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:

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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.

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.

Related posts:

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…