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.

Related posts:

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Hear, hear! long and descriptive assertions may be more effective than short and crispy slide titles

I am busy preparing a new presentation and while crafting my slides, I (almost naturally) started writing full sentences in the title area. Up to recently I’ve always stuck to the principle that slide headings should be short, sweet, and tweetable – although I never use topic headlines like “Background”, “Our products”, or “Conclusions”. These are meaningless and, no matter how short they are, a waste of slide real estate.

But reading a twelve-year-old research paper by Michael Alley, “How the Design of Headlines in Presentation Slides Affects Audience Retention”, made me change my mind. The article challenges the efficiency of short catchy headlines, and suggests that full-sentence assertions increase both the audience’s attention and the retention of information. His research showed that students performed better after receiving presentations designed using an assertion-evidence approach, which combined sentence titles (the assertion) with visual elements like photos, charts, and diagrams (the evidence) instead of boring bullet lists.

Here’s an example of how a dull, bullet-ridden text slide may be converted in a more attractive one (that tells and shows exactly the same):

I must admit that the presentation that I’m currently preparing targets a relatively small and specialized business audience (and, no, it’s not about childhood obesity). I’m also aware that Alley’s principles may not apply to every single PowerPoint deck you build. But while crafting my visuals, I found out that these wordy and assertive headlines kind of enrich the highly graphical content I tend to create. They help me to develop my ‘story’ and let my audience keep track of the ‘plot’. As the title will be the first thing the people in the room read when I put up a slide, it will orient them to the upcoming content. And at the same time, I’m giving them a clear takeaway message – just take the title of this blog post as an example.

Download Michael Alley’s research paper:

Look above your head

My wife and I just returned from a refreshing and relaxing city trip to Prague, the marvelous Czech capital. After having visited many beautiful cities and gorgeous historic places, I learnt that you should never keep your eyes glued to the sidewalk. Whether you’re visiting the streets of Prague, London, Venice, or Barcelona there’s always a good reason to look above your head: richly ornamented Art Nouveau house fronts, intriguing baroque facade statues, hidden roof gardens, … Even a frugally flowered window sill, with or without a cat staring at you from behind the glass can turn a modest city sight into a memorable and inspiring picture.

Here’s the link to the subject of this blog: don’t restrict a business presentation to ‘sidewalk’ matters like current products and past achievements. A big part of your audience probably expects to learn more about your vision on and your plans for the future. If your (or your company’s) ambition is to be a technology innovator, a business champion, or a thought leader, then you’d better start acting as one.  Give your visitors something to look up (or look forward) to. Provide them with surprising content that lifts their view higher than today’s ceiling.

Note that this doesn’t mean that you can’t look down (or back). Facts and figures from the past, as well as customer case studies may help to prove your point or increase your credibility. As I wrote in an older post, in many companies there’s a role to play for folklorists, evangelists and futurists, and for this one rare bird that can connect the past, the present and the future and deliver the best of all times as a single story.

And if you want to reach even further, beyond the facades, the roofs, and the treetops, then simply follow Stephen Hawking’s advice:

“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”

Want to read more posts about (some of) our other city trips?

A panel’s worth a hundred speeches

A panel discussion is one of many approaches to talking about a specific subject. If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a panel’s worth (or could be worth) a hundred speeches. The format gives audience members the opportunity to listen to different points of view on selected topics, and weigh the merits of each perspective.

The moderator

A moderator has several roles and responsibilities, including being an instigator for the conversation, a champion for the audience, and a timekeeper for the panelists.

Here are a few tips and tricks for moderators:

  • First, select your panelist carefully. Invite people with various backgrounds and experiences. Depending on the session topic and objectives, you may e.g. match a visionary leader with a pragmatic technical expert – one with strategic insight with one who knows how to implement this strategy;
  • When you’re moderating a session, make sure that you know your panelists. Get in touch with them at least a week in advance, and make sure you know what ideas they stand for;
  • Choose a few provocative conversation topics, make sure that your panelists disagree on some of them (otherwise prepare yourself for a boring session), and put your speakers in a comfortable chair or on a cozy couch rather than behind a cold wooden table;
  • Introduce your guests with a short bio, tell why you (or the event organizers) picked them to contribute to the conversation, and how happy you are that such authorities are joining your panel;
  • Then continue with a brief introduction of the topic of the day, and let each panelist make a short statement or present 1 or 2 slides (not more!) before you address the audience for comments and questions;
  • Make sure you prepare a few questions for each topic or speaker for in case the audience is not interactive as you would have expected (or hoped). It’s a good practice is to ask your panelists for Q&A suggestions before the session;
  • It’s important for the moderator to have a strong ability to respect timing, handle questions from the audience, and deal with the dynamic of the panelists’ responses. Block long and intricate discussions, product presentations, and commercial messages. Most members of your audience are probably not interested in the nitty-gritty details, your panelists’ company profiles, or hard sales pitches. Also, make sure that you give equal airtime to the different speakers, and don’t let one personality dominate the discussion – not even when he is the most charming or humorous panelist.

Photo: The Muppets panel at the 2015 Disney/ABC Summer TCA Tour

The panelists

In contrast to giving a public presentation that is one-to-many, a panel discussion is a many-to-many (or at least a few-to-many) conversation. Each panelist is confronted with the challenge of being part of the group, while at the same time trying to stand out from the other speakers.

  • Keep in mind that as a panelist you won’t be able to practice your content in the same way you would for a solo presentation. So, make sure you come on stage as a subject matter authority with lots of background information about the topic. Mitigate the risks of having to repeat your fellow debaters. Prepare stories to share with the panel, anecdotes to engage the audience, and facts and figures to spark the debate;
  • If you get the opportunity to present a few slides upfront to the Q&A or interactive discussion, please keep it short. The people in the room are expecting a lively conversation (or even more a discussion) amongst the panelist, not a boring monologue by each of them;
  • Listen well to what your fellow panelists say, and try to be as reactive to their words as possible. Even when I’m giving a public speech at an event, I’m trying to get in well in advance to listen to the preceding speakers and (if applicable) ad some links to their content in my own presentation;
  • I have written a few blog posts about knowing your audience when you are giving a presentation. I also recommend to do similar upfront research on the other panelists, they may be allies or friends, and very often they work for one of your competitors.

If you have other good advice, tips or tricks for moderators or panelists, please share them via the “Leave a Reply” field below.

Five do’s and don’ts for speakers at B2B events

What’s it like being a (professional) presenter in a business-to-business environment? I’ve given many B2B presentations during my career as a high-tech marketer, strategist and communicator (that’s what I put on top of my LinkedIn profile.) Speakersbase, who were so kind to promote one of my older posts, asked me to share some experience and best practices at their event last night.

First, I must point out that not all speaking engagements are shaped equally, and that one should make a clear difference between a private and public talk:

  • Private presentations are usually hosted (and paid) by the company you work for or by a partner you work with. The audience consists of existing customers or business prospects, and they (must) understand they’re entering in a commercial conversation with you – as a representative of your employer or sponsor.
  • Public talks are coordinated by a third-party seminar, congress, or event organizer. Most often the audience is putting (quite a lot of) money on the table to attend, and listen to you and your fellow speakers. As such, expectations are quite different from the private case, and organizers and attendees want you to deliver the 3 E’s: education, entertainment, and engagement.

This being said, the 5 recommendations below mainly apply to public speaking opportunities:

1. No soliciting.

The audience is not travelling lots of kilometers, and paying lots of euros of dollars to get a hard sales talk, a product pitch, or a promotional speech for your company. Just imagine yourself spending a night at an expensive hotel, when a sales rep, a Jehovah’s witness, or a Mormon missionary knocks on your door to bring you his gospel…

Talk about your audience’s daily problems, and the questions about the – your! – solutions will follow. And if they don’t, make sure to end your talk with a clear call to action.

2. Mind your audience.

Satisfying your audience should be any speaker’s primary goal. Align your content upfront with the event organizers and/or the session chairperson. Avoid overlap with other presentations at the same conference. Tailor your talk to the audience’s specific knowledge, needs and expectations. Never stop intriguing, surprising, or provoking them.

Also avoid mentioning customers or business relations by their name (or by their logo), unless you’ve got their prior (implicit or explicit) approval. Remember what happened to a presenter who cited facts and figures about one of his clients, who turned out to be the next speaker on the agenda…

3. Storytelling always works.

Though not all content is equally suitable for storification, I experienced many times that storytelling techniques have a real value. Even (or should I say particularly?) for management, business, and technology presentations.

If you’re looking for some extreme cases, read my “Tell them fairy tales” post in which I explain how I narrated “the ugly duckling” and “the emperor’s new clothes” to business audiences of over 200 persons.

4. Don’t feed the chameleons.

There’s nothing as easy as creating a presentation by cutting and pasting slides from existing PowerPoints into yours. But, then you should also not be surprised that your slideshow looks like a chameleon.

If you want to be considered a professional speaker, then make sure that you deliver professional visuals. Look ‘n’ feel really matters! Which also counts for your dress code: your attire can change your image or enforce your message too. Read more about this in my “Dress to impress post.

5. Break away from picks and shovels.

In the fast-moving hi-tech industry that I’m active in, public events are considered “picks and shovels for the gold rush,” and conference facilitators often generate more revenue than participating (start-up) companies.

IMHO this is one of the reasons for so many poor speakers, violating points 1-4 above, appearing at events. Money makes the world go round. But, dear event organizers, try thinking of speaking and sponsoring as two mutually exclusive topics. There are many great speakers who aren’t able to sponsor a show. And, reciprocally, many of them may be eager to deliver a top-notch presentation without getting paid for their gig.

Bonus. Think visual.

Finally, a picture says more than a thousand words. For the people who were in the room last night, here are the new traffic signs that may help you not to forget the 5 tips I presented…

Dress to impress

During the current period of carnival, people over the world dress up extravagantly. They wear masks and costumes to change their everyday appearance, make a statement or tell a story. The ultimate example of such dress-up story telling is probably shown in the image below: amid the great 1930s depression, attendees of the Beaux Art Ball in New York were asked to celebrate the innovative spirit that was sweeping the architectural world. Which resulted in this frivolous lineup of architects dressed up as the renowned buildings they designed.

beaux-arts-ball

As a public speaker, your attire can change your image or enforce your message too. Varying from casual over smart to formal, your dress code may help you to impress, to convince, or to express. Of course, the outside always counts and you’ll only get one chance to make a first impression. A smart business suit exudes confidence and success, but this doesn’t mean that you must overdress or – even worse – wear clothes that don’t fit your personality. Dress like an engineer if you are one, instead of trying to look like a corporate executive (although I can name some casually – or even sloppily – dressed men and women in this category too, including a famous CEO that was wearing blue jeans, a black turtleneck, and grey sneakers as his signature look). Particularly if you suffer from speaking stress, you may prefer comfortable clothing over a stiff three-piece business suit. Which doesn’t mean that you have to wear baggy trousers either.

And, most important, don’t forget that it’s your on-stage performance that counts. Dedicate your time and creativity to building your story, crafting your content, and rehearsing your presentation rather than to dressing up for the audience.

I’d like to close this post with a quote from Arthur Ashe, the only black tennis player ever to win the Wimbledon championships: “Clothes and manners do not make the man; but when he is made, they greatly improve his appearance.” And so it is…

No words needed

Body language can be a powerful communication tool. Sometimes a (mysterious, naïve, smart, candid, …) smile may tell you more than a hundred words.

Only a few days ago I saw this news video on TV. Confronted with US president-elect Donald Trump calling Brexit “a great thing,” and suggesting that more European countries would leave the EU, the European Commission’s chief spokesperson gave this simple statement: “We have read this interview with interest,” and complemented his answer by an (IMHO) priceless, all-saying smile.

Pressed by a journalist if this was all the Commission had to say about the issues Trump had raised, the speaker confirmed his earlier reply by a short and dry “yes.”

I think I clearly understood the message. And probably many Europeans with me…

Wow! here came the iPhone

Today, exactly 10 years ago, Apple introduced the iPhone. During his keynote presentation at Macworld Expo in San Francisco, the late Steve Jobs told the audience that:

Today, we’re introducing three revolutionary products.
The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls.
The second is a revolutionary mobile phone.
And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device.
So, three things: a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough Internet communications device.
An iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator.
An iPod, a phone… are you getting it?
These are not three separate devices. This is one device.
And we are calling it iPhone.
Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.

For the thousands of people in the auditorium, as well as for the crowd of technology enthusiasts like me that followed the event via a live blog, this was certainly a wow! moment.

iphone_jobs

This was one of these points in time when you recognize that a product or service is a must have that might change your life. Something powerful enough to make one say: “Wow! I’ve never seen (or heard) something like this in my whole life.” Or, like Jobs had perfectly described this moment a few seconds earlier in his speech:

Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything. And Apple has been – well, first of all, one’s very fortunate if you get to work on just one of these in your career.
Apple’s been very fortunate. It’s been able to introduce a few of these into the world.
In 1984, we introduced the Macintosh. It didn’t just change Apple, it changed the whole computer industry.
In 2001, we introduced the first iPod, and… it didn’t just – it didn’t just change the way we all listen to music, it changed the entire music industry.

So, as a product marketer and a public speaker, what can you learn from the January 9th, 2007 iPhone announcement? besides that the iPhone was – and still is – a great disruptive product. Here are a few tips on how to turn a new product introduction into a memorable wow! moment:

Sometimes a wow! moment just comes spontaneously (or even unexpectedly.) But if you want to make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to wow! your audience, then you’d better plan, script and rehearse your presentation well in advance.

Bambi does the toothbrush test

Did you ever hear about the toothbrush test? The term is attributed to Alphabet’s CEO, Larry Page. And, as you may guess, it has nothing to do at all with a shiny white smile. The Google co-founder uses the test for determining whether a company is worth buying – which is always a complex and risky assessment to make.

As an alternative to diving into the nitty-gritty of revenue projections, cash flow forecasts, and profitability analyses, the test consists of this simple question:

“Is the company’s product or service something people will use once or twice a day, and does it solve a problem or make their life better?”

If I was asked for an opinion about my own toothbrush, the outcome would definitely be “yes.”

In this case, the toothbrush is used as a metaphor for usefulness and long-term value, in contrast to short-term RoI. Of course, one must be a business genius to make such an important decision based upon such a simple question. Please, note that I’m not naïve; you don’t have to convince me that Google’s people carry out a lot of due diligence beyond the toothbrush inquiry.

In an older post I wrote that simplicity always works. Life (and business) can be made so much easier than it is today, if you enable decision-making by asking simple questions, and effective communications by telling compelling stories.

Similar to Larry Page’s toothbrush test, I started using something I call the Bambi test. When preparing a public presentation, I ask myself the question below:

“Will people remember my words (or my visuals) two days from now, and did they get emotionally involved?”

I got inspired to use the Bambi metaphor after observing my kids watching Disney’s famous movie scene with Bambi and Thumper sliding on the icy pond. And like for the toothbrush one, the answer to the question would certainly be a “yes!” (Note to my sons Yannick and Robin: if you read this text, which you probably won’t, this was of course loooooong time ago…)

bambi

(image from Bambi by Walt Disney Studios)

Background reading:

Beauty and the beast

This week I read two articles about robots. One was about Jia Jia, a hyper-realistic young female-looking android, dressed in traditional Chinese style, which is capable of having a conversation with humans. She (or, should I rather say “it”?) can understand what people say, though she mostly just reacts to compliments on her appearance, like “You are beautiful” and “You look like an 18-year-old…”

The other piece covered a more functional species, named SpotMini. Boston Dynamics’ latest creation could be characterized as a ‘helpful giraffe-dog’.  It can grab all sorts of things, including fragile objects such as wine glasses or dirty dishes. Although less a pleasure for the human eye than robot goddess Jia-Jia, robodog SpotMini is probably more what the average person would expect a robot to be and to look like.

robots

Watching the pictures of both cyborg creatures made me think about the trade-offs between beauty and functionality. Even in this era of gender equality, most people don’t associate a sturdy machine with the looks a beautiful young woman, or vice versa.

Unfortunately, similar prejudices also often apply to the (PowerPoint) presentations we create. Working in a high-tech environment, in the heart of a community of engineers, I experience on a daily basis that most of my colleagues prefer creating long and (often) ugly slide decks with lots of complicated diagrams, detailed tables, and technical jargon. They seem to consider any visually appealing presentation a marketing gimmick — a kind of Jia-Jia, who’s only good for accepting “you are beautiful” compliments — that is not to be used for explaining complex ideas, designs, and creations. They put functionality before simplicity and aesthetics.

And still Beauty and the Beast can live together in perfect harmony. The Apple II personal computer was launched in 1977 with the slogan “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” and although Steven Jobs is sometimes quoted for saying that “design is how it works, not how it looks,” many people still buy an iPhone because of its premium look and feel. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. And so should be your business presentations!

You can watch some videos of the robot creations I mentioned above:

And, by the way, beautiful robots can be smart, ambitious, and wicked too. Have a look at another humanlike robot, Sophia, who “in the future, hopes to do things such as go to school, study, make art, start a business, even have her own home and family…”, and — oh my — “destroy humans” too.