Autodesk University 2019 begins on November 19th, 2019 in Las Vegas, NV. With class selections made, presenters are feverishly working on their presentations. While every presenter strives to deliver a world-class presentation, not all do.
I’ve had the privilege of speaking at Autodesk University for more than a decade. While I’d love to tell you every one of those presentations was a world-class session, the truth is not all were. Some ideas proved great on paper but not so great in execution.
To put my experiences (good and bad) to good use, I’ve worked on dissecting some of my past presentations. In this process, I wanted to see what if any common threads existed between my great and not-so-great AU sessions.
While every session was unique in its own way, I was able to find some common threads among my most successful presentations. With the hope others may be able to benefit from it, I’ve compiled my findings in this post. While the successes of every presenter are unique, these are the threads I’ve found most relevant to the presentations I develop.
Although I am focusing on Autodesk University, I should say the methods I’ve tried to capture in this post can apply to just about any technical presentation you might deliver.
Be Authentic. Be You.
What differentiates your presentation isn’t the information you share, but instead you as an individual. That doesn’t mean the information is insignificant, but instead to recognize Google has made information by itself a commodity. Delivering a top-rated session requires you to offer your audience more than knowledge alone. It demands authenticity on the part of you, the presenter.
Authenticity is a presentation-quality with many facets. Paramount among them is to know your presentation. Although your subject matter expertise is part of knowing your presentation, it’s not everything. Knowing your presentation also means you’re well-rehearsed. It means you know the basic flow and structure of your presentation. We’ll talk about this more in a moment, but it means speaking to a central objective throughout your entire presentation.
Another facet to authenticity is your presentation style. How do you interact and connect with your audience? What’s the tempo of your presentation? How do you leverage humor in your presentation?
Even if this is your first time delivering a presentation, you’ve at least attended presentations in the past. Perhaps you’ve watched past class recordings on Autodesk University online. Whatever your source, studying past presentations is a great way to find your answer to the question of what your presentation style will be.
Some successful presenters tell jokes, whereas others don’t. Some presenters have a high-tempo delivery style, other’s dial it back a notch or two, or five. Some presenters work the room, others remain planted at the podium.
In completing this exercise, there’s almost no wrong answer. Evaluating other presenters is a great way to identify ideas that can refine and further develop your own presentation style. That last part is critical. Your own presentation style.
Studying other presenters is a great way to improve your own presentation skills, but its no substitute to you being you. Borrow ideas from other presenters, but don’t try to be them. Present your material in a way that’s true to you and the person you are.
People who forget this are the people audiences see-through. So above all, be you and provide an authentic experience to your audience.
Tell a Story
We’ve all attended those presentations where a speaker talked for an hour or more about a topic, but we have no idea what they actually said during that hour. This is most often due to a lack of structure. While your presentation objectives are a great place to start, they shouldn’t serve as the only structure of your presentation.
Analyzing some of the most memorable presentations I’ve attended, I’ve found that nearly everyone shares a common trait. The presentation tells a story.
Applying storytelling principles to your presentation achieves many things. First and foremost, it provides a structure your audience is already familiar with, even if subconsciously. Part of that structure is providing a clear beginning middle and end of the presentation to your audience.
It doesn’t matter what type of presentation you were selected to deliver, somewhere in your material is a story. Presentations are most often cast from our past experiences. Those past experiences are where you’ll find the voice of your story.
Leveraging past experiences brings a necessary purpose and structure to your presentation. Something else it does is anchor your presentation. Anchoring your presentation achieves two important things. First, it tells your audience what you’re going to talk about,. Secondly, it lets you tell your audience what you’re not going to talk about.
Defining both what you’re going to talk about and what you’re not going to talk about is crucial as it establishes a social contract with your audience. Communicating what you aren’t planning to talk about helps focus your audience. It brings the audience into your narrative. This helps keep audience interactions focused, and on topic.
Ever been to a presentation where every question seemed to come out of right field? There’s a good chance that presenter failed to anchor their presentation.
The Three-Act Narrative
There are many ways to tell a story, but the most popular is undoubtedly the three-act narrative. Study literature or cinema, and you will encounter the three-act narrative.
Because of the ubiquity of the three-act narrative, it’s not only a simple structure but also an effective one. Because it’s so ubiquitous, the structure needs no instruction manual for your audience to follow along with.
As implied by its name, the three-act narrative has three parts. These three parts include setup, confrontation, and resolution.
In literature, the setup usually introduces the characters and their environment; the confrontation how all of what they know is challenged in some way; and the resolution is where everyone (hopefully) lives happily ever after.
Although great for literature, that structure doesn’t seem so obviously applied to technically focused presentations. Recognizing this, I’ve coined a slight adaptation to the classic three-act narrative for technical presentations.
The adapted structure I apply to technical presentations is Problem, Benefit, and Solution. The structure not so accidentally creates a memorable acronym of PBS.
State the Problem Your Presentation will Solve
No matter how well-intentioned, audiences have short attention spans. That’s not a criticism of audiences, but rather a recognition that their time is valuable. With this in mind, you should strive to define the purpose of your presentation within the first several minutes of your presentation.
While the learning objectives defined for your presentation are a helpful way to accomplish this, its often something audiences forget by the end of your presentation.
Instead, you should focus on summarizing your presentation into a singular purpose. A unique problem your presentation will help solve. The more concise, the better.
Although a couple words are best, your purpose should be no more than a sentence. It should also be a phrase you circle back to throughout your presentation. Think of it like a little bell that tells your audience to listen up.
State why the problem is worth solving
So you’ve defined the problem your presentation solves, it’s time to jump into the meat of your presentation – right? Wrong.
As technically minded individuals, it’s hard to admit that not every problem is worth solving. Sure, in a perfect world, we would have the time and bandwidth to solve every issue we encounter, but this is the real world. Sometimes the cost of fixing a problem is higher than the reality of just dealing with it.
A presentation that cannot prove its worth is often a presentation an audience quickly forgets. To fully captivate your audience, you must show the problem your presentation solves has a cost higher than the value of the solution you’re proposing.
You might achieve this through data points like people forget 50% of what they learn after just an hour. It’s also possible to make this through emotional statements.
A presentation about better-supporting users may have a catchphrase of “just a minute” to illustrate the many minutes, and by extension hours of productivity lost through inefficiencies.
When using this type of emotional quantifier, I’ll typically use a question to prompt the audience to establish their own answer. A question like, how many minutes do your users wait for information during a typical workday?
Whatever method you use, defining a problem, and benefit to the audience is essential for success.
Communicate how to solve the problem
Many presenters begin their presentation by reviewing the learning objectives and jumping straight into the solution to those objectives. While some presenters find success in this structure, many do not. It’s for that reason I encourage you not to take shortcuts to this step.
Although discussing your learning objectives are most important to your session, spending time to anchor your presentation is equally vital for success.
Building upon those concepts, I will often apply the Problem Benefit Solution structure to each of my learning objectives. This has the effect of placing another three-act narrative in the middle of the broader, all-encompassing, narrative established at the start of the presentation.
The key benefit I find in this method is my audience is never left to wonder what problem I am trying to solve for them. This not only helps anchor the presentation even more, but it also makes the class more natural for the audience to follow along with.
Challenge your audience with something to do.
Technical presentations are famous for abrupt endings. I’m paraphrasing, but the presentation often ends as “that’s how you do XYZ in the software, does anyone have any questions?”
The first person to ask a question at the end of your presentation should be you. Leveraging the earlier example of using the catchphrase of “just a minute,” I might end the presentation with the question “how can you save minutes hours with XYZ software?”
Choosing a possessive term like “you” is intentional in this scenario as I’m trying to convey ownership of the concepts I’ve presented to my audience. Basically stating these ideas started out as mine, but now they’re yours, how will you put them to use?
Break the Rules. Be You.
Back to my first point about authenticity. Above all, you should be you. Achieving that is rarely achieved by following someone else’s script. With this in mind, this post outlines some of the strategies I’ve employed to deliver highly-rated sessions at Autodesk University. The methods I’ve found success in may not be the methods you find success in.
For this reason, I encourage you to look at this post as a framework for success, not a blueprint for success. Above all, make your session your own, and deliver some sort of lasting value for your audience.
Speaking of lasting value, let’s build upon the principles I’ve outlined in this post. Are you someone who presents to technically-focused audiences? If so, let me know in the comments what presentation methods have you found success in.
Likewise, are you someone who has endured a lackluster presentation? Let us know what methods you wish the presenter would have employed in the comments below.