How do I give a good seminar?
December 15, 2006 4:56 PM   Subscribe

How do I give the best instructional presentation ever?

I have to give a short (sub-15 minute) instructional presentation before a small group of people as the audition part of a job interview. The job has multiple roles, and teaching clients in the industry how to use the product is one of them.

For the audition, I'm being evaluated on my presentation skills and not on my topic, so I'm speaking on something I'm comfortable with and knowledgable about. I have a powerpoint outlined already.

I've reviewed posts tagged 'speaking' and also this. Through one of the threads I've found Presentation Zen, which is useful but awfully verbose.

I have past experience with sales and project presentations. More often in preparing them for others to deliver than in presenting them myself. What I'm looking for are tips from the pros specifically about giving good seminars: What works, what doesn't? What are some common presenters' bad habits? How do you keep the audience when the material bores them?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I know they say that content doesn't matter, but it way does. You'll have an easier time with a topic that's more fun. Last time I had to do this, I gave a ten-minute seminar on how to make a white russian, and it went over swimmingly. Find a topic that both you and your audience will find engaging and half your battle is won.
Regardless of topic: know your stuff. Memorize. Don't continuously stare at notecards or otherwise give signs that you're uncomfortable or unprepared. It will help you to give the presentation to a group of friends. Get their feedback. Present to them again. Get their feedback again. Lather, rinse, repeat. The idea is to get in front of the group feeling like an old pro. Speak candidly and confidently. Veer from the topic if questions arise. The best speakers are confident and appear to know everything about their chosen topic.
Watch your audience carefully. If they look bored, move on. Think of several different ways to pitch your material; if one isn't working, move to the next.
Closing advice: pick your favorite teacher. Imagine this person presenting to the class. What did this teacher do that kept you riveted? Now do that.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 5:31 PM on December 15, 2006

One way to quickly engage people is to ask a question at or near the begining of of the presentation. Not an inane question, and it's okay if nobody knows the answer but it should be something where people would be willing to suggest answers...this gets them thinking and engages them.
posted by furtive at 5:32 PM on December 15, 2006

Prepare: Keep your presentation within the alloted time. Have handout, enough for everyone. Check out the room where the presentation will be. Is the equipment you need set up? Where will you stand for best visibility and audibility? Do you need a mike?

Practice: Yes, you know the material. But have you had to talk about it before? To this audience? Don't imagine you can just "wing it" without everyone knowing it.

Motivate: Explain to the audience why this is something they need to know. How will this help them with their work? How will save them time/work/trouble? You're there to solve their problems.
posted by SPrintF at 6:15 PM on December 15, 2006

be passionate about your subject.
posted by brandz at 6:20 PM on December 15, 2006

- Vary your voice pitch, or you'll end up talking like a zombie.

- On your handout, you can put seemingly unrelated images that arouse the curiosity of the group, and then connect them to your presentation.

- Don't mumble or ramble; make your point and get on with it. People value their time.

- Practice, and don't assume you "have it" until you can run through the presentation three times quickly fluently.

- If you're allowed to do this, keep a small notecard with a basic bullet outline and maybe some important quotes or small tidbits of information you want to mention. Don't read from it, of course.

Good luck :D
posted by theiconoclast31 at 6:58 PM on December 15, 2006

It is your job to make the material interesting so that it doesn't bore them no matter what. If, looking at your material, you can't imagine them not being bored, then there is no point in giving the presentation. This is a common complaint of mine about presentations in general. Every single slide should be considered with "why should I care" in the back of your mind. Your whole introduction should convince the audience that they do care, so that they are interested in the rest of the presentation.

With a few key exceptions, technical details do not belong in most presentations. Stay at a high level - think 'big picture', so that most of the audience can relate. Use lots of pictures and spend most of your time explaining and interpreting them for your audience. Do not try to pack in too much information. I've found about one slide per minute to be a good *maximum* number of slides.

Your presentation should be a little story; it should introduce a question at the beginning, talk about how it's solved in the middle, and present results or some sort of conclusion at the end. This is to keep your audience interested. If it is not clear that you are going anywhere, you will lose them. Think of it as telling a joke. If the teller rambles on and on people will not care about the punchline by the time it finally rolls around. So secondary to "why should I care", evaluate each slide with "how does this help the story" in mind. If the answer is not clear, or it confuses the issue, edit or drop the slide.

Finally, and most importantly, there is no such thing as a presentation that is too short, believe me. Three minutes short is infinitely better than three minutes over. All anyone cares about is that you got your point across and if any of them are watching the clock it means they are bored and waiting for you to finish.

Good luck!
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:28 PM on December 15, 2006

Up until 1997, I tended to use PowerPoint for presentations, like 95% of business persons I've met do. I hated it. And I came to detest people wanting me to watch PowerPoint presentations they'd developed.

The main reason for this is that PowerPoint is the ultimate one track, one trick pony. It's a terrible means of starting and carrying on a conversation. And many people learn faster, and retain more about a subject, if they engage in conversation about it, than if they passively sit and watch something, be it PowerPoint, video, or some other AV technology. Studies have shown repeatedly that audience retention of information delivered via passive presentations is less than 2% only 24 hours later. So, if your job is really going to be training, you have to see PowerPoint as your enemy, and anything that promotes better retention of the information you are responsible for providing as a tool worth developing.

If you must present something using overheads, make it a Web presentation, as I started to do in 1997. You don't need a Web server running, just create your HTML files with UNC style addressing, and use your browser to open your index file directly, by navigating to it on your hard drive. Your linked local HTML files will work exactly as they would if served off a "real" Web server, but faster, and without any danger you'll stall your presentation due to a flaky connection to the Internet or another machine acting as a Web server. If your laptop is operable, your presentation will run, just as one file on your hard drive calling others, as you hit hyperlinks, or your HTML coding calls images, icons, or other graphic elements. You can even embed sound files, or play them using external players. And you can still use scripting tools like JavaScript to add dynamic elements to your pages and presentation, if you need to do so.

But the big, big benefit of writing your presentations as sets of Web documents is that they can be inherently dynamic. Through hyperlinks, you can go off on side explorations of your topic if your audience is interested, and come back to your main flow, without being sidetracked. Your presentations are far easier to tailor, on the spot, to audiences of widely different backgrounds and interests, and it is perfect way of giving a 15 minute "executive summary" presentation, a 30 minute "overview" presentation, and a 2 hour "details" talk, all using the same base presentation, without looking to any group as if you've cut down the presentation, or are over looking their interests in the service of maintaining a schedule. Basically, you can do something as simple as a "More Info" link on any of your slides/pages, which will take interested parties to a sub-loop, or several sub-loops, of slides/pages providing more information to any level of detail you care to provide.

And it's a breeze to make your presentations available electronically as handouts. Just make your UNC paths relative to your prestentation root directory, and burn your directory structure to a CD. Hand out CD's to anyone who has a computer of any type with a browser of any type, and they're able to run your presentation. (Of course, if you're going to do this, be respectful of platform variance in writing your HTML, and don't go doing things based on your assumptions about their browser and machine settings.)
posted by paulsc at 8:08 PM on December 15, 2006

Remember that the more relaxed you seem (you don't actually have to BE relaxed, just breathing slowly, speaking normally, not fidgeting etc...) the more relaxed your audience will be.

Picture the audience as one person. Every actor knows that an audience has a singular personality separate from the people that make it up.

Speaking for myself, my job is telling stories about how things work and making it intersting; I always pretend I'm talking to my wife.
She's my biggest fan. She's also a tough audience, and responds to my enthusiasm more than the technical details. Which means she'll listen to the technical details, but she'll be more involved in them if I'm truly fascinated by what I'm talking about.

That's more advice on the performance front of your question. As for content: I'd second Help, I can't stop talking!'s advice.
posted by asavage at 8:44 PM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm kinda tired but so didn't read the responses, but I'm a grad student so I've been to quite a few lectures--more recently even candidate lectures (PhD's wanting a job) and the best ask questions like "what do you think this _____ could be?" Something that keeps them focused on the presentation--not just standing up and talking but asking questions to the point that they have to keep listening so in the event they get "called on" they will answer and not look like a dumbass.

Others move around the room, so the listeners will also focus on you so they don't look like dicks for not paying attention when you are standing next to them looking over their shoulder to see if they're playing solitare or something.

Lastly--have printouts of your power point (3 slides per page in handout format)--this will not only give them copies of what you speak about (so they could refer back to it later) but also allows the listeners to take notes.

Oh, and act confident--that's one thing i have problems with personally when speaking in front of a group, so definetly know your stuff and it'll be that much easier.

Good luck
posted by uncballzer at 9:37 PM on December 15, 2006

I'm a trainer and was just recently involved in the interview process for hiring another trainer, an eye-opening experience. Based on this, my advice to you would be to build your presentation in three 5-minute sections:

- Intro - Engage the audience by showing them the value of learning about xyz and how it will benefit them.
- Content - Give a brief and clear overview of xyz, or even better, design a short activity for the learners that will allow them to discover xyz for themselves.
- Review - Take time to review and test their knowledge. A Q&A may be the most simple way to do this, but a quick game would be great here too. This is the true test of a good instructor, since you'll be able to prove that they successfully learned something.

Some other tips to keep in mind:
- You've only got 15 minutes, so keep your content minimal. Better to teach a simple task well than a complex task poorly.
- Present the information in a clear, logical sequence with special attention to smooth transitions from one point to the next.
- Anticipate the kinds of questions they might ask and how you will respond. Also note any questions that you can ask to check in with them and draw on their experience.
- If you want to create slides and handouts, that's great, but don't get carried away. It's more important to focus on your instructional skills. (That being said, make sure that whatever materials you do choose to create are professional, well-written and spelled correctly!)
- Practice, practice, practice. No matter how well you know the topic, practice out loud exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it. The more you practice, the more streamlined and clear your instruction will be.
- Stay within your time limits. Thorough practicing will help this immensely, but have a plan in mind for what you can skip/ shorten if you start to go over time.

Best of luck!
posted by platinum at 2:50 AM on December 16, 2006

I teach English language classes to teens/young adults who are already pretty tired after a day at school/work, and Powerpoint is far too passive a medium to present new information, especially arcane grammatical minutiae.

To liven things up, I've done things like make students unscramble sentences featuring the day's "target language" by moving around the room with each word written on big cards pinned to their shirts, or played "pictionary" with the solutions being new vocabulary I want to introduce. These things seem like pointless games, but having tactile things to work with, I think, gets people away from their comfort zones in a safe way - even if they don't know each other that well - and makes them work out the information you're giving them - and ONLY that information. Solitaire, text messages, doodles and the like are left back at the desk.

Also, think about all the assumptions you might be making based on previous experience: the meaning of "presentation" or "seminar" inherently implying a one-way flow of information, feedback opportunities for listeners as an afterthought to lots-of-you-talking-time, your physical presence at the front of the room as a holdover from your days in classrooms, even the very idea of you doing the presenting.

If you're set on using Powerpoint or some other electronic AV tool, perhaps use it to present photos of the thing you're marketing, or sound clips from satisfied people, or perhaps some other information which enhances, but isn't central to, your presentation.

So I say go into it like a teacher, not a salesperson. Make your attendees write quiz questions about your product to stump their opponents and win a prize, get people walking around...anything to keep people interested.

Good luck!
posted by mdonley at 3:18 AM on December 16, 2006

Last time I had to do this, I gave a ten-minute seminar on how to make a white russian, and it went over swimmingly.

HICST!, this anecdote is rendered even more powerful since I know for a fact that you don't even drink. Now that's confidence!
posted by hermitosis at 7:43 AM on December 16, 2006

If you're presenting with Powerpoint (or html, a pdf, Keynote, etc.) the most important thing is to keep text to a minimum. The focus should be on you and what you're saying, backed up with some helpful or interesting images. Let me repeat: Keep. Text. To. A. Minimum.

You don't want people reading text that's the same thing you're talking about, because they read faster then you talk and by the time you're saying it, they're already bored.

You don't want people reading text that's different than what you're talking about, because then they aren't following you.

If you show an image that piques their curiosity, your audience will listen to you explain it. No text is great. A few titles for charts and images is okay. A sentence is too much. The exception is maybe a few short bullet-pointed phrases in your conclusion--perhaps the three main points for people to jot down.

Keep this in mind with handouts too. If your handout is full of text and basicly covers your whole presentation, pass it out at the end.
posted by hydrophonic at 8:58 AM on December 16, 2006

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