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An American in Paris

“Thanks for coming all the way from the Swiss Alps. Are the huskiesoutside?”

This was the greeting I received from Garr Reynolds as I arriveda little late to his Presentation Zen seminarin Paris. I quickly fired out some lame retort and a humble apology, settled my80 litre rusksack down and found a seat with some great European colleagues. Whatfollowed was an afternoon of eye-opening simplicity that set me thinking (evenmore) about my presentation skills. Using four hour-long slots with thinking, networkingand coffee drinking time slotted in between Garr helped us to think aboutpresenting as being ‘to an audience’ and ‘not for ourselves.’ What follows hereis a summary blog that attempts to pick out my top ten take-home messages frommy time in Paris and my subsequent reading of Garr’s fourth book ‘the naked presenter.’

  1.     Audience: You are presenting to somebody (wellhopefully many somebodies) and not just about something. So work out who theyare, where they come from and what you want them to take home from yourpresentation. By starting at point A (where they are) and planning to take themto point B (the changed them at the end of your presentation) then you have thebasis for your presentation.
  2.     Audience: You are presenting to real people sopresent to them. Don’t read from copious notes, don’t simply read your slides(these guys and girls can read faster than you can talk and they will readahead and then make conclusions that you don’t necessarily want them to makeand without the punch line that you have intended) and don’t present to yourslides. Get out in front, place a lap top in front of you so you can see whatis coming next and know your stuff. Present to them, go off script, answer theirquestions and engage with them like you having a conversation not giving alecture.
  3.      Audience: You have 9 minutes and 59 seconds,according to Dr John Medina in his book ‘BrainRules’, to talk to your audience in the first instance before you need to changethings up and get them doing something new. Therefore don’t use this time ‘warmingthem up’ as they are most receptive in minute one. Hit them with your message,shock them even and get them engaged from the start. After ten minutes findsomething new – tell them a story, show them some video footage, do a straw poll(i.e. “who has ever...” and count yourself amongst their number). The audience areat their most receptive in the first and last few minutes so hit them with yourbest stuff. If you shocked them at the start then show them how your talk hasoffered a solution in the final message. However, don’t waste your impact by thankingthem and asking for questions, this will happen any way and you want to leavethem with a take-away idea.
  4.      Present your message: the phrase ‘death by powerpoint’ didn’t spring outof the ether but has grown up because the full capabilities of powerpoint havebeen exploited to produce ‘all singing and all dancing’ presentations that areall ‘skirt and no knickers.’ In other words they look fancy but achieve verylittle except bamboozling their audience. So think big. One of the take homemessages I took from Garr was not to put up any text on my slides smaller thanpoint 30. If you can’t say what you want to say in point 30 or greater then youare overburdening the two key senses of the audience: their eyes and their ears.The audience see your message from the image and the small amount of text youpresent and then they hear it as you talk. However, overburden them with textand the eyes start to see, rather than hear your voice and the message – your takehome message – is at best jumbled and at worst lost in your deluge ofinformation.
  5.      Let them take your message home: Don’t try andtell them everything. Give them the key points and then allow them take homethe ‘paper’ that supports your presentation and contains the ‘hard facts.’ Don’tdo this as powerpoint slides as they won’t contain enough content for your audience(given your aim to go big) so write something. The audience can take this awayand explore your ideas at their own pace and in their own time. They can readaround the subject if they wish and make their own decisions. Your aim is toget them thinking at point B rather than point A.
  6.      Take your time to link your text message to yourimage: A picture, as Garr used, of a woman in a tracksuit drinking water from aplastic bottle could have many meanings: a) Hydrate b) recycle being just two. Sochoose your image carefully for the message that you want to give across and makesure it works by trying it out on friends before you hit an audience with it.
  7.      Link your image to your text: In reverse ofpoint 6 the slogan “Britons drink 5 million bottles of wine a week” (a made-upstatistic) is poorly represented by a glass of wine on a table by the pool, orwine drunk on a picnic, or three bottles of wine held by a waiter. Youraudience needs to understand the sheer volume of liquid this equates to. So animage of Niagara Falls and the aside “equivalent volume of Niagara Falls over aten minute period” sends a much more powerful, and meaningful, take-homemessage.
  8.      Brainstorm: There are different stages inplanning a presentation and while the first are knowing your audience andplanning the route your want to take them on from point A to point B there areothers. The second (or third in this case) is brainstorming. Garr would haveyou turn off the computer and use post-it notes and a pen, or a whiteboard andpen. He quoted John Cleese who said “we don’t know where we get our ideas frombut it certainly isn’t the computer.” So turn off the computer and write outthe ideas that immediately come into your head. Write snippets on post-it notesor the whiteboard and then move on to the next idea. Keep going. You willdiscard much of this but it will allow you to really think through the plannedmessage and the route from A to B.
  9.     Sort and storyboard your ideas: The next stageis to take your ideas and group them and then storyboard them. Using a wall,whiteboard or a notebook put the ideas into a sequence that creates the storythat you want to tell. Remember the 10 minute rule, and the need to keep ideasshort and the time you have for your presentation and flesh out the story. Youwill need to link your ideas, pool your ideas (if some are the same) anddiscard some ideas if they don’t aid in the story you are trying to tell.
  10.   Prepare and practice: The final message was thatit takes time – a lot more time than simply cutting ideas from a paper andpasting it into a slide – to prepare an effective presentation and rehearse ittakes a lot of time. I read somewhere (not from Garr) that an hour presentationtakes 30 hours to prepare. Time well spent? I would say yes. I feel that theeffectiveness of my presentations has vastly increased and the impact they haveis far more significant but I am still learning and it takes time. I havesupportive colleagues who will listen to me speak and a real desire to makethis work but solid, usable and effective ideas such as Garr’s have been key inmoving forwards and it takes preparation time and practice time.

This may seem like a lot ofeffort but I feel that it is certainly worth it. However, don’t just take myword for it; read Garr Reynolds, read John Medina, check out TED, look onslideshare and talk to people. Presentation doesn’t have to be about bulletpoints just because that is the way everyone else does it. Find your messageand tell it through powerful images, meaningful text and a take home messagethat your audience can read and question in their own time.

Happy Christmas and great newyear,

Ash

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