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Propose, Prepare, Present by Alistair Croll

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Chapter 4. Some Thoughts on Superb Presentations

What It Takes to Stand Out

I began by saying this isn’t a book on how to present; it’s a book on how to be invited to present. But once you’ve been invited, there’s still plenty that can go wrong. With that in mind, here are some things to think about if you want to wow audiences and get invited back by organizers.

What Speaking Consultants Do

Some companies employ third-party speaking consultants to help them find speaking slots. The worst of these consultants simply spam the speaking circuit with boilerplate text, hoping for a bite. Chances are good that if you’re using one of these agencies, you’ll get to speak at only low-quality events at which attendees aren’t good prospects or partners anyway.

On the other hand, the best consultants help you to become a better, more interesting, more connected participant in the conference ecosystem. One consultant I spoke with spends a lot of time with clients before submitting them, trying to find what’s interesting about the firm and then mapping this to the events for which it’s the best fit.[9]

Here’s what these kinds of consultants do:

  • Interview the company. Before creating any proposals, they spend time interviewing company employees. They often avoid sales and marketing types, working instead with engineers, product managers, and even customers to understand what the organization does and what makes it unique. This process also helps them to find the diamonds in the rough within an organization, experts who are charming or knowledgeable but might not often be used as speakers.

  • Know the event. As we’ve seen, each event has a narrative, a history, and a specific style. Knowing which events the company fits helps. If the speaker’s company is informal, casual, and open, then they’ll work best in an unbuttoned, less structured context. If they’re businesslike and precise, they’ll do better at more professional events.

  • Build relationships with the organizers. These consultants work gently over years to try and understand the individual organizers and track chairs. The trick, for them, is to keep themselves and their clients in the minds of organizers without becoming a nuisance.

  • Co-create the content. The consultants are familiar with the event and willing to adapt content. They can act as an ambassador between the story the organizer is trying to tell and the message the speaker wants to convey. This co-creation—rather than warring over sessions and titles—is often key to being included in an event.

  • Make it easy. There are plenty of logistical details that need to be worked out between event organizers and speakers. Getting titles, biographies, photos, travel logistics, and timings straight is often a full-time job. Consultants know this, and they can lubricate the process.


Speaker consultant Deb Moses has the following recommendations for her clients:

  • Don’t: Create abstracts in a vacuum (meaning with input from only your own internal folks).

  • Do: Review last year’s program to see what topics were run, how technical- or business-oriented they were, the appropriate level of speaker, tone, and so on.

  • Do: Bounce some ideas off the organizer first (in email) if possible.

  • Don’t: Recycle press materials or collateral.

  • Do: Interview the prospective speaker and leverage white papers or technical papers with meaty content.

Avoiding the Almost-Awesome

As an organizer, one of my biggest frustrations is the almost-awesome submission. While reviewing several hundred submissions for a recent event, I had to read through nearly 20 sessions from the same vendor. Most were rejected immediately; the sheer volume of submissions exhausted us.

One session caught my eye. It was about anonymous authentication, a way to prove your identity without revealing personal data. At first, it seemed like a sales pitch. But as I read it, I thought, “Where is the average citizen subject to the most scrutiny?” When they cross a border, of course. And border guards are increasingly using social networks like Foursquare and Twitter to dig deeper into someone’s travel history, seeing if you went where you said you did or if you’re traveling on legitimate business.

That’s a fascinating subject, rife with ethical and legal concerns. We give up hard-won rights to privacy at borders, and there’s a tension between national security (this is the perimeter defense of a nation at war with terrorists) and personal freedom (why is it the government’s business what its citizens do abroad?).

For example, the United States is considering revising legislation to state that a citizen violating domestic drug laws while overseas (i.e., visiting a coffee shop in Amsterdam) can be charged with a violation of domestic law. What if a border guard sees you checked into the Green Door in the Red Light district and that’s considered probable cause, which leads to a drug test?

Anonymous authentication? Boring. The ethics of security and privacy? Compelling.

A well-planned submission would seduce organizers, and ultimately audiences, because it would be about a related subject. The speaker would still make his or her points. Instead, the session was down-voted by reviewers as too much of a sales pitch and never saw the light of day.

On the other hand, a vendor of online services, security, and testing products took the stage at another event. He was a paid sponsor. But he never even mentioned his company. He opened by saying, “I’m going to tell you about the biggest cloud in the world. It’s been around for a decade, and the people who run it are much, much better than you.”

The audience was on the edge of its seats.

“It’s a botnet called Storm, run by hackers and spammers, using hundreds of thousands of infected machines,” he continued. He then went on to compare this hacker network to more traditional clouds, showing how Storm was bigger, and its operators more hard-core, than anything the audience had seen before.

For the rest of the event, the company’s exhibit booth was mobbed. It gave the firm a chance to talk about its services, which are related to measuring clouds and securing networks.

Too Many Words

I hate slides with words. They’re a huge warning sign that someone will be an awful presenter. Here’s why:

  • The speaker’s notes excuse. Word-filled slides are a crutch for presenters who don’t know their content. Your audience isn’t in a remedial reading course. If all you’re going to do is show up and read some slides for them, do us all a favor and put a PDF on your website instead.

  • The “more than I had time for” excuse. Pascal and others have said, “I apologize that this letter is so long. I did not have the time to make it short.”[10] Presentations that have lots of words are an attempt to share more information than you have time for—a sign you haven’t honed your presentation to make a few points well. By doing so, you’re asking your audience to multitask, listening to you while reading. They’ll learn even less.

  • The handouts-for-later excuse. Once, attendees got handouts of slides, and valued the content. Today, most conferences hand out materials electronically, so you can use the speakers’ notes of your slides to add useful data or put it in hidden slides. But we also have URL shorteners: if you have more details, then just offer a memorable short URL at the end of your presentation and invite people to download it. If you’ve inspire them, you will—and you can track the impact of your presentation, too!

I’ve presented alongside “corporate” presenters who, after seeing my more image-heavy decks, have adjusted their content and loosened up, putting in humorous imagery. In every case, they’ve remarked that it’s a welcome change that builds rapport with the audience and gets a laugh.[11]

Finding Your Inner Diamonds

Corporate marketers face an unfortunate catch-22. Their senior executives want the limelight and expect to get the speaking engagements. But they may be horrible speakers—there’s likely someone funnier and more knowledgeable on a specific subject, elsewhere in the company. Marketers can either field the lackluster speaker or earn the wrath of vain executives by choosing someone interesting and capable.

At the same time, we live in a “share” world. Twenty years ago word processors became commonplace, and a decade ago we learned spreadsheets; today most professionals are expected to know their way around presenting tools like PowerPoint, Keynote, or Prezi. That means more employees are expected to present, either to an internal audience or to an outside group. Although many people are terrified of public speaking, it’s easy to overcome this fear with practice.

Traditionally, speakers honed their skills in friendly groups like Toastmasters. But today, events like Ignite and Pecha Kucha, unconferences, and websites such as TED showcase excellent presentations on hundreds of subjects.

If your company is serious about speaking in public and wants to invest in it, then you need to create ways to find and polish the rough diamonds in your midst. Ignite is perfect for this. It has a rigid presentation format that constrains the length of each speech. These constraints are surprisingly liberating, forcing speakers to focus on brevity and keeping the audience entertained. Here’s how it works:

  • A few weeks before the event, the organizer solicits volunteers who want to present. They may suggest a theme, although that isn’t really necessary.

  • Volunteers submit a title, and perhaps a synopsis, of their presentation.

  • If chosen, those volunteers create a 20-slide, 5-minute deck. Each slide is shown for just 15 seconds and advances automatically.

  • The volunteers rehearse. A lot. It’s hard to extemporize when you can’t control the clock.

  • On the night of the event—these things are best held at night, with beer—each presenter gets up and delivers a five-minute rant, with little pause between speakers.

This is a great social activity for any organization: not only does it help you find great speakers, but it also gets everyone sharing their interests. It’s such a tight format that things are bound to break, and everyone’s supportive. And if someone’s boring—well, it’s only five minutes.[12]

A second way to break the presentation ice is PowerPoint Karaoke, the strange bedfellow of Ignite and Improv. In this exercise, presenters get a slide deck they’ve never seen before and have to present it. The deck is stacked for maximum humor, either as a compilation of random slides or as content from an unrelated field. It could even be a competitor’s sales pitch. The point is that the presenter doesn’t know what’s coming next and has to make it up on the fly.

We’ve run PowerPoint Karaoke at a number of events, and it always makes people more comfortable when presenting. We’ve created fifteen or so slide decks for Bitnorth, and you can use SlideShare to generate them randomly, too.[13]

Both Ignite and PowerPoint Karaoke are fun, social formats. But they’ll also help you find promising presenters in a safe, supportive environment. If your organization is serious about getting heard in public, start here.

Logistics and Polish

There are really only two rules when it comes to presenting. Be comfortable speaking in public and practice your presentation. If you can do these two things, you’ll be fine. Of course, practicing doesn’t just mean reading your presentation on the flight. You need to deliver it over and over again until you’ve made it your own.

Assuming you’ve taken this advice, here are some other tips that may help:

  • Don’t wear regularly patterned clothing, as this can produce a moiré pattern[14] when recorded on video. Solid colors work best if you’re being recorded.

  • Whenever possible, use a headset microphone that provides the best audio signal. If you’re nervous, people will see your hands shaking as you hold a handheld microphone, and you might accidentally point it at a speaker and generate ear-piercing feedback, deafening the room. Podium microphones keep you in one place and put something between you and your audience, making things look stiff and awkward.

  • If you’re using a lavaliere microphone (the ones clipped to your shirt), remember that the volume changes when you turn your head to the sides, and if you move around a lot, you might generate a rustling noise.

  • If you’re forced to use a handheld microphone, put it closer to your mouth than you think is necessary. This will make it easier for the sound technicians to get a good signal and reduce the chance of feedback. There’s nothing more distracting than a mumbling, hard-to-hear panelist.

  • Carry your own remote if you do this sort of thing often. Infrared remotes (sold with MacBooks) don’t work well, as they need a line of sight between the computer and the remote; PDA-based remotes (such as Apple’s Keynote remote) are hard to set up and require a wireless connection. Go with a simple, dedicated, wireless remote; they cost less than $100.

  • Wipe your forehead and nose with a dry paper towel before taking the stage, to reduce glare and reflection.

  • Start by polling the audience to break the ice and get a sense of who’s there and what they hope to achieve. This approach also allows you to tailor your presentation on the fly and shows the audience that you care about them, not yourself.

  • Include your Twitter handle, and other ways of reaching you, up front. This makes the audience more likely to mention you during and after the event and provides quick feedback as well as a way to follow up on leads.

  • Avoid video at all costs. Screening a movie is a crutch. That’s what YouTube and Vimeo are for.


Speaker consulting firm S3 has the following recommendations for their clients:

  • Do: Tell great stories, get to the point, practice, and use humor when possible.

  • Do: Get training if you’re expected to speak but are not comfortable doing so.

  • Do: Start by speaking on panels to get comfortable with the process, the audience, and the event.

  • Do: Move purposefully while speaking.

  • Do: Close with a call to action.

  • Don’t: Sell, preach, or talk down.

  • Don’t: Use your slides’ content as a crutch or as notes.

  • Don’t: Use vague words like “maybe” or “hope.” Instead, be clear and decisive.

  • Don’t: Assume the audience from your last speech is the same as this one; spend time preparing and tailoring the content.

[9] Thanks to Deb Moses at Speaknow, Inc.; the folks at S3; and several other firms for giving us a candid look at what they do.

[10] http://bit.ly/15n4vXX says that although it’s commonly attributed to Twain, this joke goes far back, to Cicero, Augustin, and Pascal, among others.

[11] Want an easy laugh? Use a meme generator. Go to http://www.memecrunch.com or something similar and create something funny and relevant to your subject.

[12] To see examples of Ignite sessions, check out http://www.igniteshow.com; even if your organization can’t run one, if you live in a big city there’s probably one near you soon.

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