Stone Cold Phil Davison

September 17, 2010

Astounding. There are many words to describe this speech, but astounding sums it up for me.

Astounding that a candidate from a serious political party would think this is a suitable way to run for a nomination.

Astounding that anybody could communicate quite this badly, making very basic errors.

And astounding in particular that Phil Davison (no relation, honest) claims to have a Masters degree in Communication!

Now this video has run up over a million hits in a week, and I’m not going to repeat what many other presentation coaches have already said so expertly – notably John Zimmer – but I’ll just say a few words about passion.

It’s not about how passionate you are, but how passionate you appear to be, and in what way. A speech without any enthusiasm or passion is as dry and featureless as a desert. However, there’s a difference between showing genuine passion in an acceptable way, and speaking like a wrestler who’s shouting into the mike about how he’s about to beat his opponent to a pulp. Despite the electoral success of Jesse Ventura, politicians are expected to show passion in a more, erm, civilised way.

Compare Phil Davison’s speech with this one by wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin from some years back. They go rather well together.

The tone is very similar, but Austin had obviously prepared a little better, not needing to resort to notes, and his conclusion was very well scripted, using good rhetorical techniques. Perhaps they went to the same communications college?

Phil Davison didn’t get the nomination. And I’m not sure if any communications coaches would even consider trying to turn him into a respectable political speaker. But his style has its place, and perhaps if he learns to do without the notes (and hits the gym) he has a future in the wrestling ring… you heard it here first!

Presentation Pitfalls #8 – Reading instead of connecting

September 6, 2010

The speech was fantastic, one of the best I have heard. It must have taken a long time to craft. It was a masterpiece of motivational and inspirational rhetoric.

The speaker’s voice was deep and powerful, well suited to the stage, and carried well in the large marquee thanks to the excellent sound system. He spoke slowly, carefully and clearly.

There were no visuals, but the speech didn’t need any. At least there were no sub-standard visuals to distract us from the speaker and his message.

Sound good so far? Of course. So what made this one of the most painful speeches I have sat through in recent years? Read the rest of this entry »

Presentation Pitfalls #7: Slide synch (or lack of)

September 1, 2010

“And the winner is…” called the presenter as he carefully opened the ceremonial envelope. The huge room was filled with silent yet eager anticipation.

He then paused, wondering why everyone was suddenly talking, laughing and groaning, then dutifully took the card from the envelope, and read out the winner’s name.

What could have gone wrong? Slide synch, that’s what.

While the speaker was fiddling with his envelope, someone else advanced the slides too quickly, and revealed the winner’s name to all but the speaker before the envelope had even been opened. Doh! Not only did this make the speaker look silly, it made everyone think less of the organization of the event, both for the Powerpoint slip-up and for even using ceremonial envelopes when the winners were already on the slides. Read the rest of this entry »

Presentation Pitfalls #6 – Bent logic

August 20, 2010

As I was strolling around Paris this week, I came across the kind of film poster ad which annoys the hell out of me. It annoyed me so much that I thought I would capture it and share it with you. (I’m sure the film company won’t mind since it’s a little extra publicity, and while I haven’t seen the film, it might be quite good.)

Now, what’s wrong with this? OK, it may not be the best photo of Ludivine Sagnier who usually looks very attractive, but that wasn’t the problem. I can just about live with the mix of fonts and the fairly ugly yellow colour, since at least there’s a theme which is consistently followed. I also don’t mind that there’s no real attempt to sell the film – we have no idea what it’s about, whether it’s had a good review, or why we should go and see it, other than the two lead actresses and the director, none of whom is a big enough draw on their own. (French cinema is well enough subsidised that it doesn’t actually need to sell many tickets.)

No, the problem here is that the two lead actresses are the wrong way round. The actress on the left is Kristin Scott Thomas, and the one on the right is Ludivine Sagnier. I asked a colleague what he thought I hated about this ad, and he didn’t get it because he didn’t know either of the actresses. (In which case neither of them is going to be a good selling-point for the film anyway.) But for cinephiles like me who know the actresses, it just looks plain daft to see two actresses, each with the other’s name above her head.

Does nobody check this first? What do the actresses think of it? It may be fair to suggest that Sagnier’s name should be the first we see (reading of course from the left), since she’s slightly more of a box-office draw nowadays than Scott-Thomas, but in that case, surely the poster should have Sagnier on the left and not on the right?

In any case, it just looks plain wrong to me and doesn’t inspire much confidence in the quality of the film. I should stress that this is far from the first time this has happened. There have been examples in the past where an actor and actress have appeared with each other’s names on their heads, which would look silly even to people who don’t know either of them.

Right, so what has this got to do with presenting? It’s all about avoiding what I call bent logic. If you use slides which don’t appear logical, they won’t be clear to your audience, and they will pollute your message instead of enhancing it. Read the rest of this entry »

The enemy is the ABUSE of PowerPoint

April 27, 2010

Today’s New York Times has a lead article on the US military’s use of PowerPoint, entitled We Have Met The Enemy and He Is PowerPoint. This is the presentation news of the day, retweeted and discussed in various blogs.

Some agree that PowerPoint is the enemy. Others disagree. Even Seth Godin weighs in with “Guns don’t kill people, bullets do” although unlike some other bloggers he correctly points out that the issue is misuse of PowerPoint. I have already explained in this blog how I don’t believe slideware is the problem with bad presentations – it’s the poor use of slideware that causes the problem. In the right hands, PowerPoint and KeyNote can be used to produce fantastic visuals.

Nonetheless, there is an item in the NYT article which I believe is worthy of further comment. Some officers claim to spend a huge portion of their time creating slides, not for keynote presentations, but as records of events. This was similar to my experience in large corporations where I spent a major part of my time creating slides which would never be given in front of an audience because my hierarchy required it.  Hell, we had to create business plans in PowerPoint. I’ve spent far less time with PowerPoint since I became a full-time presentation coach!

Is this how we want our soldiers and officers to be spending their time? Does the Taleban waste valuable time and effort on creating slides? They must be having a good chuckle reading how their enemy wastes its time. The same is true of many corporations.

Scott Adams had this nailed some time ago, as the Dilbert strip below can testify.

Dilbert spends time on PowerPoint

What is the answer? Ban PowerPoint? Sure, let’s throw out the baby with the bathwater, that would be really smart. Why reduce the efficiency of the few presentations that could really benefit from some good slides? While we’re at it, we could ban gas-guzzling 4x4s (SUVs) because too many city-dwellers buy them, with no regard for the farmers who really need four-wheel-drive vehicles.

No, let’s not ban PowerPoint. But that’s no reason to do nothing. Whether you are in the military, or a corporation, or any kind of organization, there are things you can do to reduce PowerPoint abuse:

  1. If you currently require ANYONE to produce slides, ask yourself why. What would happen if they didn’t arrive? Is there a better medium such as a word-processor? You should only require people to produce slides if they are to be delivered in front of a live audience or via webinar/webcast, and if the presentation requires slides to aid explanation or drive a message home.
  2. Look at what your people spend time doing – and what you spend time doing – and ask whether it is directly contributing to your customers, your objectives and your added value. If not, ask whether that added value would diminish if the activity were deprioritized. And if not, deprioritize it. This goes beyond PowerPoint of course.
  3. When someone in your organization needs to make a presentation, do not ask “have you done your slides?” – that is the wrong question! Do not assume that every speech requires slides. When did you last see President Obama using slides? But isn’t he a great communicator? Ask instead (if you must) “have you prepared your presentation?”
  4. Send your people on a course about presentation skills (not a course on how to use PowerPoint). That will help them to learn when to use slides, how to use them well – and when not to use them at all. Frankly, you should follow the course as well, and so should your boss.

In the meantime, corporations and the military alike will continue to abuse PowerPoint, and it shouldn’t come as news to anybody. But blaming PowerPoint for poor slides and misuse is no fairer than blaming a bullet for the poor aim of a rifleman.

Presentation Pitfalls #5 – Hiding behind the lectern

March 29, 2010

Recently I was forced to stand behind a lectern to give a presentation. Sometimes there are good reasons for this: in this instance, we had people calling into the room via phone bridge, and that meant each speaker needed to speak directly into the microphone which was fixed to the lectern.

Whatever the reason, it’s just not natural for me. Giving me a stage and tying me to the lectern is like taking a lion to the savannah and tying him to a tree. Worse, standing behind a lectern builds barriers between you and your audience, and who thought that communication would work better with more barriers?

With a lectern, you then have the problem of what to do with your hands. Do you use them to lean on the lectern – which looks lazy or preacher-like – or do you use them to hold on to the fixed microphone, as I saw recently at a business awards ceremony (I had to try very hard to stifle a laugh)? Neither looks good, but worse, you lose the opportunity to do great things with your hands and arms, which are so important to accentuate your messages. You also look as if you are hiding, which betrays a lack of self-confidence, and if you don’t appear to have confidence in yourself, how do you expect the audience to respect you?

Getting up close with your audience is a great help for eye-contact, for non-verbal communication and for you as the speaker to feel how the audience is reacting, and tune your delivery accordingly. Stand behind a lectern and you will lose all that – and perhaps the audience as well.

Presentation Pitfalls #4 – Banish Bad Slides

March 22, 2010

There have been a few interesting blog posts recently about PowerPoint being the root of all evil when it comes to presentations, with one conference even deciding to ban it altogether.  Jon Thomas at Presentation Advisors makes some good points about how this is solving the wrong problem.

PowerPoint is not the problem, and nor is Keynote (as an Apple fan I won’t fall into the trap of pretending there’s only one slideware application out there).  Blaming the application for the poor slides is like blaming a word-processor for a bad essay. It’s like many other IT-related problems – it’s all down to PEBKAC.

However, these slideware applications are in large part responsible for the plethora of abysmal presentations, and for the costly degeneration of intra-corporate communication.  It’s not their fault.  But they are responsible for it.

That’s a controversial statement from someone who makes a living using these applications.  So let me explain.

Many years ago, at some time after the invention of the printing press and before the invention of slideware apps, people used to communicate with rudimentary tools and visual supports.  They might write on a blackboard with a piece of chalk, or hand out photocopies of some notes or graphs. Then came flipcharts, which made it easier to use colours than with blackboards, and easier to use plenty of drawings.  And then came the revolutionary OHP – the OverHead Projector, which allowed anyone able to write or print on a transparent piece of plastic to have their work projected on a screen behind them.

The OHP was the beginning of trouble.  However, it was still painful enough to produce an OHP slide that you’d only do it for the things you really needed to show. For the rest of the talk, you’d actually speak to people and try to communicate with them.

Then came PowerPoint and Keynote, and everything got a whole lot easier. These applications made it easy to produce simple slides to show on the wall behind you, so you no longer needed an OHP and you could produce as many slides as you wanted without a lot of trouble.  In fact, it was so easy that most people didn’t take much trouble with their slides.

Slowly but surely, the slides became the presentation.  When someone in the corporate world asks you: “Have you prepared your presentation?” they really mean: “Have you created your slides?”  Which is clearly the wrong question to ask.  Well, clearly to me and probably to you – but not for the majority of corporate animals who have never known anything else.

People got so used to not having to spend much time on each slide, and using the slides as speaker notes, that it became the norm to have lots of slides.  It became almost unheard-of to make a corporate presentation without using slides.  A new generation of businesspeople grew up with slide abuse as the norm, and naturally they perpetuated what they had learned as the right way of doing things.

The growth of email as the main form of written communication, replacing a large part of what used to be verbal communication via old technology like the telephone or actually speaking to somebody face-to-face, then created the need to share documents with people in order to share information.  At some point, the first corporate animal got the idea that if he had to make a presentation to some people, and then share something in writing with them afterwards, maybe he could just do the work once.  (Ladies, I use the male pronoun because whoever this dumb person was, it was almost certainly a man.)  So he put everything on his slides so that anyone READING the slides, WITHOUT hearing the talk, would mostly understand.

Thus was born the phenomenon of the slide-as-document, neither a decent document nor a decent set of visual supports.  Maybe it could have been good.  A centaur – half-man, half-horse – was pretty useful with a man’s chest, head and arms and a horse’s body and fast legs.  Sadly, the slide-as-document is as useful as the centaur would have been had it had a man’s body and horse’s head.

Presenters then realised that it required even less preparation if they actually wrote everything on their slides, so this became the norm.  They could just stand there and read the slides, so they didn’t actually need to prepare mentally for the speech. Slides became their crutch – a support for the presenter, not for the benefit of the attendees, as Scott Adams so simply pointed out.

And that is the sad story of how a great advance in technology has taken us backwards.  Think how many presentations are given inside and between companies every day.  Think how much time is spent making and listening to presentations.  Think how much that time costs.  And then think how efficient the communication really is – and how much better it could be if the messages were passed properly and memorably.

Maybe improving the way people communicate is what our companies need to get the most out of their human capital, and pull our economies out of recession by a massive increase in productivity.  It certainly wouldn’t do any harm. What is for sure is that we have to solve the right problem, which is to teach people how to get their messages across effectively, and how to avoid the typical pitfalls of the modern presentation.

We don’t need to ban slideware. We need to banish bad slides.

Presentation Pitfalls #3: Prepare, or prepare for disaster…

March 17, 2010

This week at the SXSWi conference, a keynote with Twitter CEO Evan Williams went badly wrong, and hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Which of the four aims of presentation did it achieve?  Perhaps only the fourth – be remembered – but sadly not in the desired way.  Williams was not properly heard because people either left early or spent their time tweeting about how boring it was; he wasn’t understood for the same reasons, and he certainly lost respect from those attending, as well as from all the many thousands more who saw the tweets, blogs and bad publicity about the fiasco.

So what went wrong?  Let’s examine this in detail because it’s very instructive.  (I recommend reading this article before reading the analysis.)

1. High expectations. This was built up as the major keynote event at the conference, and therefore expectations were very high indeed.  In particular, from the head of a company such as Twitter which is all about communication and innovation, you’d expect something special.  Sadly, high expectations are rarely met.

Steve Jobs knows very well that his presentations are hotly anticipated and with sky-high expectations, and if he puts a  foot wrong, not only will it hurt his reputation, it will probably also impact Apple’s share price.  Therefore he prepares extremely carefully and takes his appearances very seriously indeed.  Evan Williams didn’t live up to the high expectations, although maybe if expectations hadn’t been so inflated, people would not have been so disappointed.

Learning: you have to meet or exceed expectations, so work out what your audience will expect, and if you’re not sure you’ll exceed their expectations, try to reduce them, like Philippe Starck whose famous TED speech began with him saying that he wasn’t sure why he had been invited to speak, and in any case he had nothing to say – a humorous way to lower expectations.

2. Underestimating the impact: the consequences of failure to impress are now more wide-reaching than ever before, largely thanks to Twitter itself.  I read a story recently about a teacher who made an error in a class he was teaching somewhere in the US.  By the time the lesson ended, thanks to the tweets from inside the classroom, the whole faculty (and well beyond) knew about the error and the tweet-storm had ripped the poor chap’s reputation to shreds.

Likewise, Evan Williams was ‘hoist with his own petard’ since it was the rapid tweets on his underwhelming performance which kicked off a snowball of bad publicity.  Years ago, if you made a bad speech, then unless it was newsworthy or broadcast, the only people who knew about it were direct witnesses and the people they informed.  It is a generally accepted statistic in business that a dissatisfied customer tells nine other potential customers about their dissatisfaction.  In the twitterverse and blogosphere, any gripe or ridicule gets broadcast very rapidly to tens of thousands of people.

I heard about this because I follow Nancy Duarte (@nancyduarte), founder of Duarte Design and author of Slide:Ology, on Twitter. Nancy has nearly 5000 followers. She wasn’t even there at SXSW so she heard it second-hand as well.

How many others tweeted and retweeted about this?  (I know I did.)  It’s a fair bet that many tens or hundreds of thousands – or perhaps millions – now think that Evan Williams is a bad presenter.  This is probably unfair, but sadly, perception is somebody else’s reality, and it’s going to be very hard to counteract all those negative perceptions.  Realistically something like this could have a lasting impact for a high-profile CEO like Williams.

Learning: you risk your reputation when you take the stage, and more so now than ever before.  Don’t take it lightly, and be sure to get a presentation expert to help you if at all possible.

3. Misunderstanding the audience: it’s not for nothing that Nancy Duarte said “KNOW thy audience” in her tweet on this subject.  A chap called Mark said it all in a comment on the WebGuild article linked above: “who wants to watch someone sit on a couch at an excitingly charged event like SXSW?”  That’s exactly right – Evan Williams was sitting on a couch being interviewed.  That’s not a keynote.  Would Steve Jobs do that?   Of course not!  The GenY tech wizards at this conference expect something more dynamic and engaging.

Learning: before you even start to work out what to say, think very carefully about who your audience is, what they will expect, and how they might react.  “Know your enemy and know yourself, and in a thousand battles you will never be defeated” wrote Sun Tzu in The Art Of War. Know your audience and know yourself, and your presentations will succeed.

4. Not adapting to the situation: when a stream of people started to leave the room, the presenter and interviewer should have reacted, for example by engaging the audience with a question and answer session as suggested by Daniel Terdiman at CNet.  Sadly they did nothing, and so the stream continued.  If a football team were losing badly halfway through the match, would it really keep the same formation and tactics, or would it try to change something?  Of course – only a loser would keep things as they were and hope for a different result.  Hope is not a strategy!

Learning: it is vital to gauge the mood of the audience and adapt your style, your delivery and even your agenda accordingly.

5. Structuring the agenda badly: everybody was waiting for an announcement about @Anywhere, and Williams got this out of the way right at the start of his interview.  This meant that people could feel free to leave once they realised that it was all downhill from there.  If he had built up to it, then nobody would have left. Sadly for Williams, the fact people were leaving after only a few minutes was more newsworthy, impactful and ‘tweetable’ than if he’d merely given a fairly boring interview.

Learning: arrange your agenda so that you build up to a strong finish.  If people are expecting something important, as they usually do when Steve Jobs takes the stage, then make them wait for it, although not for too long.

6. Make the presentation (and yourself) interesting: no matter what the subject, an audience nowadays expects to be entertained and interested.  The GenY attention span is far lower than for baby boomers or GenX, and there are more and more distractions available without leaving your seat, given the capabilities of smartphones and their various Web 2.0 applications.  So even if people have paid to watch you speak, you are competing for their attention, and you have to work hard to keep it.

So ask yourself this question: what will make me deserve their attention?  There are various techniques to keep people interested, but hardly any of them will work if you’re sitting on a couch being interviewed.  It’s a simple fact: all the best talks are given by people who are standing up.

And lastly, from the reports it sounds as if Evan Williams is not the most interesting speaker.  That’s nothing new: most people aren’t great at speaking in public, which is why the few who are good at it will tend to stand out.  However, everyone can improve their skills and become at least acceptable at presenting.

Learning: it is vital to understand how important it is to make a good impression and the impact of getting it wrong, and therefore seek to improve your presentation skills continually, and the second key is to get help from the right experts.

If Evan Williams was helped by a presentation consulting firm for this talk, then that firm won’t be proud of the results.  If not, perhaps he’ll consider getting expert help next time.  Of course it carries a cost, but not nearly as high as the cost of making a poor presentation.  Even Steve Jobs gets expert help because he knows cutting corners is just not worth the risk – a lesson the Twitter CEO just learned the hard way.

Presentation Pitfalls #2 – Not looking the part

December 16, 2009

First impressions last.  It’s sad but true, and we are all guilty of it to some extent.  The first impression a person makes on you tends to colour your opinion of them, and may determine whether you engage with them or not.  It can be overcome, but very often if someone makes a poor first impression, you won’t give them a chance to make a second one.

I recall a lovely guy I knew some years ago.  He looked like a street fighter – big, beefy, and my first impression was that his few brain cells were in his fists.  I was very apprehensive about approaching him, yet I needed to work with him.  Over time I found that he was in fact amazingly bright, smart, and with a great sense of humour.  A genuinely warm, talented, nice guy, but wearing the look of a thug – which was of course not his fault, although he did choose his clothes and his crew-cut hair which accentuated the image.  That taught me an important lesson about not judging a book by its cover.

Sadly, when you are presenting, people don’t have the chance to get to know you so well, and you may only have one chance to speak to them, so those first impressions count for a lot.  It is said that you have seven seconds to make a positive impression.  Waste them, and you’re toast.  If in the second half of your presentation you are making amazing points and doing a fantastic job, it won’t help if the audience already switched off their attention and switched on their smartphones.

Elsewhere in this blog I’ll talk about making a great start to your presentation, which is always key.  But before you even open your mouth, there’s something absolutely vital which you can’t afford to forget if you want to make a good impression:


Recently a presenter entered the amphitheatre and introduced himself.  He seemed nice enough, and he proved himself competent in his subject, but it was impossible for any of us to take him seriously.  Why?  He was wearing a polo shirt.  What’s wrong with that, you might ask?  Nothing, in the right context – but he was wearing it WITH A TIE.  It was all we could do to keep ourselves from laughing.

Likewise, if you drastically overdress then you will look out of place and not connect with your audience.  Worse, if you turn up in jeans and a T-shirt to present to the board of a European bank, don’t expect to last very long.

As a general rule, try to dress just a little better than the audience.  Not so much as to make them uncomfortable, but enough to make you look respectable.  This is vital for the third key of communication: Be Respected.  Unlike the guy in the polo shirt with a tie.

To complete the impression, pay attention to yourself.  Ensure you are properly groomed – neat clean hair, clean-shaven or neatly-trimmed (for the guys) or with make-up which is appropriate for you (for the ladies – and make-up isn’t necessary or appropriate for everyone, but in many cultures it can help some ladies to look impressive).  The presenter who looks as if he’s just come in from a hurricane through a hedge backwards is not going to make a great impression – so if rain is forecast, don’t forget an umbrella.

To finish with, here’s a small piece of advice from one of my preferred bands (kudos to the first commenter who recognises the band and the song!):

“Be someone someone would want to be”

While you are on the stage, you need to inspire respect.  If the audience looks down on you because of the way you look, or your lack of preparation, or your hesitant speech, then they won’t respect you.  If you can get all that right, starting with the first impression, then you can impress your audience so much that they would like to be like you, to be able to present like you – and that will help them to like you and admire you.

And if they like you and admire you, then they are far more likely to listen to you and receive your message loud and clear.

First impressions last.  Make them count.

Presentation Pitfalls #1 – Horrible slides

December 3, 2009

When was the last time you saw a really great deck of slides (Powerpoint etc)?

OK, let me ask an easier question: when was the last time you saw an awful deck of slides?

I saw one this morning.  One slide was so horrible I just had to tweet it:

  • 1 slide
  • 3 fonts
  • 3 font styles (plain, bold, italic)
  • 4 font colours
  • 5 font sizes
  • Plus some words ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS (doesn’t that just irritate the eye?)
  • And to cap it all, an animated GIF picture which wouldn’t stop moving for the whole ten minutes the guy was displaying this awful slide!

You might say that it was an effective slide since I can remember so many things about it, in the same way that terrible advertisements are more memorable than average ones.  Unfortunately, I cannot remember the content at all because my attention was completely taken by the hideousness of it all.

Worst of all, the fact that the presenter dared to use this slide, and probably produced it himself, meant that he went down significantly in my esteem.  If he can’t do something as simple as a Powerpoint slide properly, why should I pay any attention to him?  It’s not charitable and perhaps not fair because the presenter was probably an expert in his field, but that is the impression we all get.

There’s no point having a beautiful white smile if you have a piece of spinach stuck between your front teeth.  There’s no point turning up with a classy Boss suit if it is horribly creased after a few hours in your luggage.  It just doesn’t have the desired impression, and simple things like that can inalterably affect people’s perception of you.

Likewise, you can have the most polished speech with the most powerful and important message, and you can be the best presenter in the world, but if you put up an ugly slide on the wall behind you, that will be the spinach between your teeth, and that’s what people will remember (if anything) – not your message or your competence.  The third key of presenting is to be respected, so take care to ensure you don’t fail this test because of your slides.

Therefore my call to action is this: take great care with your slides, photos, videos etc, because they are key to people’s perception of you.

In this blog I will go over many tips for creating great-looking slides which will support your message effectively, so please come back regularly.

Please comment to tell me about any particularly horrible slides you’ve seen recently, and how they affected your perception of the presenter.


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