide), but you still have too much stuff on one slide. The audience gets caught up in examining everything you've crammed up there and forgets to listen to you.
Some problems can't be avoided, but some can be anticipated and fixed before they occur. Try to reduce the likelihood or impact of any problems you can.
Pressing the space bar, trackpad button, etc. to advance through the deck just looks boring.
All of these problems are fixable. Doing all of the things I'll tell you to do below will save you from each of them (with the partial exception of technical problems, for which there is only mitigation).
The book, not the website.
“Presentation Zen” describes the mindset, the way of thinking about presentations and slides, that much of this advice comes from. I'll tell you what you should do; “Presentation Zen” tells you why.
If you don't already have “Presentation Zen”, you should buy it. If/When you have it, you should read it, and then continue reading this.
If “Presentation Zen” is TL;DR for you, “Instantly Better Presentations” by Damian Conway (PDF) provides most of the same practical advice, along with some other suggestions not covered by “Zen”, in much shorter form.
“IBP” is only seven pages. It is time well spent.
I still recommend reading “Presentation Zen” because the perspectives it presents are valuable, but if you absolutely need to save as much time as you can (for rehearsing, right?), “IBP” makes a good refresher or accelerated version.
It's also great.
Any text on a slide counts as writing. Everything that is true in other writing counts times a hundred on a slide, where clarity and concision are essential.
Some of Strunk's principles (such as the famous “Omit needless words”) can be generalized beyond writing (“Omit needless anything”).
You should read it anyway. I assume presentations aren't the only thing you make.
Reading through this excellent blog post, I found myself agreeing with one recommendation after another. Some of it overlaps with suggestions in this document; some of it is stuff that I didn't think of but wish I had. Everyone who reads this page should read that post as well.
Don't wait until you've “finished” your slides before you start rehearsing. Make a rough draft that hits all the points you intend to make, then rehearse it.
As you rehearse, you will think “I should say [some other way of saying it] instead”, or “I can skip that”, “oh yeah, I should talk about this other thing, too”, or “that should go before/after that other thing”. Remember these, or write them down, or make a Voice Memo, and make those changes on your next iteration.
Iterate, iterate, iterate, until you can't think of anything else to change.
And then keep rehearsing, even after it's “finished”, to polish your own delivery of it.
I'm talking here about “um”, “y'know”, etc.: words that fill your own thinking pauses.
This is one part self-awareness (listen to yourself speak) and one part practice (previous point). The only way to cure yourself of this is to speak (or pretend to speak) frequently, listen to yourself, and drive this habit out from yourself.
You've practiced the presentation enough when you can give it from memory so fluidly that “um”s are not necessary to fill time.
“Weasel words” (“arguably”, “some would say”, etc.) are another topic entirely, but equally worth driving out from your presentation—and your slides, too.
Every slide should express one idea.
If you have multiple things to say, make another slide.
Express commonality between slides with a common heading. The heading you would have had on the single slide of bullets should be on all of the slides you explode that list into.
Fade things in. Slide things around. Tie some builds together, make some dependent on others, and keep some separate.
Consider making a build instead of another slide, especially if you're just adding (rather, fading in) another object.
Most builds should be no more than one-fifth of a second. Don't make people wait.
Talk during builds, not after builds.
(In Keynote, this is the “Starts after [some previous build]” feature.)
If one build starts immediately after another, you can think of those as one build, and that's OK, but be wary of inserting a delay of some fixed number of seconds. You should probably make those two separate builds to be triggered separately, one at a time, by the remote. This gives you flexibility in timing.
Don't do wipes, dissolves, or other transitions between slides. Don't make people wait.
There's nothing to talk about during a transition.
If you can say it with an image, do it.
If your image needs a title or caption, so be it, but most are better without.
When you summarize, you cut out everything that is superfluous. If it's superfluous, why were you saying it in the first place?
You can keep some explanation and context, but anything that doesn't support a core point that would belong on a Summary slide is better removed.
No more than one “summary” slide. Ever.
If you're summarizing that many points, go cut some points out of your presentation until it all fits.
If you're talking about two different things, make two presentations!
You may not even need a summary slide in the first place. One alternative is some sort of finale (more feasible for some presentations than others); another is a slide with contact information and/or links to more information about the subject.
The correct response to “my text doesn't fit” is “cut out some text”.
The smallest text in my last presentation was 42 points, and that was my name. Anything that is actually relevant to the subject should be larger.
Don't chain yourself to the computer.
Wireless mouse = Poor person's remote.
If you use Keynote, Apple sells a Keynote Remote app for iOS (iPhone, iPod touch, etc.)
Keynote has it. I hope PowerPoint does, too.
Turn everything on. Set the timer to count down your time limit; show the presenter notes; show both the current and next slide; show the animation indicator bar; show the builds-remaining display.
This is what you should be seeing when you present.
(The audience should, of course, only see the current slide.)
The audience will look where you're looking.
If you made your slides right, they're sparse enough that the audience will look at you most of the time.
Engage them by looking out at them while you talk.
Corollary: If you stare at one person, on stage or in the audience, everyone (else) in the audience will look at that person. So don't do that unless you have a really good reason (i.e., calling attention to that person as part of your message).
More generally, don't try to look at any one person individually, at least not too much; you should be addressing the entire audience. Sweep your gaze over it from left to right, back and forth.
If you want to call attention to something on the screen, such as a screenshot, look at the screen.
For videos, watch the video—on the big screen—along with them.
They'll look at it when it changes (build or slide change), then go back to looking at you, whatever you're looking at, or their notes/laptop.
So, at all other times, look at the audience.
(Incidentally, this is one problem with demos: If you're looking at your laptop, they're more likely to look at theirs.)
This includes laser pointers, projector pointers, and cue sticks. The technology used is not important.
Anything that is actually important for the audience to take note of should dominate the slide. It probably should be the only thing on the slide.
If you really need to include the element among a bunch of others and then emphasize it specifically, use styling (e.g., text color or underline) or an element (e.g., a bright red ellipse or rounded-rectangle), initially hidden with a quick build to unhide it.
Don't rush through the slide to cram it in under my arbitrary time limit. Taking more than two minutes is not the problem, it's a symptom. The problem is that it's too big, so break it up.
When you give your presentation for real, you should neither have nor need a timer on each slide. You should already be going through slides fast enough that you don't need to watch the clock.
Yes, you do. Trust me on this. Go delete some.
You already did? Good! Go delete some more.
Make the hard decisions of what you really, really need to say.
Look at the schedule for where you'll be presenting. Take the amount of time you were allotted and divide it by 2. Plan for that amount of time.
Your presentation will expand to fill it—or, if you don't do this, overfill it—because of setup problems, stage fright, wrath of the Demo Gods, etc.
Any time you have left over can be used either for Q&A or by the organizers to get the schedule back on track.
Your shortest slide, time-wise, should be the one where you say who you are.
You probably shouldn't even have it. Skip talking about yourself and talk about your subject.
If it is truly important to your subject matter that the audience know who you are and what you've done, pare it down to the absolute bare minimum.
Ten seconds, no more; less is better, zero is best.
Use a simple monochrome gradient.
Plain white or black is tolerable, but harsh. Gradients are softer.
No patterns, images, etc.
Pick exactly one.
Myriad and Helvetica are good.
If you feel a need to go serif, Palatino is good.
Bitstream Vera Sans is good, but goes under two or three different names. Make sure you have every version of it ever.
Gill Sans only for chapter transitions (if your presentation is of that sort), and then only in all caps. Don't use it otherwise.
Arial only if you're presenting on Windows and you're not allowed to use Helvetica.
You do not want your slides to show up in fucking Courier.
System-included fonts are an easy way to make sure of this. Helvetica is on both Mac and Windows, Palatino is on Macs, Arial is on Windows, Vera/DejaVu is on Ubuntu.
The usefulness of program code on a slide is highly debatable, but if you go through with it, font choice for code bears special mention.
Bitstream Vera Sans Mono and its descendants are great. Right now, this includes:
Monaco is also good. Other good ones include Consolas (Microsoft), Andale Mono, Lucida Console, and Inconsolata. Most sans-serif fixed-width fonts are decent enough.
No bitmap fonts. I know some programmers like them, but scalability is vital in a presentation, particularly given the huge-text requirement. The scalability freedom of outline fonts is just too important here.
Never proportional (varying-width, i.e., “normal”) fonts. Some programmers actually use proportional fonts, but in a presentation, there is no faster way to say “I am not a programmer”.
Never fucking Courier. American Typewriter is better, but not much.
Use Comic Sans only for code you're going to mock, because if you don't, the audience will.
The projector will wash out the contrast, moreso if there's any lighting turned on up front. Pick your colors accordingly.
Use either white text on a black or very-dark-to-black-gradient background, or black text on a white or very-light-to-white-gradient background. Keynote's first three templates (“White”, “Black”, and “Gradient”) are great for this.
For program code, be careful with syntax highlighting. Again, keep the contrast high. Full brightness, low saturation; change only the hue between syntax element types.
If your slide deck is perfectly understandable without you presenting on stage, make a document out of it and stay home.
Some conferences ask for your slide deck to give to attendees. This should be worthless.
If your slides don't need you, you don't need them.
Something worth practicing: After you've rehearsed a few times, start rehearsing without slides. This includes on your way to the conference (I did this in the car the morning of my session).
(But also keep practicing normally, with slides, remote, etc.)
Shit happens. Your laptop may get stolen (or you forgot to charge it), their laptop may flake out, the projector's bulb may burn out, etc. Expect Murphy to fuck your session up and be ready for anything.
Moreover, being able to give the presentation without any visual or technical support is evidence that you have it down.
Conversely, being unable to give the presentation without having the slides to read from is evidence that you don't have it down and/or your slides are too packed.
Keynote, at least, lets you set “presenter notes” for a slide, which are displayed along the bottom of the presenter display. Use this on some of your slides for a terse outline of what you need to talk about on that slide.
Don't use it on every slide.
Don't write a full script (of any length) in the presenter notes. You should not read the notes off verbatim; keep it to an outline.
You are going to be talking non-stop. This will make you thirsty.
Plain water is not good enough. Too much of it rinses away your saliva and just makes you differently thirsty.
Regular-strength Gatorade is too strong; it will also make you thirsty. You need to water it down. I don't know exactly how much; I know it by taste. It may vary from person to person anyway, so experiment for your own ideal balance.
If you make it from powder, use a little more than a liter of water per level scoop (the instructions say a quart; a liter is more than a quart and I say use a little more than that).
I don't know whether/how well this works with Powerade, Mio, etc.
Flavor matters, too. Find your favorite and don't use anything but.
Don't expect the venue to provide it, especially given the watered-down requirement. Make it yourself in advance and bring it with you.
No, not to vibrate. Off, entirely.
It's bad enough when your phone rings while you're in the audience. There is no faster way to lose the audience than to have your phone go off on stage.
Vibrate mode is not an option. For one thing, the vibration would be distracting. (It's supposed to be!) You don't need or want distractions; you have enough on your mind already.
For another, any transmissions from your phone back to the tower, even if you aren't calling or answering, will often get picked up by the audio equipment. This is the “chirping” noise you sometimes hear on podcasts and in presentations. You don't even need to make or receive a phone call, especially if it's a smartphone that may transmit data over the cell network.
So just turn it off.
I've made a quick-reference card that provides solutions for some of the most common non-hardware problems I've seen happen when taking the stage.
If you're a presenter, you can bring this card with you on stage and consult it when you have a problem (that doesn't involve wrong connectors or other missing or malfunctioning hardware).
If you're an organizer, you can have a stack of this card on stage for presenters to consult and/or take.
At present, I only have a Keynote Edition of this card. I'd like to add PowerPoint versions (for both Mac and Windows) at some point.