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February 2006

Nobody's perect

MistakesAre you just a little bummed out by your last presentation? Do you think you didn't do nearly as well as you could have? Perhaps you stumbled over your words, lost your place or your train of thought at one point. Maybe you got a little flustered when something didn't go exactly as planned. Well, don't worry about it. Little bloopers happen even to the absolute best presenters. Watch this video of Steve Jobs' various keynote imperfections over the years on the website. Proof that even the best are not perfect.

No matter how good of a presenter you are, you will occasionally stumble over your words. You're human, after all. And regardless of how reliable you think your technology is, at some point it will fail you. Technology fails usually immediately after you praise its virtues to the audience: "You're going to love this new feature, ladies and gentlemen. Take a look at this<oh crap>...." We've all been there.

We strive for the perfect presentation, the perfect pitch. It is unobtainable. Yet, it is the small imperfections that make us human. It is the small imperfections that make it real. Still worried about not being perfect? You may enjoy, then, this helpful book, The Art of Imperfection.

In future I'll tell you my secret for backing up important presentations while traveling light on the road; kind of a "belt-with-suspenders" approach.

Presenting under fire: links to tips on keeping your cool

IcanthearyouYou thought you prepared your presentation well. But in spite of your best efforts, your presentation ended up being sabotaged by an audience member, who not only interrupted you on several occasions, but was rude while doing so. It seemed every time things started going well, this person mucked it up with an irrelevant comment or a sad attempt at humor, derailing your attempts to get your message across and connect with the audience. We all have our horror stories. But what to do about it next time?

Doing our homework and anticipating questions or "push-back" is crucial. But when the unexpected does happen, good general advice is to maintain our cool. Passion and enthusiasm are great, but displaying frustration or anger with an audience member rarely helps the situation; it usually makes things far worse. Keeping our own emotional response in check and displaying as much grace as we can is paramount.

Audiences can pick up on even the slightest bit of aggression or frustration. At the 2001 Macworld in New York Steve Jobs gave his usual "Jobsian-style" keynote. I was working on the Macworld floor during the keynote and could only hear the presentation in the background as I prepared for the day's show. Although Jobs' presentation was well over an hour long, what many people talked about after the keynote — and still talk about today — was Jobs "getting pissed-off" when he could not get the digital camera to work during the demo and "threw it" to an assistant. Really, it was not that big deal at all. But what it illustrates is how much even the tiniest hint of frustration (anger, etc.) will be picked up by an audience; sometimes it may be the only thing they remember about you. Not good.

Below, then, are links to articles which offer good advice for handling difficult audience members, even hecklers.

Dealing with difficult speaking situations (
Advice from 3M on dealing with Hecklers (3M website)
Dealing with disruptive audience members (from Speakernet News)
How to handle difficult audiences (
 Handling various forms of audience disruption (
 Dealing with difficult audiences (
Dealing with difficult negotiators (
Presenting to difficult audiences (
Dealing with tough questions (
Do's and don'ts for dealing with difficult people (
Dealing with difficult people (
Dealing with hecklers and "snipers" (
Advice for stand-up comics (
The BBC on why people heckle

Related books 
A Survival Guide for Working With Humans: Dealing With Whiners, Back-Stabbers, Know-It-Alls, and Other Difficult People  
Working with Emotional Intelligence
Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion

Whatever you do, in civilized situations such as a business presentation or conference speech, never tell someone to "shut up!" Obviously this goes for interviews with the media as well. "Shut up" must be the single dumbest thing a person can say, even in a heated debate. Use this phrase, and you've lost. Watch this short TV interview with William Donohue to see how well he comes across when he yells "shut up" (twice).

Not everyone will like us or our message. Sometimes people will be unfair and even rude. That's life. But we are responsible for our own reputations so it's in our own best interest (and in the best interest of the audience at large) that we remain at all times courteous, gracious, and professional.

Presentation documents and writing for non-writers

Slide_notes_1A slide is not a document. Creating slides for your presentation and writing a supporting document (such as the takeaway handout) are two different things. Yes, I know. This is obvious. But how many people do you know who make a "handout" for their presentation by printing out their slides (six slides per page)?  When we attempt to "kill two birds with one stone" and generate slides that will also serve as handouts or a "document," we often end up with dreadful supporting slides for the talk and ambiguous, ineffective handouts for the takeaway document. Two weeks after the presentation these papers — with their promising coversheets but filled with small images of bulletpoint slides — can be painful to "read" (if they are ever read at all).

Author John Scalzi offers good writing tips for professionals who are not necessarily professional writers. The article is short, sweet, and excellent. If you have time, there are some good nuggets of wisdom in the comments section as well, currently at 146! (The exclamation mark proves, I suppose, what a hack writer I am. My apologies.)

OK. So the creation of presentation visuals, the delivery of a talk, and the writing of supporting documents are different animals. But there are some commonsense principles which apply to writing and presenting. A few of Scalzi's writing tips (listed in bold below), can be applied to the art of presenting as well. Here are four from his list of ten tips.

"Front-load your point." Make your point, then make your case. You do not want your audience (or your reader) saying to themselves "Where the @#&^%! is this going!?"

"Don't use words you don't really know." Sometimes people use big words to impress or sound credible or smart, etc. Whether it's writing or speaking, never try to impress. When we try to impress, we are thinking about ourselves and not about our audience. We must speak in a style that is natural, conversational, free of jargon, and clear. For example, instead of "I suffered a massive, humongous intel failure" how about "I screwed up"? (The level of your informality, of course, depends on your unique situation.)

"Read people who write well." I "learned jazz" by listening to and watching great jazz players. We can learn how to be a better presenters, in part, by watching and studying the famous and not-so-famous accomplished speakers and presenters of today and the past.

"When in doubt, simplify." I so love this point by Scalzi that I'm quoting almost the entire passage here (item number nine in the list of ten):

"Worried you're not using the right words? Use simpler words. Worried that your sentence isn't clear? Make a simpler sentence. Worried that people won't see your point? Make your point simpler. Nearly every writing problem you have can be solved by making things simpler.

This should be obvious, but people don't like hearing it because there's the assumption that simple = stupid. But it's not true; indeed, I find from personal experience that the stupidest writers are the ones whose writing is positively baroque in form. All that compensating, you know. Besides, I'm not telling you to boil everything down to "see spot run" simplicity. I am telling you to make it so people can get what you're trying to say."

                                                              — John Scalzi

Yes indeed. Simple and good writing. Simple and effective presentation. Useful, simple and beautiful design. These things are neither "easy" or "simple" to achieve for the creator. But the reader, listener/observer, and user will be
forever thankful for the effort.

Also checkout Hints for Revising by Brian Marick. Good tips there. Thanks to Coding Horror for these two great links.

Pitching in the "no-spin era"

Appearing on a TV show to talk about your product is a lot like making a presentation to an audience of potential clients. It's an opportunity to pitch. In chapter three of Art of the Start (The Art of Pitching, MP3) author Guy Kawasaki says "The gist of pitching is to get off to a fast start, explain the relevance of what you do, stay at a high level, listen to audience reaction, and then pitch over and over again until you get it right." Keep it short, simple, and effective. And, of course, in both cases authenticity, transparency, and honesty are key.

Torie_stewart_1 Torie Clarke, an expert in communications and public relations, is smart and experienced. So when Clarke appeared on Jon Stewart's Daily Show (see video) last week to plug her book, Lipstick on a Pig, I expected her — like many guest authors who appear on the show — to have a little fun but also to give a clear and concise picture of what her book was about and why I should read it. Instead, I saw one of the oddest, most uncomfortable TV interviews I have seen in a long time. Yes, the Daily Show is not a news program, but Stewart does have real people on to talk, albeit briefly, about real issues and promote their idea or pitch their book. Clarke is an experienced CNN analyst so I thought she would do very well in this kind of situation. Did she? You judge for yourself.

Surely I was not the only one who thought this was a bizarre interview. After I watched the clip (twice), I went immediately to Amazon to checkout what people were saying about the book. At that time there were eight "reviews" (comments), yesterday it was up to eleven. Yet only one person had apparently read the book. The rest of the "reviews" were mostly from people commenting on her poor performances on the Daily Show and on MSNBC's Hardball (see video from and on how her credibility was at best dubious based on those TV appearances. Oddly, Amazon has erased all of the "reviews" except for one. Amazon does have rules for people submitting reviews, although if you search deep in Amazon you will find many 1-star ratings, for example, from people who clearly did not read the book and have a personal grudge, political or otherwise. In this case, Amazon seemed to act very quickly.

In the book The Articulate Executive (recommended) author Granville Toogood devotes an entire chapter to speaking with the media. His advice: "Clarify and instruct. Give vivid examples...convey your answer and/or point of view in the most helpful way you can." Clarke did not give good examples to support the claim that "we're in a no-spin era" except to say that calling the NSA wire-tapping issue the "terrorist surveillance program" was not an example of spin, as Stewart suggested, but rather a "more accurate description."

Appearing on the Daily Show has to be one the easiest interview settings to pitch a book there is (in the US). Did Clarke take the interview too lightly? In the end, I really was not sure what her book was about or what she believed in. You appear on a TV show because you have a story to tell. If you do not, why go on the show? (The same can be said for presenting for your team or at an international conference, etc.)

Stuff happens. No worries — get it right the next day in your blog.
We can forgive mistakes and blunders on live TV. One's blog, however, is a great opportunity to tell the truth, explain your mistakes and detail what you should have said, what you actually meant, etc. From chapter one of Clarke's book (excerpts available at Amazon) she says "...when you screw up, say so — fast!" Clarke urges us to be transparent, honest, and be ready and willing to explain our story in clear, simple terms. All of this makes sense, of course.  So I go to Clarke's blog (set up about a week ago to promote the book) expecting to see an open, transparent, from-the-heart discussion on her appearance on the Daily Show. Her only comment on her less-than-stellar performance was this:

"Jon Stewart -- funny of course, but also some very thoughtful observations about the NSA wiretapping story, Congressional malfeasance and the wonder of new babies."

Fine, the only problem is that I actually saw the TV appearance. Her words paint a quick sanitized version of the event. Does her description of the interview itself sounds like "spin"?

Wouldn't it be more transparent and honest if Clarke said something like this: "I had fun on the Daily Show, but I could have done a better job of explaining my book. I didn't realize it at the time, but looking at the tape later that day, I realize that my message sounded muddled and contradictory. That's my bad. So let me clear things up here and explain what I mean when I say 'we're living in a no-spin era'...." Then give us links to the CBS interview (which was better) or the Hardball interview (which was worse though not all her fault). As she says, put the spotlight on the mistakes, put the spotlight on "the good stuff and the bad stuff."

Torie Clarke is a communications expert. I hope she will take her own communications advice with her blog and make it fresh, transparent, honest, from-the-gut, and completely unsanitized by any of her own PR folks. I suggest Clarke take Robert Scoble's advice in the Corporate Weblog Manifesto: Tell the truth and post fast on good news or bad. I suggest she read this book, Naked Conversations, as well.

Lessons from the Cluetrain: Imperatives for presenters

ConversationsIf you follow people like Hugh Macleod and Robert Scoble, etc., you know that we're living in the era of "the cluetrain." I first read the Cluetrain Manifesto four-five years ago. One of the central ideas in the book is this: markets are conversations and companies by a large do not get that (even if their employees do). Traditional ways of mass-media marketing need to adapt or get out of the way. What Cluetrain was talking about were changes in current company-to-consumer interactions, though their emphasis was on how technology and the web, among other things, was changing this interaction in a radical way. What the Cluetrain Manifesto is saying, at it's heart, is that communication matters and that the way we think about organization-to-customer communication needs to change.

It's all communication
Websites, intranets, message boards, email blasts, blogs, developer conferences, sales presentations, and CEO keynotes — it's about communicating. It all matters. Whether it's a blog, an e-news letter, or a presentation, what audiences and customers yearn for from organizations is authenticity and transparency, simplicity, and a real human, emotion-without-the-BS approach to communicating. A real conversation...for a change.

The Cluetrain tenets — the "95 Theses" at the beginning of the book — speak largely to wired communications. But it's all communication. While the "Theses" may not have been written with presentations in mind, many of the items fit nearly perfectly and can serve as good advice or reminders for how we need to connect and engage with our audiences today. Below are ten items (in bold) I took from the list of "95 Theses" in the Cluetrain (my comments follow).  I suggest purchasing the book, but you can get most of it free here.

Top-10 Cluetrain Theses: Imperatives for presenters

Cluetrain(1) "Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors."
Markets are not abstractions, and neither are our audiences. They're people worthy of our full attention and respect. If we can remember that it's about them and not about us...we're on the right path.

(2) "Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice."
I don't hate politicians and I don't hate marketers...but I hate the way they talk. "Mission-critical, forward-looking value propositions...." People do not talk that way! Many corporate speakers have a special gift for the "blah-blah-blah." Is anyone listening? Speeches and presentation do not have to be be stuffy and dull, but neither do they need to be hyped-up and shallow — your audience is praying you'll be different.

(3) "Already, companies that speak in the language of the pitch, the dog-and-pony show, are no longer speaking to anyone."
Even if your presentation is directly sales related, you have to believe in your product (not the hype) deep down inside. I'm not talking about drinking the Koolaid kind of belief, I'm talking about believing in your product (your cause, research, etc.) like you believe in yourself. Speak to the audience like you respect them, like you think they are smart, like you think they are interesting. Don't be a TV commercial. Commercials more often than not insult us. And even when they're clever, we don't really care and soon forget because...they're not real.

(4) "Companies need to lighten up and take themselves less seriously. They need to get a sense of humor."
The best presenters take their cause and their audience very seriously...but they do not take themselves too seriously. They are relaxed...they have nothing to hide. At that moment, nothing could be better than sharing time with the audience, and the audience feels that.

(5) "Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived."
Your speaking does not have to be perfect. In fact, perfect speech and too much polish may alienate a crowd. It's not real. Each case is different, but an open, natural, friendly, relax approach — away from the podium — is usually best. People pay more attention to a natural, open voice. And few things are more boring for a crowd than the reading of a long manuscript from a podium.

(6) "By speaking in language that is distant, uninviting, arrogant, they build walls to keep markets at bay."
If you want your talk to fail, simply build a wall between you and your audience. There are many ways to do that: Speak in abstractions, stand in the dark, insult the competition, speak too long, create dreadful visuals, be evasive, and on and on.

(7)"Learning to speak with a human voice is not a parlor trick. It can't be 'picked up' at some tony conference."
You can learn a lot from presentation coaches and communication books, but this is not rocket science. We can be much better by simply looking at the presentation as an opportunity to have a conversation with others about something we care about. All the technique, training, and "PowerPoint" tricks are useless if the talk doesn't come from your gut, from your heart and soul.

(8) "The inflated self-important jargon you sling around — in the press, at your conferences — what's that got to do with us?"
Never try to impress. It didn't work in high school (lord knows I tried) and it won't work with your audiences (or your markets) either. A good presentation is like a good blog: it's transparent, unique, fresh, honest, authentic, and accurate even if not perfect.

(9) "If you want us to talk to you, tell us something. Make it something interesting for a change."
Most sales presentations are designed by committee and sent to people in the field with scripts in the PowerPoint notes view. No wonder the presenter sounds distant and "corporate."

(10) "De-cloaking, getting personal: We are those markets. We want to talk to you."

As the Cluetrain authors say, people " not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations..." The best presentations feel like a conversation.

Checkout Microsoft's Robert Scoble's presentation at the LIFT conference in Geneva last Friday. The content is relevant and his style is a good example of a more human, more engaging approach to a presentation. Sure, it is not perfect, it is not slick or polished, but it is good and it is genuine. (See "Robert Scoble Überblogger at Microsoft" last presenter on Friday). 

Other online examples of good presentations?