To Whom Am I Speaking

If I’m stuck when developing a talk or a presentation, it helps me tremendously to remind myself of two fundamental questions:

  1. To whom am I speaking?
  2. What do I want them to walk away with from this talk?

Now, in practice, there are times when I feel inspired and the words (and accompanying slides) just come out.  Often those are the easiest talks to write.

But when I don’t have a bout of inspiration, it helps me a lot to take the deliberate step of thinking through the blanks in this sentence:

At the end of this talk, I want people to walk away understanding ______,  having learned ________, and feeling _______.

That’s a good starting point.  (And please, don’t forget the “feeling” bit.”)

The next big sticking point in that sentence is the word “people.”  Which people, exactly?

Rather than think about types or groups of people, increasingly I try to think of a specific person (or, at most, two) who I feel represents the most important audience-member to whom I want to speak.  That person doesn’t need to be physically present for the talk (though that helps), she just needs to be someone I know well enough to allow me to look at what I’m planning to say and ask myself, “would she find this engaging?  How should I say this in a way that connects with her worldview and where she is coming from?  What points would I make, and how would I make them, in a way that would resonate with and move her?”

Without this, I’m just writing for me, and, problematically, I find most of what I’m interested in interesting.

Magical

I’ve been known to be a stickler about slides.  Ask anyone I work with, they’ll agree (too quickly).

For a few years when I was a kid, I got interested in magic.  I’d walk up the flight of stairs to Tannen’s Magic Shop in New York City – always dark in there – and be wowed by the guys behind the counter.  I’d go home with a few new tricks to practice and a handful of simple props to master.

I never had the discipline to get good at it, but I stuck with it long enough to learn that you could have a giant red plastic thumb on your hand that a person two feet away from you wouldn’t notice; that getting someone to pick the card you want them to take really isn’t that hard; and that what you say, the eye contact you make, and how you engage with your audience are more important than what you physically do with the cards or the props.

Many years later, I’ve come to believe that the best presentations are like magic.  They engage, they captivate, they engross.  Included in that is just a bit of illusion: attention to detail, the occasional moment of, “Hey, how did she do that?”, and never letting them see the man behind the curtain.

Of course the slides shouldn’t be the “wow,” you should.

But anything that pulls people away,  anything that makes it harder for people to understand the story you’re telling or the points you want them to walk away with, breaks the spell.  That’s why we sweat the small stuff, in our slides, in our words, in the stories we tell.

Without magic, you’re just standing up there presenting, just like everyone else.

Visual aids and crutches

Two of the best, most natural presentations I’ve given have been in the last two weeks – one of them I was coming off of 24 hours of travel and 3 weeks in India with a presentation (slides) but absolutely no real preparation; the other was a completely impromptu one hour talk with no supporting slides at all.

I think I made a mistake about a year ago in over-preparing for most of my talks – I ended up burying my personality, the spontaneous directions the talk could go, and my connection to the audience.  I couldn’t be more thankful for the friend who, about a year ago, cared about me so much that she walked straight up to me after a talk and said, “Sorry man, that just wasn’t that good.”

All of this made me think that I need to practice giving six different kinds of talks:

  • With and without slides
  • Scripted and unscripted
  • Rehearsed and unrehearsed

The food for thought part is:  if every talk you give has slides and is scripted and rehearsed, you might want to ask, “Are the slides there as visual aids, or are they a crutch?”  There are five other kinds of talks you can give.  And since nothing’s more attractive than earned confidence, why not start practicing these other kinds of talks today?

(and for those of you keeping track, yes I recognize that it’s hard to imagine a talk that is “without slides, unscripted and rehearsed” but I’m pretty sure you get my drift.  And while I’m adding postscripts, I’ll put one more reminder for me and for you: it’s never, ever better to read a script.)

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The next day test

I gave a speech the other day that was fine.  I said what I wanted to say, made the points that I wanted to make.

But fine, I fear, is forgotten.  Fine isn’t remembered when a person walks out of the room.  Fine is checking the box.

I think I went wrong in the preparation: spending so much time focusing on what I wanted to say, while forgetting to think about what I wanted to happen: what I wanted the audience members to do, to feel, to remember, to repeat to the next person.  And not just 5 minutes later, but the next day or the next week.

People don’t remember lists and plans.  They remember the narrative, especially a narrative in which they are the central actor, and it’s clear what action they are meant to take.  They also remember what they can feel: a personal connection, humor, a spark, even an image.

“What am I going to say?” or “What points am I trying to get across?” seem like the right questions to ask when drafting a speech.

But “What do I want someone to remember?” and “What do I want someone to do?” are much more important.

Next time…

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1-4-5-2-3

Here’s a reasonable-sounding process to go through when prepping for a big presentation:

  1. Figure out what you want to say
  2. Write this up in slides, with some combination of words, charts, and images
  3. Refine those slides
  4. Rehearse the presentation
  5. Present

Unfortunately this doesn’t work.

What happens is that slides that were going to become better, the slides that had too many words that you were going to fix….they make their way into your “draft” presentation.  Then you fall into the trap of presenting your slides instead of presenting your story – the slides start to win.  Unless you have the gumption to throw out half or all of these slides at this point, your goose is cooked.

Another approach is 1-4-5-2-3.  That is, figure out what you’re going to say, work on that (no slides), and then rehearse it with your colleagues.  You can even stand up like everyone else does in rehearsals, and have a single slide projected, with the title of your presentation and nothing else.  Use the rehearsal to refine the story, and then create slides that support your story.

The reason the first approach seems like it will work  is because we think writing slides is a shorthand version of writing a Word doc, but it’s not.  We also get so distracted by slide creation that we underplay the value of standing in front of people and telling them, very simply, the story we want to tell.

Slides are nothing more and nothing less than a visual aid to support your story.  If you go about creating them the normal way, you’ll end up with a story to support your slides, instead of the other way around.

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Everything I really needed to know about presentations…

…I learned from a band that plays for 5 year olds.

I had a wonderful summer evening with my family, listening to the much-acclaimed (by my kids) Jeffrey and the Bossy Frog Band play an outdoor free concert as the sun went down.  It was great.

Here’s a list of things that Jeffrey gets right:

  • Engage your audience from the get-go.  Get them to answer questions.  Get them to stand up. Get them to participate.
  • Have a really cool name.  Even if you’re just one guy with a bunch of blow-up dolls, be more than just a guy on stage with a banjo.
  • Be wildly enthusiastic.  Love what you do.
  • Never apologize, qualify, or otherwise stall.  Jump right in.
  • Tell stories.
  • Treat your audience with respect.
  • Have a message that everyone in the audience (no matter how much or little they know about what you’re doing) will understand.  For example, count how many pieces a flute has and then put it together.
  • Never shoot down a comment from the audience.  A person participating is a person who’s engaged.  (Even if they shout out “frog!” when you ask for their favorite kind of bug)
  • Be a master of your craft.
  • Thank your hosts,  and be genuine about it.
  • Tell people what they can do if they love you.  “Buy a CD, go to my website to see where my next gig is.”

You can get all this stuff and more from Garr Reynolds or Seth Godin or just by paying really close attention watching TED talks.  Or you can just pay more attention the next time you go to a great kids’ show.

We get so wrapped up in our elaborate content and message and the fact that we’re giving a speech that we absolutely forget that creating enthusiasm, interest, energy and connection with the audience isn’t optional, ever, no matter what you do and how sophisticated a message you want to communicate.

Go ahead, prep and deliver your presentation as if you’re talking to a bunch of 5-year olds.  I bet it will get better.

(And, just for kicks, here’s Rives’ 4-minute riff, “If I controlled the Internet.”)

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The sound of silence

One of the newest, and most interesting (also potentially most unsettling) phenomena for public speakers is the prospect of your audience tweeting your presentation in real-time.  If done right, it can serve as instantaneous feedback for parallel conversations that enrich discussions in real time.

But before going all high-tech on you, let me ask: 140 character real-time commentary notwithstanding, how do you know how your presentation is going?

Try this: listen for the sound of silence.

Recently I had the chance to listen to a series of excellent presentations to a medium-sized (45 person) group.  Sometimes, instead of giving all my attention to the presenter, I started listening to the room, and I discovered a distinct difference between quiet and silence.

Quiet was when people were listening.  But they were also taking notes and shifting around and perhaps doing some other small thing.

Silence was when the presenter got everyone’s full attention.  It’s the “you could hear a pin drop” moment  when the entire room was energized and focused on the speaker, hanging on each and every word.

And guess what?  9 of 10 times, it’s powerful stories that create that silence.

If the goal of your presentation is to convince people to act, if you’re trying to sell them on an idea, if you want them to remember what you said after they (and you) walk out the door, how much of their attention do you think you need?

You need it all, for as long as you can get it and hold it.

So lead with your stories.  Lead with the memorable narratives that capture people’s attention.

Your first objective isn’t trying to convince people that you’re smart or credible or have done your homework.  Your first objective is to convince them you’re worth listening to.  Get their attention first,  capture their imagination, get them to put everything else aside and engage with you personally and with your ideas.    Once you’ve done this, tell them what you want them to do.

But not the other way around.

So listen for silence, and build your presentation around finding ways to create it and exploit it.

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On Gene Zelazny (or, Career Advice from the Front Car of the Train)

I commute by train to and from work every day, and I can’t help but notice how the first car of the train is always much more crowded than the second car.  Crowded enough that people are willing to stand, to squish together, and generally to be uncomfortable.

Logically, you’d think people would be balancing how close they are to the front (and how quickly they can get to work or get home) with other criteria (like getting a seat and not being squished like sardines), but they don’t.  People think of themselves as “front car people,” and this shorthand makes them act in a certain way.

Professionally, there are increasing opportunities to be the best at something, and to get noticed for it.

What’s interesting is, you become the best at something, and then the front-of-the-car phenomenon can kick in: people want “the best,” so they squish into the front car to demand your services (your expert advice, your opinion for a magazine article, whatever).

Today I had the chance to attend a PowerPoint training by Gene Zelazny, who is the author of “Say it With Presentations,” “Say it With Charts: The Executive’s Guide to Successful Presentations,” and a host of other books.  I’m pretty sure Gene didn’t tell his second grade teacher that he wanted to be the world’s expert on PowerPoint charts.  But he’s built an amazing career out of this, published a series of successful books on the topic, and he works with CEOs and their teams on effective PowerPoint communications.  Gene has built a platform around something he’s incredibly passionate about, and he’s the first car on the train when it comes to PowerPoint training.

Your platform can (and probably should) be narrow.  You’re probably not the next George Soros, Bill Gates, Stephen King or Peyton Manning, but this doesn’t mean you don’t have a chance to be the best at something smaller, and in so doing you can make a career and life for yourself doing something you’re good at and passionate about.  And whatever your platform, once it’s established it can broaden and strengthen over time.

But first you have to know – or have some inkling about – what this “thing” is.  And if you can’t draw a line (even a tenuous one) from what you do today to this thing you might be best at, you might be in the wrong line of work.