Don’t Ban PowerPoint: Learn to Create Thoughtful Presentations Instead

Ban PowerPointThere are few things so irredeemably bad that they are banned outright, no exceptions. You would think that torture should be, but our own government has found a workaround for that by redefining the word when it’s convenient. Killing endangered animals seems like an obvious candidate for a ban, but every few months I see stories about someone defending their right to pay to “hunt” elephants, rhinos or giraffes. We can’t even stop Adam Sandler from making movies. But should we ban PowerPoint?

A Washington Post piece by Katrin Park (self-consciously illustrated with PowerPoint slides) argues that PowerPoint should simply be banned. While I agree with most of her points about how the seemingly inescapable software is misused (and many of her examples are eerily similar to posts I’ve previously written), a ban isn’t the answer. Lots of tools can lead you to a bad result if you don’t know how to use them. Chainsaws. Nail guns. Ladders. That doesn’t mean we should just get rid of them.

Park points to TED talks as examples of presentations that have moved away from slides (which she calls “presentations”) to storytelling, but many TED talks are accompanied by slides. The difference is that the speakers have learned (or been coached) not to let their slides take the focus away from themselves. And, sure, there are other great products to help you create visual aids for your presentations, like Prezi, but they won’t make your presentations better if you don’t put in the effort. It’s just as easy to make an awful presentation with Prezi as it is with PowerPoint. Actually, Prezi is the only presentation software I’ve know to make people physically ill. Some presenters get so excited about its ability to swoop and spin around the screen that they literally make their audiences nauseous.

So what should you do?

First, don’t ban PowerPoint. Simply eliminating a tool, one with which many people are comfortable and that has been useful to them for a long time, doesn’t make sense. Besides, a lot of these “bans” just don’t work. As Park points out, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates found that PowerPoint was so ingrained in the culture of the Pentagon that even he couldn’t root it out.

But maybe it’s time to take a break.

A PowerPoint hiatus could be a great idea at your organization to help bring out creative responses to the problem of presenting and teach people that they don’t need to approach every presentation the same way. Try eliminating PowerPoint during one meeting, at your office for a week, or at your next company retreat to see what happens. But make sure that everyone knows what you expect from them and provide examples of other presentation software or formats that they might try. Otherwise they may have a serious panic attack. Remember, the only way many people know how to give a presentation is with slides.

So try other presentation software. Or try doing without slides and use storytelling, a whiteboard, or a demonstration instead. But don’t blame PowerPoint itself for lazy, un-engaging, and ineffective presentations. Those are the speaker’s fault, not the software’s.

If you’re looking for ideas on how to create better presentations, this blog is a good place to start.

Katrin Park: PowerPoint Should Be Banned

Steph Curry’s Daughter Steals Interview, Scores

According to the news, Tuesday night’s postgame interview where Riley Curry stole the spotlight from her MVP dad was either the most adorable thing ever, or a travesty of sports reporting. Some people take basketball really seriously!

The measure of success for any public speaking event, whether you’re presenting a pitch, conducting training, running a meeting, or being interviewed is always the same. Did you accomplish your goals? If so, congratulations.

So what are the objectives of a postgame interview? It really isn’t about conducting “serious” journalism. The reporters asking questions aren’t going to dig up important facts during the interview or discover that the Rockets actually won. These events are more like those press tours that actors do where they go around promoting a movie on every possible talk show. They’re designed to give fans more access to the players, showcase their personalities, build their brands and that of the team. Ultimately, they exist to sell tickets, shirts, and cable subscriptions.

Did Riley Curry help with that? Absolutely. She was all over the morning news programs and somehow managed to make her enormously likable dad seem even more charming. It certainly won’t hurt him when it comes to winning endorsements from sponsors, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Riley is offered a few of her own. She already has her own custom version of her dad’s signature shoes.

Now, that doesn’t mean I want athletes to regularly start dragging their kids to interviews any more than I think it’s a good idea for anyone other than Maya Rudolph to sing impression-studded versions of the national anthem at commencement ceremonies. The charm of each event comes from being so unusual and unexpected.

http://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-moms/news/stephen-currys-daughter-riley-steals-spotlight-at-press-conference-2015205

http://thebiglead.com/2015/05/20/reminder-on-complaints-about-steph-currys-daughter-sportswriting-is-entertainment-reporting/

 

Make your meetings and presentations more efficient by avoiding jargon and acronyms

TLAs.001My communications classes always include a slide like the one above because it’s advice that every writer, presenter, or meeting participant can stand to hear.

And because it’s always good for a joke.

As I talk about how jargon, technical terms, and obscure acronyms that are intended to save time actually lead to confusion and waste it, I can always depend on someone in the audience to raise their hand to ask what a TLA is.

“Oh, sorry,” I say. “It’s a three letter acronym for Three Letter Acronym.” Cue the laughter.

I recently came across a blog post from Adobe’s General Counsel, Mike Dillon, who says that the overuse of acronyms in his workplace is out of control:

At Adobe we take it to an entirely new level. Acronym usage is so rampant here that an internal market has developed with employees trading lists of company acronyms like they are some sort of corporate Rosetta Stone.

As an example, I recently attended a meeting where we reviewed the performance of a number of our businesses. During one ten minute period, I jotted down the following acronyms that were used during a presentation: “VIP”, “ARR”, “CLP”,” TLP”, “GTM”, “CCM”, “SMB”, “ETLA”, “POSA”, “STE”, “CS6”, “CC”, “EOL”, “STL”,” DPS”, “COGS”, “OEM”, “ROW”, “MD&P”,  “CAGR” and “CCE”. One of the presenters even achieved the linguistic equivalent of running the four-minute mile by using an impressive seven acronyms in a single sentence!

But he realizes after the meeting that he’s been so busy trying to figure out the speakers’ acronyms that he hasn’t really heard their presentations:

And for presenters, that’s a real problem. You put countless hours developing a presentation so that you can inform or influence your audience. That work is wasted if your audience doesn’t understand your message.

So, here’s a novel idea. How about considering the audience you are addressing? Are you certain that everyone in the room understands the acronyms you are using? If not, use the full words or phrase at the beginning of your presentation before you begin using the acronym.

Your future audiences will thank you and your presentations will be far more effective.

Of course he’s right. As presenters, writers, and everyday communicators of information, it’s critical that we are as clear as possible. If there’s any possible doubt that your audience might not understand an acronym or a technical term, make sure to spell it out for them. Saving a few syllables isn’t worth it if there’s a chance that your audience is going to mistake the ASTD (American Society for Training and Development) for an STD.

But audiences also need to take some responsibility here. If you find yourself in meetings that rely on a lot of jargon and acronyms that could be confusing, ask people to clarify what they’re talking about. Speaking up to admit that you don’t understand can be difficult, but working together to eliminate the mysterious letter stew used within your organization can help make the whole team more efficient.

Mike Dillon: IMHO

Every Meeting Needs An Agenda (But Maybe Not An Agenda Slide)

DSC04780I was happy to see this blackboard welcoming guests to the wedding reception for my friends Sarah and Joey because it illustrates one of the most important rules for any meeting, presentation, or formal gathering. They all need to have an agenda. You don’t want to leave your guests in the dark about what your meeting is about, why they’ve been invited, or when the food trucks are going to start serving dinner. Otherwise people may feel anxious, annoyed, or cranky from their low blood sugar.

That doesn’t mean your agenda has to be a formal document that’s distributed in advance (though that’s often best). Agendas can take many forms, including a few bullet points in a calendar invitation, an overview of goals and topics to be discussed at the opening of a meeting, or a brief outline written on a whiteboard at the front of a conference room. An entirely appropriate agenda might just exist in the head of the meeting planner. But all meetings need to have an agenda in order to keep them on track and make sure they have a legitimate reason for happening. As a general rule, the more important the meeting, the more important it is to have a formal agenda and share it with attendees to make sure that everyone’s goals are being met.

Unfortunately, too many meetings don’t have an agenda at all. Some meeting organizers are just bad planners and think they’ll wing it, while others don’t like the structured formality of a written agenda. But the most frequent excuse I hear–by far–is that writing an agenda and distributing it in advance takes too much time. Of course this idea is terribly short-sighted. Creating a good agenda allows you to use the time you and your co-workers spend in meetings much more efficiently, and should even allow you to cancel the meetings that you really don’t need to have.

Agreeing that every meeting should have an agenda, that it’s shared in advance, and that it’s used to make sure the meeting stays on track is probably the single-most effective thing you can do to improve the productivity of your workplace. Have you ever sat through an entire meeting wondering why you’d been invited? Have you been to a weekly status meeting where no one had anything new to report? Chances are no one had taken the time to write agendas for those meetings. If you find that you or the people you work with are having a hard time coming up with agendas, it might be time to start thinking about whether you should be having those meetings at all. Cancel them instead and use the time you reclaim to actually get some work done.

What you might not always want to do is include an agenda slide in your presentations. An agenda slide can be a great tool to give attendees a quick idea of what they’re going to hear, but many presenters wind up spending so much time explaining their agenda slides that they effectively give their presentation twice, once when they talk about the agenda, then again as they read through their slides. Few things are more boring for an audience. If you can give your entire presentation just by discussing an agenda slide, consider doing it that way. Your audience will appreciate it.

How PowerPoint Is Ruining Teaching: Learning Bad Habits Young

NTEC.001

Think bad slides are only a problem at the office? Or in the military? Here’s a piece by Rebecca Shuman from Slate that describes the use of PowerPoint in the classroom as the “scourge” of higher education–written entirely in the form of a slide deck. But the problems she points out aren’t unique to schools; all of them would be painfully familiar to anyone who sits through business presentations.

Unfortunately, the cycle of bad slides and worse presentation habits has become self-reinforcing. People in the workplace rely too much on PowerPoint instead of creating truly engaging presentations. Teachers and students adopt the technology and all of the bad habits they see modeled in business. Newly minted graduates find jobs and bring their presentation “skills” with them, perpetuating the Circle of Lifeless Presentations.

Luckily for Schuman, she has one advantage most people don’t; she can ban PowerPoint from her classroom. Few of us hold that kind of sway over our conference rooms. So what can you do? Try to show your students, employees, and co-workers that there’s a better, less bullet-riddled way to conduct presentations. Start a more virtuous cycle.

Slate: How PowerPoint is Ruining Higher Ed

More Productive Meetings: Jeff Bezos Bans Slides At Amazon

Yesterday I saw Washington Post chairman and CEO Donald Graham talking about the decision to sell his newspaper to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. What really caught my attention was his explanation that he felt good about the sale partly because Bezos believes in writing:

He’s a reader and he’s a writer. Unusually, out at Amazon, meetings don’t start with slide presentations or PowerPoints. At Jeff’s request, they start with whoever convenes the meeting writing an essay. The first 10 minutes, everybody sits down and reads what the person convening the meeting wrote.

Why? Because he thinks writing requires thought. So that is a little tribute to the power of the written word.

I have no way of knowing if it’s true that PowerPoint is banned from the beginning of all meetings at Amazon, but I love the idea. Requiring people to write out their ideas in sentences and paragraphs complete with context, transitions, and conclusions would help overcome some of the sloppy and incomplete thinking that slides and bullet points lend to so many meetings.

Even better, the idea of having to write an essay might convince people to cancel many of the meetings that only waste everyone’s time.

Donald Graham on PBS Newshour

Remote and Online Presentations: You Need a Plan

Remote presentations aren’t easy. Honestly, I find them terrifying and would much rather stand up and speak in front of a huge crowd than try to train two people on a conference call. You lose so much of your ability to connect with an audience that it often feels like you’re speaking into a void, and there are seemingly infinite technical issues that can go badly, embarrassingly, wrong.

The last time I reluctantly agreed to do remote training my co-presenter kept getting dropped from the call, he spent most of his time offline dealing with the telecom operator, and the presentation software kept randomly advancing my slides. Needless to say, it’s challenging to provide decent training in a situation like that, especially when you’re supposed to be teaching people how to give better presentations.

Let’s hope we can all learn from other peoples’ failures.

This article from Slate describes how a similar situation, an online class called Fundamentals of Online Education, went awry in horrifying, yet predictable, ways. But while my disaster happened with an audience of about 100, this one unfolded in front of more than 40,000 people who had signed up to learn how to successfully deliver classes like the one they were trying to attend.

Unfortunately, experiences like these will continue to be common. Despite the fact that live meetings, training, and presentations are undoubtedly more effective, tight budgets for travel and training mean that more and more of our interactions will be driven to the web. So how are you supposed to make them effective? First of all, you need to have a plan. As one attendee commented on the Fundamentals of Online Education class:

It was not technical issues that derailed this course [which was a symptom], it is the underlying philosophy that many institutions still hold onto—that a MOOC is similar to, or the same as, a course in a traditional face-to-face classroom, and it can be successful using the same structure, same content and similar instructional methods. MOOC courses offered through Cousera and other such platforms, often appear modified to ‘fit’ into a course experience on the Web, albeit with thousands of students.

In other words, you can’t treat a remote class or presentation the same way you would a live one. You have to have a plan for how you’re going to use the technology, how you’re going to overcome the distance between yourself and the audience in order to engage them, what you’re going to do if 40,000 people sign up. Remote presentations create a very different set of challenges than live ones, and you’re going to have to work harder if you want to make them successful.

BulletProof is here to help.

BulletProof Presentations

http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/02/05/mooc_meltdown_coursera_course_on_fundamentals_of_online_education_ends_in.html

What You Lose When You’re Not There: “The Trouble With Online Education”

I felt guilty when I started teaching at UC Santa Cruz because students (or their parents) paid tuition expecting that they’d be taught by an actual professor. Instead they got me–a graduate student instructor with a fresh college diploma and no real training as a teacher. But at least I was there with my students at every class, working with them to help improve their writing. If I were a parent of student today I’d be concerned about paying fees and getting a URL or a recording instead.

This morning I was writing an article about the challenges posed by creating and delivering remote or recorded presentations when I came across this op-ed by Mark Edmundson in The New York Times. Part of the fallout from the recent ouster (and reinstatement) of University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan, the piece argues that the current focus on online education is ultimately short sighted because online courses are rarely (or never) going to provide a first-rate educational experience.

If you think none of this applies to you because you’re not a college student, think again. Meetings, training and presentations in the business environment have moved online far faster than classes have at universities. And they suffer from the exact same kinds of problems.

All the conference calls and videoconferences you sit through, the recorded (and mandatory) sexual harassment training, the Excel classes, are plagued by the same failures that occur when events aren’t held live and in person. People fail to engage and their attention wanders. Speakers can’t take advantage of the physical presence of their audience in order to amuse, charm, scare or cajole them into believing their agenda. Presentations are reduced to bullet points and “facts” instead of dialogue.

Have you ever found yourself on a conference call and so bored out of your mind that you start surfing the web, replying to email or even leaving the room to go get a cup of coffee? I know I have. That’s the kind of failure we’re talking about. How much do you learn in those sessions?

As someone who started teaching at a university more than 20 years ago, back when email accounts were brand new and computers were almost unheard of in classrooms, I may be a little old-fashioned about education. Still, I can’t imagine how online courses can begin to replicate the interactions that great teachers have with their students, or even the the relationships that engaged students have with each other.

Edmundson’s piece seems so spot-on that I’m tempted to just paste the whole thing below. But I’m going to resist, so please click on the link and go read it in it’s entirety. Below are a few of my favorite bits, like when he points out that it’s impossible to recreate online the experience of having a teacher who is able to “read” the room and adjust their material to fit the audience (something I called being “obectively engaged” when I wrote about it before).

We tend to think that the spellbinding lecturers we had in college survey classes were gifted actors who could strut and fret 50 amazing minutes on the stage. But I think that the best of those lecturers are highly adept at reading their audiences. They use practical means to do this — tests and quizzes, papers and evaluations. But they also deploy something tantamount to artistry. They are superb at sensing the mood of a room. They have a sort of pedagogical sixth sense. They feel it when the class is engaged and when it slips off. And they do something about it. Their every joke is a sounding. It’s a way of discerning who is out there on a given day.

As Edmundson points out, teaching is a dialogue, a relationship with the audience, not something that can be broadcast to any random group to achieve the desired effect. In fact the nature of recorded presentations, whether they’re college classes, corporate trainings or sales presentations, mean that they are targeted to the broadest possible audience and not tailored for specific needs. Which should be a problem for anyone hoping to get a first-class education online.

With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, is a matter of dialogue.

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is.

Online classes tend to be reduced from a collaborative effort between the students and their teacher to a collection of facts that they might just as well read from a book on their own. It seems unlikely that anyone is ever going to fondly reflect back on the great online class they took in college when the audience doesn’t get a real chance to participate.

A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It’s a one-time-only event. Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates. You can get knowledge from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.

The big push behind the effort to move so many presentations online, whether they’re university classes or corporate events, is to save money and make them available to more people. But it’s all a waste of time and resources if the result is substandard or no one is paying attention. After teaching at UCSC I spent many years managing the training department at a huge law firm and talked to many trainers and training managers who had invested huge sums of money in online training only to find out that no one actually used it.

Unfortunately, the stakes are different in the business and educational environments. If a meeting turns out to be a waste of time people can adjust and try something new. But if students graduate from (or drop out of) an online program and find they haven’t learned anything useful, they often don’t get another chance.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/20/opinion/the-trouble-with-online-education.html?hp

Effectively Using Humor In Your Presentation

“As an icebreaker, let’s all share one interesting thing about ourselves. I’ll start.”

I once had a boss who was a terrible speaker. He would stammer, lose his train of thought and sweat profusely, even when he was only talking to a couple of people who were his employees. It was excruciating for everyone.

Then one day he adopted a new tactic. Someone must have suggested that telling a joke at the beginning of the meeting might help break the ice and make everyone more comfortable. The problem was that my boss seemed to pick the jokes randomly from a children’s book. They were jokes about giraffes walking into bars, conversations between electrons and neutrons, awful puns. Even worse, they didn’t help him relax at all. He was still so tightly-wound that he’d stumble over the punchlines and have to start over again, prolonging everyone’s suffering.

Some people just aren’t funny and shouldn’t try to be, but my boss wasn’t one of them. He was a warm, friendly guy who was pleasant to hang out and have a drink with. The mistake he made with his jokes was that they had absolutely nothing to do with what we were talking about at work. They were completely lacking in context and made him seem disconnected from what we were doing there. When it comes to humor in presentations, context is key.

Humor can accomplish a lot in your presentations. Making people laugh helps them relax and makes them more likely to agree with what you say. It entertains them so they don’t resent being there and helps them pay attention. Most importantly, humor helps you build a relationship with your audience that will endure long after your presentation itself is over. Getting an audience to laugh and like you can be critical to getting them to believe in what you have to say. But all of these things depend on telling the right kind of joke.

Humor is a really tricky thing. Saying something that other people find funny requires that you share common experiences, opinions, language. Think about how hard it can be to understand a joke that’s been translated from another language. A lot of the time it’s just futile. And humor doesn’t even have to be that “foreign” to fail. We all have cultural, economic, even regional differences that impact what we find funny. Do you laugh at redneck jokes? Kathy Griffin? A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Whatever you enjoy there’s someone out there who feels just the opposite.

Figuring out what kind of humor will work with an audience can be a huge challenge, but it’s worth the effort. When you can tell a joke that makes an audience laugh it immediately signals to them (whether they realize it or not) that you have something in common. And when they feel that you have something in common they are much more likely to be persuaded–which is the point of any presentation in the first place.

The more specific the kind of humor you can target at an audience the better. I’m always pleased and appalled by the geeky kind of jokes you hear at industry conferences, the stuff that no one else would ever understand but is hilarious to a small group of people. When I used to teach software like Microsoft Word it was the jokes about styles, fonts and “Jason tabs” (don’t worry if you don’t understand know what a “Jason tab” is, no one expects you to) that struck me as incredibly cliquey. But every group and industry has their own equivalent. Which is a good thing because being able to deploy them shows that you know your audience and are part of the same group. You’re one of them. If you’re looking for a joke to tell, start with what the specific group you’re addressing has in common. The geekier the connection the better.

Telling a funny story is even more effective than telling a joke. Stories are much more memorable and allow you to more fully develop an idea. If they’re based on your own experience they’re also much less likely to get screwed up since they don’t require a punchline. If you’ve chosen your story well your audience will easily be able to relate to you and what you’re telling them.

If you’re looking for a humorous story, one of the best things you can do is to describe a mistake you’ve made. One of the problems with jokes is that they’re usually at someone else’s expense and can sometimes seem mean. But telling a story about one of your own failings shows that you’re human and gives the audience something to relate to–chances are they’ve made mistakes of their own. And storytelling allows you to tell them something about yourself and make a personal connection in a way that isn’t self-aggrandizing. But the best thing about using a humorous story about making a mistake is that it comes with a built-in narrative that you should be able to remember easily because it happened to you. There’s no punchline to remember. Instead you can offer what you learned from your mistake, which is a much better takeaway for you audience than any joke you would tell them.

Humor can be a powerful weapon in your presentation arsenal, but don’t just tell a joke to tell a joke. Whatever you do, don’t go to the library and pick a random one from a book. Take advantage of the live format of your presentation to find your own humor that fits the context of your talk and works to create a relationship with your audience. Find an appropriate joke or tell you own story. But remember that it’s not just having a joke that’s important, it’s how your humor helps you relate to and persuade the people in the room.

Planning Your Presentation: Stand It On Its Head

One of the main reasons that most presentations are bad, boring and ineffective is because we learn from bad examples. We see lots of slides full of text, so we create some of our own. We’re bored by talks that don’t try very hard to be interesting, so we don’t try very hard ourselves. And we sit through so many meetings where everyone just tries to make themselves look good that our own presentations start to lose touch with reality.

Sometimes what you need to do to make your talks and meetings truly interesting, memorable and effective is to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. Take the routine, typical presentation that everyone expects you to give and stand it on its head.

Have you ever had this experience?

You’re sitting in one of those big status meetings where everyone goes around the table and talks about all the projects that they’re working on. And every project, it seems, is a smashing success. Ahead of schedule, under budget, beloved by all.

But you know better. You were just talking to the guy from Accounting about how their new expense system was going to have to be totally rewritten. The Human Resources people had been in a panic the day before because of an open rebellion over changes to the electronic time card used by every employee, and the people who run your network are frantically banging on their laptops throughout the whole meeting because the link between your Seattle and Portland offices is down. But somehow none of this is mentioned. Everything, you’re told, is going great!

This is one of the main reasons that people hate sitting through meetings and presentations so much. These meetings aren’t just a waste of time, they’re dishonest. Instead of talking about issues so they can be solved, everyone uses meetings like this to make themselves look good.

My friend Marti and I had an experience like this at a conference where we heard one speaker after another talk about how smoothly all of their projects were going. We were working on the exact same kind of initiatives and in our experience they were always much more complicated and, well, painful than what we were being told. After hearing over and over again how great everything is you start to think that either you are a total idiot or what you’re hearing is less an honest appraisal of a project and more resume polishing. Marti and I chose to believe the later. Call us crazy, but we want to get something useful out of a presentation when we’ve paid conference fees and struggled out of bed to get to the session after the disco party the night before.

So Marti and I decided that it would be easier to learn from peoples’ failures than their successes. We wound up proposing a conference session the next year called The Worst Mistake I Ever Made. The idea was that we’d have a panel that would talk about the worst project each speaker had ever been responsible for and what they’d learned from the experience. If nothing else, hearing stories about disasters would be more entertaining than listening to people talk about how great they were.

Not everyone was as excited about the idea as we were. The conference organizers didn’t put our session on the schedule the first year we proposed it. Or the second. The third year they finally found a slot for us though, worried that the topic was too “negative,” they changed the title to “Lessons Learned.” And they gave us what may be the worst time slot for any conference–the very last one. After a week of sitting in ballrooms all day and carousing all night, people tend to be ready to head home or to spend the afternoon by the pool. We figured we needed to do something out of the ordinary if we were going to get anyone’s attention.

So we handed every audience member a questionnaire as they entered the room asking  about their biggest professional disaster. After we had shared our own traumatic and hilarious stories of our biggest mistakes and what we had learned from them, we asked people in the audience to share their own stories. You’d think that people might be unwilling to tell 80 other people about their failures, but we had more than enough volunteers to fill the time we’d been given. The stories were great, everyone laughed, and our session received the best audience evaluations of the whole conference.

Why did it work?

  • Each of the stories had a clear “lesson learned,” even if that wasn’t my first choice of a title. The logical next step from “what went wrong?” is “what could we have done better?”
  • It was easy for everyone there to recognize mistakes of their own in the stories told by other people. We all tend to commit the same errors, so it’s useful to learn from each other.
  • The stories tended to be really entertaining and funny in the same way it can be to watch someone else fall down once you know that they aren’t really getting hurt. Entertaining an audience is the surest way to win them over.
  • Having people share their own stories made the whole audience feel like they were involved in the presentation themselves.
  • The stories were clearly honest.
  • The presenters were fantastic!

But more than anything, I think the session worked because it was different from all the other talks that people had already sat through that week. No one else built their whole session around things going wrong. No one else asked them to fill out a survey as they entered the room. And certainly no one asked them to stand up and share their biggest, most embarrassing mistake with a room full of their peers.

Next time you have to give a talk, try to do something different to grab the audience’s attention. Sometimes the best thing you can do is exactly the opposite of what people expect. Think about what that would look like in your environment and try to do something that will catch people by surprise and make a real impact.