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

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.


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

  1. Great analysis. I think more than anything it was the couch/interview setup. I don’t know who had that lousy idea, but it really set the whole thing off in the wrong direction.

    As the Heath brothers talk about, unexpected is a good thing when done correctly. In this instance it was quite poorly done and you would think a lesson would have been learned from the Zuckerberg fiasco in 2008.

    Again, great analysis.


    Travis Robertson

  2. Phil Waknell says:

    Thanks Travis, and you’re right about setting it off in the wrong direction.

    The first 30 seconds are critical for any speech or presentation, and you have to start off very well to capture people’s attention. If you start off in an average way, it’s possible but tough to turn it around. Start off poorly and you’re in trouble.

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