10 ways to improve your UX presentations

Audience waiting for a presenter

Your heart is pumping furiously, your hands are feeling decidedly clammy and your attempt to calm yourself by imaging what the audience might look like in their underwear has backfired spectacularly as the mental image of what sweaty Steve might look like in his not so whitey tighties fills your mind. Gulp, here goes – it’s time for your presentation.

Very few people relish presenting but it’s a key part of a UXers role and it’s a skill that every UX professional should have in their arsenal. Presenting concept designs, presenting research findings, presenting usability testing results or simply giving a knowledgeshare, UXers are frequent presenters. And good presentation skills are very important because if you can’t communicate your ideas, your insights and your designs, they’re simply not going to gain traction. In the words of Lee Iacocca, ex CEO of Ford, “You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere”.

Whilst some people are natural presenters, most of us are not (I certainly include myself in this latter category), but like any proficiency good presentation skills are something that can be learnt and with lots of hard work and practice eventually mastered. I’ve watched and given countless UX presentations over the years and have distilled what I have learnt along the way into 10 hints, tips and guidelines that will hopefully help you to improve your UX presentations.

1. Always try to Inspire, educate & entertain

The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) has a mission statement that has changed little since its creation in the 1920’s. In its own words it sets out, “To enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain”. Replace the words ‘programmes and services’ with ‘presentations’ and you have a pretty good mission statement of your own to aim for. Namely, “To enrich people’s lives with presentations that inform, educate, and entertain”.

Audience of children laughing in a cinema

Don’t just inform and educate your audience, entertain them as well

When you make a presentation your goal should not simply be to deliver a presentation without crumbling into a nervous wreck, but to inspire your audience, to entertain your audience and most importantly to educate your audience – to give them something truly useful to take away. Think about how you might inspire your audience and fire them up. How will you really get them buzzing? How can you deliver your material in an entertaining and engaging manner? For example, you might utilise storytelling, you might use sound and video or roleplay a scenario to really bring it to life for your audience. Also try to add in some well-judged humour (just keep your more fruity material for the after work drinks) and give your audience something to smile about whilst they’re being inspired, educated and entertained.

Delivering the same tired information in the same tired way will invariably result in a dull and dreary presentation. This is why it’s good to think about how you might present something in a fresh and novel way. How you might get people’s attention by doing things a little differently. For example, rather than going through bullet point, after bullet point, after mind numbly boring bullet point of user research findings, perhaps you could bring the findings to life by telling the story of a day in the life of some of your users. Presenting something in a different, more novel way is a great way to get people’s attention and to help ensure that your message is remembered.

2. Focus on a clear message

It can sometimes be helpful to work backwards when putting together a presentation. Not in the sense that you should moonwalk on to the stage and start with your final slide but that you should think about the key message that you really want your audience to take away from the presentation, and work backwards from that. For example, the key benefit of a new design, the key insight from some user research or the key learning that you want people to take away and utilise.

Don’t expect your audience to remember much from your presentation (depressing as that might sound). It’s nothing personal, just that humans suck at remembering lots of stuff. Bombard your audience with too much information and very little of it, if any will stick. This is why focusing on a clear message is so important. You certainly shouldn’t expect your audience to remember more than around 3 key points and besides, focusing on a clear message helps to keep your presentations, short, sweet and to the point.

3. Keep your presentations as short as possible (but no shorter)

TED talks, the darling of the presentation world are capped at 18 minutes. 18 minutes really isn’t a lot of time for a presentation. It’s certainly not a lot of time when compared to the usual hour plus ‘death by PowerPoint’ presentations that you see at a lot of conferences and no doubt have had to endure at numerous team and department meetings. Why do TED do this? Well because keeping presentations 18 minutes or less helps to keep them short, sweet and focused. It’s also because people have surprisingly short attention spans. Apparently sustained attention only lasts about 10 minutes so you can expect your audience to start day dreaming about what it would really be like to have Donald Trump as President of the USA and Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister of the UK in less time than you think.

TED talk

There’s a reason why TED talks are capped at 18 minutes – it keeps them focused

18 minutes is obviously too short for all presentations, often more time will be required, but it’s certainly a good idea to keep your presentations as short as possible (but not shorter). Be ruthless. Ask yourself, do I need this slide? Do I need to talk about this? Can I leave this out? By keeping your presentations short you can not only create less work and effort for yourself, but more importantly less work and effort for your audience.

4. Get the audience involved

A presentation without any audience interaction is a lecture, and no one likes to be lectured at. Turn your presentation from a lecture into a conversation by involving the audience as much as possible. Throw questions out into the audience, give the audience a little task to undertake, ask for shows of hands, anything to get the audience involved. I’ve even previously asked the audience to play count the number of Mobys to keep them engaged. If someone does ask a question it’s a good idea to repeat it back before answering. This ensures that the whole audience has heard the question before you answer it.

5. Tell a story

I’ve written before about the power of storytelling (You’re not a great designer unless you’re also a great storyteller). Like an unfathomable David Lynch movie abstract ideas and concepts can be difficult for people to get their head around. As they have done throughout human history, stories can help turn abstract ideas and concepts into tangible, emotional and memorable ideas and concepts. Stories can help bring your presentations to life and can be a very effective way to get your message across and to get your message remembered. Stories about how a design concept might be used. Stories about how users are using a product or service. Stories about the problems and frustrations that users have experienced. Personal stories are particularly good for connecting with an audience, although regaling your co-workers with tales of how you pulled off a Senna-esque overtaking manoeuvre at the recent company go karting outing is not perhaps the sort of personal story you should be utilising.

Children sat down listening to a story

Stories can help bring your presentation to life – look how enthralled the audience are!

6. Keep slides simple (but no simpler)

Try to avoid putting everything you want to say on your slides but instead keep them as simple as possible. You should consider slides as your trusty side kick, the donkey to your Shrek, the Penfold to your Danger Mouse, the Wallace to your Gromit. Your slides are really just there to back you up, to help support what you’re saying, not to repeat it verbatim. You want your audience to be focusing on you, not trying to read huge rafts of text on your slides. In fact think about whether you even need slides in the first place. In the same way that plenty of superheroes don’t have a sidekick, plenty of super presentations don’t have slides and are all the better for it.

Assuming you do prepare some slides then photos and large visuals are great for reinforcing a point and not only is it fun trying to find appropriate imagery (just be careful about copyrighted images if it’s going to be a public presentation), it’s a lot less work than having to churn out bulleted slide, after tedious bulleted slide. You can take a look at some of my presentations to see what I mean (about the photos and imagery, not the tedious bulleted slides I hope) or find examples of good UX presentations on SlideShare (there are links to some lists of good examples at the bottom of this article).

Try to stick to one theme per slide and avoid going crazy with hundreds of slides – too many can be very distracting and disorientating for your audience. Finally, you’ll find that most company templates are built around bulleted slides so it’s often a good idea to ditch the template (if possible) and keep things as simple and streamlined as possible.

7. Include videos

You enjoying watching TV don’t you? Sure, who doesn’t? What about the cinema? Hell yeah. Everyone loves watching the big screen, so try to incorporate some videos into your presentations. You might show a video to introduce a concept, include a user interview snippet, or show a user testing clip to help showcase what you’re talking about. A well-chosen video can not only help to engage and entertain your audience, but it also gives you a little rest bite from presenting. Videos are also an excellent way to break up long presentations and to help keep people’s attention. Try to keep videos relatively short, certainly no more than 5 minutes and please don’t get carried away as videos and animations on every other slide soon become tiresome.

Family watching TV

Bring some of the excitement of the big screen to your presentations by including videos

8. Estimate the likely duration of your presentations

How many presentations have you been to where the presenter has woefully misjudged the amount of time it will take to get through their material? No problem they think, I’ll simply talk twice as fast to get through the 200+ slides remaining and rattle through them like some sort of surreal stop-go animation sequence. Ideally you should practice and rehearse a presentation to get an idea of the duration and timings. However, it’s not always possible to fully rehearse a presentation before delivering it for the first time so to prevent this from happening it’s a good idea to try to guesstimate the likely duration of your presentations beforehand. A bit like Agile estimation it can be useful to breakdown each slide or section into the number of minutes or seconds you think it will take, and then tot these up. Don’t forget to allow for some time to answer any questions and give yourself a healthy margin of error so that you’re not cutting it too finely. Also don’t forget that unless you’re carrying out a pechakucha presentation (where slides automatically progress after 20 seconds) not every slide will take the same amount of time, so don’t simply aim for a set number of slides.

9. Use presenter notes and a remote

I’m sure that your parents told you that it’s rude to turn your back on someone when talking to them. Well this is equally true of your audience. Always present to your audience, not to your slides and to help you to do this it’s always useful to use notes to help remember what you want to say. This prevents you from having to continually look back at your slides, then back at the audience, then back at your slides, then back at your audience, then back at your slides (you get the idea). Rather than having cards or paper notes I find it easier to add notes to the slides and use presenter view for PowerPoint (alternative display to view presenter information for Keynote) so that the notes are shown onscreen together with the slides. This view also provides a handy onscreen timer so that you can keep an eye on how much time you have taken, and more importantly how much time you have left.

PowerPoint presenter view

Use presenter view to show notes, upcoming slides and a timer onscreen

Unless it’s a very casual environment I’d always recommend presenting standing up as it helps to open up your body language and helps to set you as the focus of attention. To prevent you from having to stay rooted to the spot by your computer (like someone has cheekily superglued your shoes to the floor) I’d also recommend investing in a good remote clicker. This allows you to stroll around the room like a seasoned presenting pro, and not only gives your hands something to do, it also usually gives you the added bonus of a laser pointer to err, point with. Of course projectors / big screens and laptops are often a problematic combination and I’m sure that you’ve previously experienced the woes of frantically trying to get your slides up on the screen, and failing miserably. This is why it’s always a good idea to print out your slides and notes beforehand so that if the technology Gods are not smiling on you, at least you have some good old fashioned printouts to fall back on.

10. Record yourself (as painful as this might be)

I know, I know. Unless you’re a somewhat of a narcissistic it’s likely that you’d rather watch re-runs of the TV abomination that is the Jerry Springer show than watch yourself on camera presenting, but as painful as it may be it’s well worth doing. Why? Because you’ll see what your audience sees. You’ll be in a much better position to be able to identify what you can improve on, and what you should be working on. You can simply set-up a video camera, or smart phone to record your presentation, or use a tool such as Camtasia, Silverback, CamStudio, SmartPixel to record yourself using your laptop’s webcam. If you can’t bring yourself to watch a video, at least record the audio so that you can get an idea of how your dialogue is coming across.

In addition to recording yourself it’s also always a great idea to ask for feedback from the audience in a follow up email or survey. You might ask them what you can improve on, how much they enjoyed the presentation and what they found most useful about it. It’s often a good idea to ask for feedback when you send out links to any presentation slides. Be sure to do this relatively soon after the presentation so that it’s still fresh in peoples’ minds and don’t make it too onerous to provide feedback. The more feedback you get, the better a presenter you can become, and the better presenter you are, the more chance you have of communicating those brilliant ideas of yours.

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