Mar 28, 2010

How to give the best presentation

On March 27th, 2010 I went to the first Zend Framework conference in the world. While watching presentations I thought that technical people have absolutely no idea how to present. This is a hard solid fact: anybody can bore the audience to death even with an interesting topic.
Here I am going to tell you how to make the presentation right and avoid death of your listeners.

Prepare in advance

At one TYPO3 event I saw a guy who make his slides 20 minutes before his talk. He had a colored template and lots of bullet points. I instantly knew he will fail but for the sake of interest I watched how it went. He did not really know what to talk about. He finished in 25 minutes instead of allocated 45. He was boring. You'd feel like you lost time your for nothing and better be in the neighborhood room. I even do not remember presentation title these days. It definitely had “TYPO3” word in it but what else?..
If you do not prepare in advance, you won't be able to give the talk to users. You'll say something about this and about that. Is this what the room wants to hear? Nope. They want clear ideas or facts on the topic of your presentation. You can't do that unless you research, structure and prepare you material properly and well in advance.
Respect the audience, do your home work!

Topic first, slides next

The most important thing in the presentation is your talk and never your slides. If it were slides, we will not need you on the stage. People would just watch slides in silence if they were more important than you are. Unless you are a naked supermodel, even awful slides will look better than you. Remember, there is absolutely no reason for you to be on the stage unless your talk says more than your slides.
Prepare your topic first (below you will tips for that), only then make slides that complement your story.

What are you talking about?

Do you know what are you talking about? Stupid question, right? Wrong. I am sure you know your subject but are you sure your audience knows what are you talking about?
Neuropsychologists say that average person can hold their attention for up to 10 minutes on a single topic and on up to 3 topics. Then they loose the topic and go sleeping like frogs in winter. We all are frogs (me including), it is in our brains!
Make your presentation to show 3 points at most. Yes, three points. State them clear at the beginning: “Today we are going to see three things…”. Keep 10 minutes on each topic. Together with you introducing yourself it makes 35 minutes. You have 10 minutes remaining for Q&A in a typical 45 minute talk. Easy, productive and keeps your audience from becoming a room of frogs.
By the way, you really don't have to push everything you know to people's heads. This will only ensure they are lost and overwhelmed with information. Instead, make them interested with bright outstanding facts. Give pointers and hint where to look for more. They will want to know more themselves.


Ok, you got your topic and slides weeks before the event. But do you know that you sound awful? No, you don't unless you try it. If you try, you will see that your presentation is bad. Unless you can speak clearly, without all these “well”, “umh”, “hmmm”, “erm”, you are not ready to present and you will not make your topic impressive for listeners.
Take a videocam and record yourself. Just do it, ok? Don't try with the mirror, you cannot talk and watch yourself at the same time. Use a camcoder. You will see how awful you are when you present for the first time. See what mistakes you make and eliminate them. See what can be omitted to keep the talk on topic and omit it. Watch what you can do for more impressive show. Make pauses, do not rush. Let users get the idea.
If you are not Steve Jobs, you won't be able to spend two week before the event solely for rehearsing. But spend two half days on it. Remember, not one whole day but two half days. You'll be tired after half a day but two days will make your the presentation stronger in your memory.
The rule is simple. You must memorize you story so that you can tell you in your sleep. Only then you will be ready.

Do not side track

“Today we are going to talk about DoJo and jQuery. There are other JavaScript framework too, for example, ExtJS. ExtJS is…”. Sorry, did you just say the talk is about DoJo and jQuery?
As soon as you are side tracked, it will be very hard to stop and logically go back on topic. You will have to make connections like “let's get back on topic”. Stupid, huh?
Don't side track. If you followed the previous rehearsing advice, you won't.

Don't speak like a robot

Even if you have a great topic and great slides, you can put the room to sleep with a boring drawling voice.
At the TYPO3 developer days 2009 I went to a presentation made by a very talented programmer. He gave a topic I was not familiar with and I was very interested to listen. But I could not keep attention for more than 10 minutes. He hid himself behind his computer. He showed some slides with lots of texts and code samples. At the same time he talked about something unrelated to slides. At least it seemed so for the person who was not familiar with the topic (me). The presenter used that boring drawling voice. After 10 minutes I quietly slipped out of the room to a great sun shine outside. I got an ebook on the topic next day and read it in half an hour. Sun and payed ebook was more worth than sleeping 45 minutes in the presentation room.
Speak clearly, use proper intonation. You are not a robot.

Know how to hold the microphone

One of the hosts at Zend conference did know how to hold it. He always put it down. As a result we heard only 30% of his speech. I still wonder what did he say in his talk. Could not get his points at all.
If you can, get a microphone that sticks to your head. This is the best option because you will have free hands. You will need those for your remote.

Get a remote

Get a remote for your slideshow. Don't come to the computer all the time to switch slides. Keyboards are tiny and laptop keyboards are smallest with arrow keys smallest on the smallest keyboard. Just imagine “Here is . . . (come to PC) . . how our growth . . . (look at keyboard) . . . looks . . . (clicking the key) . . . (checking the slide on the screen) . . . like”. Sorry, half of the room is sleeping.
Get a decent remote that feels convenient in your hands. Do not use the iPhone. You must be able to keep eye contact with your room. If you use the iPhone, you will need to look at it to swipe to the next slide. It is plastic, it may slid in your sweeting hands. Get a decent rubber remote, damn it!
By the way, Targus makes one of the best presenting remotes on the market.

Don't use a laser pointer

If you have to use a laser pointer it means only one thing: there is too much information on your slide. Split it to more slides. If you can't (for example, you show code examples), dim the rest of the code while you show a part of it.
Using laser pointer has several problems. Firsts, you loose eye contact. This shows the room that your slides are more important to you than the listeners. Bad.
Next, when you point to a specific point on the slide, your hands will shake. They always do because our heart is pumping blood (and extremely fast while you are on the stage). On a large screen from a large distance you will get a bright dot bouncing half a meter in all directions. Humans are still like animals, we pay attention to that jumping dot far more than to your talk.
Dispose the laser pointer and rework your slides.

Use a decent font size and good colors

This was a major problem at TYPO3 developer days 2009 talk where one long awaited presentation used a lot of code in tiny font typed with a light brown color on a dark brown background. Sunny day outside, no text is recognizable on a giant screen in the giant auditorium.
Here is how to fix it. If you are using a 15" notebook, step 5 meters away from the screen. Can you still read it? Now you got the idea how your audience will feel. Adjust. Repeat. Adjust. Repeat. Come on, you do not want to look unprepared, are you? Invest extra 10 minutes into making your slides more readable! And, please, do not ask the room “Can you see this text?”. Why did you come to show it if you have to ask such questions? Be prepared!
Regarding colors. Remember that there are lots of color blind people. So your best choice is neutral high contrast colors. If you know the room (dark or bright), match background color of your slides to the room background (dark background for dark room and vice versa). Make sure your clothes do not conflict with the room (no red clothes in the green room). Shades of grey are always ok.

Don't read from your slides

“Hey, I already read all that from your slides! Do I think I am so stupid that I can't read? Do I look like a brainless git?” – this is what I think every time when presenters turn their back on me and start carefully reading their slides. I don't need the presenter any more. I already read it. Go on, switch to the next slide and shut up. I can read myself. I read faster than you are!
Don't make slides so that you have to or can read them. Remember: slides are supporting your talk. If you read your slides, your talk will be useless for most of us. Drop all these texts and show us only essentials that support your talk.

Don't flip slides back

Forget the back button on the remote. It does not exist for you. If you have to go back, evaluate your talk's sequence. May be something is wrong with it. If you are to present step 2 in 1–2–3 program, insert a new slide with the next step highlighted and other steps dimmed. But never ever go a slide (or 10) back. Doing that shows that you saved on an extra slide for your listeners. Cheap and dirty.

Your listeners are on the other side

Your listeners are on the opposite side of your slides. Remember that. Keep eye contact. Do not look to the ceiling, there is nobody hovering there. Do not look to the slides, you saw them already. Make sure you look here and there in the room, so nobody feels abandoned.
Sometimes you can be unsure if you are on the right slide. To avoid that make sure you see the monitor of your laptop while presenting. But do NOT turn to slides with every flip. It just shows that you are unsure. Don't do that. Nobody likes unsure people and especially unsure presenters.
If you have to give your slides to show them from a separate computer located elsewhere, try to find any kind of a mirror (even polished subwoofer would do). Make tricks but do not turn back on your users with every slide. They deserve to see your face.

Avoid premaid templates

Avoid templates if you can. This is hard in corporate world where they want you to have boring slides and keep your head down. But if you are free to choose, avoid templates and logos. Make a plain background without pattern or with a very neutral pattern. Discard any element that will take the attention away (logos and company names always do!)
Remember: stock templates are made to be pretty, not to help you with your presentation. You would do better without them.


There are tons of techniques how to make your presentation better. These are mine own, proved by many presentations that I gave.
There are many books on the subject. If you have to present often, get one of them. I mostly recommend “Confession of a public speaker” by Scott Berkun. This is the only book about presenting techniques that is not dull but very interesting to read. This books contains lots of practical information about how to present well.
And the last but the most important: practice before you present. There is nothing more important than that.


  1. Lots of good points, thanks for sharing your thoughts. There are probably a lot of books about that, but yours is an excellent summary!

    I recently saw a presentation where there was often a single word per slide, just highlighting what the speaker was saying. The slides changed pretty quickly, but it was quite impressive. It really kept my attention very focused. I would like to try that technique in my next presentation, but it needs to be very well planned to be successful.

  2. Full Ack - but i don't agree to you Laserpointer point … Sometimes it's really helpful using one because you need to visualize your speech with diagrams or graphics. It's quite abstract to tell your listener about the contents of the graphic or diagram without pointing onto it.

    I'm glad my professors in university were really good in teaching presentation - though i studied applied informatics.

  3. Great and amusing summary - good tips. I like that and your real-world examples! It's true that often presentations held by programmers or engineers are uninspiring. You gave some good (and easy) tips to avoid common weakness.

  4. Very interesting post. I think it is a good guide to people doing a presentation, though I'm thinking even after hours of rehearsing there will always be people having a better flair for standing in front of people than others have.

    I would be interested in your opinion to the (outdated) presentation on (maybe François was refering to this presentation). I like it very much but it must have been very time-consuming to prepare.

  5. By the way: I'm always wondering how Kasper can publish some of the PodKasts. Very often you get to learn something that could be told in 5 minutes but his guests need 30 minutes. And looking at Kasper's face it seems obvious that he's having the same feeling while recording his Podcast. In these moments his most favourite words are "oh yes, this is very interesting".

    Am I the only one to be irritated about that?

  6. Good points. I can recomment the book "Presentation Zen" for anyone who has to prepare a presentation. It's a real eye opener.

  7. @Lorenz: no, it's not the presentation I was meaning, but it's very similar. Indeed such a presentation must take pretty long to prepare.

  8. Henrik ZiegenhainMarch 29, 2010 at 5:02 PM

    Thanks for sharing this Dmitry. I agree in all points.

    If you really need to show something special you can also use the mouse cursor. Ok, you have to go back to your notebook but the cursor does not jump so extreme like when using a laser pointer.

  9. Regarding podcasts: I think it is important to prepare for those too. But host (=Kasper) and the other person should agree on questions in advance. I remember it was difficult for me to answer some of Kasper's questions when he made a podcast with me. He knows what to ask but I had to think quickly how to answer without technical details. It is hard :)

    Thanks to everybody for approval of this post :)

  10. Dear Dmitry,

    i've just seen your podcast with kasper from Oct 2006.

    Hope you agree with me that your performance is far away from a gripping and captivating presentation.

    Hope you learned a lot for yourself since then.

  11. Stefano, yes, I learned a lot since that time. That was my very first public appearance and even did not speak English well enough. It is fun to see it now. Kasper's idea to make a podcast with me was totally unexpected and I was completely unprepared :) But time goes on and I am loads better now.

  12. georg kuehnbergerApril 9, 2010 at 2:55 AM


    - great write-up!

    - I'd like to second Jochen's recommendation: "Presentation Zen", which I read years ago and re-read almost every 6 month since. The book is less about "howto present", but rather howto design your countent and slides and those pesky DONTS.

    This however will guide you in your presentation.

    Tip on the hat to Jochen, who incorporated a lot of "Zen" in his Presentations.

  13. thanks for sharing ur ideas