When I grow up, I’m going to present like Steve Jobs

Got this from Presentation Zen, one of my favorite resources on presentation skills:

When I grow up, I’m going to present like Steve Jobs.

Dealing with stage fright

I had a lot of fun presenting at yesterday’s conference. Reflecting on it, I realized that my presentations are strongly influenced by what people bring to the session. The passion that people like about my presentations comes from the energy that people share with me when they listen and when they share. The insights they walk away with come from other people like them as well as from the people and experiences and thoughts I bring in through my presentation. I’m just there to prepare the stage and spark the conversation. =) Here are some quick tips for energizing presentations and some reflections based on the presentation I gave today.

1. Chat with people before the presentation starts so that you can make personal connections and find out what people are interested in.

2. Always treat it as a dialogue.

3. Turn your presentation into a conversation and learn something new from your audience.

Stage fright – everybody has it

I had one hour left before my presentation at the IBM Regional Technical Exchange in Markham. I couldn’t shake off my anxiety. The words felt heavy in my mouth, and my voice felt strained. The new stories I wanted to add didn’t quite blend in with everything else. My phrasing was off. My energy was off, too–I was having a hard time making the shift from the morning’s introverted-programming mode to the high-energy presentation mode I needed for the afternoon.

I headed over to the refreshments table to make myself a cup of mint tea, snagging a couple of chocolate-macadamia cookies along the way. I was savoring the chewy chocolate cookie when another IBMer walked up to me. She asked if I was anxious about my upcoming talk, and she said that she could never eat when she was nervous. I told her that a couple of cookies are remarkably effective at reducing stress. After my headless chicken impression at the IBM Web 2.0 Summit, I went so far as to pour milk into a glass and dunk cookies into it. (That worked. It’s important to know what works for you.) We chatted briefly about the talk and about some other matters, and she wished me luck on the presentation. I felt my mood start to lift.

By the time I finished my tea and munched through the second cookie, I was ready to set up the room. I plugged in my power supply, fiddled with the video settings, and tested the color scheme (no reds) and all the slides (legible). These little routines help me get into presentation mode.

(Yes, everyone gets stage fright. I think mine comes from the idea that so many people are trusting me with their time! Mine goes away when I start sharing my energy with people and people give it right back (in a good way). Neither my level of preparation nor the aesthetics of my slides matter, although having slides that make me happy helps. Nope, my stage fright depends on whether people in the audience are getting a good deal for their time. =) )

Chat with people

One of the key things that helped me tap presentation energy was chatting with the people waiting for the presentation to start. I really appreciated how people came up to me and wished me luck, or let me engage them in conversation–that helped me calm my stage fright. I made sure to ask a number of people throughout the room what they were interested in. I figured that if I could make those people happy, then I’d probably stand a good chance of making most people in the room happy. If people were interested in the session, then by golly, I was interested in it too! Hearing what a few people were interested in allowed me to see the hundred-something people as individuals and to talk about things in a way that felt (to me, at least) as if I was having a regular conversation (in which I’d feel comfortable making all these side comments). Establishing that initial contact with people throughout the room helped me remember to make eye contact and to talk about different perspectives. After all, you can’t talk to only the front row after you’ve met some people in the back row who are curious about what you want to say. And did I mention that talking to people helped me handle my stage fright?

So the next time you give a presentation, get your setup time out of the way, and spend the rest of the time talking to people who have made an effort to be there early. They’ll give you plenty of ideas, encouragement, and energy, and if you can engage them, you can spread that energy to other people.

Always treat it as a dialogue

Interaction is what makes an real-time presentation different from a recording. The presentation starts off with the energy you bring and the curiosity that people in the audience bring, and it takes shape as people interact with it. When people take the time to attend your presentation in person, give back to them by involving them in it. When you have the ability to see people’s reactions or even engage them in conversation, listen to those people throughout your presentation. You are always in a dialogue, even if you’re doing most of the talking.

How do you do this? You can use the same skills and instincts you use when talking to people one on one. You know how you can tell when someone’s interested or someone’s losing focus, even if they aren’t saying anything? If you focus on presenting to one person at a time, you can listen and adapt just as instinctively, and you’ll talk more naturally too. Just remember that there are lots of other people in the room, so talk to them too. If you’re facing a big audience and you can’t see people, you’ll have to imagine them. Talk to people before your presentation so that you can go into your presentation with a sense of real people in the audience.

Turn your presentation into a conversation

Another thing that makes me excited about presentations is that I know I’m going to learn something new. I love including a lot of discussion in my presentations, and I’m always amazed by what people share. For example, terrific issues and insights came from the audience today. (I’ve got to retell some of those stories!) So I’m not an expert passing on knowledge, but rather as a facilitator who sets the stage and gets the conversation going. When I give larger, less interactive presentations (like that blue horizon 2008 keynote to around seven hundred people!), I like thinking about the internal dialogue people are having with me, even if they can’t raise their hands and share what they’re thinking with everyone else.

Next time you plan a presentation, try adding more dialogue. You need energy and openness in the room to get this going. People need to want to add something, see that they have something to add, and feel that you’re open to it (and you’ll manage the time and the rest of the discussion as necessary). It really helps to have some friendly faces who will take pity on you and jumpstart the conversation if needed. =) Have some backup questions based on what other people might ask you, and feel free to ask the audience questions as well. Most speakers are unnerved by silence (trust me, three seconds of quiet feels like an awfully long time!), but you need to give people time to understand what you’ve said and to think about what they want to say. A teaching tip I picked up before is to count to seven (silently) instead of moving on after just a few seconds. That seven-second gap helps people shift from listening mode to interacting mode, and if you can get people to share, your presentation will really sparkle.

So here are those quick tips again:

1. Chat with people before the presentation starts so that you can make personal connections and find out what people are interested in.

2. You’re always in a dialogue. Listen.

3. Turn your presentation into a conversation and learn something new from your audience.

And don’t forget to have fun! =)

Storytelling in presentations

Angelina Gan asked me if my storytelling approach is based on Peter Orton’s (wonderful!) presentation on using storytelling in business, so I thought I’d share how I started telling stories and what my favorite resources are.

I don’t know exactly why I started telling stories instead of listing bullet points. Maybe it was because of the never-ending march of bullet-ridden presentations. Maybe it was because I kept skimming through business books that were all numbers or pithy sayings without anecdotes to make those statements come alive. Maybe it was because I watched terrific presentations highlighted on the Presentation Zen blog. Maybe it was because of the books I read about telling success stories to deepen your relationships with people, influencing change through story-telling, and telling effective stories. Whatever it was, I started collecting stories and sharing my own.

I’d taken up writing flash fiction (really short stories, typically 55 words long) in 2005, and that turned out to be surprisingly useful. Reading other people’s flash fiction stories taught me that you could tell a story with conflict and character development in a paragraph or two, and that it was fun keeping an eye out for story material. I had originally gotten interested in flash fiction because it felt like a code optimization challenge, and because the stories were short enough for me to write during lunch or a subway ride, on pieces of paper or even on my cellphone. I never felt particularly literary (and in fact had gotten Ds in my English classes in university for lack of effort), but finding and telling stories (or in this case, making them up!) turned out to be a lot of fun.

So when I came across the business applications of storytelling–from social networking to influencing technology adoption–and I saw how it dovetailed with my passions, I jumped right into it. I started collecting stories. For example, I started my master’s research by collecting stories about how people used Dogear (an enterprise social bookmarking system by IBM) so that I could figure out how people were using it in their work and how they could use it even more effectively. I collected stories to help me not only convince people to try out new tools but also give them models to follow and people they could relate to. I also told stories about what I was doing and how I was doing it, and that helped me get to know a lot of people as well. Besides, I love “catching other people doing well”–telling other people’s success stories, especially when they don’t realize they’re doing well.

The results? People act on what I share. They make my stories their own. Not only that, people also tell me that they enjoy my presentations and that my enthusiasm is contagious. Giving presentations – telling stories, having conversations – has become a lot more fun.

How do I find stories? I keep an eye out for things that happen in real life, like this conversation I had with J-. There’s a seed of a story in there, and by telling part of the story, I make it easier to remember later on. I also enjoy reading people’s blogs, because they tell stories from their experiences as well. I read a lot – it certainly helps to have a public library within walking distance. Whenever I come across a particularly good story in any of these sources, I write it down, I bookmark it, I add it to my notes. When I work on presentations, I’ve got a general idea of relevant stories that I’ve come across, and then I use my notes to look up the details.

For example, I was preparing a presentation about University Relations and the Net generation. I didn’t want it to be a boring list of bullet points or advice. I could’ve rehashed the presentation I gave at the Technical Leadership Exchange, but I wanted to make the most of my opportunity to speak with a group that could really make the most of Web 2.0. I remembered that some months ago, I had come across a terrific internal blog post about how a demonstration of IBM’s internal social tools got an audience of university students really interested. I had bookmarked it as a story about Web 2.0 and recruiting, knowing that it would be useful someday. Well, that someday had come! I checked my bookmarks, went back to the blog post, refreshed my memory, and added it to my presentation. I’m sure that the story will make my point more effectively than a list of bullet points.

How can you get started with storytelling? Keep an eye out for story material. Develop a system for filing those stories so that you can find them again when you need them. Tell stories. I’ve linked to some of my favorite books in this post – check them out for more tips. Storytelling is effective and fun. Enjoy!

How to scale presentations up or down – the art of timing

(More braindumping – not quite at the article level yet! =) )

When I plan presentations, I always start by coming up with the key message based on the objectives and the expected audience. The key message needs to be something I can explain in at most 30 seconds, and it needs to answer the audience’s question: “What’s in it for me?” The key message also needs to give people a way to act on that message. (Yes, even FYI presentations.) If I can’t explain what I want to say in 30 seconds, I mindmap and brainstorm and turn things over until I can.

There’s no point in working on the rest of the presentation until you know what you want people to take away. If you can’t say what you want to say in 30 seconds, think about the topic until you understand it well enough to say it in 30 seconds. When you figure out what your 30-second pitch is, you can use that as your abstract and you can use it in networking conversations at the conference/event/wherever. Very useful.

After I determine the key message, I pick three or so supporting points. This is also where I try to find a clever navigational structure or mnemonic to help me remember my points and to help the audience remember my points. Alliteration and acronyms are my favorite tools, but I occasionally come across a good metaphor, too. If I can’t find anything that fits, I try to at least get the rhythm of the words to sound right. (No, I haven’t given a presentation in iambic pentameter yet – but I’m tempted to! ;) ). A thesaurus helps me find synonyms that fit, and a dictionary (I usually use a kid’s dictionary) helps me spark the creative process with random associations and browsing. (Flip it open to a random page, pick a random word, and see if that’s useful.)

Resist the temptation to cram lots of points into your presentation. Find the minimum that you need to support your key message, then get those across clearly.

So there’s the 30-second pitch, the supporting points can be summarized over three minutes or so, and you can wrap it up and explain the next actions in another minute. When the presentation works as a 5-minute talk, it’s time to flesh it out to a 15-minute to 30-minute talk. You can do that by adding stories to the supporting points, keeping the key message in mind. Stories can take varying levels of detail, so they’re pretty flexible.

To take a talk from the 30-minute mark to the 60-minute mark, add more interaction and deeper stories. Good interaction tends to require a longer presentation slot because you need some time for people to shift into discussion mode (and you have to be comfortable with silences), and you don’t want to cut discussions off too early. If you’re doing interaction, don’t make question-and-answer the end of your presentation. Move question-and-answer into your presentation, then take advantage of the opportunity to summarize both your presentation and the discussion with a strong ending, emphasizing the next steps.

Longer timeslots such as 1.5 hours or 4 hours or even days need to be broken up with more interaction and variety. From my university classes (both attending and teaching), I learned that attention tends to flag after about 20 minutes. Mix things up and give people time to process the information. (And to stretch!) Resist the temptation to structure your presentation as one loooong presentation. Break your presentation up into more presentations, because it’s important for people to have review and closure.

In this approach, you’re building up from the core message. As long as you can make that point, you don’t have to worry about leaving material out. If you don’t overload your slides, you can quietly trim material in order to accommodate a particularly good discussion (or a long rant about something else) and people won’t feel cheated. =) If you find out that you have to talk for longer than expected (say, the next speaker is having technical difficulties), then add more detail or more stories or more interaction. If you find out that you have to talk for shorter than expected (say, the previous speaker had technical difficulties ;) ), focus on the key message and the supporting points.

Try it out for your next presentation. Start with your 30-second pitch, then build on it. When you get used to adjusting the timing on the fly, you’ll always be able to end on time.

Quick notes from a conversation about speaking and facilitation

I’m working on revising my Remote Presentations That Rock presentation because it’s going to be featured in the “Best of the Technical Leadership Exchange 2009” series at work. (Whee!) Because the content’s already available via video recordings, slides, and blog posts, I’m trying to figure out how to add extra value to the talk so that it’s worth experiencing live.

Timothy Kelpsas reached out to me with a teaser about running multiple sub-plots to help with remote listeners. I finally got to ask him what he meant. Thirty minutes was far too short! =)

Tim thinks of presentations or facilitated sessions like a movie. Just as a director might plant clues about upcoming scenes (foreshadowing) or refer to previous events (flashbacks), Tim plans short forward-looking and backward-looking throughout the session. He establishes a rhythm. And just as a director mixes up action, comedy, romance, and other parts to appeal to different audiences, Tim tries to make sure that different kinds of people get engaged in a variety of activities. He shared how he thinks about introversion and extroversion, multiple intelligences, and other preferences that influence how people learn.

For remote audiences, he keeps a few tips in mind:

  • When Tim’s giving a presentation, he imagines the experience from the point of view of someone who’s far away and who’s watching the presentation through a replay. This helps him build empathy.
  • Tim works on actively engaging remote listeners by incorporating questions and self-reflection into his talk. For example, he might ask people to think about the worst leader they’ve had. A short while later, he might ask them to think about one thing they would change about that leader if they could. This gives people an opportunity to engage with the topic, even if they can’t interact with him directly.
  • Tim also deliberately builds rapport with replay audiences. He occasionally addresses people who are listening along on the replay. This acknowledgement helps build rapport, and it helps him remember their needs too.

How can I apply what I’m learning?

Instead of repeating the same presentation, I’m going to revise it thoroughly. I know the core ideas are sound. Not only did the content get me voted into the Best of the TLE series, but lots of people have reused it already, and people tell me that the tips are very useful. Now I get to experiment with more effective ways to present those tips. Taking Barclay Brown’s suggestion to use the basic fiction plots, I’m going to revise it to use a revenge plot. (Now I’m curious about how I might pull that off, and if I’m curious, chances are other people will be curious too!) I think that will be more fun than the quest plot, and the more vivid I can make things, the more people might remember.

Building on that subplot, I can weave reflection through more of the presentation. The original presentation had a little bit of reflection up front, but the revenge plot gives me plenty of opportunities to build reflection in.

Applying Tim’s tips, I’m going to prompt myself to  “break the fourth wall” and address people listening to the replay. I generally haven’t done this because I prepare blog posts, slides, and the occasional short standalone video for replay audiences, but people might come in through the web conference archives and miss out on the additional resources. Besides, it must be possible to do a good live/replay mix, and the practice will help me with in-person presentations as well.

Also awesome: The very first thing Tim did when we connected on the phone was to sing to me. He explained afterwards that he wanted to make sure I quickly got the sense of who he was. You bet that’s sticking in my memory! I told Tim how it reminded me of when Ethan McCarty sang me a song when I dropped by IBM NY. Ah, IBM and awesome people having fun… =)

Seven Tips for Short Talks

Regina Zaliznyak asked me to put together a presentation to help IBM’s Extreme Blue interns give better 4-minute pitches to project sponsors, managers, and other interested people. After thinking about the topic a bit, I realized that I wanted to figure out and share tips on how to make really short presentations.

Short presentations scare people. “One hour? No problem. Five minutes? Oh no! What should I put in? What should I leave out? What if I make a mistake?”

Seven Tips for Short Talks

1. Start at the end. Don’t start with slides, or even an outline. Ask yourself: what do I want people to do, feel, or remember? Work backwards from there. What do you need to show people so that they can take the next step? What do you need to share in order to get them to that point?

Let’s talk about Extreme Blue. What are your goals for the project pitch presentation? You want to convince a manager to use your project, maybe even invest in it. You might want to show people that you’d be a great hire. What are your goals?

Figure out your conclusion. Then put it up front. Don’t build suspense. Say what you want to say in the first thirty seconds, use the rest of your talk to support your point, and emphasize it at the end.

2. Simplify. Be ruthless. Get rid of whatever doesn’t support your point. Save the details for handouts, posters, backup slides, web pages, or Q&A. Four minutes is not enough time for a lecture, but plenty of time for a commercial. Your job is to make people curious so that they want to find out more.

Keep your message simple, too. Translate numbers and jargon into things people can understand. Too much text on the slides means that people will be reading instead of listening to you. Try a few words, images, or no slides at all. That way, people can focus on you.

3. Share a story if you can. One of the best ways to make things human-scale is to tell a story. Yes, your project might change the software industry and create billions of dollars in profit. But your presentation will be more powerful if you can show—really show—how you can make one person’s life better. You could talk about inefficiencies in the food distribution industry, or you could talk about how one apple goes from the farm to your plate. Use a story to make things real, then help people imagine how things could be even better.

4. Start from scratch.

We have interesting quirks, like the anchoring bias. Let’s say I wanted to sell you this <item>. If I told you it’s worth about $90, we’d probably end up at a higher price than if I told you I got it for about $30. That initial information shapes our decision.

So don’t start from a boring presentation. Start from scratch, and add things only if they fit. In fact, don’t start with slides at all. Figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it before you make the slides to support your points. That way, you’re not limited by the software.

Don’t be afraid of starting from scratch multiple times. Put your drafts away and start again. Try a fresh perspective. Change things up.

(Thanks to Cate Huston for sharing this tip!)

5. Schedule. Planning a short presentation is harder than planning a long one.

You have to decide: what goes in? what stays out?

Give yourself plenty of time to work on it. Don’t wait until a week before your presentation.

Always ask yourself: Why is this worth it? Who can benefit from this? How can I show them?

The good thing is that there are plenty of opportunities to learn and practice, if you look around.

6. Seek inspiration. Next time you watch an ad, think: How does it grab your attention and make you want to do something? Next time you watch a movie or a TV show, learn from how it tells a story. Next time you have a conversation, think about words and flow.

Practising isn’t just about running through your slides and your scripts. Try parts of your talk in your next conversation with your six-year-old niece. Talk to your friends. Sketch your slides during breaks. Dream about your talk, even.

Don’t reveal anything confidential, of course. Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to learn, and you’ll find plenty.

7. Stay flexible. Four minutes flies by. You’ll be nervous. You’ll be anxious. You’ll forget things. That’s okay. I’ve given dozens of presentations. I still get nervous. I still get anxious. I still forget some of the things I want to share.

Stay flexible. If your slides don’t show, if your animation flops, if your demo fails, don’t panic. You don’t even need to apologize. Certainly don’t apologize for your apology. Keep calm and carry on. If you focused on a simple message (perhaps in a memorable story), you can share that no matter what.

This is also where keeping your talk simple helps. If you have very little text or you have simple diagrams on your slides, you can talk for as long or as short as you want. On the other hand, if you have lots of text or complicated diagrams, people feel short-changed if you flip through them too quickly. Keep things simple and flexible.

And have fun!

Resources

Watch short presentations to get a sense of how much you can fit into one. Pay attention to what you like and don’t like. Bad presentations can be just as informative as good ones.

Here are some sites worth checking out:

  • Ignite Talks – 20 slides, auto-advancing after 15 seconds each = 5-minute presentation. And you thought your pitch was tough!
  • TED.com – good source of inspiration for talks
  • Presentation Zen and Slideology – slide and presentation design tips