I've always enjoyed doing this, which makes me focus on it, which makes me better, which makes it even *more* fun ... a virtuous cycle of positive feedback.
My ability to engage audiences while delivering a potentially complex or difficult message has done very well for me over the years.
And it's much more fun that sitting in a budget planning meeting.
Within the confines of my small world, I'm inevitably branded as a really good presenter, perhaps one of the best. I often meet people who see what I'm doing, and want to do some of the same things in their world.
They study me closely as I present, but there's much more to the picture than meets the eye.
I thought some of you might be interested in the steps I take to be as good as possible when I get in front of people.
Most of my presentations are with small-to-medium sized groups on technology-related topics, mostly outside of the company (customers, partners, etc.) -- but also some internal groups as well. Hopefully I'm live and in-person -- telepresence, webex and concalls seriously compress the fidelity of the experience: both for me and for my audience.
I'm good at presenting on a very wide range of topics, but I certainly have my limits. When the initial request comes in, it falls into one of three buckets: (1) something close to what I've done before and feel good about doing, (2) something I haven't done before, but I would like to invest in trying, and (3) something that I haven't done, and have no interest in getting good at.
For those of you with busy calendars, it's not just about locking in the time and date, you also have to lock in the prep work that goes with it.
And we all know what happens when someone walks into a presentation unprepared.
#1 Doing Your Homework
Someone has asked you to show up and do something on behalf of their audience. Now what? Time to find out more.
Don't rely on email or some document someone has created -- get them on the phone and have them talk about their understanding of what's required.
The discussion usually starts with a vague description of the attendees, and a few impossibly abstract topics they'd like you to cover.
That's like the opening offer from a car sales person -- we both know we can do *much* better than that.
So I start digging: tell me more about who's in the room: their backgrounds, their organizational structure, the different motivations, the conflicts that are inevitably in play. Very often there's much more to the story than simple "show up and flip some slides". I'm looking for potential hooks that can motivate and engage my audience.
If there's a burning issue or two at hand, so much the better -- engagement will be ensured.
When I ask for that all-important "human landscape", you'd be surprised how often I get a long recitation of different technologies and applications that are sitting in the data center.
I gently remind the requester that I won't be presenting to a bunch of machines sitting on a raised floor, can you please tell me more about the people?
Very often the requester doesn't know what I'm looking for (an unfortunate situation), so I have to get additional people on the phone: maybe other folks who've worked with this account, or -- perish the thought -- actually speak to someone on the customer or partner side and probe them a bit on what they're looking for.
Google is also my friend here -- their business, their industry, their key offerings, their annual report, what the analysts are saying, etc. It's amazing what you can discover in 15 minutes.
If I can't eventually get to that sort of a clear picture after good intentions, it's likely to be a poor fit between my skills and what's required, which means I inevitably punt the speaking request to someone else. Life is too short as it is.
I also try to discern the requester's motivations, which might not be 100% aligned with the audience's.
Much of my presentation work is in a pre-sales context, so there's inevitably a proposal on the table that's consuming a lot of the sales team's attention.
Often we have to have a frank discussion about the need to weight the presentation more towards what the audience wants to discuss vs. what the sales team wants to discuss.
#2 What Story Do You Want To Tell?
We seem to be genetically programmed to consume stories. Even if we're going to be covering a variety of rather complex and obtuse topics, it all goes down better if it's packaged in the form of a story with all the classic storytelling elements.
When I'm doing my prep work, it's pretty easy to assemble a list of topics that might be covered. The harder part is coming up with a story arc that nicely contains -- and connects -- the topical elements.
We are all pretty bright people and can talk about a lot of things; but this isn't about you, is it? A short list of audience-relevant topics is far more impactful than the traditional spaghetti-on-the-wall technique I see used so often.
I've got a current inventory of about 6-8 story arcs that I use for different audiences. That means that about 95% of the time, I have one on hand that can be quickly adapted. If there's a conflict between a good story arc, and some of the points I might want to make -- the story arc wins.
Even if the sales rep wants you to stuff a bunch of awkwardly competitive product slides into a decidedly non-product presentation.
#3 Assemble -- And compress -- Your Deck
I can usually assemble my first draft in under an hour, using existing content with a few new slides and light editing of existing ones. I always end up with too much stuff. I then take two passes: a multi-slide compression pass, and a move-to-backup pass.
Very often, you'll find yourself using 2 or more related slides to make a single point. That's not ideal -- people quickly forget previous slides, and it burns time. So it all goes on one slide in summary form.
I also have a fascination for overly-detailed slides that cleverly illustrate complex points. They go to backup -- I've learned the hard way.
Needless to say, your deck should look at least semi-professional. I'm not a big fan of the over-produced decks that look like they came from a tragically hip graphic designer. You are the message, not your slides.
But I do want everything to be clean, legible, simple, not visually annoying, marginally attractive, etc.You probably want to dress nicely in front of customers and partners -- same principle goes here.
#4 What's The Setup?
Since most of the time I'm walking into an environment I've never been to before, there's an extended pre-flight checklist I go through ahead of time. First the basics: laptop, projector, remote, etc. If it's a larger audience, sound reinforcement -- although I am pretty loud when I need to be. Everything has a backup: two copies of the presentation, two laptops, etc.
If we're bringing remote people in, don't assume the Webex has been set up, or that the conference bridge number has been shared. You don't want to burn up 15 minutes of a 45 minute slot just getting people on the bridge.
If your session is part of a longer day, get a sense of what has happened before you, and what's going to happen after you -- and bring into the context of your presentation if you can.
#5 Get Your Game Face On
Every performer and every athlete has some sort of ritual for when it's time to do their thing.
My technique is visualization: I visualize what I'd like to have happen: I walk into the room, we make some introductions, we get going, soon they can see that I'm knowledgeable and entertaining, as a result they get engaged and start asking questions, we go back and forth in an easy dialogue, and it all ends with everyone being very happy with the time invested, myself included.
When I walk into the room, I try to size up as much as possible: the mood and energy, some sense of the relationships between the attendees, etc. If there's some sort of tension in the air, acknowledge it and don't let it affect you -- it probably has nothing to do with you.
A final note: go easy on the coffee / red bull / adrenalin / five-hour energy drinks.
Nobody wants to see a raving speed freak do a presentation.
#6 Get Into The Zone As Quickly As Possible
You do something so often, and you end up not consciously thinking about what you're doing -- it's all instinct after a while. The Zone.
If I were to deconstruct what I'm doing when I'm in my zone, the list would look something like this:
-- great body language, moving around, using my hands, facial expressions, voice tone, etc.
-- plenty of back-and-forth questioning with my audience -- even if they don't answer!
-- plenty of empathy and enthusiasm for them and their current situation(s)
-- a few illustrative stories to make it entertaining
-- a handful of dramatic moments just to make sure everyone is awake
-- not shy about making fun of myself, or things I've seen
-- I'm having a great time, and I expect them to have a great time as well
I am not conciously thinking about *any* of these things when I'm presenting. I actually found out what I was doing by watching videos -- a great (yet humbling) tool to get a sense of what you're actually doing when you're presenting.
#7 Watch Their Body Language
You can see how well you're doing simply by watching the audience's body language. I am still amazed by how many presenters don't know how to process this realtime feedback.
Sure, there will always be people with their faced buried in a computer or mobile device -- that can't be avoided. But if you can't find a few people who are actively listening, nodding, etc. -- you're doing something wrong.
When I get into these situations -- and it happens -- I stop and do a level set with the audience -- is this what you were expecting me to discuss? They either say "yes" or "no" -- but it's better to get that out in the first few minutes vs. plow through 60 minutes and completely miss the mark.
#8 Be A Pro At Managing Your Time
So, your 45 minute slot has been shrunk to 15? Get over it, and get used to adapting.
Conversely, sometimes you're pleasantly surprised that they want to spend *more* time with you after they've heard what you have to say. That's where the backup slides come in :)
I always leave 5 minutes (preferrably ten) for Q+A and discussion -- even if that means less time for the content I was hoping to present.
People need to discuss and reflect on what they've heard for it to be relevant to them. You also have to have a few techniques to get your audience to start feeding back to you, especially if it's not their norm.
#9 Be Flexible
We've all mapped out road trips, only to encounter a few detours along the way. Sometimes you end up in a fascinating place, so enjoy the ride! I'm always open to going places that weren't on the original script -- in context.
For example, I won't let someone hijack a discussion from what everyone else wants to hear -- and it's simple enough to check in with the audience and see if they're willing to go there for a while.
I'm pretty broad, and can go a lot of places, but not everywhere an audience might want to go. If we're going to an unfamiliar place, I'm upfront: this is not my area of expertise, but here's what I know and what I hear. I'm being responsive and transparent, which is all anyone really wants.
Once the detour is over, I try and get back to my original talk track when it's time.
#10 Always Get Feedback
Simple questions near the end -- is this what you wanted to hear, was this a good investment of your time, etc. -- starts the feedback process going. Even if you didn't score a goal, you'll understand why that didn't happen, and potentially do better next time.
And there always will be a next time.
Given that I'm usually in a presales context, I also have to solicit feedback from the EMC or partner team that brought me in. Did this meet your goals? How do you think the customer reacted?
And then you take the next step -- you go looking for critical feedback. How could I/we have done better? Were there places where I wasn't doing well?
If you go fishing for complements, you'll probably get a few. If you go fishing for critical feedback that makes you better, you'll get that as well. All I try to do is to get a little better every day :)
I try to solicit feedback twice -- once immediately after the presentation, and then a few days later once the customer has weighed in. You'd be surprised how often the field team's perception of success or failure changes between the two. And there will be some people who don't take the time to give feedback, say thank you, etc.
All part of the scenery.
There are some of you out there that have told me you enjoy the prospect of presenting or leading a discussion. If that sounds like you, I'd strongly encourage you to invest the time to do it more often.
If you enjoy it, you'll invest in getting better, which means you'll enjoy it more ... and we're off to a virtuous cycle. Very few people want a career of doing nothing but presentations, but as an adjunct to whatever you're doing, it's a wonderful, career-enhancing skill.
Sort of like blogging, but for the real world :)
On the other hand, if you tend to dread the idea of having to give a presentation, I'd encourage you to try getting used to it gradually over time.
Like playing an instrument, or learning to speak a new language, it's amazing what you can achieve with a little persistence and enthusiasm. Once you start getting some positive feedback, you might get hooked like I did.
Because the world loves a good storyteller ...
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