Sunday, 1 May 2016

reflections on failure

So, I stepped onto the stage to give a Keynote presentation having checked and run through the whole IT setup, twice. The IT guy pressed the button to swap from the Conference backdrop to my presentation and launched...absolutely nothing, just a blue screen. I paused. I saw Mr IT rushing forward, so I started speaking. After about a minute of him faffing around as I continued to speak, it became clear this was not going to improve. So I shut the laptop, put down the remote control and stepped into the middle of the stage.

This is the first time I have ever had such a major, in delivery, fail and although it wasn't ideal I got through. I'm writing this not as self praise but to add some thoughts on what to do and how to cope. IT problems are real and the best advice I can give is to be prepared for complete failure.

A presentation without supportive media is, in most cases, entirely possible. Probably the first thing to emphasise is do not panic. I completely appreciate that is easier said than written. Stop for a second or two, gather your thoughts and remember all that practise. Practise is essential not only to groove delivery at the big event but for precisely this eventuality. Repetition will have ensured that you know what your p1 is all about. Added to that the reality that your audience neither know your script nor are they marking you against how well you stick to it. This is simply another practise, without slides.

For the vast majority of p3 presenters, even although  their delivery has moved beyond a script on the slide set the individual images of p2 frequently are signposts in the speaker. They mark transitions and sparklines. Visualisation of these steps will lead you through delivery. A pause at the end of one section will offer the space to mentally move the slide set forward: the next section will become clearer. Try to avoid telling the audience repeatedly what can't be seen.

It is essential to move quickly past the problem and repeated apology is neither required nor valuable. The audience may not even reognise there is an issue. The presentation now relies more strongly on the delivery (p3). Anxiousness will always result in speaking more quickly. It is important therefore to purposefully, slow, down. Slower speech has many effects; it will actually calm the anxious speaker simply in itself; it gives space for the speaker to consider the next section and to think about speaking rather than remembering. Consider more clearly the idea of a conversation, rebuilding the story rather than reciting it.

Perversely, without the concrete structure and with delays in beginning there is a strong likelihood of over running. Good preparation will ensure the arc of the story is clear in the presenter's mind but it is essential that the punchline is delivered effectively and within time. Ensure that as time progresses that endpoint is both clear and targeted.

If, due to lack of practise, it would be impossible to deliver the presentation unaided speak to the Chairman. Five minutes unofficial break may allow IT to resolve the problem and the speaker to regain their cool. A talk can often be re-scheduled. If all else fails it is better to withdraw gracefully than crumple after a few minutes.

Technological problem do happen despite preparation. If not immediately resolved make a decision whether to carry on or not. Good preparation will allow most presentations to be delivered but ensure a more paced delivery with visualisation rather than presentation of images. Ensure timekeeping is accurate and that a more conversational delivery still results in the punchline being delivered. Practise is the key defence against failure.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016


If you are going for an important interview would you just put on any old clothes? If you are going on a first date would you just wander straight from work without considering your make up? Your parents are coming to stay and you haven't tidied the house for week; never mind? It doesn't really matter how you look, people value you as the person. Really? How would you feel if you were conducting the interview, if you are the date, if you are the parents? Are your presentations the same?

There is an ennui about presentations that most folk recognise. We don't expect to be captivated or engaged by the majority of presentations so when we prepare them we have this as a background. The speakers never seem very enthusiastic so the audience reflects that too. No one else appears to be making much of an effort so why should we?

But we all remember the candidate who has made the effort. We frequently went on a second date with someone because of the effort they put in. Guests in our homes value that feeling you give them that they are special. So will the audience at your next presentation. 

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Look 'em in the eye.

The best way to reduce your nervousness on the day of your talk is to look the audience in the eye. Preparation is essential and will deliver the majority of speakers to a point on the day of relative confidence; the material is well known and practised. The reality though of stepping into the bright light or onto the floor is that nervousness can return very quickly. Looking into the audience and holding the gaze of individuals is a useful trick to reduce your nervousness.

No audience wants a speaker to fail. This is a very important fact to hold onto. The reality of this is quickly strengthened by actually holding the gaze of individual audience members rather than simply scanning across the room.The response of a person spoken directly to is always encouraging and will help even the most nervous of speakers. Conversely, avoiding eye contact actually increases one's distress. Look out as you are speaking and as you move across the audience fix on a friendly face and hold their gaze. Now, you are speaking to that person. They will value it and you will be encouraged.

A good speaker can actually make sure that, within reason for the size of an audience, every individual is connected with. This makes a huge difference to your message. Some audience members may find this a little challenging and look away but they will still have valued the interaction. There are two points to bear in mind. Some people have an "odd" listening face, they concentrate and let their expression rest. It may appear that they look bored, angry, disconnected or questioning. Usually holding their gaze will stimulate a change. Don't be put off. Secondly, be careful of holding the gaze of someone who wasn't paying as much attention as you might like; this may come across as slightly threatening.

Public speaking makes every speaker nervous. Response from the audience will always be encouraging. Use this for your own benefit by actively engaging in holding eye contact. Your nervousness will be reduced and the audience will value your attention.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Ok, hands up who DIDN'T fall for it?

The last blogpost was written and published 2 days ago. On the 1st of the month. On the 1st day in April...

I know some folk view me as some sort of leader in presentation thought (for which I thank you) but I do hope you regard what is written with your own insights and wisdom and question the thoughts without blindly accepting them. 

To review and clarify yesterday's blogpost, slide design does change with time but not the psychological principles behind what makes an effective slide. "Retro", "hipster" or whatever design used should capture attention and provide function from form. 

Slides don't need titles. Typography subtly changes meaning and should be used carefully. Forcing the audience to read from a slide is never acceptable. Branding is for companies and should be subtle and functional. Remember design is all and the design of your slideset (p2) along with the construct of the story (p1) and its delivery (p3) is what will set your presentation apart.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Design- going retro is hip.

Slide design (p2) changes with time. Consider today and what is regarded as the norm for a slide and then consider how "Presenter" (powerpoint) started back before the Internet. At times design throws us back to a time when things were considered old fashioned and the hipster culture is a perfect example of this, the retro look.

I would like to consider this retro-look in slide design and propose this design for any presentation you might be giving today.

Design should capture attention and provide function from form. The title explains the nature of the slide below, mirrored by the ironic clip art. Its fractured look adds to the discussion at hand. Use of Times New Roman font harks back to a time before and really small font helps the reader to read and not read at the same time thus recognising that the speaker should take precedence over the print. Remember too that branding is essential for audiences to remember which meeting they are at; the presentations may be so sparkling as to transport you.

Design is all and today of all days we should remember that design of the slideset p2 marks sets our presentation apart from all the others.


Thursday, 31 March 2016

A little sadness

Perhaps the saddest comment I have heard related to #presentationskills was one junior colleague saying to another; "what he suggests is interesting, but I wouldn't do it for an important presentation." Of course I recognise the privileged position I am in relative to presentations. I understand that change is hard and harder from within the ranks. I understand that conformity is a powerful influence on our behaviour. I recognise that not everyone thinks that this approach is beneficial. I also recognise that not everyone agrees. The reality of the comment though makes me a little sad.

Change is hard and hardest for those who feel they have the most to lose. Thus an "important" presentation is probably not the place to gamble if one is uncertain. A presentation is about the audience and if the audience for their own reasons don't like the nature of a presentation it will fail. Being different is not the same as being good and changing the nature of one's presentation requires a good understanding of the principles for it to be effective more than simply a change in typography or colour. Change takes time and sadly, because of the (perceived) competitive nature of presentations it is probably better to be middling rather than at the extreme, even if that extreme was excellence. All of which makes me a little sad.

As encouragement though I reflect on the responses of colleagues who have engaged with this concept, of the invitations to speak and share these ideas and of the colleagues who have take those giant steps and found reward, encouragement, enthusiasm and satisfaction that thie ability to communicate has been improved. Please make sure your read the guest posts on the blog for independent views that this is worthwhile, even and especially for "important presentations".

Monday, 14 March 2016

Guest blogpost."Challenging the presentations status quo"

I'm conscious this blog can be very much a single opinion but I am very much encouraged by another guest post from Andrew, who came to a lecture on Thursday and made a presentation on the next day...

My name is Andrew and I am a final year medical student. A few days ago I found myself in the unique position of having to present the result of an audit to Ross Fisher and his colleagues the morning after attending Ross’s Presentation Skills talk. At the talk and at the pub afterwards Ross made it colorfully clear as to what he thought of the “the read off the slide-death by Powerpoint” presentation. Needless to say the pressure was on to do better.

So I went home armed with my 3P’s of how to improve my presentation and got to work. Luckily, the doctor who helped me do the audit had already come up with a Powerpoint. It was fairly standard and it contained all the key points we wanted to make. That was the rough outline of my P1, the story. I knew the logical sequence of points I wanted to make and how they could be connected. I found myself a hook, which was the story of a person with the condition I was presenting on. This real person and their hardships was something the audience could empathize with and it seemed to make the presentation (and its statistics) carry just a bit more weight. At this point I started rehearsing. I’d come up with what I wanted to say for each point, often trying many variations until I found the right one, and then started adding in images to accentuate what I was saying. At the end of it I had a general script and mainly images to highlight the scripts key issues. I had my P2(supporting media) and my P3(delivery) ready to go.   

And you know what? It went well. The audience was engaged with what I had to say. They were engaged because the conclusions of my presentation were made a bit more personal, because they could just listen without having to simultaneously read a mass of text, and because my preparation beforehand let me deliver fluidly and confidently. I even made a joke, although I’m sure the laughter was out of politeness. But that brings me to my concluding point. Nobody wants you to go up and fail. They would much rather enjoy your presentation, laugh at your joke and be engaged than sit there sneaking glances at their phone. This level of preparation make take more effort but the rewards for the audience and even your self-confidence as a presenter are definitely worth it.  It is daunting to challenge the “presentation status quo” but having the skills to prepare an interesting one is simply more enjoyable for everyone involved.

Thanks for reading