Where to begin . . .

Blank canvasSo you need to prepare a presentation. If you’re like most people, you probably feel like an art student standing in front of a huge, blank canvas, hesitant to make the first brushstroke.

Well, here’s the trick: you don’t begin with brushstrokes. That comes later. You start by determining something much more basic.

You start by sitting down and thinking what it is you want to accomplish. What difference do you want to make?  What do you want to be true after your presentation that was not true before you delivered it?

That forms your objective, and it’s worth considering with care because your objective forms the foundation of everything that will follow. Hash it out until you’re satisfied. And when you finally are, chances are that the answer will fall into one of three buckets:

I want the audience to become aware of something

I want the audience to accept something

I want the audience to do something

You’ll find that you more or less have to take it in that order. If your audience never heard of the issue, you’ll have to make them aware of it before they will accept it. And until they accept it, they’re not likely to get up and do something about it.

Yes, it’s possible to accomplish all three in the same presentation, but only if it’s a pretty compelling issue. Don’t overreach. Do what seems reasonable in the time you are allotted and save the rest for another time.

So planning your talk doesn’t begin with animated slides any more than a painting begins with paint on canvas. Both begin with a subject.

What’s your subject? What’s your presentation about? Once you know what you want to accomplish, you’ll have walked a mile in the right direction.

[Next post: knowing your audience]
Be Prepared

Disaster Plan Key Showing Emergency Crisis ProtectionOne of my partners was recently asked to present a workshop during the 2015 Leadership Symposium of a fine national organization.

“Give us your PowerPoint in advance so it will be loaded and ready on conference room equipment,” said the organizers. That’s typically done when there are several programs on the docket; it makes organizational sense. But it can also set up a treacherous situation.

For the laptop they provide may run an earlier edition of PowerPoint, so half of your special effects won’t work. It may run brighter, so your vibrant colors will fade to pastels and your words may disappear completely. Or it may run darker, so contrast disappears along with your message. Their equipment may mess up your aspect ratio, so everything is stretched and your pie charts look like ovals. If a connecting cable is bad, your slides may all appear to be yellow or magenta. The slides may even be re-positioned on the screen, so the audience sees only part of them.

My partner did as directed and sent organizers her PowerPoint in advance—but she also came prepared. And that made all the difference.

When she got up to speak, she found her PowerPoint had not been loaded onto the laptop in the conference room, the one already hooked up to an overhead projector system. The AV technician whose services had been promised was nowhere in sight as the minutes ticked away, and neither was the production assistant whose job it was to track him down.

No slides, no help, and an audience waiting. What do you do?

If you come prepared, you pull out the flash drive you brought along, the one that includes a second copy of your slide presentation. You plug it in to the laptop, fire up the application, and begin your program. You do this without fuss or comment, for your mission isn’t to get vengeance on the negligent, but to do your job and make the presentation you came to give.

The sad truth is that mistakes—often, multiple mistakes—happen at every event. Knowing that, my partner was not only ready with a spare flash drive, but also with her own laptop loaded with yet a third copy of her PowerPoint.  She would have hooked that up in case the organizer’s laptop failed. She was also equipped with several connecting cables of her own to fit a variety of situations.

The best way to prepare for a presentation—and I’ll admit we don’t always have a chance to do this—is to perform  a dry run on the very equipment that will be used in front of your audience. And even then, a wise speaker is prepared with alternate equipment in case something fails.

Jargon: the Enemy Within

Do You Speak EnglishA partner of mine once heard a talk by a man preparing to open a new hotel. He talked about the clientele he hoped to attract and, almost as a throwaway line, said, “And of course, we will address the SMERF market.”

Everyone stopped listening. He continued to plow ahead as the audience tried to figure out the role little blue people had in a hotel’s market. My partner finally raised her hand and asked what he meant by SMERF.

“Social, Military, Ethnic, Religious and Fraternal,” he said with a detectable measure of scorn in his voice. How could anyone not know that?

For him, SMERF was a commonplace term. He and his colleagues in the hospitality industry probably use it every day.  But its meaning was obscure to the audience. The speaker broke the continuity of his talk with that single phrase, leaving everyone behind.

Yet, only my partner raised her hand to ask him to explain himself. Most audiences don’t bother. They suffer in silence. People don’t like showing ignorance in front of others.

That’s why insider language is the enemy. You are likely to waste everyone’s time, including your own, if you approach your subject from your level of understanding instead of your audience’s. Oh, no one will say anything. They’ll force a smile when it’s over, say “thank you,” and walk out in the same state of ignorance with which they entered. In the meantime, your efforts to raise awareness will have left only confusion. Your desire to foster acceptance will have brought indifference. Your mission for action will still be sitting on the runway. And all because you did not trouble yourself to see the world from their eye level.

Jargon is insidious. We swim in the jargon of our professions like a fish swims in water, natural and unaware. That’s why we must make a special effort to learn about our intended audiences—and then take an extra step. Give a version of your talk to people who have about the same level of understanding as your intended audience. See how many pieces of jargon they can collect, how many obscure references they find, how many mysterious acronyms crop up. Collect them all, examine them, and rewrite your talk so that a child could understand it.

That’s not dumbing down. It’s using words for their intended purpose—to foster understanding.

So we now have the attention spans of goldfish. What’s that mean?

gold fish isolated on white backgroundThe goldfish comparison comes from a recent study. Microsoft wanted to learn the impact of digital technology on attention spans. It collected data from more than 2,000 Canadians, all 18 or older. It had the subjects play repetitive games—responding to patterns, spotting the differences in pictures, and classifying letters and numbers—to learn how long they could stay focused on task. It also examined 112 other subjects very closely, measuring the electrical activity of their brains as they interacted with various media while trying to perform other activities.

The outcome? Yeah, it’s apparently harder for us to stay focused now.  Back in 2000 we were good for 12 seconds of focus. Now we’re only good for 8. Goldfish are still good for 9. Could be worse; fruit flies are said to have an attention span of less than a second.

But wait a minute—there’s more than one form of attention span!

  • There’s transient attention, the attention span that applies when we’re uninterested and doing something we feel is unimportant. We’re easily distracted then.
  • Then there’s sustained selective attention, which most adults can manage for 5 to 20 minutes, and which applies to things we’re interested in or believe are important. That hasn’t changed. If you can present something that interests your audience, you’re probably good for at least 10 minute’s worth of their attention before they break off and you must get them to refocus on you.
  • And finally, there’s alternating attention, which has to do with shifting from one task to another and back again. That’s actually improved. So if we’re worse at focusing on a single, boring task, we’re also better at multi-tasking.

Now, here’s how this applies when you’re presenting: no one is going to be focused on you all the time. It’s not natural. What is natural is for your audience to refocus on you when you send up a signal.

So when you’re about to make a major point, put suspense in your voice. Make it sound as though you’re about to reveal a secret.

Or step away from the podium. Approach the audience. Remove your glasses, if you wear them. Pause. You’ll find they’re all looking at you.

Or make your point and then wait several beats. That signals you’ve just said something important.

Or just repeat yourself. Make your point, pause, and make it again. Or keep coming back to it, like a refrain in a song.

Learn how to emphasize the right things and it won’t matter if your audience has the transient attention span of a fruitfly.

Beware the Humblebrag

Young cheerful Indian businessman relaxing at swimming pool side (Little Soft Image)You’ve probably heard the term—humblebrag. It’s a rhetorical device that wraps pride in a cloak of false modesty.

A Fortune magazine article recently included several examples, like this Tweet attributed to former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleisher: “They just announced my flight at LaGuardia is number 15 for takeoff. I miss Air Force One!!”

So Ari was important enough to fly in Air Force One. Why do I think the complaint about the delayed flight was largely an excuse to remind me of that?

Other examples, easily found on the Internet, include, “Can we start a media campaign to question how I got into Columbia, too? Still scratching my head about how I got accepted & demand answers!” Not a brag, of course.  You’re being self-deprecating. Everyone can see that.

Or this: “It still amazes me that I can be in Prague, London and the Paramus Whole Foods all in one day Travel and technology boggle my mind.” Yes. Great shout-out for travel and technology.

Those who humblebrag consider it a good self-promotion strategy; the sympathy elicited by the complaint or the modesty demonstrated by self-effacing words will provide a good context for the self-promotion—the best of both worlds.

But a Harvard study published last April by Harvard Business School Professors Francesca Gino, Michael Norton, and graduate student Ovul Sezer says different.  If you humblebrag—if you deliver a mock-complaint—people see the ulterior motive. They see it clearly. You come off not as accomplished or important, but as conceited and insincere. You’re actually better off with an outright brag, which at least is seen as authentic. Humblebragging is a self-promotion strategy that is guaranteed to backfire.

While a lot of humblebragging occurs on social media, it can also find its way into job interviews and talks, as well. And it does no better there than it does on Tweets.

So when you’re reviewing a talk, your own or anyone else’s, scan it not just for jargon and arcane knowledge, but also for humblebrags. It’s an extra step that can keep the speaker from making an embarrassing  mistake.

The curse of knowledge

Don't look like thisThe best moment in a game of charades happens for me when time runs out. That’s when the exasperated guy who has been silently cavorting around the living room for three long minutes explosively blurts out the secret phrase in a heartfelt release of emotion. It was this! That gesture meant this! Why didn’t anyone pick up on his signals? They were so obvious!

It’s hard to imagine others don’t see the same things we do. It’s called the curse of knowledge.

And it’s a recognized phenomenon. Economists started talking about it back in 1989. When two parties bargain, the one with more information should do better. But if you know that the used car you’re selling was in an accident you’ll ask less for it even though the buyer who sits across from you has no idea. If you know that the dress you made has a high level of workmanship, you’ll ask more for it, even though it looks like a normal dress to the buyer. Once you know something, it’s hard to imagine yourself—or anyone else—not knowing it. Knowing more than the other guy can distort your point of view, which can work to your disadvantage.

In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology came up with a game that shows how it works. She asked subjects to tap out on a tabletop the rhythm of a well-known tune. Before the subjects began to tap, they were asked to estimate how many of those listening would be able to identify the tune. On average, tappers estimated that 50% would guess correctly. In actual practice, it was fewer than 3%. That’s because the tapper was running the music full blast in her head as she tapped. To her, the answer was obvious. But the audience, who heard no music at all, hardly had a clue. (Try it. Tap out the Star Spangled Banner. Now tap out the Birthday Song. Challenge a listener to hear any difference.)

Now, when you’ve been working in your field for 20 years—or just a special project for 6 months—you’ve had plenty of time to absorb and internalize all kinds of complex information. Things that were once strange have become familiar to you. You may not even think about them anymore. Steven Pinker, a cognitive neurologist, points out that we build up our knowledge one step at a time. A child knows that when someone exchanges items with someone else, that’s called trading. When it involves exchanging money for an item, that’s called buying. When many buyers and sellers gather, that’s called a market. Many interacting markets comprise an economy. And by now, the child has been left far behind. Central banking, quantitative easing, derivatives—those are terms used up at the next level, where economists live.  Economists understand everything behind those terms because the music of economics runs strongly in their heads. But pity the audience that never learned the tune.

The curse of knowledge is especially dangerous when you present to an audience. I mean, the whole reason you’re up there is that you know more about your topic than anyone else in the room.  So now you have the added task of imagining what it’s like to be back in a state of ignorance. You have to pitch your talk from that less informed point of view.


Bad Chart
5 things wrong with this chart

I have a friend who was asked to show 2014 gross sales figures to his executive committee as part of a year-end review.  (Obviously, I’ve disguised his chart.)  After doing his Excel spreadsheet, he played with several options and finally settled on this one because he thought it “jazzed up” the information.


What a chart should do is communicate clearly, and this one does not. Where did he go wrong?

 1. He used 3D.

The 3D effect actually obscures the information.  Can you tell the true value of sales for each division?  Can you see the data points? Not easily.

 2. He reversed the type (used a dark background with light type).

Whenever possible (which should be about 99% of the time), use dark type on a light background for legibility. It makes it easy for people to read.

 3. He did not start his Y axis (the vertical axis) at zero.

If you set the baseline at anything other than zero, you skew the visual representation of the differences between the columns. Skewed data doesn’t give you credibility.

 4. He indulged himself in chart junk.

Simplify, simplify, simplify.  If it is not absolutely essential to conveying the information accurately, eliminate it.  For example, direct labeling of your columns enables you to get rid of the legend, the grid lines, and the Y axis.

5. He used different colors to show simple data.

This chart doesn’t need different colors for each of its bars—the bars themselves tell the story through their respective lengths. Now, if each bar itself included additional values—if for example, you wanted to show how much each product contributed toward sales in a given quarter—you could show those additional values by stacking the products, each represented by a different color, to make up each bar. And if you chose to colorize the bars like that, you would use bold colors. Pastels are hardly worth the effort.

Here is the same chart after a makeover:

Good Chart



Far less dramatic. Far more informative. by conveying the information at a glance, this is a much more successful chart.

How to Make an Impression That Wins New Business

The most important presentation you ever do may be the one that lands you important new business. New business can launch your organization. It can keep your bottom line secure. It can signal the world that you’ve arrived.

But first, you have to win it.

Whether it’s private business or a public agency whose business you’re seeking, there will probably be a Request for Proposal (RFP) that outlines its expectations. Some RFPs are complex and demanding. The important thing is that you fulfill all the requirements, no matter how involved or troublesome. This is the price of securing a new client.

But there’s more, and here’s where a good presentation comes in—you also have to establish a point of differentiation. Every good business does this, but it’s especially important when you’re seeking new business. Your audience must understand and remember what sets you apart. No one ever got a new client by saying, “Me, too!”

Are you more efficient? Better equipped? More experienced? Do you offer more expertise? Have you found a new approach? Find something you have that no one else does, and make sure your presentation stresses this differentiator. Keep coming back to it as you present so that the audience remembers it when the presentation is over.

And while you’re at it, you must do one other vital thing with your presentation—you must form a warm connection with your audience. You’re not just presenting numbers here; you’re presenting yourself. You need to make those people want to work with you. If you don’t, they will cool to your presentation soon after it’s over, however qualified you seem to be. People go where they want to go. Make sure they want to go to you.

A stellar presentation can make the difference. So don’t leave it until the last minute! Don’t concentrate on the RFP requirements and think you’re done when every taxing detail in them has been fulfilled. The truth is that your would-be client doesn’t like reading those details any more than you liked writing them. That’s not what will push you over the line. What your audience remembers about you will push you over the line.

Get a coach. Gather your materials and create a presentation. Rehearse it over and over until it comes naturally. Scout the location and see how large a room you have. Find where the electrical outlets are. Determine where the sun will be at the time you present, and if it will be on the screen, know how to work the blinds. When you appear, everything you do will look effortless to your audience because you took this part seriously.

And that’s the kind of impression that wins new business.

3 Ways to Handle Platform Fear

I spoke not long ago with a group of caseworkers from a government social services agency. These are the people who do the hard and often thankless job of seeing that children in difficult circumstances get the financial support they need.

But some of them told me they were most stressed out when they had to get up in front of an audience. One said she broke out in hives every time. She asked what could be done about that.

I told her I’d never been schooled on how to treat stress rashes (though I’m told that moisturizer and hydration help), but I know some ways to reduce the stress that leads to them. It begins with realizing what’s going on in your body.

There are those who believe stage fright stems from our evolutionary heritage. When we get up to speak, we face a sea of eyes looking back at us. We humans all have pretty strong threat detection radar, and those eyes seem threatening.

Why is that? The audience is just sitting there.

Well, some anthropologists have a theory about that. They believe that down through human history, everyone looking at you at the same time has pretty much meant bad news. It could mean you’re about to be hunted. Or attacked. Or accused. So your body prepares you to fight or outrun those you’re facing. It gives you a nice shot of adrenaline to help ensure your survival. That’s why, just when you want to be calm and in control, your body makes your hands shake, your palms sweat, and your voice break.

There are a couple of ways to handle this. One is to work off the adrenaline.

Before you speak, go someplace you can’t be seen and do something strenuous. Do pushups against the sink in the restroom. Shadowbox. Run in place. If you can’t get off alone, grip the arms of your chair or the rim of the podium or the chalk holder behind you. You’ll find your jitters are reduced, placing you in better physical control of yourself. That alone will calm you down a little.

A second technique is to focus on just one person in the audience at a time.

If you go from face to face when you get up to speak, you’ll get another shot of adrenaline each time you assess those faces for signs of a threat. This isn’t the rational part of your brain talking, of course. But we’re human beings, and when we’re nervous all we can see are more reasons to stay nervous.

When you focus on a single face you have to perform only one threat assessment. Once that’s behind you, you can just talk with that person as though you were the only two in the room. When you’ve made your point, move on to the next person and talk to her for a while. Do this again and again, covering all parts of the room as you move along. People will feel engaged even when you’re not looking at them, and they will relax. Once you see that, you’ll probably relax, too.

The best and longest-lasting technique takes a while to perfect. That’s to stop thinking about yourself and start thinking what your audience needs from you. After all, that’s the reason you’re up there, or should be. If you think, “What can I do for them?” you’ve made them into a group you will act upon, not a group ready to act upon you. You begin thinking more about your message. You begin looking for feedback, for signs of understanding. You put yourself in the right frame of mind to speak.

Now, none of this is likely to keep you from getting at least a little nervous before speaking. I’ve been speaking for more than 40 years and I still get nervous before each talk. But I’ve found that nerves aren’t really my enemy. They keep me alert and on my toes. I speak best when I’m a little on edge.

When you can think, “This isn’t hurting me; it’s making me better,” you’ll have mastered the art of handling platform fear.

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