Not every picture tells the story

Just before the weekend there was a @WEF tweet that pointed to a post on the World Economic Forum blog. The article, which is quite interesting (at least for a tech guy like me,) explores how the internet looked like in 1973. In these early days, the entire net consisted of just 45 computers and could be mapped out on the back of a napkin.

But what struck me most when I saw this tweet passing by, was the contradicting information in the twitter message and the image attached to it. The picture shows a Macintosh, a Macintosh Plus, and a Macintosh SE. As I was working with Apple Computer during the second half of the eighties, I know for sure that the latter was only launched in 1987, and so there’s a fourteen year lag between the hardware shown and the 1973 internet of the WEF post…

Whether used in a tweet, an article, or a PowerPoint presentation, such a discrepancy between the text and the image creates a conflicting situation in the reader’s or listener’s brain. This doesn’t mean that one should systematically duplicate the content in the visual and textual or auditory messages he’s delivering. As I wrote in one of my older posts, “What you say and what you show,” an image can help you present your message simple and sweet, and make what you show complementary to what you say.

And, while writing the above, I started thinking of what alternative image I would have used instead of the Macs. Mmmmm, forty-five years ago, the internet was probably not that very visually exciting. Therefore, I was thinking of showing a more compelling picture (or even a piece of video.) And, well, a quick Google search taught me that the UK singles top-50 of 8 December 1973 was topped by Slade with “Merry Xmas Everybody.”

If that isn’t a nostalgic piece of seventies eye – and even ear – candy! And it gives a good message for this time of year too. Happy holiday season, dear readers.

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All stories deserve embellishment

“Well, all good stories deserve embellishment. You’ll have a tale or two to tell of your own when you come back.” – Gandalf the Grey (in a conversation with Bilbo Baggins)

 

Merriam-Webster defines to embellish as “to heighten the attractiveness of by adding decorative or fanciful details.” Gandalf was right. Every story – and to an extent, every presentation – will benefit from embellishments.

Here are a few tools you may use:

  • Bring in (one or more of) the typical elements of a story: character, setting, plot, theme, and style. Many (if not all) novelists and movie directors rely upon these to ensure a consistent narrative, allow the action to develop, and let the audience emotionally engage (learn more about them in my post about the “five elements of a story, and how to use them in a business presentation“)
  • Give it a personal touch: when telling a personal story, you share an authentic part of yourself that may inspire, connect, and engage people. You could e.g. start your talk by “On the way to this event, I …” or “Lately, my X year old son/daughter asked me …” Or tell an anecdote about a real-life moment, encounter, or incident.
  • Enrich your story with facts, figures, and trivia: crafting your presentation for creating an emotional connection with the people in the room doesn’t exclude using hard, soft, or fun facts. They help you to make your point and persuade your audience. Just make sure to embed your data into a convincing narrative, and visualize them appropriately and creatively.
  • Use metaphors: as they speak directly to our imagination, metaphors bypass humans’ left-brain hemisphere and will help you explain and explore ideas that lie behind rational thought – or that are too dry, too boring, or too complex for your listeners (more about the functioning of your audience’s brains can be found in my posts “Yin, yang and your brain” and “Use your brain, you’ve got three of them.”)
  • Quote people, books, or movies: quotes may serve as a second voice in your presentation. Use them to strengthen your arguments, to confirm your claims, or (most likely) to infuse your story with a memorable or inspiring statement.
  • Add a touch of humor: humor is subjective, but the principles underlying humor are not. If you use the comic toolbox intelligently, moderately, and appropriately – without hurting anyone’s feelings – you have access to a set of non-threatening tools to make your point, challenge incorrect assumptions, or help people remember your key messages.
  • Provide case studies: document your presentation with real-life examples to make your story more credible and show that you’ve “been there, done that.” Embellishing case studies with a protagonist or antagonist character makes them even pleasant to listen to. The hero could be you, your company, or your product, while the adversary may e.g. be a competitor, a demanding customer, or an unfavorable market condition.
  • Enhance the look and feel of your slides: in one of my older posts, I compared a good presentation with a tasteful dish. Great food is enjoyed through many senses. Taste, smell, and colors do matter. And so do the look and feel of your presentations. Your slideshows will derive great benefit from creative layouts with images, video, and multimedia.

One more thing: exotic fonts, in-slide object animations, and click and whoosh sounds aren’t embellishments. They are annoyances. You’re not Gandalf, you don’t need a magic wand, and as a business presenter you’re not competing for the special effects Oscar.

Also note that the quote on top of this article only appears in in Peter Jackson’s movie; you won’t find it back in J. R. R. Tolkien’s original publication of The Hobbit. The photo above is showing Ian McKellen as Gandalf in the Warner Bros. picture.

When speaking in front of a crowd leaves your hands clammy and your body shaking in your boots

Some time ago, I wrote an article “Public speaking stress, sweat and adrenaline”, in which I gave a number of tips for helping public speakers to deal with stage fright, prepare for a public performance, and survive the first minutes of their speech.

During the past summer holidays, I also created a series of 4 infographics that summarized some of my old posts on this blog. As an infographic is worth a thousand words, I was already planning to craft and publish more creative visualizations like these. And the one dealing with fear of public speaking was certainly on my shortlist. Well, someone has made my life easy, because recently I stumbled upon an article that contains relevant statistics, excellent advice, and a set of really nice infographics that all deal with your fear of public speaking.

Have a look at the article and the embedded images. They’re worth reading and seeing!

Here’s how to get over your fear of public speakingHere’s how to get over your fear of public speakingInfographic by Quill

About white shirt, black shirt, and tee-shirt gigs

“Clothes and manners do not make the man; but when he is made, they greatly improve his appearance.” – Arthur Ashe, American tennis player and winner of 3 Grand Slam titles

I may remember that I used the above quote in an older post, “Dress to impress,” in which I wrote about how your attire can change your image or enforce your message as a public speaker.

Just like people use the metaphor of white vs. blue collars to classify jobs, segment workers, or even describe different social classes, I started thinking of public speaking engagements in terms of white shirts, black shirts, and tee-shirts.

Different audiences require different vestments, and very often a different presentation style.

  • White shirt. I (almost) always wear a white shirt when representing my company in front of a business audience or when speaking to government officials. As I’m a marketing guy, I don’t consider wearing a tie a must. Only when the event is so official or when my audience is really executive or exclusive, I’d take the challenge and the effort of knotting my tie property.
  • Black shirt. A black shirt is certainly less formal and (IMHO) looks trendier on stage than a white one. I reserve my all-black garb for when I’m giving thought-leader-style keynotes or when I’m delivering a corporate innovation pitch. Note that a black turtleneck might be a good alternative for a collared shirt. But keep in mind that this outfit (combined with blue jeans and a pair of grey sneakers) has been worn before by – and was part of the personal brand of – a person called Steve Jobs. A technology and business icon with great charisma and an unprecedented speaking talent. Well, personally, I don’t have the ambition to and won’t take the risk of being compared with the late Apple CEO.
  • Tee-shirt. The people who know me personally will tell you that I don’t have the physics for wearing a tee-shirt in front of a large audience. Or more simply said: my belly is in the way. Still, a plain-colored or printed tee-shirt (mind the images and/or texts that you’re displaying!) can be an ideal outfit when addressing technology innovators, business disrupters, and other lean & mean startups. Wearing a tee makes you look like an “equal among equals” and may facilitate informal conversations with your audience.

Related articles that are worth (re)reading:

Shhh, this is confidential information — or not

This is going to be one of my shorter posts on this blog. Or, maybe I should call it rather a rant than a post. I’m writing this on a Friday night, while still on a business trip abroad. I was inspired for it earlier today, while I was listening to a public keynote presentation at technology conference.

The content of the talk was actually quite interesting. Even so interesting that the speaker had put “CONFIDENTIAL” on each of his 20+ slides. OMG, this guy was showing company confidential content to 250 people, with probably a few tens of competitors in the room! Or was he not? Either the presenter must have been well aware of the importance and secrecy of his content, or he was making a notorious layout blunder. Considering the material on the slides, I can only assume that the latter is true.

How can a professional B2B presenter, who takes himself seriously, do such a thing? Either he didn’t create his own visuals, and just copy’n’pasted existing corporate material, or used a wrong presentation template. Or he neglected reviewing and rehearsing his presentation, and as such overlooked the security classification at the bottom of the slides. Or (probably most unlikely) he was really violating his company’s information security rules by showing classified information to a non-trusted audience.

Putting a “COPYRIGHT” notice on your slides is a good practice, however, because (if you’re lucky) it may protect your intellectual and creative property from unauthorized reuse. But, personally, I would have made a bit of an effort in removing the confidentiality classification from my company’s presentation template. Writing “CONFIDENTIAL” on a public presentation is just useless and it makes the speaker look silly.

Marketing, promises, and real products

How creative can (or may) a company get with making marketing promises?

You may have read this article about how a small Chinese smartphone vendor failed in delivering on its marketing promises. The world’s smallest 4G Android smartphone was announced to have a battery life of three days, and to weigh as little as 60 grams. Unfortunately, some of the promising specs turned out to be no more than marketing talk. In a BBC interview, the company’s CEO admitted that the handset’s performance might “fall short of expectations in certain circumstances” and that “heavy use” could reduce the 950mAh (!) battery’s life to three or four hours instead of days. To be noted that the exec’s definition of heavy use includes keeping Wi-Fi and Bluetooth switched on all the time. Say no more. Who of us still bothers about turning off these functions when not in use? The phone’s declared weight was about right – the only detail that the marketing department forgot to mention is that that’s without the battery…

Of course, as I wrote in one of my older poststhere’s no single truth. When it comes to product specifications and performance numbers, however, the variation and interpretation margins are extremely small. The primary aim of any marketing professional is to make a product look attractive and useful, and persuade potential buyers. But persuasion is never about telling lies, cheating or fooling your customers!

Read the original article and the BBC interview:

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An empirical evidence of Fubini’s law

Last week I wrote about the mysterious Mr Fubini, who created a law that describes the adoption of new technology. A faithful reader of my blog, however, remarked that it’s easy to formulate a theorem without any further proof. As a scientist by education (and a blogger only by vocation) I couldn’t ignore such a righteous remark. So, here comes an empirical evidence of Fubini’s law.

Maybe some of you remember my 2013 posting, “inspiration and perspiration”, in which I described the way my blog was getting shape at that time. How the topics to write about usually came while commuting to work on the tramway. And that, when an idea for an article popped up, it took me less than 10 minutes to create an outline on my Blackberry.

Well, in the meantime, technology has evolved and my good old keyboard-operated device has been replaced by a full-fledged smartphone. Yet, I still take the tram to work. My cell phone may have improved, but the traffic to and in Antwerp certainly got worse in the past years. If the weather allows (I’m not a big fan of turning up soaked at the office) I even get off the trolley car 2 or 3 stops too early, and walk the last mile – my fitness tracker corrects me that it’s about 3,000 steps – to work. That’s good for my physical condition, helps me think more clearly, and lets my creative juices flow.

There’s one big difference compared to 2013 (apart from me carrying a step counter): instead of typing down my thoughts, I simply record them now with the voice-recorder app on my phone, and write out the transcript when I arrive at the office…

Fubini’s law. Quod erat demonstrandum!

Please, note that I self-dictated a rough version of the above text on my phone while commuting this morning, then polished the transcript, and published it on WordPress. The whole process, including a healthy walk, took me a little less than two hours.

The mysterious Mr Fubini

Several years ago, I came across a simple and compelling vision on the adoption and evolution of new technologies, known as Fubini’s law*:

1. People initially use technology to do what they do now – but faster.

2. Then they gradually begin to use technology to do new things.

3. The new things change life-styles and work-styles.

4. The new life-styles and work-styles change society …

… and eventually change technology.

Since the lines above apply to many technology domains I worked on throughout my career, I have cited Fubini’s law many times in my presentations. Just think of how technologies like broadband internet, digital TV, and mobile communications have changed the way people live, work, and play.

(Photo by Marc Mueller, CC BY 3.0 DE)

In analogy with Moore’s and Metcalfe’s laws, about which I wrote in an older post on this blog, I have always assumed that Fubini’s law was invented by a person carrying the name Fubini. But, in fact, nobody seems to know who Mr (or Mrs?) Fubini actually is (or was), for which purpose he (or she) formulated this law, or when and where it was originally published. I ran a Google search to find out more, but this only yielded a handful of blog posts (the oldest ones date from around the year 2003) and books that refer to each other.

I have always been convinced that Fubini’s observations are spot on. And even if it’s not my style to quote anonymous or unverified sources, I will keep on using his wise words in my presentations. To illustrate the transformative power of technology and to celebrate human inventivity!

(*) note: Fubinis law, as described above, shouldn’t be confused with Guido Fubini’s theorem that dates from 1907 and describes how to compute a double integral using iterated integrals.

As all of you will know, there are 10 phrases you shouldn’t use

Over the past decades I have attended and presented at many business meetings and public events. I’ve seen many good speakers, lots of mediocre ones, and (unfortunately) even more bad presenters. All people make mistakes, and sometimes we use words or say things that we don’t intend to. In most cases this is really no problem. Just remember Dale Carnegie’s observation – I’ve already quoted it a few times on this site – that there are always three speeches for every talk you delivered: the one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.

But there are some phrases that sound wrong and unprofessional, each time a speaker articulates them. Phrases that can easily be avoided when you pay attention and anticipate, and if you invest that little extra time in preparing and rehearsing your presentation.

There are already a number of such lists circulating on the web, but below is my personal top 10 of speaker phrases that (in my humble opinion) never should be used.

1. “This presentation is about…”

You may always assume that the people in the room are familiar with the agenda of the meeting or the event. Even worse, simultaneously with pronouncing this infamous phrase, you’re most probably putting up a title slide that says exactly the same thing.

Most people in your audience will decide within the first seconds of a presentation whether a speaker is worth listening to. So, you must take this opportunity to grab their attention by intriguing, surprising or provoking them – instead of telling them something they already know.

2. “I’m not really familiar with this subject.”

This phrase is often followed by something like “but I’m replacing a colleague” or “but the organizers asked me to present this topic”. Well, there are no “but”s and no excuses for not being prepared. Preparation and rehearsal are key ingredients of any successful presentation. And, obviously, you should never talk about things you don’t really know about. This will only hurt your reputation, deny your ‘right to speak’, and prevent you from being invited as a presenter at future events.

3. “I didn’t have much time to prepare.”

I repeat: there is no excuse for not being prepared. And admitting this publicly only makes it worse for you.

4. “Can people in the back of the room read my slides?”

Unless you’re presenting to a group of visually handicapped people, there should be no reason to ask such a question. If you don’t overload your visuals with walls of text, endless bullet lists, or tiny fonts, even the back-row seaters will be able to enjoy your slides. Use font sizes 28–36 for titles, and don’t go below 20 points for the body text.

5. “On this slide, you can see…” or “The next slide shows…”

If you have used a font size large enough, people can – and will – read what’s on your slide. These meaningless intro sentences are a waste of time, and a lost opportunity to say something more interesting to catch (or renew) the attention of the audience.

6. “I know this is a complex diagram, but…”

Confucius knew: “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” Most of the (sometimes complex) topics you present can probably be explained in a plain and simple way that all people understand.

Simplicity always works. There’s no need to overload your visuals with lots of boxes, arrows and clouds. You’ll spend too much effort creating them and too much time explaining them. Your audience will also spend too much energy to understand them – most often, the accompanying text on the slides will be too small to read by these people in the back of the room anyway. And, oh yes, also refrain from using acronyms, difficult words, expert jargon, and long sentences.

7. “As all of you will know…”

Don’t overestimate your audience. Never assume that everyone in the room is as bright as (you may think) you are. Even if a few experts fully understand the technical details on your slides, most of your listeners may not. Remember that very often it’s not the engineer, but rather his or her manager that attends a conference. And that it’s not always the person that ask many ‘interesting’ questions who’s taking the (business) decisions at the end of the day.

8. “Does that make sense?”

Although these words are commonly used by speakers to check if their audience understands or agrees with what they’ve just said, this phrase may also show a lack of self-confidence and even undermine your authority. It may suggest that you have doubts about the credibility of your story, or about your listeners’ capability to understand your content.

Note that this applies mainly to large and very large audiences. If there are a manageable amount of people in the room and you’ve done your homework, then you may build in more personal interaction and ask them for their opinion.

In all cases, however, you may try to read the audience instead. If you’re telling strange, stupid, or too difficult things, you will certainly get it from their body language. And in case you still want to do the “does that make sense?” test, then save the question for launching the Q&A at the end of your talk.

 9. “I’m running out of time, so I’m going to skip the next slides.”

Let me believe that all the visuals you prepare are made to be presented. So, running out of time either means that you’re talking too much or too slow, or that your presentation deck has too many slides. A simple root cause analysis will tell you that in both cases something is wrong with your preparation and/or your rehearsal.

It’s actually quite easy to calculate the number of slides you need to prepare and want to present. You could simply apply Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 rule, which says that a good presentation should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points (which is even larger than the 20 points I recommended above). Or – if the time slot that has been reserved for you happens to be longer or shorter than these 20 minutes – deduct 1/5th from your speaking time for Q&A, and divide the remaining minutes by 2 and by 3. The results of this simple calculation will give you an upper and lower limit for the number of visuals you can comfortably run through.

10. “That’s all I have to say. Thank you for listening.”

Never end your presentation with a dry “thank you for listening.” Finish your performance on stage in a memorable way and dismiss your audience with clear directions. Tell them what you want them to remember (summarize your main ideas and key points), what they need to do (give them some homework, or invite them to visit your webpage or read a handout), and how they can get there (by engaging in a next step with you or with your company – don’t forget to put your contact details on the closing slide!)

That’s all I have to write today. Thank you for reading ;-)

(This post was originally published on the SpeakersBase blog)

No more naked numbers

“When you have mastered numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading books. You will be reading meanings.” – W. E. B. Du Bois, Afro-American activist and writer

It’s often good to quote numbers in your presentation. They provide powerful means to support the dialog you’re conducting with your audience. But, beware: figures don’t always speak for themselves. In science, naked numbers are numbers without units. Any scientist or economist will tell you that numbers without labels and charts without legends are meaningless and worthless. How would you feel about being offered a salary of “25”, not knowing if you’ll get 25 euros, 25 cents, or 25 peanuts for your work? per hour, per day, or per week?

peanuts

Also in my job as a strategist and marketer, I’m frequently confronted with naked numbers, industry analyst reports that contradict each other, and quantitative claims that don’t seem to make any sense at all. As Plato, the Greek philosopher, already said 24 centuries ago: a good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers. This is exactly why you shouldn’t present naked figures, but complement them by the sources and the formulas you used to obtain them.

And still, even the most unprovable forecasts and improbable measurements may yield good presentation material. Not because of their objective value, but just because some people may agree and others will disagree with them. And that’s exactly the sort of conflict you need to create for fueling a conversation with or between your audience. You’ll get an opportunity to discuss the why and the how, explain the logic behind your story, clarify the assumptions you made, bring additional facts and figures, talk about use cases and customer references, and prove the value of your products and services.

Finally, also remember what I wrote in my “living by numbers” post on this blog: numbers, particularly very large ones, don’t resonate with people until they are presented in an appropriate format. So, it remains essential to use good visualization methods for giving meaning to your figures, and making your audience remember the data you quote.

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