Thoughts on Presenting

(This is another lightly edited post from my old Amazon internal blog.)

Your slides are the least of your worries

Most contemporary articles about presentation spend at least some time answering the question “What should I put on my slides?” I say forget your slides for now. They’re nearly irrelevant compared to what I claim are the big three things present in nearly all great talks: passion, story, and humor.

Passion – if you haven’t got it, kill your talk: you’re going to be mediocre. If you find the material tedious, imagine how monstrously dull it will be for your audience. Don’t settle for a subject you should be passionate about; you need to have real passion that the audience can pick up on. Software testing is the kind of thing that everyone ought to care about in the same way that everyone ought to floss their teeth daily. But unless you really have a deep personal feeling for software testing (or dental hygiene) let someone else give that talk.

In this wide ranging interview solo violinist Anne Akiko Myers explains how passion helps her with nerves (start listening at about the six minute mark if you’re in a rush)

When I perform I just want to.. I’m just speaking what I’m feeling. And so, I’m always telling myself, in fact when I get nervous, which is all the time, ‘just feel it and then it will come out.’ You know, ‘it’ll come if you just feel it.’ So, when the audience feels it too along with me, I mean, that’s what I’m doing this for: is to communicate with audiences, and hopefully make them feel something too.

The easiest way to become a great speaker is to speak about something you’re passionate about. If you feel it, your audience will too.

Story – if you haven’t got good stories, kill your talk: you’re going to be mediocre. Humans love stories. We’re programmed to listen to narratives. Think of your dullest professors in college. You probably can’t recall anything about their mode of presentation, but I’ll bet that it was a dull recitation of the facts without any sense of momentum. It was dull because you didn’t feel like it was going anywhere. Now think of a favorite movie (or even an average one). You’ll gladly give up two hours of your time and $10 to watch a decent movie. Why? Almost certainly because it’s got a compelling story. If you get good, topical stories into your talk, you’re halfway home.

Humor – it is theoretically possible to skate by with no humor, but you’ll find it so much easier to keep the audience with you if your talk has a few light, amusing moments. If nothing else, find a way to entertain yourself. Include at least one moment in your talk that makes you smile. If you find something delightful, odds are they will too, and they’ll appreciate having a moment’s respite from the heavier ideas in your talk.

A series of great talks

I can sense you squirming in your chair. “Yes, yes, but what should I put on my slides?!” I tell you it simply does not matter. You can kill with no text on your slides, with only text on your slides, with charts and data, with diagrams, with pictures, with hand-drawn doodles, any combination of the above or with no slides whatsoever. To demonstrate, let’s run the gamut with a collection of some of the greatest talks I’ve ever seen.

Ken Robinson’s TED talk uses no slides at all. He just gets up there and speaks… how novel! He deftly sets the stage summarizing three main ideas with gentle humor. His anecdotes are great, but beyond being funny, they have momentum. They feel like they’re going somewhere, they point to the big ideas he wants to talk about. Anyway, the point here is that you don’t need slides. What you need is great content that you’re passionate about. If you care about your topic and can hold your audience’s attention, then your passion will transfer to them, at least for the time you’re on stage in front of them. If you’re really good, your passion might transfer permanently, which is the thing you hope for most fervently.

While Rory Sutherland’s TED Talk uses slides they are almost always simple photos, there’s nary word in sight. Again he uses humor extremely effectively, and he’s intensely passionate about the ideas in his talk.

Hans Rosling’s TED talk might contain the most exciting use of statistical graphics ever in a talk. His passion is palpable; he can barely contain himself as he gestures wildly telling story after story in rapid-fire succession.

And at the opposite end of the spectrum from Ken Robinson is Lawrence Lessig. Lessig’s 2002 OSCON talk on free culture is the talk that made his style famous: hundreds of slides, each with an image, or a handful of words. The slides here are serving two purposes. First, to give the audience something visual to focus on to keep their attention as he explains difficult, abstract ideas. Second (and more generally useful), the slides emphasize certain words or ideas. His timing is so perfect that he can hit your auditory and visual systems both at the same time, driving the ideas home. His humor is dry but present, but his passion is in full force; by the time he gets to “… and what have you done about it?” he’s got your under his spell and you can’t help but feel ashamed by your inaction.

Finally, watch the opening minutes of Adam Savage on Obsessions. How can you doubt that passion is central to a successful talk? He’s talking about Dodo bird taxidermy of all things. The moment before he begins, not one person in his audience knew they cared about dodo bird taxidermy. But within 60 seconds, Adam’s breathless excitement has them spellbound. There’s an important lesson running just beneath the surface of Adam’s talk. He is insanely obsessive about the tiniest details of his work. This is the difference between the mediocre and the great. Whenever you hear an interview with someone recognized as one of the greats in their field, you’ll hear this same thing: details matter, and only by obsessing over the minute details of your work will you make something spectacular.

So ask yourself: 1) Do I care about this topic? 2) What are my stories? and 3) What are the moments in the talk that I find fun? If you have good answers to these questions, you’re likely on your way to giving a great presentation.

What you cannot do

Any of the modes from the previous section will work: no slides, pictures only, charts and data, slides with only text. What you cannot do is the typical style of PowerPoint presentation: text heavy slides laden with hierarchical bullet points. This is using your slides as a teleprompter. Your slides are for your audience, not for you. The typical PowerPoint style, with its lists of sentence fragments, is putting your speaker’s notes on display.

Guy Kawasaki proposes a rule: no font smaller than 30 points on your slides (I try to stay at 60 points). Why?

If you use a 30 point font you can put a lot less text on your slide. This forces you to actually know your presentation and just put the core of the text on your slide. If you need to put eight point or ten point font up there it’s because you don’t know your material. If you start reading your material because you don’t know your material, the audience is very quickly going to figure out that you are a bozo. They’re going to say to themselves “This bozo is reading his slides. I can read faster than this bozo can speak.”

If you’ve put together a slide deck in this mode, and you care your audience’s respect, don’t display it. Just print a copy for yourself and use it as your speaker’s notes. If you feel naked without slides, find a handful of high quality photographs that gesture toward your points and show those as you speak. The alternative, showing your speakers notes to your audience is disastrous and insulting. To illustrate, Peter Norvig made this brutal PowerPoint version of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. It’s like a car wreck: horrifying, but you just can’t turn away.

Ira Glass – Master Storyteller

I can’t tell you how to get passion for your topic, either you’ve got it or you need to find a new topic. But story, that’s something you can learn, and Ira Glass is an excellent teacher. Ira Glass is the creative force behind This American Life, which for over ten years has been illuminating big issues through human scale stories. In addition to being heard across the country on the radio each week, This American Life is the single most popular podcast on iTunes. If you care about communicating ideas, try listening to and imitating their style.

Over at transom.org, Ira wrote a three part series explaining how he learned his craft and how he thinks about it now. It’s illustrated with many examples of great and cringe-worthy stories he’s produced over the years. This short four part series on youtube covers much of the same ground.

Another great resource is Ira’s Ira 2007 Gel Talk. Note his use of backing music to set the mood and to soften his image, making himself more human while at the same time making his ideas seem all the more grand. His story about the production of 1001 Arabian nights at the end is especially beautiful, stories within a story within a story all pointing to a big idea.

A final Ira Glass nugget comes from his interview with Charlie Rose (video no longer available, sadly). I particularly like something he says near the very end, “Everything in the world wants to be mediocre. All stories want to be bad. It is the natural state of things. And it is only through an act of will that you prop them up at every stage and make them into something where it seems like something.” This reinforces Adam Savage’s obsession over the details. At every juncture you must pay attention to the details in order to be great.

Umm.. so what do I put on my slides?

“Rah, rah. Passion, story, humor. I get it. But I’ve still got to have some content, so where’s that come from?”

Now we’re talking. Content. Not slides. What ideas are you trying to communicate? What is the best way to convey your ideas?

Nancy Darling’s advice on giving a presentation is the best thing I’ve ever read on the topic. Here are her five steps to pulling together a good presentation:

  1. Choose a goal;
  2. Find a storyline that will help the group reach that goal;
  3. Develop a series of activities or a method of presentation that allows you to develop your storyline. Don’t let your media determine your storyline!
  4. Remember that your role is to facilitate the group reaching its shared goal. This is your primary responsibility!
  5. Remember that it’s not about you. All that matters is the experience of the other people in the room.

This is the job of your presentation: to move your audience’s mind from one state to another. Usually from a state of ignorance to one of knowledge, or from a state of apathy to one of engagement. You must be very careful to lead them step by step along the path, never asking them to make too big a leap. You must maintain empathy for your audience, you have to be able to put yourself in their state of mind and ask if they will plausibly be able to follow along.

Figure out out your goal and figure out your story, and the shape of your content will become clear.

Write a script

I hope I’ve convinced you at this point that it’s not about the slides, it’s about the words you speak. My number one piece of advice to people doing presentations is “Write a script.” Know exactly what you’re going to say before you start. Improvisation is insanely hard. People spend their whole lives studying the art of improvisation, and even then usually only improvise within a strict set of rules (e.g. jazz, improv comedy).

Come up with a list of the best orators you can think of. Know why they’re so good? Because they knew what they are going to say in advance, and could focus on the million tiny details beyond the text. Lawrence Olivier: had a script. Barack Obama: had a script. Edward R. Murrow: had a script. You’re not better than they are, so why do you think you can just wing it?

I don’t have the discipline to memorize my script word for word and present without notes like Malcolm Gladwell, but I do write a script.  Each of my slides has the relevant chunk of my script as the speaker’s notes so I always have my script in front of me.  I can give a talk dozens of times and 99% of what I say will fall out of my mouth with exactly the same phrasing, emphasis and intonation each time.

Writing a script allows you to think clearly about what you want to say well in advance of your talk, so slave over on your text. Polish it until it shines like a mirror. Take, for example, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and The Gettysburg Address. What I love about these is that they are so short. The text is so distilled that it borders on poetry. Of course it doesn’t hurt that the ideas are so grand: war, peace, God, honor, justice, humility. If your text is anywhere near so precise or beautiful, you will have achieved a great deal.

Why you’re probably going to suck anyway

On the 140th page of his book, Confessions of a Public Speaker, Scott Berkun busts out the following.

No matter how much you love or hate this book, you’re unlikely to be a good public speaker. The marketing for this book likely promised you’d be a better public speaker for reading it. I think that’s true on one condition: you practice (which I know most of you won’t do). Most people are lazy. I’m lazy. I expect you’re lazy, too. There will always be a shortage of good public speakers in the world, no matter how many great books there are on the subject. It’s a performance skill, and performance means practice — and that’s one of the reasons I wasn’t afraid to write this book.

When I first gave my TCP talk at Amazon’s internal tech talk series, I ran through the complete, finished talk at least once a day for two weeks. That’s above and beyond the endless times I read through pieces of it as I worked on the material. When I presented it again at the O’Reilly Velocity Conference, I practiced it again every day for another week. “That’s completely insane.” I hear you saying. No, it’s not. Among professional performers, practicing every day for a week or two is nothing. A friend of mine is a part time magician and juggler. Every morning before he goes to his day-job, he goes to his basement where he’s set up lights that mimic a stage spotlight, and he practices his most technically difficult juggling routine while looking into those lights. He’s done this every morning for years. He doesn’t screw up in performance very often.

Delivery

Patricia Smith reading “Building Nicole’s Mama” is a lesson in the power of words, but also delivery. Listen closely. Pay attention to her rhythm… when she chooses to enunciate syllables like bubbles popping and when she strings her words together in a bit of a mush. (Here’s another performance.)

Jacqueline Novogratz’s talk about patient capital at the US State Department stands in contrast to the more animated examples above. Her passion is quiet but present. She’s precise, but not robotic. She sounds like herself. Further, it’s clear that she knows her script cold… you could shake her awake at 3am, and she could deliver that talk perfectly.

So, having written your script and cobbled together some slides (or decided to go slideless), read your script aloud. Does it sound like you, or do you sound like a robot? Or are your sentences too long and clumsy to sound like spoken text? Work on the text until your natural voice comes through. Then play with rhythm, intonation, pauses, gestures, and so on until it feels right. Having pinned down the bulk of the content you’re now in a position to work on the endless tiny details that will make your talk great.

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One Response to “Thoughts on Presenting”

  1. Nalini N Says:

    really nice

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