9 Steps to a Presentation That Won’t Leave Your Audience Hating You

Lawyers love the written word. When you talk to a lawyer about “content marketing,” he or she automatically shifts into thinking about articles, newsletters, blog posts, and other written forms of communication. But there’s much more to content marketing than writing — “publishing” can and does involve any number of media that require the active personal and verbal participation of the content provider.

One overlooked non-written form of lawyer content marketing is the presentation. Delivering information and insight orally, with the assistance of visual aids, can be a powerful way not just to display expertise, but also to show people what you’re like in person. Some lawyers — not many, but a few — are very good at designing and delivering presentations. Most lawyers are not.

Presentations shouldn’t be that hard to give, but they often are. Recent studies that I’ve just made up show that 80% of all presentations are terrible, with another 15% classified as cringeworthy and a further 4% leaving the audience clinically depressed. Lawyer presentations are, shall we say, much closer to the rule than the exception here. But exceptions there are — there’s that 1% of presentations that are simply fantastic, that leave the audience satsifed, informed, and glad for the experience. You can be part of this happy one percent.

I’ve given dozens of presentations to legal audiences of all kinds over the past several years, to lawyers, clients, judges, law students, and many others. As part of that process, I’ve picked up a few pointers about how to build and deliver a presentation that won’t leave your audience glaring at you as you step down from the podium. Here are nine, offered for your consideration.

  1. Give your own presentation. Busy partners called upon to create a presentation often delegate the job to a junior, especially if they’re shy about using the technology. Trouble is, I’ve witnessed senior professionals deliver presentations that they obviously were seeing for the first time on stage, and their flat recitations and stumbles were painful to sit through. The person who gives the presentation must be the same one who drafts it.
  2. Do not use PowerPoint. Microsoft Powerpoint is to presentations what Comic Sans is to typefaces: a mediocre format overused to the point of real aggravation. As a dedicated Macintosh user, I’ll sing the praises of Apple Keynote all day, a presentation format that actually cares about design and the user experience. There’s also Prezi, a swooping interactive format available on any platform — just be careful not to overswoop. Basically, think beyond the PowerPoint.
  3. Narrow your subject focus. Very few presentations have ever left the audience thinking, “I sure wish I’d been given more information.” Presenters often feel they must tell you everything they know about the subject in the available time, so they stuff the presentation to the gills with facts, figures and observations. Like all publications, presentations benefit from a narrow, deep and sharp focus. Choose one thing you want to tell your audience about and explain it very well.
  4. Get to the point. Your audience is there to hear you, primed and ready. Tell them as soon as you can, as simply and clearly as you can, why you’re there and what they can expect to hear. Give them a good reason, within the first 30 seconds, to sit up and pay attention. The longer you make them wait for knowledge, the more impatient they’ll become. The whys and wherefores, the history and the rationales, that underlie your central point can come later, once they know what you’ve got.
  5. Frame expectations. A person reading a ten-page article knows exactly how much content is left until the end; a person sitting through a presentation rarely has that information and can get restless as a result. Lay out a “table of contents” at the start of your presentation, ideally with an expected time frame, and stick to it. Number your slides (“4 of 17,” “9 of 17,” and so forth) so that the audience always knows where things stand. And never say the words “Finally” or “In conclusion” unless you’re less than two minutes away from sitting down.
  6. One idea per slide. Many presentations are handicapped by content-heavy slides, cramming multiple explanations and concepts into a space that was never designed to accommodate more than a few bullet points. Look at ways to move each idea onto a separate slide, or off the deck altogether. Every slide in a presentation should be a standalone concept or series of related concepts, expressed as precisely and concisely as possible. Think of each slide as a paragraph: it should not try to deal with more than one concept.
  7. Less content, more time. You can always count on your actual presentation taking at least 10-15% longer than you anticipate. Otherwise fine presentations are frequently ruined by the dreaded, “We’re running short on time, so I’ll skip ahead past these next several slides” line. Look closely at your final-draft deck and ask yourself, “If the time I have allotted were suddenly reduced by one-third, what could I eliminate?” Once you’ve identified the slides you can live without, cut them.
  8. Click, and shut up. This one and the next one are invaluable pieces of advice from my friend, master presentation coach John Plank of Commanding Presence and Edge International. When you first display a slide, your audience will stop paying any attention to you and will read what you’ve put up on the screen. Don’t talk while they’re reading; and when they’ve finished, don’t repeat word for word what they’ve just read. Let your audience absorb what’s on your slide, in silence. If your slide is too cluttered, or too confusing, to do this comfortably, rewrite it or break it into multiple slides.
  9. Don’t read your slides! This, to my mind, is the single most annoying thing that happens in presentations, and it happens all the time. Except in rare circumstances, when you have an especially important point to make, reading out loud what’s on the slide is incredibly irritating. Your audience can read faster than you can talk, and they’ll have finished what you wrote well before you begin to say it. Click, and shut up. Wait ten seconds, and then begin speaking about what’s on the slide, not reading out the slide itself.

Every presentation begins with a fixed amount of audience goodwill toward you and your subject. Many presentations drain that tank of goodwill in the first five minutes. Sustain that goodwill, and feed it, with a presentation that focuses on the audience, not on you — on what they need to know, rather than on what you’ve got to say.

Comments

  1. This is a must-read article for anyone who gives presentations – lawyer or otherwise. I am an attorney (no longer practicing) and just came from a CLE class at a law firm. They need to read every point in this article.

    Well-written.

    @ 2:31 pm
  2. Hear hear!

    Another “standard practice” is printing out those boring, text-heavy slides on the Microsoft PowerPoint Notes pages, with the little lines beside each square. What a waste — of paper, and of an opportunity to hand out out something useful that will also impress.

    I know that audiences are much happier to receive a well-written short handout that summarizes the content of the talk and includes the important references (whether they be case references, sections of legislation, or useful websites). Or a checklist. Or a terrific infographic that you’ve commissioned to bring your data to life. Offer to send it to them in PDF as well if they think they might light to share it with others.

    The beauty? Now you can reassure your audience that all details are in the notes. This leave you to get to the heart of your talk, with stories and examples.

    Still, old slide habits die hard. Very hard. Earlier this month, I fielded an objection from a partner in a national firm worried about letting go of old habits. “Clients coming to an in-house legal seminar expect value and expertise,” he argued, “and they expect to see it set out on the slides and in the copies we give in the handouts.”

    Sigh.

    @ 9:57 pm
  3. Ben said:

    Don’t be a hater. There is nothing wrong with PowerPoint. If your content is good and you lay it out well, it’s just as good as your Apple Fanboy Keynote.

    Other than that “tip,” good article.

    @ 8:48 am
  4. Mark Lassiter said:

    Good article, Jordan, but I agree with Ben that we shouldn’t ‘throw the baby out with the wash’ when it comes to PowerPoint. It’s usually that most lawyers don’t take the time to learn its more advanced features and functionality, like animation, video, etc., which would really help their presentations.

    Andrea, I’ve taken to a variation on the ‘handouts.’ I generate them, but then pre-populate them in the ‘notes’ part with hyperlinks to articles, interviews, videos, websites, etc., so that the handouts (when delivered digitally) are a treasure trove of digital information. Thoughts?

    @ 6:18 am