Presenting effectively is an art, and I’m certainly still honing style. Watching strong presenters and having talented mentors helps. In addition to delivering my own presentations at a small number of conferences this fall, I got to see a fair number, as well, and after watching a number of colleagues present (with varying degrees of success) I have these tips to share. I follow some of them, most of the time, but it’s a process, and I am very cognizant of the fact that I still have a long way to go.

I am constantly improving, though. Last month, I delivered a talk to children’s librarians about current technology, and what to expect in the future that will affect the way they serve their customers. The session was contracted by one of my colleagues and mentors: Susan Babb, from the Northeast MA Regional Library System, for whom I did my first ever continuing education workshop, ten years ago. It was a storytelling workshop, and I forgot a pivotal detail that was part of the punchline. SO embarrassing! I was delighted when, at the end of the recent session, she told me that I had gotten very polished and professional.

Slide Tips:

Don’t make all of your slides, all text! It’s okay to prepare your presentation in advance, in fact, I highly encourage it, but the text belongs in the NOTES section that only YOU see. If you are using a newer version of PowerPoint, select “Presenter Tools” to hide the notes from your audience. Failing that, use two computers. I often put my notes on my laptop in case I need them, and use the client’s machine to project the slides; having my safety net there seems to mean I rarely need to refer to it.

Share your agenda (or objectives, or talking points) right away, so people will know what you are covering.

Stop with the outlines on each slide. The purpose of a slideshow isn’t to create an outline that reminds you what to say next. It’s to extend the message you are conveying to your audience. You know how successful picture books work, with text & image working together to tell a story that would be incomplete if one of the elements was missing? Your slide deck should be the same way.

When you DO choose to use text, make it BIG: 42 pt for headings and 28 pt for body text is pretty standard.

Don’t put important stuff at the bottom of the screen. The last inch of the slide may be hard to see if you are a short blogger sitting in the back next to the power strip.

Check spelling and grammar. There is nothing as embarrassing as someone coming up to you at the end of your presentation and saying, “I just wanted to let you know, you misspelled “Literacy” on one of the first slides…”

Cite your sources. Got a statistic, quote, or image? Say where it came from. I like to put them on the same page as the slide, on the side, or on bottom edge, high enough to still be visible from the back row.

Design matters. Slides (and handouts) should be 50% white space and in a readable font (online, people prefer sans serif fonts; in print, sans serif is limited to headings, while the main body fonts are serif, to lead the eye from letter to letter.

Select a theme when designing your slide deck. For consistency, slides have the same look and feel. Just like when you compose with word-processing software, create all of your content loaded first, then fuss with how it looks.

Put in pretty pictures.
I have a 25-year-old friend who routinely criticized my slides for their lack of graphics. He proceeded to tutor me in how to put borders around my images, and tweak the angle they were sitting at. Now, I think, “What would Chris do?” and remove text to the notes field to make room for graphs, screenshots, book or game covers, or photos.

Use legitimate images. Our fearless lead blogger mk Eagle posted a fantastic entry on using images in October, titled “Maybe We Can: Image Copyright and You“. I have used my own photos, written to procure permission from artists, and purchased images for presentations. Usually, I remove images in the online version of the slides, because I only pay to license them for a presentation setting.

Brand your slides. I use my company logo on the first slide, and put your contact information at the beginning and end of the presentation. Some presenters use a master slide with their logo on each slide.

Practice! But only once. Do a run through in advance of the presentation to make sure all the heading fonts, body fonts, and footer fonts are uniform from slide to slide. Be consistent in formatting’  URLs or using abbreviations.

Verify the pronunciation of unfamiliar words. I had some people in stitches with my (incorrect) pronunciation of amygdala at PLA a few years ago, and once had a toddler correct my pronunciation of chamomile in a story time session.

Provide at least one handout, with your contact information. People like takeaways, even if they are only going to file it in a drawer and never look at it again. I refuse to print slides, since I archive them online (saving trees!) but I usually bring a bibliography, or glossary, or tipsheet, or something.’  I leave them blank on the reverse, for taking notes.

Take advantage of great YALSA resources! YALSA has professional handouts available, like glossy copies of Young Adults Deserve the Best: Competencies for Librarians Serving Youth, Teen Read Week fliers, and a list of online resources for librarians serving teens, and they are happy to do the photocopying and mail everything to you. Give them as much notice as you can, and longer around conference times.

Post your handouts, slides, links online – in advance, if possible.
Then, show people where to find them, as part of the session. Depending on the content of the presentation, a quick lesson in using delicious or Slideshare or a wiki may be very relevant.

Use a Creative Commons license. Think of Creative Commons as copyleft: you own your work, but can choose the parameters in which it is shared. I believe very strongly in giving back to the profession. When I’m contracted to do a session, I tell people they are welcome to download and modify my slides and handouts to do their own not-for-profit presentations—all I need is attribution. I put my slides on my blog for this express purpose.

Presentation Tips

Introduce yourself. Start with, “Hi! My name is [name] and I’m here today to talk to you about [topic].” A college friend informed me that’s public speaking 101! Thank the people who invited you to come speak. Provide the credentials (in brief!) that establish you as the expert on the topic at hand.

Relax. Most people are more frightened of public speaking than death. Breathe, keep some water handy, and remember the audience is more vested in seeing you success than fail.

Record yourself when you practice your presentation.
Your computer probably has a built in sound recorder; if not, Audacity is a free, easy to use recording software. Editing all of the “Ums” out of my Audacity sound files made me aware of how many times I said it, and I’ve been able to cut it down a lot.

Use anecdotes. At Internet Librarian, I heard several presenters talk about how to do something, demonstrate an application, or share a hypothetical situation to share information about a web 2.0 resource. Then, I saw YALSA’s own Erin Downey Howerton present. She told stories about how she used technology to solve a specific problem at her library, creating staff buy-in for delicious and wikis. It was far more effective that a tutorial or orientation or even advocacy tips would have been.

Use (appropriate) humor.
Avoid self-deprecation or making fun of specific populations, but find the funny where you can. A silly slide or pun or Monty Python reference keeps the audience on their toes.

Use a theme. This is the one I fail most, at, although I have successfully structured a gaming workshop with levels, like a game!’  Zombies and LOL cats were big hits at Internet Librarian, and I saw a great presentation at the New Hampshire Library Association by John Blyberg, where he likened information to drops of water, and talked about information overload as a flood… it was very effective.

Take a break! If you are doing a half or full day session, build in activities. No one wants to listen to you lecture all day, and you will exhaust yourself doing it!

Ask questions.
YALSA’s current president, Linda Braun, runs her workshops and conference presentations in a refreshing conversational style that gets participants talking.

Ask for a demonstration of expertise.
YA guru turned YA author Patrick Jones taught me that asking someone in your audience to share their expertise gives you, the presenter, a break. Build in time for discussion of activities, so you can tie them to workshop objectives and let people have a chance to share.

Provide some physical activity.
Getting up and moving around is a Very Good Thing; group work ensures mingling, and also gives the presenter a break.

Give people time to talk to one another.
This is the most valuable part of onsite workshops – picking the brains of colleagues you don’t get to see enough. Begin with an icebreaker, where everyone introduces him or herself to the group and answers a question (I use, “share your favorite game” or “what’s one thing you find rewarding about working with teens?” most frequently). Break them up into small groups for discussion or role-playing (very few people enjoy role-playing in front of the whole group!). Pair them for small assignments.

Leave some time for questions, within the presentation and at the end. I recently saw an excellent presentation at MA School Library Association conference get derailed when the instructor took questions from the audience too early, and never made it past slide five. On the one hand, I really admired her ability to respond to her audience and modify the presentation to give them what they needed; on the other hand, she and several audience members who wanted to see the formal presentation, not get caught up in a roundtable discussion, were frustrated. The content was great and she clearly knew her stuff. One strategy might have been to create a parking lot of ideas. Use a text file or a white board or flip chart to write down any questions, and address them during the session if it comes up, or at the end, if there is time.

Watch your language. Ask, “What questions do you have?” not, “Are there any questions?” Think about what happens when you go into a store and the clerk asks if you need any help. Saying “no” or “just looking, thanks!” seems to be instinctual, and you may or may not return to the clerk to ask for assistance a few minutes later. “What questions do you have?” assumes there are questions, putting people more at ease about asking. It’s more inviting. Count to 10 before you move on; chances are, someone will be so uncomfortable with the silence, they’ll ask a question.

Express your gratitude. Thank your audience for their attention and participation when you are finished. On that note, thanks for reading all the way to the end!


For Discussion:

What makes a presentation work for you? What have you learned through doing your own presentations, or watching someone else’s?

About Beth Gallaway

Beth Gallaway was named a Library Journal Mover & Shaker in 2006 for her work in advocating for videogames in libraries. She is an independent library trainer/consultant specializing in gaming, technology, and youth services, and is a YALSA certified Serving the Underserved (SUS) trainer.

One Thought on “On Successful Presentations

  1. Krista McKenzie on December 7, 2009 at 4:21 pm said:

    I have to say this is a wonderful tutorial! I have been on the giving and receiving end for many presentations (and many more to come!) And, I think that you have hit on a very important point-that we should keep practicing and improving. One bombed presentation often discourages others from doing more; when in reality, you should keep trying.

    Also, your tips on powerpoint slides were excellent. So many people read directly from slides or put so much on them that it is too small to read. I would also add that one should be careful as to slide design and colors used. Sometimes a slide design can look one way on a laptop computer and then look completely different when projected.

    Oh, and my embarrassing tidbit-make sure that your audio and video work on the computer you are presenting on and that it has current software applications to open your files. I presented at Annual this past year and had a big blunder when I realized I had no audio. But, that won’t keep me from presenting this year…this time I will know to check ahead by going a good while before my presentation and having the number of a tech. office in case I need it.

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