Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Public squeaking

Woodrow Wilson was once asked how long he would spend in preparation for a 10-minute speech. “Two weeks,” he said. How long then, for an hour-long speech? “One week,” came the reply. And for a two-hour speech? “I am ready now.”

Good presentation, great presentation is not easy. Even if you have mastered Noël Coward’s basics (“stand up, speak out and don't bump into the furniture”) you are still a long way from being an effective presenter. What then, is effective presentation? The answer to that question is different for every presenter and can also vary from presentation to presentation. A CEO may need to inspire the troops and then move on to reassure the investment community – two very different presentations of the same material. At the other end of the spectrum, some teachers are happy to make it out of the classroom alive …

The majority of audience members, on the other hand, are well able to answer that question; and generally in negative terms. We can all think of the long hours wasted with poor teachers, boring lecturers, uninspiring trainers and dull, dull, dull presenters. Why? I am very fond of Mark Knopfler and I love his early work. Sultans of Swing is a classic pop song and I know all the lyrics, but believe me when I tell you that you do not want to be witness to my vocal stylings in a Karaoke bar. Repeat after me: It is not enough to just know the lyrics.

Why are so many presenters so bad? It is rarely a qualification issue; if the person is up on the podium, they generally have the expertise to be there - they know the lyrics. So why don’t they inform, persuade or inspire us to any great effect? One word answer: SELFISHNESS.
  • They are not thinking sufficiently about their audience. Poor presenters do not spend anywhere like enough time thinking about how their content relates to a specific audience. A good working definition of a bore? Someone who is more interested in himself than he is in me.
  • Poor presenters are not time conscious [does that make them dyspunctional?]. They don't leave enough time to cover the important stuff and end up rushing or, worse yet, running over time.
  • Poor presenters try and go it alone. A world-class, Oscar-winning film director is nothing without the full team. Who is your director of photography? Who is your continuity person? Who is your researcher or fact-checker? Don’t do this alone unless you have to. Draft people in.
  • Death by bullet point. [Yes, I know this is a bulleted list!] Sometimes you need to pretend PowerPoint was never invented and simply tell a story … Technology is your servant, the second you feel like you are its slave, something has gone fundamentally wrong. What are you going to do if there is a power cut?
  • Distil. Poor presenters frequently present what a skilled presenter would regard as an early draft. Too wordy. Too ragged. No flow. Crappy images. Distil - hone it, tweak it, refine it. Take lots of time, find out lots about your audience and say, "So what?" to yourself a whole lot. If you can't answer the "So what?" while you are distilling your message, delete the word/slide/section.
  • REHEARSE! I asked the amazing Dick Hardt how long he rehearses his presentations and his response was "I usually spend 3-4 hours to tune up the presentation each time I give it and run through it several times before I give it. The first couple times I spent quite a bit more time." Lawrence Lessig spends even longer.
So, my three key pieces of advice on speaking more effectively to an audience:
  • My number one mantra on the subject of presenting well: DON’T! If there is any other way you can communicate with your intended audience use that instead and don’t make a presentation. Send carrier pigeons, use smoke signals, learn Morse code, but do not stand up with a bunch of PowerPoint slides on the screen behind you unless it is the absolute best way of communicating this information to this audience.
  • Make real time to rehearse. Don't get up on stage with a presentation you are barely familiar with, a few half-formed ideas on what you want to say and a bunch of cue cards. A 30-minute presentation requires an average of 4,500 words. Shakespeare’s Romeo only speaks 5,031 words onstage. Would you get up in front of an audience to do, “Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say ‘good night’ till it be morrow” without the benefit of rehearsal? The most impressive people I have worked with, the ones who make it look so effortless and so off the cuff, are always the ones who have put in the hours.
  • If you are using visual aids, make sure they are stupendous. Clear, stripped back; a mixture of words, images, sounds, silence and whatever else you need to use. No small fonts. No 300-word slides. No 30-word slides. No clipart. No blurry images enlarged from the web. Human beings are immensely visual animals, seduce your audience with your visuals.
Repeat after me: It is not enough to just know your stuff.


John Meagher said...

Having witnessed Rowan in action recently, I can say that this man certainly practises what he preaches. In his inspirational lecture, every idea was clearly articulated, every concept was visually reinforced and he drove everything home with passion and humour. Not once did I see him look down at any notes or up at the screen. Not once did he stray from his subject. He cajoled us, he rattled us, he made us laugh, he made us think. The talk was thought provoking, entertaining and perfectly executed, And the perfect ending was that he finished exactly on time!

Rowan Manahan said...

Thank you for that feedback John. Spare my blushes!

Tone said...


Great advice! Too many people use PP as a crutch.


Rowan Manahan said...

Tone - or a shield, a prop, a mask, an abdication of responsibility.

It is extraordinary how many presenters think is it acceptable to laboriously transcribe the text of their talk onto PPT slides and then read them out ...

Or at the other end of the spectrum, those who have little or nothing to say, but who have lots of colourful slides singing and dancing across the screen while they say it.

There's no interest like self interest!

Feargal said...

The best impromptu speeches I've made were the ones that I practised hard in the car on the way to the venue

Rowan Manahan said...

Feargal - or as Mark Twain said, "It takes me about two weeks to come up with a good impromptu speech."

Anonymous said...

one of the best corporate presentations i ever saw started like this: VP gets up in front of 300+ engineers (mostly in jeans). The first thing he begins with, is the importance of giving a good impression. Then, while removing his necktie, he says "Ok, now that I've done that we can get down to business".

Samantha said...

I randomly found this on google and as a fellow public speaker, just getting started in the blogging world, I have to say that this is fantastic information for basic public speaking. Thanks for the info!

Maria Fernanda said...

I've been reading much on public speaking... your article was delightful! Love your writing style. Thank you

Richard said...

Hi! Can I ask something? I came here to find meaning of 'public squeaking'.

I saw it British comedy 'The Office'. In season 2 episode 1, David Brent goes 'I'm not used to public squeaking. I piss pronunciate a lot of my worms.'

I don't get it what it means.
could you tell me what it means?