Life January 22, 2011

Notes from Basic Presentation Skills Training

Learn what I learned from one of the most rewarding courses I've ever attended - presentation skills with David Philips.

Yesterday I took a day of from my regular work and attended a course in presentations skills at the Valtech office. The course was held by David Phillips, one of the premier experts on the subject in Sweden.

The course provided a mixture of theoretical training, practicing and individual feedback. We begun by looking at rhetoric fundamentals and at how presentations should be structured. With the knowledge gained from that each attendant prepared a short presentation on a freely chosen topic that we gave to the rest of the group. During the presentations David took notes and directly after the presentation the presenter got feedback about the structure of the presentation.

When each student had given his or hers presentation we moved on to body language and after that to  vocal effort. For both of those two parts of the course David begun by describing basic theory, what to think about and why. We then got some individual feedback related to the topic at hand (body language or vocal effort) based on our earlier performances. With that feedback in mind we got some time to rehears the first parts of our presentations again before we delivered them to the group again. Immediately after each presentation the presenter got new feedback from David about what she or he had improved and what he or she should continue to improve.

We then moved on to learn about how to keep an audience concentrated and stimulated and what to think about when using PowerPoint. Finally we received individual feedback in private from David before ending the day with us each giving a new, short presentation to the rest of the group.

I found the course inspirational and rewarding and I’m already looking forward to attending the advanced course. I would also like to recommend taking this course, or a similar one (David has quite a few) to anyone that ever needs to do any form of public speaking.

Below are my notes from yesterday.

Basic rhetoric

There are three modes of persuasion that should always be present in a presentation in order to appeal to the audience.


Ethos is appeal based on the character of the speaker. This is based on the speaker himself, what the audience knows about the speaker, how he describes himself, how he’s dressed, how he talks and so on. The presenter can also strengthen his ethos by borrowing from someone or something that has a higher ethos. A few ways to strengthen the ethos in a presentation are:

  • Borrowing from an authority – “Microsoft recommends that…”. “Marthin Fowler defines refactoring as…”
  • Using time – The usage depends on the subject. Calling something old or classic works for some concepts or products while other’s needs to be branded as modern or high tech. For instance calling a strawberry jam “Grandma’s Old Fashioned Strawberry Jam” strengthens it’s ethos while the same probably wouldn’t work for a shampoo.
  • Proverbs – Given that the audience recognizes a proverb using it can strengthen what we are telling them as they take for granted that the proverb is true. For instance the proverb “As you sow, so you shall reap” isn’t always true, but since it’s a well known proverb we assume that it is.
  • Referring to past experiences – “I’ve often experienced that projects fail when…” probably works better than “I think this project will fail because…”
  • References – “Studies performed at…”
  • Majority arguments – “Everyone else in the class gets to go on the ski trip” or “Many of your competitors have already started to…”
  • Hierarchy
  • Using the counterpart – By implying that the counter part previously said something, even though he or she didn’t necessarily do that. “As you said earlier, cars with this type of steering wheel is great for…”. By doing so we can borrow ethos from the counter part. This is however a bit nasty and considered to be “black rhetoric”. Not surprisingly this is often used by telemarketers.


Logos is appeal based on logic or reason. We can strengthen the logos in a presentation by:

  • Using facts
  • Using numbers
  • Using Statistics
  • Having a line of argument throughout our presentation that is easy to follow – Logos suffers if the presentation is unstructured.

In order to convince an audience we should have three arguments. Using more than three will only confuse the audience. The strongest argument should be used last and the weakest in the middle. A strong argument is perceived as even stronger if it comes after a weaker argument.

Keep in mind that a weak argument can break whole chain so remove weak arguments. Also be careful when using fillers like “etc.”, “and so on” and “so on and so forth”. They tend to weaken logos.


Pathos is appeal based on emotion. 90% of our decisions are based on emotions. Pathos is influenced by how the presenter acts and the contents of the presentation. We gain pathos by doing a passionate delivery, by using metaphors and similes and by any type of content in the presentation that creates a sensation of change.

Keep in mind that what you as the presenter does, the audience experiences. See: mirror neurons.


A presentation should consist of three parts: an introduction, content and a finish.


The introduction should contain seven parts in the below order.

  1. A polite phrase – “Welcome! My name is…”
  2. A respecting section – To create benevolence and sympathy in the audience. “I’m so happy that you took the time to…”
  3. A plot/teaser – something to wake up the interest in the audience for the rest of the presentation.
  4. Subject description and agenda
  5. Mission Statement – Define the goal of the presentation. Should be personal and specific. “My goal with this presentation is that you will…”.
  6. Speaker introduction – This is often done at the very beginning of the introduction at which point the audience usually isn’t interested to hear it.
  7. Practical information – When questions should be asked, timeframe, distributed material, mobile phones turned off, location of lavatories and where to get fresh air/smoke.


The content section of the presentation is usually the longest but also the easiest. It should contain the four steps listed below in order:

  1. Background
  2. Subject – The actual content the presentation is about
  3. Counterarguments – Anticipating counterarguments and addressing them allows us to address them in a situation where we’re in control and gives us increased credibility. We can further increase credibility by admitting non-important/irrelevant weaknesses.
  4. Summary – Should contain our three main arguments.


The last part of the presentation is the finish. It should consist of four parts in the below order:

  1. Open up for questions – Often questions are left for last which has a number of disadvantages. By beginning the finishing part of the presentation with questions, and informing the audience of that (“Before I summarize, are there any questions?”) we remain in control and we don’t risk ending the presentation with a negative question. This is also the part of the presentation where we should inform the audience of any references and where to find more information.
  2. Summary – Summarize the three most important things from the presentation.
  3. Mission confirmation – Refer back to the mission statement and describe how the presentation have fulfilled the goals described there. “Today we have learned that…”.
  4. Finale – A closing crescendo. Say/do something that will stick with the audience afterwards. This should be something that you want spinning in the mind of each attendant after the presentation.

Examples of finales and plots/teasers

Two especially important but tricky parts described above is the plot/teaser in the introduction and the finale in the finish. This is where you really want to wake the audience interest. Examples of what we can do are:

  • Ask a question
  • Tell a story
  • Show a film or a picture
  • Arithmetic example – “I want you all to think about how many hours you spend doing… and multiply that with…”
  • Describe a situation
  • Gallup poll – Ask people to raise their hands.
  • Ask a question and provide an answer
  • Quotes and proverbs
  • Time/statistics – Be quiet for five seconds, then describe how many children died of hunger or how much money the audience’s company lost during that time
  • Cliffhanger – Say something in the introduction that you go back to in the finale
  • Make a suggestion – finale only
  • Giveaways – finale only

Body language

Throughout human history body language has been the dominant part of our communication. It is also key when giving a presentation. There are a number of things to think about:

  • Open body language – we want to signal openness with our body language. Our hands should hang freely or be used for gestures.
  • Match the subject – Our body language should match the subject. Joyfully jumping around on a stage while describing how important it is that the audience makes donations to fight world hunger isn’t a good idea.
  • Position – We should be facing the audience. Don’t angle the body away from the audience. We shouldn’t stand leaning against a wall or a podium. We should be careful not to look like we’re going somewhere by having one foot in front of the other.
  • Match the target audience – Use mirroring to change the audiences position. If they are leaned back with arms crossed we can sit down in a chair our selves and lean back, but not crossing our arms. We then gradually change position to a slightly more active position. Done right the audience will mirror us and change their body positions to ones where they are more actively listening to the presentation.
  • Open the presentation by taking a few steps forward – Begin by facing the “threat”.

Vocal effort

There are a number of instruments related to how we speak that we should be aware of how we use and actively use.


Talking in a fast tempo signals that what we’re saying is of low importance. Talking in a slow tempo makes what we’re saying seem more important. It’s important to vary the tempo. Start with a slow tempo to suppress nervousness. Use a high tempo for less important things and slow down for important points and arguments.


Speaking with a high volume draws attention. Raise the volume for important things. However, done right, lowering the volume suddenly can also be very effective to make what we’re saying seem important. Begin presentations with a high volume. Vary the volume.


There are three types of pauses, pauses for effect, pause for thought and pause for breathing. Put in pauses here and there in presentations. Underline key words/points by doing a pause for effect first and a pause for thought afterwards. Put a pause for thought after all key points. Plan pauses for effect.


Determines the value of what we’re saying. A good way to practice emphasizing is to read children's books out loud.

Between sounds

Sounds such as “ehh…” should of course be avoided. A trick is to breath in whenever we feel that such a sound is on it’s way to slip out.


When we enter a meeting or attend a presentation we’re usually only able to stay fully focused for the first three to ten minutes. Our concentration and ability to remember what is being said then starts to slowly decline. It does so until about 30 minutes in to the presentation when it is usually at 75%. After that the decline is much more rapid and it quickly reaches a very low level.

Therefor meetings and presentations shouldn’t be longer than 30 minutes. However, keeping them that short often isn’t an option. Therefor we must try to find a way to fight the rapid decline. Research has shown that by providing emotional stimulus every fourth minutes a presenter or meeting organizer can stop the rapid decline that occurs after 30 minutes. There will still be a steady decline, but it’s rate won’t be higher than it was for the first 30 minutes.

Therefor we should plan to emotionally stimulate attendants every fourth minute or so after about 20 minutes in. Suitable stimulus is pretty much everything that was listed as examples suitable for finales. That is pictures, films, stories or just about anything that sticks out from the rest of the presentation/meeting.

PowerPoint usage

David gave a number of useful advice regarding the use of PowerPoint when giving presentations. These included:

  • The presenter should be in focus – Don’t be afraid to stand in front of the screen.
  • 98% of the presenter’s eye contact should be with the audience – Don’t look at the screen.
  • Keep the lights turned on – The audience can usually still see the screen and won’t fall asleep.
  • Don’t use a laser pointer – The presenter is the presentation.
  • Only show the PowerPoint presentation when it’s actually needed – Start the presentation with the PowerPoint presentation hidden.
  • Use other tools as well – Writing on a white board stimulates discussions and questions much better than a PowerPoint presentation.
  • Precede the next slide – Don’t wait until a slide is visible to start talking about it. Otherwise the presenter will spend the first few seconds reading it himself. Also, by first talking about what’s on the next slide before showing it we can provide the audience with the right context to view it in.

Design tips

  • Have one, and only one, message per slide.
  • No running text – The Human working memory is limited and we can only handle input from one channel at a time. If we have slides with running text that we talk to it will cause a conflict in the minds of the audience as they have to read and listen at the same time, resulting in that they won’t absorb either type of input. Bullet points on the other hand is OK, so replace running text with bullet points.
  • Color IS information – Use color to clarify and emphasize. Avoid using red and green though as they have special meanings.
  • Use dark backgrounds to avoid being blinded – By using dark backgrounds the presenter can stand in front of the projector and take center stage without being blinded by the bright light from the projector.
  • Use contrast to focus – Remove contrast from words or bullet points that we’ve already talked about and use high contrast to make the audience focus on what is currently being talked about.
  • Size – Large objects attract the eye. The thing that’s most important should also be the biggest thing on the slide.
  • Have a maximum of six objects per slide – The human perceptive capability is drastically decreased when it sees more than six objects. Use more slides with few objects instead of the opposite.
  • Images – Symbolism is key for us to remember things. Use images with high symbolic value. Images with color is better than black and white images.
  • Positioning – Emotionally stimulating things such as images should be located to the left and logical things should be to the right in order to suite the wiring in our brains.
  • Integration – Put things in their context. If you have a slide with an image and some bullet points that describe the image, put the text inside the image with each bullet point next to what it describes.
  • Animations – Use animations very rarely and only when they actually are relevant.

Below are a few links related to the course:

PS. For updates about new posts, sites I find useful and the occasional rant you can follow me on Twitter. You are also most welcome to subscribe to the RSS-feed.

Joel Abrahamsson

Joel Abrahamsson

I'm a passionate web developer and systems architect living in Stockholm, Sweden. I work as CTO for a large media site and enjoy developing with all technologies, especially .NET, Node.js, and ElasticSearch. Read more


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