This video of a TED talk parody was uploaded a couple of months ago and I missed somehow. Yes, it is a parody, but in the between the lines (the content is non-existent) it actually shows how body language, pausing and pacing can give you a better stage presence.
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Another good video by VC Mark Suster about how to speak when invited on a panel:
- Be energetic
- Be short and to the point (people don't remember who long you spoke, but what you said)
- Say something different than the person before you
- If the moderator asks the wrong question, answer a different one
I would also add that pitch competitions are a form of entertainment. A pitch for such an event is completely different from a pitch to the partner group of a VC.
And most of the time, pitch competitions are far more entertaining than panels. In a pitch competition, the presenter is on the line, sharp. People in panels usually do not prepare and can hide behind the others on stage, making them a lot less interesting to watch.
Some people naturally sound convincing. They have charisma, they find it easy to tell their story, they are confident, they can wing the presentation, they say that they consider themselves good presenters. They sound convincing, but do they convince?
Many of the people who fall in this category are not very good at reading body language. Maybe the buyer or investor on the other side of the table is (slightly) introvert and does not push back that much. Maybe if the same type of question comes back for the third time (after 2x the same sort of answer), the answer was not very clear. Maybe there is a difference between a great meeting with great energy, and a decision to buy/invest.
As a presentation designer, I have built up another type of self confidence: not being ashamed to ask again if something is not clear, even if it is the fifth time. If I don't get it, the presentation I am going to design will also not get there. Investors and buyers won't be as patient as presentation designers
We recently celebrated my daughter's Bat Mitzvah and here is the process I went through to produce my short speech:
- I did not make too big a deal out of the speech, it is not the State of the Union, I wanted to express my feelings to my daughter, and focus the attention of the entire crowd for a few minutes on her.
- I created a digital notebook accessible from all my devices weeks in advance. Here I jotted down ideas: stories, memories, jokes, anecdotes, as they came along. It is hard to come up with ideas 24 hours before
- About a week before the event, I wrote down a whole version, and put it away
- A few days later during a bike ride a crafted an entire new story in my head, shorter, simpler, and less dry. Immediately after dismounting from the bike I wrote that one down.
- I rehearsed a couple of time and created a short bullet point lay out of my talk that I could print in small font and hold in my hand. Important points are the key element of a paragraph (you can summarize those in 4 words if you have to), and lists ("what was that 3rd character trait again?")
- During the speech i made sure that I was really "into the story" feeling the meaning of the words while saying them (i.e, not pressing play from memory and just recite text without processing what it means).
- Instead of uttering "uhm", I tried to keep the composure and pause to form the next key idea in my mind before speaking it out.
- And yes, I did not use slides!
It is interesting to to see the side-by-side video shots of the presidential debate of last night.
Here is what you can learn from Hillary when confronted with an unpredictable debater:
- Keep your posture
- Maintain that "look" in your eyes at all time showing that you just stand above it all
- Prepare: Donald is looking up pondering how to respond, Hillary is reading a prepared note with a response to an attack that she expected to come
- Maintain the dominant audio track even when interrupted mid-sentence multiple time
- Practice a whole stretch, be prepared to keep everything up for 90 minutes
The second debate will probably be more interesting as both candidates will have had the opportunity to analyze the first debate. You can watch the full version of the debate in this video.
It is that time of the year. Here are some things kids do, and you will recognise them in grown-up presentations as well:
- "Press play", rattle down the lines to show that you can memorise things. You speak slower, softer when your memory needs to work harder. Eyes up to locate that next phrase.
- Blank stare. You can't see the audience because of the stage lights, so you are not really looking at them.
- No connection to the substance. You simply say the words without feeling their meaning.
- "Bye". The moment you spoke the last word, you turn around and walk off stage
Art: The Country School, Winslow Homer, 1871
The little details in a presentation might not make or break its message, but they do count. A spotless presentation shows you made an effort, that you take your audience seriously.
Here are some things to look out for: typos in common words (if your spell checker flags something, there is probably something wrong), typos in names of people, inconsistent use of fonts and/or colours, small misalignments of objects, a text wrap gone wrong, or making sure that the positions of titles on all slides is the correct. I remember the senior partner on my first McKinsey project coming into the graphics design room to hold all the paper slides against a strong light to check these things.
Yes, I know that I am contradicting myself now and then as I get reminders about typos in my blog posts...
Most of my clients actually know how to present visual slides. Their problem: they don't have the slides. But once I create them, they get used quickly to the new presentation format without a lot of training. This is probably because they can identify with the target audience. A CEO pitching a startup idea is the sort of person you would pitch a startup idea to.
Scientists have a double problem. Yes, their slides need work, but the bigger problem is that they often need to cross into a different audience type than they are used to presenting to. Scientist, engineers, lawyers, have their own language for talking to each other, which can actually be every effective. But if you put a scientist with newly designed visual slides in front of an investor audience things start to break down without the proper training.
When deadlines were very short, I have recommended these clients to stick to their existing slides and practice their delivery, postponing the make over of their entire slide deck for the next conference a few months down the road.
Art: Louis Pasteur by Albert Edelfelt, 1885
Shortly after writing my post about cold emails, I received a cold, automated phone message. They did one thing right, don't call from a number with hidden id. But then:
- It took a few seconds to start the message, presumably enabling me to say "good morning, who is calling"?
- Then the message started (I heard the crackling recording background noise kicking in).
- The voice that of a famous radio news reader, did not sound natural
- And worst of all it started of with: "I know that these type of message.." [beep] [beep] [beep]
I wasted 2 seconds on this.
Now, automated sales messages are not the same as follow up calls for checking whether your recipient got the presentation you emailed, but still think about the parallels. An unplanned incoming phone call is always a disruption, an apology makes the experience even worse and will cost you valuable seconds.
Image by CGP Grey on Flickr
Impatient audiences of senior management or investors often complain (rightfully so) that they have been listening for 10 minutes, 10 slides, and still the main point of the presentation has not been made.
The common reaction to this feedback:
- Shuffle slides around, and drop slides from the back of the presentation all the way upfront. The result: a broken story flow. The sequence of slides in the front does not make sense anymore, and the left over slides in the back don't connect together.
- Cram a lot of content on the first 3 slides and call them "summary". The result: your audience never gets to see you beautiful, highly visual slides in the back, as you are fighting your way through the bullet points in the front.
What causes the delay?
- Think about why it takes you so long to get to the point. Does the audience needs all that background? The company mission? The company history?
- Think about what the audience means when they say "getting to the point"? Do they really want the full detail of your solution on the first page, or would simply telling your audience what you are about quickly be enough to calm them down and stop them from guessing?
- Think about whether your existing summary is stuck in the middle: too long to serve as a real teaser for what is about to come, and too short to give the full detail of the pitch.
- Are you taking too much time to present your slides? Uuuh, uuums. Side tangents. Details, exceptions, apologies for rounding errors, footnotes.
- Are you going off script: you put up a slide, but take the story in a different direction ("let me give you some context first")
- Do you spend too much time on the obvious: explanation of buzzwords ("let me explain what the sharing economy is", "look at this data about the stellar growth of mobile phone penetration").
- Are you reading out all the elements of a slide one by one, but because someone else designed the slide for you, they don't really fit the way you want to tell the story. So after you are done reading, you tell the message the way you wanted it, effectively presenting each slide twice.
Keep your summary super short, it is more a teaser of what is about to come. Then tell the story at a pace you would use when explaining your idea to a friend, without slides at all.
A good pitch of an idea provokes feedback of the audience. If people are just sitting there, watching politely, smiling, and walking out of the room, you are unlikely to land an investment.
When you get feedback (praise, criticism, difficult questions), it is important to realise who it is coming from. Do people care about you, want to help you? Do you they have the right background?
- Your mother: she totally admires everything you do, but in most cases might not have deep knowledge of what it is you are actually doing
- An industry incumbent who cannot see any change happening having worked in the field for 30 years
- A (potential) competitor who is jealous
- A friendly investor who does not understand the field
- A friendly investor who does understand the field
- An interested investor who is negotiating with you
- A friend of a friend of a friend who is an expert in the field but who was arm twisted in listening to you to return a favour but does not really have time for this and/or you
Pay special attention to people who know what they are talking about, or people that are an example of a type of audience you are going to pitch to a lot (confident, successful investors, that might not fully understand the ins and outs of your market). Group one helps you bullet proof the content, group 2 helps you bullet proof the presentation.
What sort of feedback do you get:
- Generic praise
- Generic suggestions to change your presentation (summarise everything early on, re-order these 2 slides, cut the amount of charts to max 10, the 10/20/30 rule)
- An easy question with 3 buzzwords in them
- A difficult question that you know is a difficult question but you don't have the answer to
- A difficult question that you thought you explained well in the presentation
- A difficult question that you heard for the first time
Some feedback can be ignored (the audience is not qualified, the feedback is generic, polite small talk). Some feedback is an "attack" aimed at hurting you (a competitor who feels threatened, an investor who wants to push the valuation down). But most feedback probably is from people who try to be helpful or really don't understand something.
Faced with criticism, humans tend to go in defence mode. We hardly let the questioner finish her question. We don't read body language. We fire away our ammunition. Repeat the same answer, the same slide one more time, forgetting that it failed to convince the audience the first time. Point at a huge Excel model (cell C27) that has 5000 lines of code that proves that you are right. Do what politicians do: divert the attention to another issue.
The most useful feedback might a small unexpected question, from someone who has no reason to help you, is not negotiating with you, has no time for this meeting, and is a huge expert in the field. Read the body language. Ask the person to elaborate on the question. Ask why she thinks it is an issue, what experience does she base it on.
Other good candidates for feedback are potential customers or users. Hold your fire, and listen carefully.
Sometimes it is useful to ask a lot of questions to the people who ask you questions.
I got to speak with a high school teacher yesterday and he made an interesting remark about the use of on-screen presentations in the class room. He uses pictures and very simple visual concepts to keep the attention of the teenagers focused. The charts' main purpose is not to transfer information, they are there to keep people focused and interested.
What a different approach than most of my teachers in the 1980s: copy a page from the course book on an overhead transparency and uncover paragraph after paragraph, slowly. Or, turn your back to the class and re-write the book on the black board.
Communication in the work place in general has its problems:
- Email wording
- Making a point in a meeting
- Trying to get to a decision in a meeting
- Annual feedback sessions
- Handing over web/app designs to the implementation team
- Product one pagers
- Press releases
- Keyword-loaden blog posts
- Marketing slogans
- User manuals
- Travel policies
In presentations, the issue is most visible but it is sitting everywhere. People are used to transferring ideas in a dialogue where the recipient asks questions to help her understand what is being said. All this breaks down in one way communication.
Art: Tower of Babel by Pieter Breughel the Elder
I have written about the poor quality VGA projectors that are still sitting in conference rooms of many companies before, but I myself fell into the trap again yesterday. A presentation that looked great on my computer screen was barely readable in a conference room, I have gotten used to high resolution screens and the option to use thin fonts and very subtle colour shadings. Reminder: these do not come through on projectors.
Now we have a dilemma:
- Presentations designed for retina displays are not readable on crappy VGA projectors
- Presentations designed for crappy VGA projectors look "1990" on a retina display
My presentation app SlideMagic should be OK, it uses fat Roboto fonts and reasonably blunt shadings. For PowerPoint, think about where your deck will be used most: a person reading the attachment of an email or an audience watching things on the screen. If the latter, test your presentation before the all-or-nothing pitch.
A SlideMagic user asked the the other day what to do with a 30 x 10 feet (10 x 3 meter) projector screen that he was supposed to use in a presentation. A 10 x 3 meter screen has a 3:1 aspect ratio and is incredibly wide and "low". Displaying a regular 4:3 slide on it will leave huge black bars to the left and right of the slide.
The first decision you need to make is whether you want to use the entire screen or not. Pro: you can create spectacularly large slides. But there are drawbacks:
- A huge screen might overpower you, the speaker
- It is actually very hard to design slides in this unusual format. Image crops are not natural, and there is almost no avoiding to putting content in boxes from left to right on the slide
- Finally, it is work to do the above
If you decide to go for the full big screen redesign, then you do not need to create a 30 x 10 feet custom slide format in PowerPoint, any 3:1 aspect ratio will do.
No, my presentation app SlideMagic does not support custom screen aspect ratios, that would go against its philosophy.
One of our clients back at McKinsey in the 1990s used to say that "the paper in McKinsey documents is always warm", i.e., they came of the printer only minutes before the meeting. Now that documents/presentations are all in digital form there is even greater opportunity to make last minute changes, especially if you travel by taxi to the meeting.
It comes at a price though. First of all, last minute analysis is prone to mistakes. But secondly: "frankensteining" quickly a chart into a presentation might break that super professional and impeccable look of the presentation.
If the change does not involve the correction of a major error, it might be better to make that missing point verbally.
I get this question a lot from (potential) clients in Europe and here in Israel. Ten years ago, I would have answered the question with a usual rundown of presentation design basics: not too many bullet points, visual slides, etc. etc.
But in 2016, I think the playing field has levelled. Audiences in any country now recognise a good or a bad presentation.
There are still differences between audiences though, but they do not differ across geographical boundaries. Here are some contrasts that I often come across. It is especially in these situations that an outside presentation designer can help to bridge the cultural gap.
- Engineers that need to present to more sales & marketing oriented people
- Engineers that need to present to potential customers
- Founder/inventors that need to present to potential investors
- Small company that needs to present to a big trade show and/or large Fortune500 company
- Internally focused managers (production, logistics, finance) that need to present to an outside audience (M&A due diligence for example)
- Local subsidiary that needs to present to corporate headquarters
- CEO that needs to present to Wall Street analysts
- Sales Director who needs to present to distribution partners
When presenting to someone outside your typical circle of "audiences" it is important to put yourself in their shoes. Simply recycling your usual presentation is unlikely to work.
Art: Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954
Because they have been used so many times, or maybe better, disappointed so many times, some of the old (and often expensive) tricks of presentation design are not at all that effective anymore.
- Complicated language. Buzzwords, complicated sentences, clarifying footnotes. This person must know what she is talking about, better believe her.
- Scientific frameworks. Management consultants loved these. It looked complicated, scientific, they were delivered by smart people. Even if you don't understand the framework, the message must be true.
- Excel-generated hockey sticks. The highly complicated spreadsheet produces the $500m revenue in year 5 number, all assumptions seem sound, it must be true
- Noisy/flashy/spectacular videos. Stuff is flying in, drum rolls, this looks professional, these people probably tell the truth.
- Stunning images. "Yes! We should follow the guy who jumps of a a building with a parachute!" That sun set looks amazing.
I am afraid we are back to humble, human communication again.
And here is the pitch for my presentation design app SlideMagic: make it easy to create slides that look pretty decent/professional, and let you spend the majority of your time creating your story.
Image: fake cathedral ceiling in Rome's Sant Ignazio Church
Saturday, I visited one of 4 sold out performances of the stand up comedian Jerry Seinfeld here in Tel Aviv. The setting: 10,000 people in a covered basketball stadium with poor acoustics. Here are some of the things that Jerry did to get through to the crowd. And was interesting to see how effective he was in comparison to the warm up act who had less experience.
- Timing of punch lines. Know when to keep the flow of words going, know when to pause, and when you pause, pause for a really long time to let a point sink in with the audience.
- Immediately build a connection with the audience. This is more than speaking 1 word of Hebrew, and more than showing how you appreciate the country. Seinfeld build an entire series of jokes about the experience of fighting traffic and crowds to go to a major event (and leaving it). It created an instant bond with the speaker, but also a shared experience between the members of the audience. This was a good set up for the later sections in his show that often were derived from material targeted at a US audience. Started to throw these types of jokes into the crowd right at the beginning would not have gone down well.
- Fake eye contact, there was now way that Jerry could see anyone in the audience because of the lights, still he was moving his eyes around and holding them left, right, front, and back as if he was connecting with a member of the audience.
- It was interesting to see how Jerry ended the show with a punch line, and then boom, said goodbye and thank you, walking of the stage immediately after. There was no time for the "well, this was it..."
Still, you could see that the whole 1 to 1.5 hours without a break is pretty tough even for someone like Seinfeld. You could spot when he was "in the moment" and where energy levels were dropping.
"When I put up the first [incredibly busy bullet point] I start of with this introduction before I take people through the slide"
Usually, these introductions are great. They come out naturally, in a conversational style. Next time:
- Use that introduction as the opening of your presentation, add a visual slide here and there to support the story. And don't stop there, finish the entire presentation in that style
- Second best option. Put in a black slide before your busy opening slide and tell that introduction without encouraging people to start reading your bullet points.
Image: New Zealand rugby team performing the "haka" in 1932