Going Blank Again

25 October, 2007

Last week I attended a company seminar for IT journalists here in Ho Chi Minh City. One of our guest speakers was a British retailer who has been in Vietnam for a couple of years, but who hadn’t actually presented to a Vietnamese audience before. 

After his talk, he said to me “I don’t think they liked it – I got no reaction from them at all.” On the contrary – our feedback forms indicated that his talk was very well-received. His inexperience at presenting to a local audience meant he mistook their natural lack of expressiveness for boredom or disinterest. 

Don’t expect a moshpit

Presenting or teaching (or indeed any other kind of performance) in Asia can be a real challenge, as the people are generally a lot less expressive than Westerners. Look at footage of a music performance in Vietnam or China, and see how the audience sit in their seats and politely applaud – then look at a Western rock crowd and see the difference! I showed my wife (who is Vietnamese) Rage Against the Machine’s thrilling live DVD The Battle of Mexico City, where the real stars are not the band but their fans, a huge seething, moshing, leaping mass of hysteria – and she found it equally hilarious and terrifying; she’d never seen anything like it. 

To the speaker, delivering your presentation or lecture to a room of expressionless, unresponsive faces can be disheartening – teachers and speakers like to see nodding heads, smiles, laughs or other signs that their message is getting through and being appreciated, and when this doesn’t happen, some of them visibly wilt, whilst others over-compensate and begin exaggerating their gestures and vocal inflections in a desperate attempt to provoke a reaction. I know, I’ve done it myself! 

Local knowledge

A little bit of local knowledge is needed when delivering a presentation or talk of any kind. Just because those five or six Vietnamese in the audience are sitting stony-faced doesn’t mean they’re not interested, just as the dozen Italians who nod and smile at everything you say aren’t necessarily going to come up to you and buy your product when you’ve finished. And the couple of Egyptians who walked in half an hour late and chatted to each other through your entire presentation may well have found it fascinating and could turn out to be your best customers. 

So when presenting across cultures, do a little bit of research first and find out how different cultures take in information and react to being presented to. This will ensure you don’t misread the signs and make the wrong assumptions about the success (or lack thereof) of your talk.


None of us likes taking criticism, but when it comes to delivering presentations, the only way we can improve is by inviting feedback from others. 

To give you an example, last week I took part in a seminar with three other speakers, and after the event we gave each other feedback on our respective talks. To summarise: 

Speaker 1 spent most of his time looking at the laptop in front of him rather than at the audience

Speaker 2 (me!) was “on red-hot coals”, moving about a lot

Speaker 3 stood with his back to the audience reading off the big screen

Speaker 4 stood side-on to the audience and rambled a lot 

The interesting thing was that not one of us was aware of what we were doing! I know I tend to move about a bit during presentations but wasn’t aware of quite how much I do it. 

So whilst all of us had our pride wounded a little by criticism (albeit constructive), we know what we have to improve next time we present. So next time you’re delivering a presentation, either ask colleagues for feedback, or if you’re really too sensitive to handle it, set up a video camera and identify your faults yourself!

Practice makes perfect

2 October, 2007

Just found this excellent piece on preparing for presentations by Rowan Manahan. I particularly liked the following point:

“The most impressive people I have worked with, the ones who make it look so effortless and so off the cuff, are always the ones who have put in the hours.”

From experience I know that to be true. I usually put in a lot of prep for presentations, often with my 5-month old daughter as audience (this isn’t as daft as it may sound – if she smiles and laughs I know my tone of voice, expressions and gestures are sufficiently lively for an audience – if she starts looking elsewhere I know I need to put more effort into it!), but on those rare occasions when I’m not so well prepared the end result is usually pretty poor, as I tend to rush it a bit.

Thorough preparation doesn’t mean learning a script off by heart – do that and your talk will come over a bit soulless – it just means knowing your topic well, knowing what slide comes next, what’s on it, and what you’re going to say about it (including any good stories or anecdotes), and what the time is.

Unprepared speakers can always be identified by the amount of time they spend looking at their own slides, and by the amount of words and bulletpoints thereon. A speaker without bulletpoints, who gives an engaging talk without constantly looking at the screen and appears to be delivering their talk off the cuff, is someone who has spent hours preparing!

No Logo!

28 September, 2007

The Rowan Report is an EXCELLENT blog offering advice on communication for non-profit organisations. The latest entry is a particularly good list of presentation tips – I particularly like no.8.

I recently wrote a piece on getting away from bulletpoints and rethinking your whole approach to slide design, and being forced to include a corporate logo/colour scheme on every slide is the exact anthithesis of such an approach.

If every one of your slides looks the same, people will quickly get bored and/or lost. If every slide is different, they’ll sit up & pay attention in order to see what’s coming next.

As a great journalist once wrote – NO LOGO!

How to #!@$ up a Presentation!

27 September, 2007

You understand your audience, you’ve put together a great slideshow, and you know your subject inside out – but this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to give a great presentation and communicate your message in a coherent, persuasive and memorable way! Here are 10 things presenters do that can undo the best laid plans…

1.    Stand behind the podium

When I see someone standing behind a podium I’m taken back to boring classes/lectures at school or university. Podiums are a barrier between you and the audience and can even make you look arrogant and superior. Speakers use podiums because they’re nervous and need to feel ‘above’ their audience.

Get away from the podium and amongst your audience to quickly create a rapport. If there’s a podium in the room when you arrive, ask the organiser to take it away. You don’t need it.

2.    Wear a jacket

I don’t care how smartly dressed your audience are – when you wear a jacket, you look as if you’re not stopping! Taking your jacket off makes you look and feel more relaxed, helps you move about more, and signals to the audience that you’re not about to rush off somewhere more important.

3.    Drink too much coffee

You’re nervous about your talk – it’s normal – so you didn’t sleep too well last night. You get to the venue. They offer you coffee. You drink it, & you feel more awake. They offer you more. You drink it. They…you get the point.

You might feel more alert, but all that caffeine will make you feel even more nervous and jumpy. Coffee dehydrates you so after you’ve been speaking for a few minutes you’ll get a very dry mouth & you’ll need to drink water. And even the strongest of bladders will give in eventually! Stick to one cup and then drink lots of water.

4.    Hold a microphone

Nervous speakers like to have something to hold onto, and what better (and less obvious) than a nice big microphone! However, unless you’re a rock star, the chances are that mike will make you look very awkward indeed, and you’ll either hold it too close to your mouth or too far away. Also, holding a mike inhibits the hand gestures that good presenters use to emphasise certain points and provide some visual stimuli.

Most venues these days can supply clip-on mikes so always ask for one. Or even better, if you’re speaking in a fairly small room, check the acoustics and you’ll probably find you don’t need a mike at all.

5.    Make inappropriate comments

I attended a large seminar in Ho Chi Minh City a couple of months ago, organised by a well-known US organisation. They’d flown in a guest speaker for the event and, like many speakers, he began his talk by praising the local city and country – a good way to get a rapport going, after all. However, instead of focusing on the food, the hospitality or the architecture, he homed in on the attractiveness of the local females, and even pointed out a few choice examples in the seminar room. Thus he revealed himself from the off as a bit of a sleazeball and this first impression coloured everyone’s reaction to the rest of his talk.

So if you’re giving a talk in another country, do a bit of basic research into cultural dos & don’ts before you go, and if you’re in any doubt, leave it out!

6.    Apologise

Sometimes, things go wrong. The laptop which worked perfectly well in your office the night before has suddenly decided to crash. The hotel’s projector can’t display your carefully-chosen images clearly. The aircon isn’t working. Sometimes it’ll be your fault, sometimes it won’t. But don’t apologise. Apologies make you look incompetent and not in control of the event.

Technical glitches are a good opportunity to ad-lib and have a bit of banter with the audience, to show that you’re not just a public speaking robot. I recently did an event with Microsoft Vietnam, and their speaker had prepared a video to show the audience, but Windows Media refused to play ball. “Just because I work for Microsoft doesn’t mean it always works for me” he said, getting a big laugh from the attendees.

Sure, apologise if you’re late, or if you spill water over someone in the audience. But don’t apologise on behalf of your technology – sometimes it just has a mind of its own, and everyone in the room will have experienced similar problems themselves.

7.    Touch the laptop

If you’re hitting the spacebar to advance your slides, you’re tied to the same spot. Invest a few quid in a remote clicker. Using a small clicker which the audience barely notice makes you look like a real pro.

8.    Keep looking at the screen

The constant glance behind at the screen is the sign of a speaker who doesn’t know their material. And you’re not reading off your slides anyway, are you?

I always try and make sure that my laptop is positioned somewhere within my line of vision, usually front-left or front-right, so I can make the occasional glance just to check I’m where I think I am! Position the laptop in front of the audience and most of them won’t notice what you’re doing.

9.    Finish with a Q&A

“Any more questions? No? OK, thanks for listening…” Not the most memorable way to end a presentation, but it’s how most presentations end – or rather, fizzle out.

Make sure you end with a bang by having a good story, anecdote or fact to hit your audience with AFTER the Q&A has finished. It makes you look professional and ends your talk on a memorable note.

10.    Rush off

The 10-15 minutes at the end of your talk are often the time when meetings are arranged, business gets done, and attendees praise your talk and even invite you to speak again for them. Yet it’s surprising how many speakers don’t hang around to chat to their audience individually, field private questions, or exchange contact details.

If you’ve followed steps 1-9 you will have come across as being very approachable, and your audience will want to approach you – stick around and give them the chance!

Speaking can be a stressful business and you’ll doubtless commit at least one of the above sins during your next talk, maybe without even realising it! But avoiding these common mistakes goes a long way towards helping you communicate your message as effectively as possible, makes your presentation enjoyable for the audience, and gives you a professional and approachable image in the eyes of your audience – some of whom will be future customers, partners or even employers!

In a nice example of serendipity, the day after I posted my piece about image-heavy Powerpoint presentations, I watched Al Gore’s documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth.

The film is basically Gore giving a presentation (using Apple Keynote rather than PPT, but the same principles apply) in front of an audience, occasionally fleshed out with personal reminiscences designed to show what a great guy Al is.

What’s striking about the film (apart from its eye-opening, often shocking content) is what a good communicator Gore is, and how well he uses his slides. Gone is the rather stilted, self-conscious performer of the 2000 presidential campaign; instead, Gore is relaxed, self-deprecating (his opening is “Hi, I’m Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States” – instant rapport!) and funny, as well as angry and passionate when required.

And following on from my last post, his visuals are superb. Very little text, lots of images and embedded video, and plenty of well-designed graphs & charts. And NO BULLETPOINTS!

Basically the film is a great example of how to deliver an enjoyable, informative and persuasive presentation, and essential viewing for anyone required to communicate information in this way. Lots of images, no jargon, plenty of personal anecdotes, and a relaxed, friendly delivery.

As a regular presenter I’m forever looking for new ways to make my slides more memorable and find new ways to communicate my message more clearly.

Over the last few months I’ve read a lot of articles about PowerPoint slide design (Presentation Zen is particularly good), and they seem to be unanimous on one thing – images = good, text = bad. The traditional method of presentation – identical corporate slides filled with bullet points and loads of text – is apparently passe, mainly because most people’s cognitive powers do not stretch to listening and reading at the same time.

So why is it that EVERY SINGLE BLOODY PRESENTATION I ATTEND still persists with this format? Even Philip Kotler, the ‘father of marketing’, whose recent conference in Ho Chi Minh City I attended, did it this way – plain white slides crammed with text which he simply read off the slides, adding very little extra. If he can’t get it right, how can anyone else? Are people like Garr Reynolds and Guy Kawasaki just pissing in the wind?

People’s brains work like this. If you stand up & start speaking, they’ll listen to you. But if you show them a lot of text on a screen at the same time, they’ll try and read it. But they can’t do both. So either they’ll ignore you, or they’ll ignore your slides. Either way, your message is diluted. Give them handouts to read as well, and you might as well just give it up and go home.

So today I tried something new. I was giving a talk to the European Chamber of Commerce here in HCMC about customer retention/loyalty, a talk focusing on concepts rather than lots of graphs and technical data. I wanted people to listen to me, not spend the whole half hour reading stuff off the screen.

So I kept it simple. Each slide had one relevant, high-quality image, and just a few words. No-one got handouts. Once the audience looked at the slide and grasped what the concept was, they wanted to know more and so listened to what I was saying. And because each slide was attractive and different to the previous one, and they had no handouts to tell them what was coming next, they paid attention.

Here are some examples. This slide is to illustrate the ‘leaky bucket’ analogy I mentioned in my recent entry about Richard Dawkins – the audience read the question and saw the picture, and their interest was piqued. This meant they listened to what I said:

Leaky Bucket

This one illustrates the ‘customer loyalty ladder’. Sure, I could’ve done this with bullet points, but then so would everyone else. Why not use a nice image of a ladder, and have the text appearing vertically from the bottom?


Finally, I moved onto customer loyalty, and who better to illustrate the concept of loyalty and faithfulness than a cuddly labrador:


I’ve never had such an attentive audience. Some of them looked a bit baffled at first, but once they grasped the format & realised there was nothing for them to read, they concentrated on my talk. Several of them approached me afterwards and said how much they’d enjoyed it and how different it was, which was great.

But it wasn’t just good for the audience, it was good for me too. Getting rid of the text from your slides helps you focus your mind on what you’re saying, and gives your talk a conversational quality that audiences appreciate. I found that, as I’d rehearsed and knew what image was coming next, I didn’t need to look back at the screen at all and was able to give the audience my undivided attention.

This approach may not work if you’re delivering a highly technical presentation, or one involving a lot of facts & figures, but for communicating ideas and concepts, particularly in a training scenario for example, it is highly effective. It requires a bit more work than the traditional approach (you need to source good pics – try www.sxc.hu – and you really need to know your talk as there are no bullet points for you to cling onto) – but it’s more fun to deliver and more enjoyable, and coherent, to your audience. Give it a try, and let me know how you get on!