Presentation “Heroes” – My Mentors

I’m making a presentation at a big international behavioral health conference this week, so my thoughts have turned to those who I’ve learned the most from relating to making a good presentation. I thought I might republish this article from almost fours years ago – it’s still quite relevant!

Now, you may never give a Ted© Talk (I haven’t), or be the keynote speaker at a national convention (I have!), but chances are you will need to make some formal presentation or another over the next few days or weeks. It may be a business proposal to your executive team, a training project for your staff, or even a chat you have with your kids about why they should consider putting some of their allowance into a savings account! How will you do? Will you be persuasive, memorable, effective?

Developing good presentation skills is a worthwhile pursuit, and although there are a lot of elements involved in becoming an outstanding presenter (including tone of voice, body language, clothing selection, etc.), the selection of visual presentation aids is one of the most important. It’s common now to use PowerPoint – the standard (if not the gold standard) tool to provides slides to accompany your words, but there are other tools worth looking at, including SlideShareSlideRocket, and my favorite, Prezi!

Maybe equally important to the selection of your tool, is learning to use it well.
As seems to be true with everything, it’s always good to have a coach or mentor – or maybe two or three. When it comes to presentation skill, I have some recommendations for you. These are all people who have had an impact on my presentation skills over the years, and for different reasons. Taken as a group, they really fit my definition of a “Dream Team”. If you are looking for some good ideas that will help you become a better, more effective presenter, they may be of help to you as well.

I have to start off the list with Edward Tufte, who is a Yale professor emeritus of political science, statistics and computer science, and in generally acknowledged as the biggest names in the area of visualizing data. His first book on the topic, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information was published several years before the development of PowerPoint (a platform whose misuse or poor use Tufte has often criticized) and is both a classic treatment of interesting and compelling ways data has been presented over the centuries, as well as a visual delight to read through. Reading Tufte’s works will add a lot to your awareness of, and appreciation for the pictorial display of complex concepts.

Speaking of pictures, the person who has influenced my presentations the most would have to be Garr Reynolds. Since I first picked up a copy of his visually and mentally stimulating book Presentation Zen I have never made another boring, text filled slide presentation. He really has the handle on how to tell a story using great visuals (to show on the screen) and your well-chosen words (which you say out loud, not read to your audience!). His recommended reading list is beyond compare for anyone who is really serious about becoming a top-notch presenter. One of my favorite takeaways from Garr is his habit of asking “dakara nani?” which translates to “So What?” or “…and your point is?”. He reminds us that every visual you show or every point you make should have value or relevance or it can just be eliminated. Believe me, if you make more than one or two presentations a year, Garr will change your life!

If you are a fan of, or otherwise committed to PowerPoint as your main presentation tool, you need to know Ellen Finkelstein, a trainer, coach, writer, and PowerPoint Superstar! If you are a PPt user, you owe it to yourself to follow her excellent blog. Ellen also offers regular online workshops and webinars on the effective use of PowerPoint, and provides dozens of useful tips for free. Ellen is truly the antidote to Death by PowerPoint! (ref1) (ref2)

One of the latest additions to my mentor list is Nancy Duarte. Through her trainings, her blog, and a variety of recorded interviews, Nancy can turn you into an expert communicator, whether your audience is investors, employees, or customers. Her clear communication styles and tools perfectly exemplify what she is teaching. You really need to check out Slidedocs, Nancy Duarte’s solution to one of the most common problems we face – when people want copies of our presentations and we can’t be there to make the presentation itself. (If you’re a Garr Reynolds disciple and your work is 90% visual, this is truly a must!) A good Slidedocs presentation can be emailed, mailed, or printed and hand delivered, and you will be truly close the loop on effective communication!

These are my four superhero mentors, the people who have had the most impact on my communication skills and style. Feel free to borrow them for yourself. And, if you want to fill me in on someone I have missed along the way, please drop me a note and suggest them, much obliged!