If you’re a meeting planner, want to know how to help your presenters get their message across better?
Put them against a better background. Just as the subject of a picture will always look better in an attractive setting, people will give presenters more respect if the stage set looks professional.
Audiences start judging an event from the moment they walk into the room. They think: what does this room environment remind me of?
If they walk into the room and see a tripod screen and a plastic banner, it’s going to remind them of school, or university lectures. They have flashbacks to long, eye-wateringly dull speeches from crusty headmasters in tweed jackets with leather elbow patches.
They’re already a little dozy by the time the presenters start, even if they turn out to have no elbow patches at all.
On the other hand, if they walk in to a room with a professional-looking stage backdrop, lighting and music, it reminds them of theatre or TV shows.
Their subconscious minds think: Looks like we’re in for something interesting.
This sense of authority is why TV networks spend a fortune on sets. Can you picture your favorite news anchor sitting behind a hotel fold-up table on a stage, with the network logo on a plastic banner? You wouldn’t watch, would you?
A set gives your presenters a head start, because they don’t have to work as hard to overcome the expectation of dullness.
Sets for events can be really elaborate, but they don’t have to be. The main purpose is just to break free of the standard brown hotel wall or black draping, and add some lightness and colour. Your staging people can create looks with stretch fabric and lights that really lift the mood. It also creates much stronger corporate branding.
As a bonus, presenters in this environment feel more important, so they rise to the occasion with a more enthusiastic, energetic speech.
Swimmer Nick D’Arcy, convicted team mate thumper: villain or just misunderstood?
I don’t know.
But audience perception can be a superficial business, whether in a court case or presentation.
People often just judge you on instinct. Something deep in the primitive animal part of their brain just tells them whether you can be trusted or not.
So you when you see Nick D’Arcy in the media, you have to ask yourself: when he’s going up before courts and tribunals that hold his future in their hands, when he’s dressed up his nice court suit, why he goes there with a haircut that simply says: Idiot.
It’s the haircut of guys who go the wallop and don’t remember doing it. It’s half-man, half dimwit dog breed. Unfair and superficial that impression might be, but you look at the media pictures and think: why even bother with the suit?
There’s nothing wrong with having a flamboyant hairstyle. Speed skating gold medallist Stephen Bradbury is a brilliant conference speaker.
However, Bradbury doesn’t have to convince people that he’s not the bad guy.
People with dodgy-looking faces are stuck with them in all situations. But respectable hair cuts are freely available for a modest investment. Someone in the D’Arcy camp should have known that.
Is your worthwhile message being rendered ineffective by a distracting comb-over, dandruff or high pants? Obviously not, you’re perfectly presentable, but we both know that at least 5% of presenters fall into this category. We’ve worked with them, and we’ve smelled their after-shave when they pass in narrow corridors.
How we break the news to them is a little tricky, maybe you could just leave this page open on their computer while they’re away from their desk. I hope that’s not how you came to be reading this.
In the last post we discussed the importance of presentation openings.
We’re always amazed at the eternal popularity of the worst speech opening technique ever. It’s a method that torpedoes your speech before it’s even left the dock.
It’s the Apologetic Opener.
It goes something like this.
“Sorry, I’m not used to public speaking…”
“Sorry I’m a bit flustered, the traffic was terrible on the way here…”
“Sorry, I’m a bit hung over, hit it pretty hard last night if you know what I mean…”
“Sorry, I’m really tired, was up most of last night working on deadlines, no rest for the wicked…”
“Sorry, I’ll try not to bore you TOO much…”
“I won’t waste too much of your time…”
The logic behind it is that many people believe they’re a poor speaker. So they figure if they present an apology in advance, preferably for some factor beyond their control, then the audience will cut them some slack.
Regrettably, audience don’t care about your problems. Just over a nasty cold? Been up all night with a crying baby? Forget about it and focus on your speech, because you’re absolutely wasting your breath trying to whip up some sympathy.
Imagine you were in a restaurant and the waiter is doing a terrible job. You ask why he brought the wrong main course, half an hour late. He tells you that he’s had a really tough time lately, just broke up with his girlfriend and he dropped hot platters on on his foot earlier and has a nasty bruise.
Do you care? Do you want to hear about his troubles? Didn’t think so. And neither do audiences.
When you open with an apology, all the audience hears is: “Bad presentation coming up. Stop listening now.”
The Apologetic Opener has a distant cousin, the Self-Deprecating Opener.
This is a much better way to start, because it shows that you’re a normal human and don’t have an over-inflated view of yourself. And that you’re confident enough to risk looking silly.
So, say you’re an international diplomat, presenting on how you once brokered a peace deal between warring nation-states in Eastern Europe. Open by telling them you’re now into the third round of negotiations of the Download Bandwidth Limit Treaty with your teenage children, and have been unable to extract any meaningful concessions so far.
Look at Al Gore’s opening in his Inconvenient Truth speech, where he introduces himself as “I’m Al Gore. I used to be the next President of the United States“.
It got the audience on side from the start, and helped transform the image of a guy who had been renowned for robotic humorlessness.
Self-deprecation can be a fine line to tread. In the wrong hands, it can be fairly nauseating - like almost every Hugh Grant movie you can think of. Test it on some friends for some honest feedback before you take it on the road.
Video is a fine thing for adding some visual variety to your presentation, and for giving your voice a rest for a few moments. Video files are easy to embed in PowerPoint or Keynote so you don’t have to mess around with clunky media players or DVD’s.
Youtube doesn’t go out of their way to help you download video material. As their Help section says:
“No, currently you can’t download our videos to your computer. YouTube’s video player is designed to be used within your browser as an Internet experience.”
Oh yes you can. Until recently I was using on-line conversion sites like vixy.net.
Now there’s an option where you can get higher resolution MP4 files. Youtube is trying to increase the quality of its video images - you might have noticed the little ‘watch in high quality’ button that it offers now.
This page gives you a link that you can drag onto your toolbar or favourites list, which comes up like this:
or like this on a PC:
Go to your Youtube video of choice, click on the ‘Get YouTube Video‘ button, and your Youtube page will now have this handy ‘Download as MP4‘ button over on the right-hand side:
And you’re set to go.
Obviously ‘High Res’ is a relative term, and if it was blurry when it was uploaded, that’s how it’ll stay. But generally there’s some quality progress being made.
Someone recently asked me who was the best speaker I’d ever seen.
I’m not a big fan of the holy-rollin’, pump-‘em-up, Nine Steps to Success school of speaker. They’re all the same, every last one of them.
I prefer presenters that break with the conventional templates, like Edward de Bono slumped over in his chair in the middle of the stage drawing squiggles, the Tom Waits of the overhead projector.
The best speaker I ever saw, coincidentally at the same conference as de Bono, was Noel Pearson, Director of the Cape York Institute, lawyer and aboriginal activist.
His passion is ending the handout mentality among his people, built up through years of good intentions from government and welfare agencies. He believes passive welfare is at the root of the social deterioration of indigenous people, and speaks of the balance between rights and responsibilities.
Not a standard topic for a conference on current business issues, rather than social ones, with an audience of overwhelmingly white finance and marketing types. He had the audience spellbound for an hour, without raising his voice or leaving the lectern. He painted a vivid picture of a world that few of us know or understand, and methodically explained how well-meaning actions can have the opposite effect.
If you define the success of a presentation by how effectively it changes the way the audience thinks, then this was up there with the best. It was a stunning display of… reasonableness.
Some lessons from Noel Pearson’s presentation style:
The Power of Not Being What They Expect
Pearson was calm, reasonable, and logical, which was not what the audience expected from an aboriginal activist. That instantly changed their willingness to listen. Kind of like Barack Obama’s success in escaping the stereotype of the Jesse Jackson-style firebrand.
Without wanting to trivialize what Pearson or Obama have overcome, we all have our stereotypes when we get up to present: Self-Indulgent Marketing Guy, Out-Of-Touch-With-Customers Finance Woman, Dandruffy IT Man. If you can break these expectations, their minds open up to your message.
You Don’t Have to Shout
A lot of speakers are really concerned about being ‘energized’, and that’s generally a good thing. But if you’re energetic all the time, there’s no light and shade. Speaking quietly and calmly can draw people in, making it seem more like a conversation than a broadcast. It creates intimacy, even in a large hotel ballroom.
Eye Contact: Show You Know Your Stuff
Pearson rarely looks down, even when he’s delivering a really complex message. Obviously his legal background helps. Apart from the non-verbal benefits of looking the audience in the eye, it shows that he knows his material, and he believes in it. When you see politicians reading from a script, you tend to think: “She doesn’t really believe that. She’s just reading something one of her staffers wrote.” If you’re really passionate about your topic, you should know your material.
The clip below shows Pearson speaking at a breakfast. He gets off to a nervous start, with lots of ums and face-touching. But once he gets the flow going, he has a superb command of language. It’s a compelling demonstration of the delicate art of telling people their views are wrong without causing offence.
A friend just attended one of Robert McKee’s famous ‘Story’ seminars in LA, three days of relentless lessons on screenwriting. She thought it was brilliant.
She was particularly impressed with the iron discipline of McKee, who at the age of 75 still delivers ten concentrated hours of material each day with just a 15 minute break. And he does it under rigid rules.
Under strict McKee Presentation Law, if your cell phone goes off, or your computer beeps, you have to walk up the front and put $10 in the phone jar.
“I will not be interrupted,” he says.
He looks like someone you wouldn’t want to interrupt. Even when he’s silent and still, he has terrifying ‘don’t mess with me‘ eyebrows.
In the world capital of bad cell phone etiquette, quite a few offenders were brought to justice. All paid up. Genius.
With control like that, it must be tempting to escalate the punishment for his own amusement. Why not have a fish bowl on a pedestal on stage, ready to send the phones of offenders to a visible, watery grave?
If you don’t have the forceful personality of Mr McKee, here’s another idea.
Make sure your computer is plugged into the speaker system. If someone answers a call and tries to have a hushed-voice conversation, here’s the procedure:
Apologize in advance to the audience.
Switch the big screen image off, so only you can see it on your notebook.
Open up an ‘Adult Entertainment’ video clip* and hit ‘play’.**
Turn up the soundtrack volume.
There is no caller, business or personal, who is going to buy whatever feeble excuse is offered.
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.