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The 10 commandments of presenting

Written by: Luan de Burgh
Published on: 10 Apr 2017

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai he’d been at a compelling presentation, learnt something useful and was in possession of a relevant handout. I completely accept that it’s rare for a presentation and handout to become the tenets of three major world religions and I may have oversimplified Exodus and Deuteronomy a touch but you can only imagine what Moses would have recalled had God chosen to use PowerPoint.

10 commandments

The Ten Key Messages or The Ten Agenda Points doesn’t have quite the same impact. This article – a result of observation, conversation and consideration – is by no means the Holy Grail of such matters, but it is a very useful Ten Commandment style guide for any presenter.

Thou shalt not go over time
‘Tell me something I don’t know, don’t bore me and don’t go over time.’ Those are pretty much our basic requirements when we sit through a presentation with the last one being especially important. Any goodwill we might create with the first two will disappear instantly if we go over time. Come in under time, however, and you will be considered a demi-god in the pantheon of presenters.

Thou shalt not worship at the Temple of PowerPoint and read thy slides out to adults.
A presentation is the transference of an idea, message or information from one person or group of people to another person or group of people. It is not a series of slides to be read out to people who can read for themselves. If you want people to read information, send it to them.

Don’t ask your audience to read text-heavy slides (they don’t want to) or, worse still, read those slides out verbatim (they will have read them as soon as you put the slide up). Like the Sirens to Odysseus, screens are mesmerising (although arguably somewhat less alluring than mythical sea nymphs) so whatever you put up had better be appealing because your audience will be staring at it whatever it is.

Thou shalt make eye contact
Don’t look at the floor; don’t look over people’s heads and don’t consistently look at your notes. Look at your audience – they want to see you, it makes you look normal and it will help with any nerves.

Thou shalt not say ‘can you hear me at the back’.
Saying this doesn’t make you appear professional – in a big venue, check the sound before you start presenting.

Thou shalt not use 100 words when 10 will do.
It would be ironic to expand further.

Thou shalt not fiddle, mumble or be monotone.
Stand or sit with presence, do not demonstrate nerves through any non-verbal leakage and vary your vocal delivery.

Thou shalt not open with a joke unless thou art exceedingly gifted in the art of stand-up comedy
Simple rule: if you don’t do jokes, don’t do jokes. To illustrate why, click here.

Thou shalt have at least some content relevant to thy audience
Your presentation is for your audience, not you. You don’t have to tell them everything you know about the topic, just what they need to hear. To paraphrase Voltaire, ‘if you want to bore your audience, tell them everything.’

Thou shalt not arrive under prepared or under rehearsed
Someone once said, ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail.’ Other than that being a charming chiasmus, it’s essential advice.

Thou shalt be authentic, enthusiastic and engaging (or if all three are too much then pick at least one)
Be yourself, just a slightly more dynamic version. It really doesn’t matter what you are presenting on, if you are enthusiastic about being in the room with other people then that will help even the driest of presentations. Remember that an audience at a property lease presentation, for example, has slightly lower expectations than when they are at La La Land – you do not need to turn to musical theatre, just appear to be excited about transferring the information you have to your audience.

Luan de Burgh of the de Burgh Group is a professional public speaker and presentation coach. More of his articles can be read here