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What are some tips for keeping users interested in a technical presentation?

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Don't use powerpoint? –  fretje Apr 5 '11 at 13:59
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Really snazzy animations. Nothing says excitement like a star-wipe transition! ;) –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Apr 5 '11 at 14:08
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Making people laugh once in a while couldn't hurt. –  The Muffin Man Apr 5 '11 at 20:38
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12 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Well, here are a few things of what not to do. Don McMillan: Life After Death by PowerPoint

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This is an excellent reason why the SO engine should support inline video's... here's another one btw (more recent): youtube.com/watch?v=KbSPPFYxx3o&feature=related –  fretje Apr 5 '11 at 14:06
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+1: Never Read Your Slides Out Loud. Ever. If the slide is simple, pithy and complete. Just stare at it for 20 seconds, ask if there are questions and move on. –  S.Lott Apr 5 '11 at 14:18
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Good video, but the answer is not self-standing. –  user1249 Apr 5 '11 at 20:04
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@Rook, I didn't say anything about funny. I just mentioned your answer wasn't self-standing, making it less useful in a printout. –  user1249 Apr 5 '11 at 23:07
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@Andrew Grimm: Never. Never. Never. Read a slide to other people. If you have nothing to add to the content of the slide, then say nothing. Do not ever simply read the text aloud. It's insulting. It's the 21st century. Your audience is literate. If your slide is perfect and complete, then let it stand. –  S.Lott May 21 '11 at 2:27
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A technical presentation is still a presentation. And the following is a good presentation about how to make good presentations:

http://www.slideshare.net/jessedee/steal-this-presentation-5038209

Among other things, the presentation above talks about the following:

  • Color scheme's
  • How to use images
  • Ditch the notes
  • How to use text in presentations
  • Basic presentation design: C.R.A.P.
  • Why you should share your presentation

More importantly, it subtly introduced the idea of simply having fun during a presentation. It's possible to educate and entertain people and have fun doing it: and doing that is actually easier than you think, especially with practice.

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Tufte's advice is to hand-out slides beforehand and only discuss questions during the meeting.

In corporate and government bureaucracies, the standard method for making a presentation is to talk about a list of points organized onto slides projected up on the wall. For many years, overhead projectors lit up transparencies, and slide projectors showed high-resolution 35mm slides. Now "slideware" computer programs for presentations are nearly everywhere. Early in the 21st century, several hundred million copies of Microsoft PowerPoint were turning out trillions of slides each year.

Alas, slideware often reduces the analytical quality of presentations. In particular, the popular PowerPoint templates (ready-made designs) usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis. What is the problem with PowerPoint? And how can we improve our presentations? ...

http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/graphics/book_pp_cover.gif

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I like this but unfortunately, this only works if people read them ahead of time... –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Apr 5 '11 at 14:24
    
@FrustratedWithFormsDesigner - that's why you reschedule meetings when people are unprepared. –  JeffO Apr 5 '11 at 14:34
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@Jeff O: Ideally, though with some people you're lucky to get one meeting. Rescheduling can seriously delay things if there's a couple key people who are hard to get... sigh... –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Apr 5 '11 at 14:35
    
@FrustratedWithFormsDesigner - when key people who are hard to get find out a meeting had to be rescheduled because some was unprepared... ouch. –  JeffO Apr 5 '11 at 14:45
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Sadly, there are some folks who appear to be unable to read unless someone is there to watch them work. (A remarkable number of managers seem to be unable to work alone. Perhaps that's why they're managers.) So they will not read the slides unless you invite them to a meeting to read the slides. Sigh. –  S.Lott Apr 5 '11 at 14:49
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Hand draw your slides.

Presentation preparation - Jon Skeet: Coding Blog enter image description here

As most of you know, I occasionally talk about C# at conferences, user groups or basically anywhere that people won't attack me. A while ago I rejected PowerPoint in favour of a rather less formal approach: hand-drawn slides. Quite a few people have now asked me about how they're prepared - even occasionally making the assumption that my awful handwriting is actually a real font - so I figured it's worth a blog post.

My process is both primitive and complex...

  1. Draw the slides...
  2. Scan the paper...
  3. Convert into SVG...
  4. Edit in InkScape...
  5. Convert to PNG...
  6. Present!
    ...
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+1 Great Method –  user61852 Jun 18 '13 at 20:18
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My most effective technical presentation had three slides: a title side, a diagram, and next steps. Over the ~30 minutes 25 were spent on the diagram. The next steps slide was only in there because of the culture of wanting a "call to action" at the end where action was being proposed.

In other words: use the slides to show things that are hard to say, say everything else.

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If you want people to pay attention during presentations, hand out any materials after you're done. If you want to look at the tops of people's heads while they read your material and don't listen to you (say, if you're a bad public speaker or are unprepared) give them something to read when they walk in the door.

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It depends on the situation where you are making the presentation. I have a different answer for a meeting, a user group presentation, or a large technical conference.

For a meeting:

Prepare the deck in excruciating detail and send it out in advance. During the meeting show maybe 3 or 4 slides - maybe one laying out the problem, one with some really key graph or the like that shows the point you want to make, and one that indicates you've done your homework. Then convert the meeting to discussion. While people are discussing, where appropriate show a slide that corresponds to the topic they're discussing.

For a user group:

Plan lots of demos. Put the code from the demos on the slides because getting the slides is always easier than getting your code. Don't spend much time on the slides, focus on demo and on interactive conversation. As in the meeting, if someone asks a question and you have a slide in your appendix that answers it, flip to that slide to support what you're saying.

For a large technical conference:

You can't get interactive. So you will still have lots of demos, and have code on your slides, but you will also have bullet points. Expect they will use your deck to show their coworkers or bosses this new thing they want to try. Have diagrams.

  • Do NOT read the slides to the people. Say something similar but NOT word for word
  • Do NOT do the "picture of kittens" thing. It makes your deck useless without you. That's fine for a keynote but not for a technical breakout.
  • Go through the slides pretty quickly as sort of a "soon I will prove this to you" list, knowing there's a demo coming up, while they are written as a list others will use without your demo.

It's easy to say "don't have bullet points, bullets kill haha" but for the circumstances where I need to give presentations, people want and expect bullets. They also want and expect you to serve a purpose way beyond saying the bullet points out loud and pausing for a response.

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I believe it was Franklin Roosevelt who said something like this:

"If you want me to talk for 10 minutes, I need a week to prepare.

If you want me to talk for an hour, I need a day to prepare.

If you want me to talk all day I can start right now"

When it comes to powerpoint, there are a few things which I think are important (some of these are a little controversial):

  • You can have more than 3 bullet points on a slide.... but try to have less than 10. Preferably the magic number seems to be about 6

  • TALK FAST - if you have a lot of slides. The typical talking time for a slide is 1 minute - believe it or not. If all you are doing is talking in a presentation, then either talk fast, and get through 30 slides in 20 minutes, or cut the number of slides, and talk with less pictures. [I once did an 80 slide presentation in 25 minutes... that was really steaming along.]

  • Use pictures. These days I spend a VAST amount of time on Google Images looking for pictures that can make a humourous point. The old thing, a picture telling 1000 words - is true. The right pictures get the point across better than words.

  • Its OK to put silly speech bubbles (cartoon like) on your pictures - if it helps make your point.

  • Using pictures, sometimes you don't actually have to then say very much.

  • Never ever ever write paragraphs on a presentation. Nobody can read it, and those who can will want to strangle you.

  • Allow a generous Q&A time. But don't finish with the cliche huge "?" slide, its just blah. Just turn the projector off or show a black page, and ask for questions and discussion.

  • If you have a long presentation (eg 2 hours), break it up - you need to do a toilet break, a juggling break, a stop for tea and cakes, an exercise where everybody stops and does something else.

Your goal if presenting is ultimately to be remembered. To be remembered you MUST be different to the rest of the pack. Breaks for tea and scones, exercises ("I want you to stop listening now and do XXX"), presentations full of silly pictures - these get remembered and avoid boredom.

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Use but don't abuse of some sense of humor. If you dominate this art you can surely keep people interested.

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Don't put words on slides.

Put concepts on slides. Words might be a part of explaining the concept, but they are not the concept. Pictures, graphics, diagrams--things you can talk to.

Slides, like hand gestures, amplify the verbal communication of information. They are not a substitute for verbal communication. (Unless we're talking about off-line reading of slide decks, which is an entirely different use case, and in general hand out a different version of the slides than the one you speak to.)

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Wish I could upvote this twice - +1 for "don't put words on slides, put concepts on slides", and +1 for handing out a different version of text slides (outline-style, backgroundless-ones, preferably) in addition to your presentation slides. –  Beekguk Apr 5 '11 at 20:29
    
Ignite is a great example (usually) of this. –  Brandon Tilley Apr 6 '11 at 3:57
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  • Keep all the fonts and colors to a minimum. You may have to adjust to the size of the room/audience.
  • Target you audience as much as possible: technical level, part of the world, common domain.
  • Stay focused.
  • Don't read.
  • Limit the amount of data per slide (about 3 bullet points max)
  • Find pictures, examples and stories for a better explanation.
  • Don't tell jokes that are not funny or they're not funny the way you tell them.
  • Get the audience involved: ask questions and wait for an answer.
  • Break up a lengthy presentation. Offer a Q & A after 30 minutes.
  • Follow the 3 parts: Tell them what you're going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.
  • Find some presentation video online and learn from the better ones.
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+1 for "Tell them what you're going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them." –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Apr 5 '11 at 15:24
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* Don't use too many bullet points. –  Martin Wickman Apr 5 '11 at 17:27
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I upvoted your list, but I also upvoted Martin Wickmans comment ;-) –  shellter Apr 6 '11 at 0:25
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Keep the audience engaged. Asking questions to the audience is normally the most common option. Make sure you re-enforce your main point (or the items you want people to really remember) with something that is not on the screen. Either a story or real-life situation that you can evoke some sort of emotion so that it is not just all dull.

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