Most things you need to know about staging large events can be learned from This Is Spinal Tap. What event producer hasn’t turned up on site to find some equivalent of a 18-inch high Stonehenge set, because someone misread the plans?
I had my own Spinal Tap moment the other week. For those who haven’t seen the film, here’s where the hyped-up band gets lost in the subterranean labyrinth on the way to the stage:
In my own version, hosting a presentation in a very large auditorium, I had a 45 minute lunch break to get AV crews sorted, panel briefed, run sheet understood etc. With 10 minutes to showtime, it was all under control. At that point, I decided the professional thing to do was take a pre-show visit to the gents’. I headed for the exit doors underneath the raked seating.
The convention centre has gigantic airlock doors out of Battlestar Galactica. You push a large button on the wall and the first door opens. You enter the airlock and push a second button. The next door opens and releases you into the netherworld corridor a level down from the lobby. Being an environmentally responsible convention centre, the lights were off. I stumbled around in the semi-darkness, and finally found the bathrooms. Locked. I pushed the button to get back into the auditorium. Nothing. One-way, no-entry doors.
Visions of hearing the MC intro me, and nobody can hear my door-pounding and screams through the airlock.
Finally, with about a minute to go, run a hundred metres up stairs and push my way through a queue of audience at the door. Get to stage huffing and puffing. “Hello Cleveland!”
After the show I learned there’s an executive-class bathroom just backstage. It’s the little things that get you.
Here’s a quick tip to cut the jargon factor in your presentations. Drop the word “offerings”.
Personally, it makes me squirm whenever I hear some marketing manager presenting their “class-leading range of product offerings”. It makes me think of their product being plucked, still pulsing with warm blood, from some unfortunate’s chest on an altar high above a volcano by men with sinister feathered masks, to encourage the gods to deliver another year of abundant rainfall.
Here’s what to replace it with: nothing. Instead of ‘product offerings’, say ‘products’. Ditto for ’service offerings’. If you can make something shorter, then you should do it every time.
There’s a new issue of MICE.net magazine on the streets. This issue, my column questions the ancient convention of Q&A (the event kind, not the Tony Jones TV show that sends Twitter into hyperdrive).
Sometimes, meetings are no place for democracy. At a major event, you can spend a lot of time and money building up momentum and excitement, only to have it derailed by the sort of unrepresentative nutbags who write newspaper letters to the editor that start with: “Is it just me, or blah blah blah…”
Now where was I? Sorry about the two months off. Ironically, all my spare time got consumed by a couple of heavy-duty presentations. You always underestimate how long it takes to develop a completely new presentation, unless you’re knocking out a quick bullet point show, and that would leave us open to charges of hypocrisy.
The most complex of the two shows, a game show at the MEA national conference at Melbourne Convention Centre, was one of the most enjoyable presentations I’ve done in years, thanks to a brilliant panel of contestants. I believe MEA are working their way through the permission maze to get it up on line permanently, so we’ll link it up then.
Meanwhile, for those of you who’ve sat through as many IT industry on-stage conference chat sessions as we have, here’s a treat for you. The newly-free Conan O’Brien - legally constrained from being funny on any medium except Twitter - on stage at a Google event, toying with eager senior Google boss Vic Gundotra like a tiger with a ball of string.
O’Brien ignores the standard convention of being polite about the client and the product - “You guys are so power-mad now…”.
As a result, it’s probably the funniest conference presentation you’ll see. It’s 48 minutes, but worth it. Watch it at home instead of whatever classic repeats your local network is serving up.
By the way, doesn’t the bearded Conan look like Burger King’s spooky King mascot?
There’s a time and a place for a sales presentation, and conferences aren’t it.
People pay good money to go to conferences. In return, they want to learn amazing new things, discover future trends, and learn how others in the same industry have solved problems.
They don’t want a blatant sales hustle from the lectern. Conference sponsors find this hard to resist, having paid good money to support the delegates’ voracious appetite for liquor each evening. Even if you’re so kind as to pick up the whole tab, however, the audience will still resent a Brandpower-style eulogy on the wonders of your product.
In this situation, the best approach is to do a useful talk on some important industry trend, without the direct product plugs. You can still present the topic with a skew toward your company’s viewpoint, and people are OK with that. The brand benefits come from people thinking: that presenter from Acme Industries was really interesting and gave me some useful information. When it’s time to buy, I’ll trust them.
The TED conference is a shining example of how successful the non-hustle approach can be. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment & Design, with the motto ‘Ideas Worth Sharing’. It holds an annual conference in Long Beach, and tickets to it are among the most sought-after in the events world. It attracts a stellar lineup of speakers, all of whom you can catch on video for free.
And no matter who’s presenting, whether it’s Bill Gates, Anthony Robbins or Bill Clinton, they have to obey the rules. The ‘TED Commandments’ are a great guide for anyone who wants to really engage an audience, rather than the polite tolerance that most speakers receive.
1. Thou shalt no simply trot out thy usual schtick.
2. Thous shalt dream a great dream, or show forth a wondrous new thing, or share something thou hast never shared before.
3. Thou shalt reveal thy curiosity and thy passion.
4. Thou shalt tell a story.
5. Thou shalt freely comment on the utterances of other speakers for the sake of blessed connection and exquisite controversy.
6. Thou shalt not flaunt thine ego. Be thou vulnerable. Speak of thy failure as well as thy success.
7. Thou shalt not sell from the stage: neither thy company, thy goods, thy writings, nor thy desperate need for funding, lest thy be cast aside into outer darkness.
8. Thou shalt remember all the while: laughter is good.
9. Thou shalt not read thy speech.
10. Thou shalt not steal the time of them that follow thee.
Any presenter wanting to improve their style could spend literally weeks watching videos of TED presentations. You’ll learn more from it than a thousand cheesy how-to-present books.
Did you know there’s a single, vital element of your presentation that you’ve probably never considered?
One that’s never mentioned in the presentation tips books.
And if you get it wrong, it can cancel out all the good work you’ve done with graphics, scriptwriting and vocal practice.
At the risk of turning this post into some kind of Sex In The City scenario, try this experiment. Catch any domestic flight in Australia, sit in an aisle seat toward the back. And observe row after row of blokes in perfectly acceptable suits, yet wearing terrible, bargain-bin, scuff-toed, curve-heeled, semi-synthetic business shoes.
Anecdotal research suggests that most women in your audience look at your shoes before your PowerPoint, and that can mean Game Over.
‘Untrustworthy,’ was a word I heard more than once at a recent conference when the subject came up during the cocktail hour.
Decent shoes can be bought from stores in most cities, along with handy stuff like polish. Deal with it, and the focus goes back to your presentation style.
Researching your audience is probably the most important element of your presentation. Doom awaits those who neglect this.
Over the weekend I had dinner with another school parent, a man who built a sizable fortune from selling domestic appliances. Let’s call him Jim.
He did it with decades of krazy, come-on-down, low budget TV advertising, low on touchy-feely branding and very high on outlandish product demonstrations, blazing a trail followed years later by the excellent Blendtec campaign.
Jim starred in every ad himself, thus saving a heap on actors which could be passed on to the customer in the form of Crazy Low Prices.
Through sheer consistency, he grew it into the colossus of its category, with several hundred stores.
In person, Jim is polite, well spoken and charming - the complete opposite of his wacky TV persona. He particularly enjoys taking calls from people calling to complain about the ads.
One day he took a call from an ad agency.
“We love your brand,” they said. “Great product, great strategy, all great. Except that guy you’re using on the TV commercials. He’s pretty bad, and it’s really holding your brand back. Can we come in and present some exciting new directions for your ads?”
“That would be excellent.” said Jim.
On the appointed day, they turn up excited. All cliche boxes are ticked. Creative director in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt and suit jacket. Some slick account men. An easel full of storyboards. Many, many hours of preparation.
Jim walks out into reception and greets them cheerily. The blood drains from their faces as they contemplate the monumental scale of their blunder.
Like a laboratory frog, the dead presentation twitched on the boardroom table for 15 dreadful minutes before they packed up their easel and ran away.
It was one of the most enjoyable meetings of Jim’s career.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s an audience of one or a thousand. The worst presentations are always the ones that seem to have been prepared for a completely different audience, because they have. Not making the effort to understand your audience before you haul out your standard template presentation shows a basic lack of manners and they will punish you for it.
If you present with numbers, you know how hard it is to bring them to life. Not all of us can be as riveting as maths lecture wizard Matthew Weathers.
Here are some useful tips from Lizzie O’Leary of Bloomberg News, an organisation that faces a daily challenge of presenting endless numbers without giving their audience a general anaesthetic.
The two core issues that should drive any presentation are:
1. People like stories. Always have, always will.
2. People want to know how the subject will affect them, personally.
O’Leary makes the valuable point that in communication terms, “economics is just a collection of little data points of human behavior.” So you look for the human side of the numbers.
Step 1: Find a face for the issue.
On TV that means finding an interview subject who has been affected by the numbers. In your presentation you might tell a story of how a typical family, or sales rep, or distributor has been affected by the issues you’re presenting. Put up a photo of them to make it more real. Don’t make one up, people can sense when you’re bluffing.
Step 2: Globalise the numbers
Now show how your example isn’t some random outlier - it’s a trend, or a major issue for a lot of people. Time to bring in the graphs, but the simpler, the better.
Obviously your approach depends on your audience. If you’re delivering quarterly profit forecasts to market analysts, just give them the damn numbers as quickly as possible.
But if your audience, like most, regards numbers as a yawn-fest, there is much to be said for the Bloomberg approach.
When most companies plan an event, they’re focused on the ‘how?‘ rather than the ‘why?‘
So there are endless meetings about what brand of wine to serve, and whether the delegates should be arranged theatre style or classroom style. Where should the off-site dinner be?
These are all important questions, but few people actually give much thought to why they’re having the meeting in the first place. Exactly what results are your organisation expecting, other than a feel-good round of applause at the end?
Giving thought to the ‘why’ has profound effects on the style of your meeting. Is the standard ’speeches & lunch’ model of meeting the right way to reach your communication goals?
Here’s an article I wrote on the subject for the latest issue of MICE.net magazine. It uses one of those clever virtual magazine viewers, so go here, then go to page 18.
Ian Whitworth believes passionately in the power of live communication, without the buzzwords and bullet points. He works as a creative director and principal of agency A Lizard Drinking. He is also one of the founders of audiovisual company Scene Change. Ian is an ex-professional presenter and long ago, ex-audiovisual technician. For non-presentation stuff, try @ianwhitworth.