This post was originally published on the Prezi Blog. It was an interview by Emer Kirrane, my good friend and Prezi Product Manager. You can follow her at her wonderfully zany Crepuscular Light blog.

She wanted to get the skinny on my presentation planning process and how I infuse my speeches with passion. I didn’t hold back. The interview:

Give us a little background – who are you and what do you do in the “communications space”?

I am a web analytics practitioner, social media enthusiast and and blogger with over 11 years of experience in digital marketing for e-commerce, finance and publishing. I am a staunch practitioner of thoughtfully presented data and informational insights to audiences of all sizes, with a background in musical theatre and random forms of dance.

I’ve delivered over 150 presentations and training sessions to internal and external audiences while serving clients like Victoria’s Secret and Ralph Lauren, as well as participating in standalone sessions and panels at conferences and client summits for eMetrics, Web Analytics Demystified, ForeSee and InfoTrust.

Personally, I have a deep love of photography and design, and have a devoted yoga and mindfulness practice which I infuse into my presentation philosophy. And I like to talk…a lot.

What kind of presentations do you focus on helping people to be better at? How do you help them?

I’ve spent the bulk of my career presenting digital analytics results and insights to internal stakeholder groups, from marketing and UX teams to product VPs. In my work I hope to empower every analyst and marketer to present any information or data effectively, no matter where they are in their career.

My lofty dream is to build a “Better Presenter Boot Camp” to help any newly minted digital professional skip to the head of the presenting class and avoid all of the ghastly mistakes I’ve made over the years! However, my true passion lies in larger persuasive presentations in a conference setting, and I am working to help analytics services providers and consultants ramp up their presentation game to generate product awareness and close consulting gigs. That’s really exciting stuff.

What kind of people do data presentations? Just nerds and shut-ins?

Far from it! I have found that a wide array of marketing professionals have to present data, from the nerdiest Google Analytics analyst to a search marketing specialist in a trendy digital agency. The problem is, many of us came from educational backgrounds that in no way prepared us for the challenging task of presenting data effectively.

As someone who can barely draw stick figures, I can prove you don’t need a design degree from the Pratt Institute or a PhD in Mathematics to build and deliver an effective data presentation. But, I will publicly admit my extreme closet Han Solo/ Wesley Crusher/ Benedict-Cumberbatch-as-Khan obsessions as an act of good faith. Don’t judge.

What is the number one thing you see people doing wrong while creating presentations/doing presentations?

I can identify that within the first few minutes of a presentation – which is that the presenter didn’t plan and design the presentation with the audience in mind. Before opening a new Prezi or Powerpoint, a considerable amount of thoughtful planning has to happen. That planning includes stopping to ask yourself, “If I’m my audience, what do I really want? Why do I care about what this person has to say? What are the questions or arguments I’m going to have against these points?”

I find many presentations are inward-facing-out, placing the focus on the presenter and not on how the presenter can improve the audience’s life. The best presenters, I find, approach their presentations much like the most successful brands approach their marketing: with customer-centricity. The audience is your customer, they are king. Treat them as such and they’ll be your raving fans by the end.

Oh, and, freaking ugly slides laden with clip art and bullet points. It’s a tough call!

What’s your process for making a presentation?

I use a mix of techniques, and selecting that mix depends on several factors:

  1. The type of audience (internal, external? high-level c-suite, more tactical/savvier marketers?) This will decide the depth of the content I’ll be speaking to and help me identify the research resources I”ll need to tap.
  2. The objective of the presentation. Many times we’re “asked to present about XYZ” without an actual reason why (other than needing to fill space in an all-day departmental meeting.) Is the objective informative, instructional, or persuasive? Are you teaching a new idea, or changing a mind? The meeting objective significantly impacts the tone, structure and even design strategy of my presentations. More tactical presentation objectives like how best to optimize a landing page will result in a more text-heavy, question/answer format. More persuasive, larger-scale objectives like convincing a team to consider a new testing technology will prompt a heavier design hand with arresting imagery and grander statements in bold fonts.
  3. How much lead time I have before the presentation. While I prefer a few months head start for a presentation at a larger industry conference like eMetrics, I know all too well that internally we’re sometimes often asked to present under a major time crunch. Here’s my exact blueprint depending on two situations (which I’ve oddly analogized with food):

SCENARIO 1: The 5-Course. If I have a month or longer, I use a more thorough combination of planning methods, which include the brainstorming Post-In note technique used by Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds, and the “Presenting By Boxes” method by Olivia Mitchell. The Mitchell method creates a framework of “boxes” for your opening, key message, main points and conclusion. Under those, I put every individual idea within that framework onto a Post-It note.

This stage is all about idea inclusion; nothing is thrown out at this point. If I’m accidentally brainstorming in the car or other place I can’t Post-It, I use my Evernote audio recorder or Moleskine notebook to capture and upload random thoughts. This is an excellent solution to my severe Mommy brain!

I then use Powerpoint or Prezi (depending on the presentation scenario) to organize all of my Post-It ideas into the boxes I’ve created, cutting and refining as needed. After that, I begin marking these as slides, noting ideas for images and charts I’ll need to support my point. A lot of refinement happens at this point, and I draft a script that captures my speaking points per each slide. I host the script in Google Docs so that I can access it from anywhere. The cloud is an amazing tool for presentation planning!

If this is a conference presentation, I can’t depend on having my computer or notes handy so I memorize key transition points as best as I can. I tend to over-memorize (a bad habit from college theatre days) but this way, I’ve already articulated the most important thoughts I’m trying to convey.

In the final stages, I’m tweaking and refining fonts, finalizing imagery and graphics, and reading through my script with the slides over and over to ensure the flow is just right. I send the presentation to a colleague or two for proofing as well; when you’re that close to your work, it’s impossible to catch little goofs. But your audience is extremely adept at catching them and that will cause friction.

When it’s ready, I print my script and a handout view of my slides that has a few key words in the notes to help remember my transitions. These two documents become my bible for the remaining time I have to practice. And I practice. In the car, in the shower, while cooking for my toddler. He’s my favorite critic. For when I can’t practice out loud, I record myself delivering the talk and listen to it so that I can judge my intonation and look for valleys of awkwardness. If I get the chance, I deliver it to a colleague or friend who can offer critical feedback. This usually ends up being my mom; she is brutally honest and is great at keeping me in check.

I realize this sounds like borderline mania, but this is the process that works for me. I’ve recognized that I’m not the greatest at speaking off-the-cuff, while that is a strength for others. You do what you need to in order to deliver a presentation you’re proud to put your name on.

Now, for an internal presentation where I’ll be presenting from a conference table or remotely, I simply keep my annotated slide notes handy and use them as a guide. But at no point am I reading bullet points verbatim from each slide; I’m still approaching this as a conversation, not a lecture.

SCENARIO 2: The Drive-Thru. If I only have a few weeks or less, I work really quickly to identify the key objective and the most important questions that need to be answered. I waste no time in clarifying the exact needs of the audience with the person requesting the session.

I also “think” better digitally under the gun, and sometimes use MindMeister to quickly brainstorm ideas that easily translate to a presentation tool.

Saving time here with presentation templates is essential, and a little up front work goes a long way in making my deadlines. I still annotate each slide or step with key thoughts and have those handy for the presentation, and commit to running through the presentation at least 3-5 times to ensure that i feel comfortable with my level of preparation and sound polished. Preparation could be the most important step anyone takes during the process, and is often the one most overlooked.

Do you think good presentation skills can be learned? Or are some people just better presenter than others?

I absolutely think this can be learned! While I recognize some have an advantage in terms of performance and delivery, I firmly believe that every person is capable of making big improvements in their presenting skills with some very simple “hacks”.

However, there is one inescapable step to making change happen: practice. You have to present again and again to perfect your craft, just like you have to break down and mess with raw data again again to perfect a vlookup and run database queries. I find this is the part people avoid out of fear, but that fear dissipates with every new presentation because you are discovering and defining your stage persona with every “performance”.

What’s your pet hate in a presentation?

If I had to choose just one (I’m a tough customer), I would say that the moment a person turns to their slides and says, “So, I put this slide in here because” or “Ok so this image is on this slide because”…aaand you’ve lost me. In my humble opinion, if you have to explain or justify the reason for a slide or image in your presentation, you’ve completely lost sight of what purpose your presentation vehicle (be it a Prezi or Powerpoint) .

The very best presentations I’ve attended use slides that meld seamlessly with the presenter, as if they are an extension of the presenter’s voice. As I say in my signature session, your slides are not a crutch. They are a vehicle to help deliver your information into your audience’s brain. Stop apologizing for their existence and start using them to send your message home.

What’s the key to getting your work noticed?

There isn’t one key; rather, a presentation that gets someone’s attention is utilizing a deep understanding of human cognition, ancient storytelling techniques, and focused preparation and delivery. It’s opening a meeting with a bright, confident tone that immediately draws your audience in, and closes it with a compelling call-to-action. It’s content that was thoughtfully planned and crafted to answer the audience’s burning questions that they may not have even known they were asking. And, perhaps most telling, it’s getting that email or phone call days later asking for more that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Do you like presenting?

I live for it. It terrifies me, it keeps me up at night, and it puts tremendous strain on my cortisol levels. (Confession: I have paralyzing stage fright.) But I love it. I love the opportunity to plant the seed of a new idea in someone’s mind. I love the idea of helping someone break through a barrier they’re having by sharing my own methods.

And, tapping into my past life as a teenage Broadway dreamer, I love the feeling of giving an audience an experience that leaves them changed forever when the curtain closes.

What’s the best presentation you ever witnessed?

Hands-down, not a second of hesitation in my mind: Seth Godin at the ClickTale Forum 2013 about mass marketing and the connection revolution. Having the chance to watch a marketing god like Seth take the stage was nothing short of a religious experience for someone who’s passionate about customer-centric marketing and presenting.

I tend to have out-of-body experiences during presentations where I am critiquing the various aspects of the presenter’s content, design and delivery and I lose sight of the actual message. But with Seth, I had no choice but surrender to his spell completely.

Seth is the rare breed who has not only mastered the message of his craft, but the craft of presenting his message in a supremely compelling way that you’ll never forget.

How do you bring passion to your presentations? Let me hear it!

Photo credit:
Flickr / Evan Forester / Microphone

Lea is a digital analyst and marketer turned Data Storytelling Evangelist. She trains thousands of digital practitioners and consultants in the art and science of impactful data presentation through her blog and podcast, The Present Beyond Measure Show. Lea is also the creator of The PICA Protocol™, her practical prescription for healthy, actionable data stories that inform decisions, spark ideas, inspire action, and make YOU indispensable.