Improving Presentation Skills – Lessons Learned From the 2009 Web 2.0 Conference

I was not at the Web 2.0 conference but like many, I’ve read the twitters, blogs, and articles that sprung from Danah Boyd’s presentation. In watching the video of the event on YouTube and reading Danah’s own blog post on the incident, there are several lessons we can learn that will make all conference speakers – with or without Twitter – better, more effective presenters.

But first, before addressing what presenters can do, a quick shout out to the conference planners. The idea of having the Twitter stream become part of the frontchannel – streaming live behind a presenter (such as Boyd had as she presented) – is not a good thing. Regardless of how much we’d like to believe we modern humans are “super good” at multi-tasking, the fact is, we’re not. No one can read and listen at the same time. That’s why a bullet-filled PowerPoint slides is so naturally annoying! So for those of you with the power to determine such decision: leave the backchannel in the backchannel!

And now, back to the original point, what are the mistakes Boyd and many of us make and what can we learn.

Mistake #1 – The Presentation is about Me (the Presenter)

One of the errors that many presenters make is to think the presentation is about them. It’s not. It’s about the audience. In Boyd’s case, she was giving a new speech, rather than using the tried and true speech she’d given many, many times before. She says in her blog “Personally, I love the challenge and I get bored of giving the same talk over and over and over again.” While she later justified the decision as being good for both existing fans and new audience members, I suspect that she really just wanted the change for herself.

The Fix

Be willing to repeat the same speech you’ve given over and over again if that’s what’s best for the audience. But if you believe a new speech is in order than follow these steps.

Preview the speech in front of a friendly audience.

Make sure it’s not the first time you’ve presented the material publicly, particularly if it’s a high profile event. Present to a group of colleagues, family members, or a good Toastmasters club. Ensure your friendly audience includes people who are willing to provide you with honest feedback. The individual elements of Danah Boyd’s Web 2.0 speech were interesting but the overall speech had no framework, no indication of where this topic was going. And because she was going so quickly, and mysteriously, the Twitter chatter started. Getting feedback from a friendly audience would have given Boyd a clue that if she didn’t modify her approach, her audience was going to be lost.

Rehearse religiously

While dedicated rehearsal is no guarantee that you’ll not be nervous or stumble over a word or two, it sure can go a long way to having the kind of delivery that you want. With Boyd, the fact that she stumbled over several key words within the first two minutes of her presentation hinted to me that she did not adequately rehearse the speech. And from the sounds of her normal approach, it doesn’t feel like she rehearses her speeches. Quoting Boyd again, “The dirty secret is that I actually read a lot of my talks but the audience doesn’t actually realize this because scanning between my computer and the audience is usually pretty easy. So it doesn’t look like I’m reading.”

Actually, I beg to differ with Boyd on this point. I’m guessing that her audiences know she’s reading when she has her screen in front of her. Rehearsal tells the audience that you care about the presentation. And when you don’t rehearse – whether reading or not (and please, please don’t read!) – the audience knows it.

Mistake #2 – Not Arriving Early and Previewing the Speaking Location

From Boyd’s blog, “I only learned about the Twitter feed shortly before my talk. I didn’t know whether or not it was filtered. I also didn’t get to see the talks by the previous speakers so I didn’t know anything about what was going up on the screen. When I walked out on stage, I was also in for a new shock: the lights were painfully bright… Taken aback by this, my talk started out rough.”

Because Boyd didn’t arrive early, she found things out as she went, rather than having time to think through and prepare herself for the unexpected.

The Fix

Arrive early

For an in-town engagement, visit the venue prior to the meeting. Ask the meeting planner or the facility’s staff how the location will be set up on the day of the speech. Arrive at least an hour early, preferably more, and test out everything. Test the microphone – and always use a microphone in a large room, even if you think you’re loud enough – do this for the audience’s comfort, not yours. Test the lights – know whether or not you’ll be able to see past the first row. If you won’t see past the front row, then get a feel for where the seats are so that you can look at the parts of the room where chairs will be located. This will help the audience feel like you’re making eye contact, even if you can’t see them. If possible, ask for the house lights to remain up so you can see the audience. Check out getting on and off the stage. Watch for small cracks that you could get a heal stuck in and wobbly hand rails that aren’t attached to the stairs. Find out which side of the platform the steps are. Check out the stage to see if it squeaks – that’s something you don’t want to be distracted by during your speech if you didn’t see it coming. Check out that the audio video equipment is working for slides and videos you plan to show. If there’s something you don’t expect (such as the fact they won’t be able to project your slides) then you’ll have time to adjust for a different approach without the PowerPoint deck.

For an out-of-town engagement, you’ll want to arrive the day before your speech (to hopefully avoid issues caused by flight delays). Repeat all the same action above, preferable the day before when the room’s not being used, or before the events begin in the room for that day. Make sure you have plenty of time to figure out a fix if there are any problems. Have back up plans to your back up plans. Use the conference or venue staff to help you adjust for the unexpected. Be a boy-scout – be prepared.

Mistake # 3 – Assuming the Worst

During the Web 2.0 conference, Danah Boyd sensed something was happening in the audience, and immediately went to a bad place. You can see it in her face when you watch the video. The way she glances at the audience between reading the lines of her speech definitely changes during the speech. When she went off stage, she learned the truth about what was happening on the Twitter stream. Said Boyd, “The Twitter stream was initially upset that I was talking too fast. My first response to this was: OMG, seriously? That was it? Cuz that’s not how I read the situation on stage.”

Like many of us, if things don’t go the way we expected that they should, we assume the worst. Those worst-case assumptions can cause us to turn ugly or to retreat into ourselves – both of which make the matter worse. Things are rarely as bad as they seem.

The Fix

Remember – the audience thinks you’re doing much better than you think you’re doing

Most of us know the speech we wanted to give. And when a speech doesn’t go as well as we imagined it, we feel like we’re failing. But here’s the thing — it doesn’t matter what we think as a speaker. What matters is what the audience hears as listeners. If you are speaking at a conference with a live Twitter stream (backchannel or frontchannel) plan for that in advance. (See Olivia Mitchell’s excellent e-book on the topic at Have someone monitoring the tweets and plan in breaks to check for simple fixes like “she’s talking too fast” or more serious chatter like multiple tweets and retweeks asking to cover a certain aspect of the topic. That will help you as a speaker ensure you’re meeting the audience needs, and keep you from spiraling out of control when you’re getting an unanticipated response from the audience.

The Twitter backchannel can be an extremely powerful tool when used correctly. It’s wrong to think that people are rude because they have a tool like Twitter where the feel they can get away with it. The truth is, in the age before Twitter and still today in non-technology conferences, people have had and are still having the same negative thoughts when a speaker is focusing too much on themselves and not on the needs of the audience. The difference between what Boyd experienced and the no-Twitter environment is that the only people a dissatisfied non-Twitter audience member can complain to are themselves and the people sitting next to them. Twitter gives people a tool to complain more widely. What Twitter can do for speakers is give us another avenue to get feedback from the audience so we pay more attention to their needs. If the Twitter backchannel isn’t there, and if you’re being a self-centered speaker, rather than an audience focused speaker, the results are the same – a dissatisfied audience – just fewer people know about it!

3 Keys to Building a Persuasive Sales Presentation

Ted took to the front of the room at a recent presentation workshop. It was his turn to deliver his persuasive sales presentation. Standing at one end of the long oval table and making eye contact with his five sales colleagues he began to lay out the reasons why an imaginary prospect (us) should purchase his system.

“Finally” he said as neared the end of his talk “if you implement our system we will improve your process and as a result reduce your cost.”

“OK” I said “but prove it.”

“What do you mean?” Ted asked.

“You’ve made an assertion” I said “that you will improve my process and reduce my cost but an assertion will not persuade anyone. You need to prove it”

And this “prove it” approach, I believe, is at the heart of the persuasive sales presentation. Time and again I have seen sale representatives deliver a laundry list of assertions to their prospects. “You should buy our product because it has high quality ratings, a competitive price, we have a quick turn on delivery, great follow-up service” and on and on and on.

But the prospect will likely not find that kind of presentation the least bit persuasive because none of the assertions are supported by any evidence.

Let’s look at three methods we can use within our sales presentation to prove our assertions and persuade our prospects. These methods include the statistic, the story and the quote.

Statistics. Research shows (Armstrong 2008, Rossiter &Percy 1980, Kelly & Hoel 1991) that statistics and charts are excellent persuasive tools for a presentation. However, presenting statistics can be tricky. Prospects will often find data meaningless if it’s not put into context for them. Whenever using statistics to persuade your prospect I suggest explaining exactly why the data is relevant to them. So if we use Ted as an example he might begin to persuade his prospect that he can improve their process and reduce their cost, by saying something like this: “For every $1.00 you spend buying printed marketing materials you spend $6.00 managing that material.” You should provide the research source for your data on your power point slide and now put that data in context for them – “what this means Mr. Prospect is that the true cost of your printed marketing materials isn’t in the cost of your brochures and sell sheets but in the managing of the inventory, the processing of requisitions and the distribution to end users”

Now you’ve delivered data that the prospect will find compelling because if they are purchasing printed marketing materials you have shown them exactly how this data relates to them. That kind of data will get the attention of the prospect and so we have begun the process of persuading them that improving their process can, in fact, reduce their cost. The next step in the persuasion process would be to tell this prospect a story.

Stories, or if you prefer case studies or examples are, to the surprise of most, more persuasive than statistics (Pennington & Hastie 1991, Lee & Leets 2002, Green & Brock 2000). I realize that’s not logical but human nature being what it is people love stories. We love to tell them, we love to listen to them and as a result we find stories both interesting and persuasive.

But that same research also shows that the most persuasive presentations combine both stories and statistics. So Ted’s story could come right after delivering his statistic on cost savings and could look something like this: “At this time last year ABC company was in the same situation as you, they utilized a highly manual process that included physical inventory counts, product requests that came in via email or phone call and distribution that was handled by Marketing personnel who spent eight hours a week focused on managing print. Today ABC has transitioned to our automated system, now we manage their inventory and distribution, orders are placed within the system and reports are available in real-time 24/7. Today, the Marketing personnel spend just two hours a week focused on print.”

Now we’ve given our prospect a compelling statistic and a story (real life example) that supports that statistic. We’ve painted a picture for them of two worlds, the inefficient manual world that ABC company used to live in (and that the prospect currently lives in) and the efficient automated world that ABC company lives in today (and that awaits the prospect if they transition to Ted’s system). If you’ve done your homework and can accurately describe to the customer the pain points within their current situation you’ll notice their heads nodding in agreement as you verbally detail their current struggles. One more step and our persuasive case is complete.

A quote from an industry expert, a credible research company or a customer can have a tremendous impact on your prospect. When you quote an expert who supports the case you’re making it is as if you pull that person into the conversation to help you persuade the prospect. So once again, returning to our example, after giving the prospect the compelling statistic and then delivering the descriptive story Ted could show the prospect a power point slide that has ABC company’s logo and a quote from ABC’s CFO that reads “The savings in both time and money have far exceeded our expectations!”

Now, after Ted makes his initial assertion, that his system will improve process and reduce cost, he can prove it to the prospect. By combining a statistic with a story and a quote Ted builds a persuasive case that proves to the prospect that he can, and in fact has, delivered on the promise to improve process and reduce cost.

When designing your next sales presentation be sure to avoid simply making assertions. Instead, use the statistic, the story and the quote to build a persuasive case and prove it to your prospect.

Brand Presentation – Go Out of Your Way to Have Fun

Have you ever noticed the brightest colors, and the funniest scenes are the most memorable?

A little old granny with her red hat and red vinyl purse looking at a teensy weensy piece of meat on a big round bun saying, “Where’s the beef?” comes to mind when I think of funny commercials. Everybody for years walked around commenting “Where’s the beef?” It became the instant putdown on every date, the end all of party conversation, and the choice location to have a burger.

Splash yellow paint across the screen, zap it with a green jagged line, and add a pair of bright red lips talking from the depths of creation and you’ll get some attention. If the lips happen to have a quirk and say something funny, you’ll have people repeating your catchy brand slogan for months, or maybe years afterward.

When the world learned to sing in perfect harmony a few years back, it was to the tune of the Real Thing, Coke Classic in a shapely bottle. Nobody needed to ask what the wave was when Coca Cola brought back an old favorite.

For your new brand, strike up a funny pose, brightly colored, with a prime phrase, and keep the energy high. You’ll want everyone to remember your kick ass brand because it’s funny, its repeatable, and it captures attention. If it just happens to be a phrase that catches on and everyone uses for a variety of reasons, you’ll have a recognizable BRAND that presents your product every time it’s used.

How many years did we walk around singing “Please don’t squeeze my Charmin?”

Even my children, born twenty years after the fact, know that when I’m singing the ‘charmin’ song, I’m singing a jingle about toilet tissue. And, ya know what? I still sing it.

When you create a new brand for your business, think presentation and have some fun!

Please don’t squeeze my Charmin!

Don’t hold her so tight!

If Charmin needs Squeezin’…

After all, you shouldn’t have to say “Pleeze” just to get a little “Squeeze”, right Mr. Whipple?