Spoiler alert!

I just finished the first draft of a sales PowerPoint for a new solution that my company is developing. Following my own blog’s advice (see links to a few relevant posts below) I crafted a compelling storyline, and structured the presentation following AIDA and Golden Circle principles.

Then a colleague sent me this comment: “Maybe you should start with an executive summary slide to set the scene…”

If you go to a movie theater, you don’t want the film to begin with a spoiler, do you? You don’t want to be told during the very first minutes who dunit, or which main characters will die in the next one and a half hour. Unless, in the exceptional case, when the screenplay’s structured as a flash back. As a marketer, however, I seriously doubt if it makes any sense to tell the story of an exciting new product in the past tense…

Image from Scared to Death, directed by Christy Cabanne (1947)

That’s why you’ll never see me start a presentation with an executive summary. No sir, not even with a table of contents or an agenda slide!

More reading:

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Whistles and bells and spoke cards

I remember that, when I was a kid, we used to place playing cards in the spokes of our bicycle wheels. As the cards made quite some noise when they flapped against the spokes, they created a false perception of speed (just like some motor bikers or car freaks believe the more racket their engine produces, the faster the vehicle will go.)

Well, from experience I can tell you that these spoke cards where nothing more than whistles and bells. My bike didn’t run any faster. But, the idea that an object that makes a lot of noise or reflects a lot of light must be very impressive, very powerful, or very expensive still exists. Take, for example, the average boom box kid who thinks he’ll rock everyone who passes by. Or the gold-colored smart phone owner who wants to make his/her cheap phone look kind of premium. Or even worse, those people who buy a bling bling case to pimp up their mobile device to a pocketful of glitter and glamour.

A similar syndrome also exists with certain speakers at public events. I still remember the guy dressed up in a three-piece black suit talking to… a geeky audience at a software developer conference (you may revisit my “Dress to impress” and “About white shirt, black shirt, and tee-shirt gigs” posts to read more about speaker dress codes.) Or with those business presenters that create fancy slide decks, ornamented with comic sans text, kitschy colors, or meaningless clip art (slide design topics also covered by my “Don’t feed the chameleons” and “Why look and feel matter in business presentations” posts.)

But, always keep in mind that whistles and bells are not half as bad as smoke and mirrors – showing off with a gold-colored iPhone never compares to wearing a fake Rolex. Or to delivering a presentation that you didn’t prepare yourself about a topic you hardly know anything about. Or to telling lies to, cheating on, or fooling your customers… (as reported on in my “Marketing, promises, and real products” post.)

From accumulation to understatement

Figures of speech can help listeners and readers understand what we say and write. But they also help make our language more colorful and make our stories more engaging (hey, wasn’t that an anaphora?) As I use them frequently in my presentations and my blog posts, here’s a (non-exhaustive) list with 10 of my favorite rhetorical figures…

Accumulation = gathering, repeating, and recapitulating previously stated arguments. It may be used to simply summarize your key points (as I’m often doing at the end of a presentation), but also to re-emphasize your message in a forceful way. Here’s an example of how I used accumulation to conclude my old-but-gold “Don’t feed the chameleons” article: “So next time you need to build a business presentation, start well in advance and take your time to tune each slide. Don’t take existing material for granted. Be creative. Be consistent. Be professional.”

Alliteration = the repetition of an initial consonant sound. This works extremely well to make your blog/presentation/slide headlines stand out. Just think of the post on this site that I titled: “Proudly promoting my president’s presentation pizzazz.”

Anaphora = a technique where several phrases begin with the same word or words. I often use it in combination with a rule of three, like the “Be creative. Be consistent. Be professional.” in the accumulation example above.

Antithesis = the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas in balanced phrases. Take, for example, “women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth” in Oprah Winfrey’s 2018 Golden Globes speech or “for those who still can’t comprehend, because they refuse to” in Emma González’ March For Our Lives address.

Chiasmus = a verbal pattern in which the second half of an expression or a sentence is balanced against the first but with the parts reversed. John F. Kennedy’s “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate” is a famous example of a chiasmus.

Hyperbole = using an extravagant statement or exaggeration to emphasize a point or to evoke strong feelings. When I wrote that Fidel Castro’s listenership may have called itself lucky after a 7 hours and 10 minutes speech, and that it may have taken the late Cuban leader almost 54 working days to prepare his address, I might have used a couple of hyperboles.

Metaphor = an implied comparison between seemingly unrelated objects and/or concepts offers a creative means to convey much more content compared to only talking about the naked topic of your presentation. Over the past years I have written several blog posts about the metaphors that I have used in my presentations. Do you remember what a highway junction, a cherry pie, or a volcano stand for? If not, you may revisit these respective posts: “Highway 61 revisited”, “Easy as cherry pie”, and “Making the volcano”.

Paradox = a statement that sounds like it contradicts itself, but which often contains some kernel of truth or reason. A few years ago, I closed my presentation at an Internet of Things conference with a “the best things in life aren’t things” slide. Although I presented a clear contradiction in terms, no single person in the audience questioned the truth of my statement.

Personification = giving human qualities to non-living things or ideas. When, in one of my articles about the Internet of Things, I suggested that enterprises should step through the mirror – like Alice [in Wonderland] stepped through the looking glass – I was perfectly aware that a company is not a human being.

Understatement = when a writer or speaker deliberately uses words that lessen or minimize the importance of an issue or a situation. The presentation that I mentioned above in my paradox bullet, was titled “The unbearable lightness or IoT forecasting”. I chose this title to make a polite statement about the fact that industry analysts often cite widely diverging figures about the same topic.

Entertain. Educate. Engage.

In an older article about “five do’s and don’ts for speakers at B2B events,” I briefly touched upon organizers and audiences’ expectations of presenters at public events. I identified them as the 3 E’s: entertain, educate, and engage.

Well, I’m once again at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, and as with previous editions I attended, I’m dedicating a blog post to my impressions, learnings, and experience from/at one of the biggest technology shows on earth.

This year I’m at the Nokia booth again, delivering a presentation about the future home entertainment experience. I’m talking about how new technologies, new business models, and evolving consumer behavior are changing the nature of, and the way we consume video content. I’m performing in a quite spectacular setup, that we nicknamed our video cave.

This brings me to the first of the 3E’s:

  • Entertain: while preparing for the event, I have intensely worked together with the creative agency that built the booth and created some exclusive video content for the demo. And IMHO the result is amazing. My narrative – a mix of trend watching, storytelling, and use case examples – is supported by spectacular 180° surround video images that occupy 3 walls and 33 display monitors.

My company is in business, and so am I. As such I, am expected to be more than just a booth entertainer. That’s why my demo also educates and calls for engagement.

  • Educate: I’m talking about our vision on how video, AR, and VR content will be produced, distributed, and consumed in 2025. What it means for service providers and their customers. I’m talking about the “why” and the “how,” and not about the “what” (do you still remember my post about the golden circle?). I’m showing a short video about our vision, and then I explain the role of technology and my company’s products, but I don’t go into the details and neither do I push a hard sales message.

  • Engage: I always try to keep my talk conversational and adapt it to each session’s audience (I’m giving 15-20 presentations each day, and MWC visitors are a mix of international telecom executives, service marketers, and technology experts.)Those are often the best moments of the day, when I just sit down and have a good conversation with people about the things I’m telling and about their daily and future business – while collecting business cards, and taking lead information.

And when I receive positive response from my audience or when our Chinese competitors nod approvingly from behind their camera phones, I feel that I’ve done a good job.

But, of course, spending a whole week at a big event like the Mobile World Congress is so much more than giving presentations and demos. It’s also reconnecting with colleagues and friends you haven’t seen for a year, and enjoying tapas and a good glass of wine with them at night.

Here are the other posts I’ve written about/at the MWC:

My design agency is called none

Following a conference talk, one of my fellow keynote speakers once asked me which agency created my slides, because he “liked my visuals more than his”. My answer was straightforward and simple: I always create my own materials.

For sure, crafting a nice looking PowerPoint takes a good chunk of your time, but IMHO it’s always worth the effort. Of course there are graphic design agencies, who are more than happy doing the work for you. There are many good such agencies, but also mediocre ones. No offence to the good ones, but I had a not-so-positive experience working with a graphic (re)designer in the past. That’s an understatement, as he totally ruined the concept behind my presentation when he neglected and overrode some (implicit) color coding I had built in.

At another occasion, another graphics guy introduced an overload of visual effects and animations to my slideshow. I had to tell them that such animations distract the audience from my key messages, and force me to concentrate on ‎timing and control instead of on my narrative. Furthermore, animated slides are often hard to edit and/or update, because of duplication and non-accessibility of grouped and hidden objects.

For a colleague’s presentation, another designer (?) created a single slide with 133 (!) words, written in 10 point (!) font size. I’m aware that not everyone is a follower of Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 rule, but this specific visual was unreadable, unpresentable, and thus unacceptable.

Here’s another piece of advice: always double-check your original messages after bullets or handout texts have been rewritten. Particularly in the case when you’re using technical language or subject specific jargon I once discovered that my Linux kernel was faulty replaced by a nucleus. If content needs to be translated to a foreign language (even if it’s one you’re more or less familiar with) it may be a good idea to have the presentation reviewed by a native-speaking colleague.

Finally, like every father who thinks his kids are the most beautiful children on earth, I often prefer my original slides over the revamped ones. They contain my visual signature and they’re part of my personal brand. That’s why my graphic design agency is called None. And when I asked the other speaker about how much he had paid the design company for authoring his presentation, I was flabbergasted by the amount of money he spent per slide. Well, if I ever lose my voice, I know a lucrative alternative to public speaking: creating or remaking other people’s slides…

If you’re looking for slide design tips and some do’s and don’ts for using fonts, color, images, bulleted lists, multimedia, and templates in your slides, you may read my article “Why look and feel matter in business presentations“.

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:

Related posts:

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.

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)