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.
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.
Edited launch video. Full version (1hr 20min) here.
Steve Jobs is rightly regarded as a master of the presentation universe. How many presentations get that level of global PR hype, both before and after the event?
Here are 10 lessons to draw from the iPad launch speech:
1. Open with an attention-grabbing amazing fact: in this case, that Apple has now shifted its 250 millionth iPod. Which tells the audience: we’re probably right about this new product too.
2. No jargon. Jobs uses none of the clichés that bedevil corporate speeches, particularly in the IT field. No “enterprise-class solutions”. No “best of breed”. Just a conversational chat the way any normal human would talk.
3. No excess information on the screen. No ever-present logo bars, event titling or other clutter. If you can take something away without it affecting the message, then do it.
4. Strong use of quality images. In the shot below, a single photo that sums up Apple’s unique marketing positioning. No extra verbiage required.
5. Don’t be afraid to create an enemy, in Jobs’ case the Netbook, which he says is just a cheap PC that doesn’t do anything well. A lot of people will tell you that all negative messages are bad. That advice is well-meaning and wrong. If your product is the solution to a problem, you’d better spell out exactly what that problem is. And remind everyone how much it pisses them off.
6. Perfect timing on the screen graphics. Nothing comes up too early to spoil the surprise, and nothing hangs around afterward as a distraction. Which comes from:
7. A huge amount of rehearsal. Anyone who’s demonstrated software will know the tremendous scope for things to go wrong. The more effortless a presentation looks, the more effort has gone into planning and rehearsing every detail again and again.
8. A distinctive look, where every detail is consistent. The Apple stage look is always designed for zen-like simplicity to match their products. Jobs’ clothes are always consistent – even if the jeans came straight off Seinfeld. It might not work for other companies, but it works for Apple.
9. He demonstrates the product sitting back in a comfy leather chair. The underlying message is: this is a product that isn’t just designed for work. You can’t kick back in a chair and read a laptop comfortably. With the iPad, you can relax and enjoy yourself. Good stage design can send messages like that.
10. Use of the blank screen. If there’s no visual that goes with the words at any point, go to blank. The focus is on you, the presenter, with no distractions. Then, when the images return, they have much more impact.
It wasn’t a perfect presentation. It wasn’t exactly a revelation to see the iPad “just go straight to the New York Times web site” and allow you to look at it, like every other web device on earth. Snipping out some of this filler would have made it shorter without reducing the impact. But these are minor quibbles in a presentation that generally acted as a showpiece of how to get a message across clearly.
What can you learn about presentations from a TV chef who puts vibrators into a giant, luminescent jelly to make it wiggle as it arrives at the table?
Quite a bit, as it turns out. Today, the second half of what presenters can learn from chef Heston Blumenthal.
3. A Sense Of Theatre
In the olden days, there was no TV or laptop to keep you amused in the evenings. Food, at least for the nobility, was the entertainment. Chefs in those days went out of their way to surprise and delight with grand reveals, illusions, and amusing tricks. Like this medieval gem of food theatre:
“The French would pluck a live chicken, brush the skin with saffron, wheat germ and drippings, then put the head under the belly, and rock the chicken to sleep. The live chicken was then served on a platter with two cooked chickens, carried to the table and the cooked chickens carved as the live one would wake up and run wildly around, to the merriment of the guests.”
Blumenthal delights in putting on a show, like the enormous pie containing four and twenty live pigeons that fly out on cue.
Your surroundings play a huge part in your perception of an experience, even without the magic tricks. A meal eaten overlooking the sea in France is going to taste better than the same meal eaten sitting on a bed in a freeway motel watching TV.
A presentation delivered with attention to the theatrical details will always work more effectively. Imagine that, like a medieval dinner, your audience had no TV to go home to, and that your presentation was their only source of stimulation that day. What would you do differently?
Create a sense of surprise. Dress the room up with mood lighting and interesting set pieces. Finish on a bang, rather than an ‘any questions then?‘ whimper. Leaving them wanting more. If you need help with this, money spent on a good event producer is invariably worth it.
4. Educate By Entertaining
Blumenthal spends a lot of time researching the history books for ideas. Who knew that the Victorians loved nothing more than getting blasted on laudanum, cocaine, and hallucinogenic wormwood liquor? Or that they invented the vibrator, for the purposes of some pretty dubious female therapy? Presented in the right way, history becomes fascinating.
After watching the show, you’re not only entertained, but a little bit better educated. Regrettably, this clip leaves out the scene where they take prototype jellies down to the sex shop to see which vibrator delivers the goods:
And that’s something to aim for as a presenter: to have people leave the room feeling a little bit more intelligent and educated than they were before. Saying, ‘you know, that wasunexpectedly interesting.’ The trick is to tell relevant stories that bring your message to life, not just to speak a list of facts.
5. Love Your Subject
You can tell by the delirious expressions on Blumenthal and his kitchen team when they’re experimenting with covering food with explosive gun cotton, or building an ejaculating, Caligula-inspired dessert, that they genuinely love what they’re doing. It comes across in everything they do. Just talking about it makes their eyes light up.
Your subject might not be as interesting as that, but if you really like what you’re doing, it shows. Your energy rubs off on the audience, and they’ll share your enthusiasm. If you can’t summon up gleeful enthusiasm for your subject, that’s probably a clear sign you should consider changing jobs.
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.