How to give a more exciting presentation: a note to speakers

I’ve been part of the audience at web conferences a few times now. Some presentations are exciting and engaging but, most of the times, they tend to be quite underwhelming. I don’t think this is because the speakers are fundamentally bad, but there are a few things that can be done to make any presentation sound as exciting as a Lost season finale.

Some useful tips

I’ve just came back from this year’s dConstruct, in Brighton, and while the social experience around the event met my higher expectations—and following my previous article on How To Always Enjoy A Conference—I thought I’d compile a short list of quick tips for all you speakers out there.

1. Make us laugh

Photo by Foxtongue

That’s it plain and simple. The more laughs you get from the audience (not at you, but with you) the stronger their perception that you’ve done a good job.

And how can you make us laugh? Tell us funny anecdotes about your professional or personal life (but they have to apply to the subject of your talk); make reference to popular geek cultural icons; tell inside jokes, that only someone within our business would understand. You can also press the right buttons by mentioning well-know pet peeves, like Twitter being always down, or Jakob Nielsen not having an RSS feed.

2. Ask questions that we had never asked ourselves

*@!^? [365.256]
Photo by Luke Stearns

So besides making us laugh, you should also make us think. Make us think about issues we had never thought about, make us look at something from a different perspective and question things that we take for granted or that are dogmatic.

3. Make controversial remarks

a rich gesture
Photo by pugetive

Challenge assumptions; have strong opinions about issues that we usually assume to be set in stone. Don’t be afraid of expressing your opinion but don’t forget to back it up with good evidence.

4. Be practical

thumbs up ecstasy
Photo by soundfromwayout

It’s good to stop and think about some issues on a more theoretical or even academic way. But when someone attends a web design (or development) conference, they are usually looking for something that they can take back home with. We’re looking for ideas that will make us work better, improve our work flow, making us look really good and clever! You need to make the audience think, at some point during your presentation: “Hey, I can use that!”. This is what people will remember your presentation for.

5. Sprinkle your presentation with interesting facts

Steve Jobs
Photo by marcopako 

You can use clever quotations; useful or amusing research results; provide us with suggested readings, etc. We like to know that you’ve really taken the time to do your homework.

6. Multimedia

PopCorn Culture
Photo by a shadow of my future self

In order to make your presentation have a faster pace (and this is vital) try adding short video clips and music to it. Seinfeld has proven to be a good choice.

What not to do

One of the main issues with most presentations is the monotone voice that the speaker adopts throughout. Make an effort to add some enthusiasm to your words, change tone, accentuate interrogations.

Photo by Grevel

Avoid using complicated words. Not even TED talkers use them (at least not the good ones). You’ll sound like a fool, and make us think we’re dumb for not knowing what they mean.

Do not, I’ll repeat: DO NOT just show us your portfolio. Showcasing your portfolio and not making it sound really overwhelming will make you lose many points with the audience. That’s “Speaking at a conference 101”.

The same applies to just mentioning stuff I could have read on your blog. Some people do subscribe to and read blogs and they are probably in the audience.

Know your topic well so you don’t have to read from a script. You should have a very good idea of what you’ll be saying and have some sort of guideline to your presentation, but watching a speaker constantly go back to his or her notes is a big turn-off.

Another no-no on presentations is being one of the sponsors. No matter what you do, most of the audience will basically tend to ignore you like an ad (with very few exceptions to brands like Apple or Lolcats).

Avoid presenting before lunch. You’ll have to double your efforts in order to grab the attention of the audience. At that time of day, we’re basically a herd of hungry zombies with our minds on one thing and that thing is food.

In case of emergency

There are few things that will always get a laugh from the audience. These are the surefire ways of gaining a few extra points. You can scatter them around your presentation, or use them at a desperate time, if you feel you’re losing them.

1. Bash Microsoft

Any bad remark about Microsoft will result on at least a few giggles. You can comment on the previous speaker’s technical problems (if they were using a PC) or make any kind of comment on how Windows sucks.

2. Lolcats

Eberybudy wants to picks me up  I thinks my naem is aw

Pick a truly funny lolcat and add it to your presentation. It will provide your audience with a nice kodak moment, and it will give you a few extra seconds to think what to say next.

3. Clips from Star Trek, Star Wars or The Big Bang Theory

Molly @ FOWD London 2009

The first two don’t have to be funny, the third one does. Any reference to Star Trek, Star Wars, comic books, or any kind of geeky popular cultural icon will sparkle the thought that you are “one of them” among the audience.

Four good examples

Here are some good examples on how to make a proper presentation. These speakers knew exactly what the audience wanted and knew how to present it in an engaging way:

1. Joshua Davis @ OFFF 09, Lisbon

The content of this presentation isn’t groundbreaking, but Joshua presented it to us in a brilliant and colourful way.
Keywords: entertaining, engaging, funny.

2. Jason Fried @ Big Omaha 2009

I don’t particularly agree with a lot of Mr. Fried’s ideas, but the fact that he made me, a non-believer, pay attention to this whole presentation, is a good thing.
Keywords: brief, to the point, useful, practical, controversial.

3. Ben Huh @ Future of Web Apps 2008, London

Not a single person that I’ve spoken to about this presentation had high expectations, but everyone was very pleased with it afterwards.
Keywords: lolcats galore, funny, controversial, practical, inspiring.

4. Jina Bolton @ Future of Web Design 2007, London

I’m yet to see another presentation at Future of Web Design conferences that proves as useful as this one. Back in 2007, Jina presented us with some very cool bits of CSS3 that we are all still struggling to actually use.
Keywords: useful, foreseeing, brief.

Do you know of more engaging, interesting and useful presentations? Leave your favourites in the comments section.


I hope you find this useful! I’m certainly not trying to say presentations should be basically a circus show with fireworks. I just want to, as a spectator, have a good time before, during and after the events.

Remember: you will never please everyone, but you should shoot for the stars. Set the bar high and be original (easier said than done).

There will always be those people who are never pleased with anything. Even if you’re making the presentation of the century, not everyone will like it, at least one person will yawn, you will get mean comments on Twitter (I wouldn’t read the backlog if I were you) and someone will not like the typeface you’ve picked for your slides.

If there is only one thing you take from this post, remember: never be the last speaker before lunch break.

Useful links

These links have a lot of good and proper advice to speakers (not rant-like, like this one). All of them are worth reading:

For some more great presentations, check out my post about Build Conference — you won’t be disappointed.