Take Your Presentations to the Next Level, Great Tips from Erica McGillivray

Erica McGillivrayErica McGillivray is the Senior Community Manager at Moz. She also handles the presentations that are given during Mozcon to ensure that the presentations will be received in a positive light by the audience. Because Erica has so much experience with presentations, conference attendees and speakers I thought I would reach out and get some advice on presentation design, content and themes.

If you currently speak or you hope to speak one day I suggest you read Erica’s advice carefully and check out all the great resources she offers.

1. You are a huge part of the presentations at Mozcon. Can you tell us what your role is?

I essentially function as the speaker wrangler for MozCon. I herd cats. 🙂

But in all seriousness, I have the privilege to work with some of the brightest minds in our greater industry and bring their brilliance to the MozCon stage. MozCon speakers are selected by a small committee, and as part of that, I help get our speakers vetted and selected. Then I work with each speaker from initial outreach about coming to MozCon to post-MozCon feedback.

MozCon is quite a bit more hand-ons than other conferences in the space, because we believe that further coaching and help has gotten already amazing speakers to bring the best presentations (so far) of their careers to the stage. We have initial calls to discuss topics, reviews of drafts or outlines, early final deck reviews, a walkthrough of the stage pre-MozCon, final reminders before going on stage, and post-MozCon pretty robust feedback. There’s a lot I’ve learned over the years of doing this at MozCon (and from my own speaking) or have observed particular needs for the MozCon audience through their feedback and our stage setup.

2. What are the common mistakes you see in presentations?

Ian Lurie from Portent really summed up bad deck mistakes. The two biggest things I see are 1) text not being large enough for the entire audience to see, and 2) cramming too much text on a slide. The latter is the cause of excessive bullet points and often just bad design layout. Audiences will read your slides before they listen to you, so if you have more than 20ish words on a slide, they are likely not listening to you and instead are reading.

Besides the actual deck itself, the biggest mistake I see is not practicing your talk multiple times or not practicing it in front of a live audience. Great talks are practiced, and great speakers practice their talks. Too many speakers work on their decks until the very last minute — which most conferences runners hate — and don’t give the deck time to settle and the talk to fully form in their heads. You want to be comfortable with it on stage. [social quote=”Great talks are practiced, and great speakers practice their talks. #presentations” via=”emcgillivray”]

3. Based on your extensive experience can you tell us what makes a presentation successful with a live audience? How about on Slideshare?

I highly discourage presenters from attempting to make one deck for both the presentation and your Slideshare upload.

Presentations should mostly be about what you say, and most of the time, without your words, the deck will range from mildly to completely incoherent. The best decks present information clearly to the audience and support the talk itself.

TakeawayIt’s about storytelling and takeaways. (The MozCon audience is particularly finicky on those actionable takeaways in that you can give the best talk in the world and get killed in the feedback if there’s no easy-to-grab tips.) You don’t have to have the world’s prettiest deck, but it does need to clearly present the information. Those two things often get misconstrued as the same.

For SlideShare, you want to provide audiences with that extra information that’s missing from the deck, but relayed in the talk. Some speakers release their full speaker notes — though sometimes speakers are hesitant or perhaps embarrassed by them in the raw — and others go as far as transcripts or making a completely separate deck. Personally, I recently did a presentation where I put colored bubbles with text of information into the slides that needed more explanation, and this seemed to work well.
[social quote=”Presentations – It’s about storytelling and takeaways.” via=”emcgillivray”]

4. There are a lot of recommendations about not using text in presentations. What are your thoughts on this?

Text can be powerful, especially if you choose the right words. Sometimes text can also help the speaker in their flow. For instance, I’m pretty terrible at remembering numbers, and if I’m giving a talk on analytics, numbers are going to be important; so as a speaker, I will often make the slide show the numbers (or whatever else) that I might forget.

As mentioned above, great decks are often ruined by too many words. Limit them.

5. Should presentations be professionally designed?

While I don’t believe they need to be professionally designed, I do believe some basic art of slide building education or a critic of a deck by a designer can be a great thing. A lot of excellent speakers are brought down by bad decks.

I highly recommend Nancy Duarte’s slide:ology, which is a relatively easy book for a non-designer who’s building decks to get some basic principles. On the other hand, a professional designer never hurts if you can afford one. To be perfectly transparent, I was an art student and a graphic designer in a past life, and I know that this has given me a leg up in understanding the principles behind great or bad decks. But I do think that frequent presenters can at least learn some of the basics by reading Duarte’s book or other resources.

[social quote=”A lot of excellent speakers are brought down by bad decks. #presentations” via=”emcgillivray”]

6. If you had to single out one thing that consistently sets apart the presentations that get chosen from those that are rejected, what would it be?

Solid pitches that provide details and stand out as a new or unique twist on the topic, plus videos and slide decks from past presentations to serve as a speaking-ability resume. I’m constantly pretty surprised at how many people leave out the details of what makes their talk really different and cool from their descriptions. Sure, your talk’s goodies are a surprise to our audience, but shouldn’t be to show-runners.

7. Personality vs. Professionalism in presentations, what are your thoughts?

I think there can be a balance of both creating a so-called professional deck and put some personality in it. Similar to too much text, too much fun or theme-ing can overwhelm your talk.

For instance, I once created an Inspector Spacetime themed deck. Most of my marketer audience didn’t know that Inspector Spacetime is a fake TV show within the TV show Community. I had a lot of fun doing it, but my audience worried more about knowing how my theme-related and about the theme instead of about my talk. It convoluted the clarity of my deck. I’ve seen similar things happen to MozCon and Mozinar (our webinars) speakers.

[social quote=”…too much fun or theme-ing can overwhelm your talk. #presentations” via=”emcgillivray”]

8. Anything you would like to share? Resources, tips, pet peeves, etc.?

Don’t be afraid to get out there and speak. Speaking is like everything else in our professional lives: a skill that we learn and evolve to be better at over time. We all have moments where we’re due to falter and times that we will shine.

I always like to share my ever-evolving list of resources for speakers or those who are interested in speaking:



  1. How to Give a Killer Presentation by Chris Anderson, curator at TED
  2. How to Become a Confident Public Speaker by Matthew Capala
  3. The Evolution of My Public Presentations by Rand Fishkin
  4. The Making of SearchLove by Mack Fogelson
  5. Too Busy To Succeed: How I let ‘busyness’ make me choke at MozCon by Adam Audette (make sure to read comments too!)
  6. 11 Things To NEVER Say In A Presentation by XCamilleWong
  7. Presentation Horrors: Don’t Do These Things by Ian Laurie
  8. Being a MozCon Community Speaker: A Look Inside by Zeph Snapp


A Big Thanks to Erica McGillivray!

Erica is very busy and I really appreciate her taking the time to answer these questions for us, and for providing all these great resources to learn from. You can find Erica on Twitter , Google+ and Slideshare.

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