When I graduated from college, as eager to reshape the world as to shed the scourge of volcanic acne, my mother passed along sage advice. Okay, not advice, per se—a mug. Bold black sans serif on white porcelain rejoiced, "Congratulations, Graduate! You Made It." Awww... Then I caught, and followed, the ominous downward-pointing arrow. The bottom of the mug spat what Mom really wanted me to hear: "Don't Screw It Up!" (She might have spared me further self-doubt by not parroting that exact message, to all present, at the moment I read it...but that's Mom for you.)
Long story short: I Screwed It Up. Could I even choose the best of my worst? Taking a half-year "sabbatical" to write my now-out-of-print book of essays that, although picked up by a legit publisher, never found its 100th paying customer? Passing on "career transitioning" support after I was downsized, foolishly certain I'd be snapped up even before I slogged my personal stuff off the elevator? Or maybe that stand-up routine I felt compelled to bounce from the bucket list?
Still, failure isn't always a poop sandwich. One acquires prescience for things that likely won't end well, along with a twisted soupçon of validation when others raise the bar to even more spectacular clustersf**kery.
Soooo...let's put my life's hard lessons to good use, and kick the legs out from under your next presentation, shall we? Here's how:
F**k-up #1: Let your slides give you the day off.
You don't go to a concert to witness your favorite artist sitting next to a boom box blasting out your faves. Similarly, when you deliver a presentation, you shouldn't defer to your slides, because your audience is there to see and hear you, champ.
Often, when I'm given a rough draft of a presentation to finesse, my first act is to gut it of anything that could take the focus off the speaker. I yank about 80 percent of the words off the slides and paste them into the notes, where I don't have to look at them. Ewww. I then take the remaining 20 percent and crunch them into key points and supporting visuals. I kill others' darlings with impunity. What's on the screen should reinforce your message; it should not deliver it. If scrolling through your slides tells the whole story, why are you even there? Just prop a cutout of you against a chair, set up your slides to advance automatically, go grab an espresso, and come back just in time for the standing O. Or have me present for you—after all, I am all about what's on the screen.
F**k-up #2: Don't worry about the flow of your thoughts; we'll sort it all out in our gloriously well-organized brains.
A confession: I like some people. I'll even go so far as to say I like a few people more than my dog Charly—no small feat, because Charly is freaking adorable. What sets these rare few apart from my super-pooch? Four things: they don't bark incessantly at nothing at all; they run from skunks, not toward them; their bathroom habits rarely affect me; and they can tell a compelling story. Their words progress from a logical beginning to a satisfying end. The messages reveal something about the storyteller. The story builds tension throughout. The speaker gives me something to recount for others later. I look forward to hearing more, and feel glad I was part of things.
Watch the top TED presentations. The strongest speakers aren't just delivering information—they're serenading their audiences. Not so with many conference speakers. They don't tell stories; instead of weaving magic, they vomit information readily available in magazine articles. Like taking a smoke break between foreplay and the main event, if you lose focus, and string together a bunch of random, disjointed and emotionless thoughts, you're likely to see your "one-night-stands" leave no more satisfied than when they arrived—and, perhaps, to see them cut out early. If this is your goal, skip any process of outlining or storyboarding. Don't worry about niggling details like theme, message, flow, or story. Just be brilliant in the abstract. You'll probably be just super.
F**k-up #3: Your presentation software has lots of shiny baubles, so you should use them all.
Transitions and animations can be very effective. They can also turn a potentially meaningful, moving and educational experience into something akin to dry-humping the audience members' eyes—no matter how generous your intentions, you're still just a nasty dry-humper (with the oddest of fetishes, to boot). As with #2, above, special effects should be considered in the context of the flow of your story. If your presentation is emotional, screen movement can also convey emotion. But if your audience comes away wowed more by your dissolves and checkerboards and other geegaws than by what you said, you need to rework either what you're saying, what you're showing, or both. Or maybe you're just jacked if people think you're super cool; hey, whatever floats your boat, dry-humper.
F**k-up #4: You know the generally accepted standards of "yuck," but you can't help yourself from being yucky
You're a lone wolf, eh? Sure, one need only Google "good presentation tips" to uncover a plethora of sound dos and don'ts, but you don't roll that way. Every expert can advise you against pumping out slide after slide of bullets, but, dammit, you dig those bullets; they make you feel safe. Your message could be conveyed powerfully and succinctly as a few simple words in a clear font against a contrasting background—but it just wouldn't be the same, somehow, without a big picture of a bear—in low-res, no less, and with the watermark "Shutterstock" shouting out to the world you're bigger than stupid copyrights. Take that, polite society!
Complex, illegible charts? Check. Slides from other presentations, built on a different template? Let's just call it a mash-up; check. Lots and lots of colors? You betcha. Check.
What's more, in spite of everything you've been told, you're determined to spend the first quarter of your allotted time introducing yourself, reading through an agenda, being falsely self-deprecating, and sharing the joke your spouse told you (a) wasn't funny, and (b) might even be a tad offensive.
You go, lone wolf. Awwoooo!!!
F**k-up #5: You don't need no stinkin' quality control
When I'm in an audience, if I spot one spelling or grammatical error on a slide, my brain screams to a halt. I can focus on nothing else; nothing. No matter how utterly you'd convinced me I was basking in the glow of the world's foremost guru on gluten-free, non-GMO, psycho-spiritual life cleansing, I'll now remember you only as "that knob who couldn't spell." Go ahead. Get naked. I won't even notice. Okay, I'll barely notice...but you'll still be a knob.
So, if you want to look like that knob who can't spell, don't bother to have anyone else check your presentation for errors. If you want to compound your problem, don't rehearse your presentation, either. To complete the trifecta, show up minutes before you're ready to speak with complete confidence all of the equipment is going to work flawlessly, and rejoice about the magic horseshoes up your butt.
F**k-up #6: You took art classes in high school; you're practically a designer, right?
I can microwave a Hot Pocket™ like nobody's business—this doesn't make me a chef. You might have an eye for beauty; this doesn't make you a pro at crafting presentations. I wish I could argue this last entry isn't a shameless plug to promote myself and my services. I'd be lying. Some people are very good at designing presentations—mostly because they've created a shit-ton of presentations, have digested countless articles about good design (and bad), and have learned through excruciating experience what does and doesn't work. To be fair, some people just have a knack; to be equally fair, many more folks think they have said knack. If you feel confident you have that knack, best of luck. If not, let's chat. I'll be (mostly) gentle; I'm not my mom, after all.