2015 Conference

How to Give a Red Stapler-Winning Presentation at HighEdWeb: Presenter Advice from the Best of the Best

A pointer. A podium. A PowerPoint. There’s more to a presentation than that! Add in personality, passion, pizzazz and poise and you get the makings of an award-winning presenter.

At HighEdWeb annual conferences, the organization awards the best session in each track the coveted Red Stapler Award. And we can learn a lot from these ladies and lads about how to engage an audience and present compelling information in a memorable way.

We’re delighted to share with Link readers a virtual panel discussion about what makes a presentation Red-Stapler-worthy. First, let’s introduce you to the group.

The 2012 Red Stapler Winners
The 2012 Red Stapler Winners, including our interviewees Amanda Costello (second from left, bottom), Cindy Saboto (top left) and Lacy Paschal (top right).

Sven Aas (@svenaas) is the lead web applications developer at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts (his title changed slightly since he received the honor). Sven won his Red Stapler in Austin, in 2011, for “Swingin’ with Sinatra: Small Apps Fast.” In this presentation, he “described and demonstrated the lightweight Ruby web framework.”

Karlyn Borysenko (@karlynMB), now principal, Zen Workplace, also won in 2011 for “What Colleges Can Learn from the Insane Clown Posse.”

Amanda Costello (@amandaesque) nabbed her Red Stapler in Milwaukee, in 2012, for “I Don’t Have Your Ph.D.: Working with Faculty and the Web.” She’s the lead content strategist at University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development. At the time she won, she was a content strategist with the university’s department of family social science.

Mark Greenfield (@markgr), director of web services at University at Buffalo, has several Red Staplers to his name, going way back to the early days of HighEdWeb. In 2005, he won for “Born to be Wired: Technology, Communication and the Millennial Generation”; in 2006 (also best of conference), for “It’s the End of the Web as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”; and in 2007, “Higher Education Gets Flattened,” for which he used the Pecha Kucha format.

Lacy Paschal (@lacydev), director of web communications at Vanderbilt University, won her Red Stapler in Milwaukee, in 2012, for “WordPress FUNctions.” At the time, she was senior web developer at Vanderbilt. The session, she said, was about writing your own WordPress functions to replace bulky plug-ins; she gave many examples and case scenarios.

Cindy Sabato (@cmsabato), now director of communications at Save the Bay in Rhode Island, won a Red Stapler in Buffalo, in 2013, with then-colleague Kerri Hicks for “Using Social Media and the Web in a Crisis: Lessons Learned from a Lockdown.” The pair, who worked in the marketing and communications office at University of Rhode Island, also won for their poster presentation in 2012: “The Magic and Mystery of Near-Field Communication.” The latter was Laverne & Shirley and beer-themed to honor the conference location: Milwaukee.

Their advice:


LINK: Give us your best tip to presenters of any skill level on making a presentation Red-Stapler-worthy:

SVEN: Tip 1: Practice! I developed my 2011 presentation out of the desire to try live-coding in front of my audience—specifically, building something useful from scratch. Because of the fixed length of my presentation (and the lack of a safety net) I needed to practice—A LOT—in order to figure out how to fit all the steps in successfully. I practiced more for this presentation than any other I’ve given, and I believe this is what made it my best.

Tip 2: Work out your timing. When I’m running through my presentation I like to note down: “I’m 15 minutes into my talk when I reach this slide.”; “I’m 33 minutes into my talk when I reach THIS slide.” If I finish the run-through with time for questions at the end then I add these timing hints to my presentation notes. When I’m giving the presentation I can use these as reference points to determine whether I need to speed up/skip ahead or whether there’s time to expand on something now.

KARLYN: Don’t just teach. Inspire. Make sure you frame your presentation in a way that not only provides quality information, but leaves your attendees inspired to go back to their schools and do better.

AMANDA: Make it relational, a mix of both big ideas and tangible takeaways. An old boss of mine once said that after I came back from a conference, he’d ask me what I heard that I could put into practice immediately, and what I could do after a year. It made me think about both ends of the spectrum, and the Stapler presentations I’ve seen.

MARK: For me, there are two keys for great presentations. The first is to tell stories. People don’t remember facts but they will remember stories. Anecdotes speak louder that data. The second is to focus on actionable takeaways. The best presentations will provide valuable information for audience members to do their jobs better. Having great stage skills and beautiful slides are meaningless if the audience doesn’t benefit from seeing the presentation.

Another piece of advice is knowing exactly who you are talking to, almost like a persona. I picked this up from the author Kurt Vonnegut who said the key for him was writing for an audience of one. This helps focus the content.

LACY: Try not to make it too specific to your organization. People are coming to sessions because they want to be able to apply what they learn to their own organizations. But at the same time, try not to speak in generalities either—give specific examples of what you’re talking about and how you accomplished something. Show, don’t tell. Relax and let your personality show. The best presentations are one where the presenter clearly enjoys what they’re talking about—and is passionate about it.

CINDY: Forgive me for providing more than just one; I am, after all, an overachiever! First, present on something you know really well and that you’re passionate about. That knowledge and passion comes through in the delivery, in your face, in your eyes, in the way you answer questions, and it’s captivating for your audience. Plus, it boosts your credibility.

Second, be unexpected. Take risks. Get creative. Go crazy. Be bold. Have a couple of Bloody Marys or glasses of wine (or whatever your beverage of choice) with a colleague who inspires you, and bring out the brainstorming boards. No editing. No poo-pooing. Just crazy ideas and glitter-filled dreams of the best. presentation. ever. Then, get back together a week later and flush out what’s possible and what makes the most sense.

What’s your best advice to a newbie presenter?  

SVEN: The audience at HighEdWeb is on your side. I think it’s the best audience, especially for first-time presenters. If you have to deal with technical difficulties they’ll be sympathetic. But do your best to account for them ahead of time. Could you get through your presentation without Internet access? Could you locally host the thing you’re trying to show, or at least a screenshot? It’s much less stressful if you can just say, “Looks like that’s not working right now, so let me show you this instead.”

KARLYN: Have fun in your presentation. Be funny. Don’t be a stick in the mud professional.

AMANDA: Practice (A LOT) in front of co-workers or friends whom you trust and who understand your material, and ask them to take notes for extensive feedback. I do this with all of my new talks, and again if I make substantial changes or updates. You’ll feel more comfortable with the rhythm of your talk, and hit the stage much more comfortable, with the presentation as an ally instead of an obstacle.

MARK: … learn how to relax. You don’t need to be nervous. The audience members are rooting for you. They want you to succeed. True story, I was so petrified at talking in front of my classmates that I dropped out of my public speaking class in college. Now I give 25-30 talks a year, many of them keynotes in front of large audiences.

LACY: Everyone in the room is excited to hear what you have to say. And many of them have been in your shoes before, as a newbie presenter. We’re all rooting for you! Just relax—find a person or two to look at during your talk—and HAVE FUN!

CINDY: Consider the audience. The presentation I give at HighEdWeb is very different than the presentation I give at CASE. This is a group of bacon-loving, beer-drinking, sometimes socially awkward, secretly introverted, Cards-Against-Humanity-playing nerds who love, love, love their work. There is room for humor, as long as the meat of the presentation is clear, credible, supported by evidence, and relevant. Use glitter. Or glitter hats. Or superheroes. Or costumes. Or magic wands.

I find that the best presentations are those based on real-life experiences, with real-life stories that show how the concepts can be applied in real life. Give examples…Say how things worked out (or didn’t). Tell the lessons you learned along the way. Don’t just talk theory. Find ways to engage the audience. An easy one is to ask audience-screening questions up front… it gets them engaged early on, and it also gives you a sense of how much experience people may already have with your topic. (But just once at the beginning sets up an expectation, so you’d better bring it back later on, too).

Finally, practice. Really. Practice a lot. In front of others. For pacing, for familiarity, to discover where the laughs come (or don’t), to test slides and sound, to test Q&A, etc.

Any presentation pet peeves?

SVEN: Presentations which turn out not to be what I expect, given the title and description. Be clear about what you’re going to cover and at what depth. If it’s going to be too basic or too advanced for them, attendees will know to go to a different talk instead of sitting through one that’s not for them and rating it poorly. Don’t be afraid of updating the description if your presentation evolves while you’re working on it. And don’t hesitate to reach out to your track chairs if you’ve got any questions!

KARLYN: When people bore me. Entertaining your audience is just as important as teaching them.

AMANDA: Tying to draw out a gimmick or joke to be the backbone of a whole presentation. If you’re struggling to make your analogy stick, don’t be afraid to cut it down or dump it altogether. Not every good idea can be in every deck, and you have to kill your darlings (or shelve them for later; I’ve had notes from 2011 that finally found a good home in a talk I’m writing now!).

MARK: My presentation pet peeve is people who read from slides. For me, my goal is to be able to give a presentation “unplugged” — without the use of slide or notes.  I also don’t like presentations that are all over the map. Stay on topic. (This is why I like the Pecha Kucha format so much.)

LACY: Too many words on slides; not leaving time at end for questions; too narrow focus; not applicable outside the presenters organization.

CINDY: Presenters who read from slides, and along those lines, looking at the back of the presenter’s head while they look at the slides because they don’t know the presentation.

Lack of inflection. If you’re excited about this content, SHOW it. SPEAK it. Let you face, your eyes, your hands, your voice and your body language SHOUT IT OUT. Only then will I get excited about it and care about it and remember what I learned from you.

Visuals that are too small to read. Presenters who answer questions from the audience without repeating the question (so everyone can hear the question)… Lack of volume. Remember the guys in the back of the room. This is why practicing is so important. It’s awkward and strange to present at the volume you really need — it feels like shouting, but it doesn’t come across that way. So practice delivery at presenter-appropriate volume.

What is the one thing you do in the hours/minutes before your presentation — any special ways you get ready?

SVEN: I usually feel a little queasy before I deliver a prepared presentation. I feel fine as soon as I’m actually talking to the audience, but for a while beforehand I’ve got no interest in eating (so for me there’s an upside to presenting first thing in the morning, eating something, and enjoying the rest of the program as an attendee). Knowing this is normal for me helps me not worry about it.

When I’m getting ready to present I often play an audio track from the computer I’m using to present. It lets me make sure the volume level is suitable if my presentation includes any audio content, it gives the audience something to listen to, and it helps me relax.

KARLYN: Relax. It’s no big deal — just 45 minutes of your life. Remember, you will always be harder on yourself than your audience is.

AMANDA: I sing along to Barbra Streisand’s “Don’t Rain On My Parade” from “Hello Dolly!” You can too!

MARK: In the hours/minutes before a presentation I am usually making changes to my presentations right up to the last minute. This is not because I’m not prepared.  It is because I want to incorporate the latest information, including the news of the day if applicable.

LACY: Go through my slides one last time; confirm slides are available online and link works that I’m giving out; chill out and go to other sessions. Stop thinking about it for a while!

CINDY: Hours before… I practice again. Test the audio-visual and the remote. Give the room a try out and figure out where the podium is and the screen and the projector, and if that works with my delivery style and presentation, and if I need to make some changes to the set-up.

Minutes before… Trust that I know this thing (because I practiced). Then I stand at or near the door and greet people as they arrive. It takes my mind off the presentation and my worries, fears and nervousness, makes me immediately more likable, approachable, relatable, and gives me some actual sense of who’s in the room, which helps me alter the presentation on the fly, if necessary.

The second before… I take three really deep, slow breaths, and smile.

Wow! What fantastic advice from six stellar speakers. Now you know what it takes to win a Red Stapler at HighEdWeb — or how, in general, to give banging presentations at any conference, at work or in the community. Now: What are you going to present about?!

Have presentation advice? Share below in the comments.

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By Donna Talarico

Donna Talarico, a Red-Stapler-winning HighEdWeb presenter and volunteer editor for Link, is an independent writer and content strategist. She is the marketing columnist for Wiley's Recruiting and Retaining Adult Learners, and her work has also been published in CASE Currents, The Guardian Higher Education Network, and elsewhere. From 2010 to 2015, she told the Elizabethtown College story as part of an award-winning marketing and communications team. Always a storyteller, before higher ed she worked in print and broadcast media, and for a leading eCommerce company. She is the founder and publisher of Hippocampus Magazine, a bimonthly creative nonfiction journal and small press. She loves road trips, board games, greasy spoon diners, and words.