Presentation Tips: Don’t Rely Solely On A Script

Samsung has been very successful at emulating Apple’s iPhones and iPads. What they haven’t been able to copy nearly as well are Apple’s slick and effective product presentations. In fact, Samsung’s efforts have frequently been seen as strange, awkward, even sexist. But they’ve seldom gone as spectacularly wrong as when Samsung included director Michael Bay in the rollout of new televisions at CES this week.

After getting confused about which part of the script he was reading from the teleprompter, Bay fumbled around and was unable to recover. Trying to help, his co-presenter gave him an opportunity to ad lib by asking, “Tell us what you think,” but Bay was so dependent on the prepared script that he was totally lost. “I’m sorry,” he said as he walked off stage.

Here’s how he later described what happened:

Wow! I just embarrassed myself at CES – I was about to speak for Samsung for this awesome Curved 105-inch UHD TV. I rarely lend my name to any products, but this one is just stellar. I got so excited to talk, that I skipped over the Exec VP’s intro line and then the teleprompter got lost. Then the prompter went up and down – then I walked off. I guess live shows aren’t my thing.

Unfortunately, the temptation to script live events ruins far too many presentations. Scripts get lost, notes get shuffled, unexpected events interrupt a speaker’s train of thought and they can’t get back on track. While I encourage everyone to write out their presentations as an exercise in working through their thoughts, it’s almost always a bad idea to depend on a script in order to deliver your talk. There are just too many things that can go wrong, and very few of us are good at memorizing or reading a speech in a way that will actually engage an audience.

If you’re giving a talk, it’s your job to know the material well enough that you can speak with a few notes or an outline to remind you where you’re going. And you need to be willing to improvise a little when things don’t go as planned. For example, if you’re the director of Transformers and you’re asked what you think of the giant TV you’re standing next to, say something like: “That TV is huge! Explosions, robots, and exploding robots will look great on that thing!”

Michael Bay at CES

Michael Bay Responds to his CES Meltdown

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Learn The Gettysburg Address (But Don’t Try To Memorize Your Own)

Memorizing you own speech is almost never a good idea. Reciting something word for word usually sounds stiff and unnatural, and can be a disaster for speakers who forget their place in the middle and can’t get back on track without starting over from the beginning.

But this video accompanying Ken Burns’ “Learn the Address” project is a good way to introduce kids (and the rest of us) to a bit of history by encouraging them to memorize the Gettysburg Address. Which is a pretty manageable exercise since it’s less than two minutes long and so much of the language is already familiar to most people. It’s also kind of fun to see who does well with their line readings (generally the newsreaders and politicians) and who doesn’t quite manage the gravitas (Taylor Swift) to pull it off.

You can also spend time browsing all the other videos people have posted of themselves reciting the speech. Didn’t know what Vicki Lawrence has been up to lately? She’s been learning the Gettysburg Address!

Gettysburg Address “Mashup”

Learn The Gettysburg Address (But Don’t Try To Memorize Your Own)

Tips For Writing More Effective Email: SEAR

SEARThese days it seems that everything needs an acronym. But while acronyms and initialisms used to exist to make complex terms and phrases (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) into words that sound less terrifying and are easier to remember (SCUBA), sometimes it seems that they exist today just to bewilder and embarrass us. Maybe it’s because more and more technical terms are leaking into our everyday language. Maybe it’s because so many acronyms and initialisms (HTML, SQL, GIF) don’t look like words and give us no cues as to how to pronounce them. Or maybe it’s because our clever and secretive children seem to write in a new language that consists of little more than a series of unrelated letters strung together with smiley faces. IMHO, a combination of all these factors has done a lot of damage when it comes to making everyday writing easy to understand.

Just the same, I’m going to go out on a limb and introduce an acronym of my own in the hope of making it easier to remember the elements that I think are most important when it comes to writing clear and effective email. I hope that mine is more reminiscent of the days of helpful acronyms (CARE) than the muddled-sounding efforts (UNIFEM – which sounds like an evil supercomputer with a female voice but actually stands for United Nations Development Fund for Women) people are resorting to lately. I wanted to come up with a real acronym, something you could recognize as a word and didn’t have to struggle to pronounce. Above all, I wanted something that you could remember and would help you recall the four points I want to emphasize as key to successfully writing business email.

What I came up with is SEAR, which is, I think, pretty good. Not only is it a real word, but it’s a verb, an active, forceful word. It’s a command, for crying out loud! This is an acronym with a lot going for it! Creative writing teachers will always tell you that, in order for your language to be memorable, you should engage as many of your reader’s senses as possible. Marketers do the same thing: why do you think hotels have “signature scents” and Starbucks has an official soundtrack? They want to take advantage of all your senses to help make you remember their brands and keep you coming back for more.

SEAR is just the kind of suggestive word to do that. It evokes the bright heat of a flame; you can practically hear the sizzle of the fire in its long, sibilant “S.” To make it even more memorable, take the mental picture a step further and imagine that it’s a nice steak you’re searing. You can practically smell it, can’t you, your mouth watering as you almost taste that first bite?

“Alright, enough of the acronym!” you say. “We remember it already. You’re making us hungry! But what does it mean? How are those four letters going to help me with my writing, and why are they arranged in that order? Why is it SEAR and not EARS?”

So here we go. Here are the four things you need to think about when you sit down to write at work, in the order you should generally think about them:

Strategy–Basically the idea here is to do a little planning before you start to write. Take the time to think about whether email is really the right format for your message. Have you clearly worked out what it is that you have to say, or are you still struggling with it? Have you given yourself enough time to write and to write well? Is there something in your email that could get you in trouble down the road? Best to consider these ideas before you even start typing a new message.

Emotion plays a crucial role in the overall strategy of your writing, but it’s something that’s often ignored. Poorly-handled emotional content can probably cause you more severe problems than any of the other pitfalls of writing email. And most of the time emotions get stirred up unintentionally because we are simply better at communicating in person than we are in writing. Email is notorious for lacking the cues to tone and meaning that we share in our everyday person-to-person conversations. Because of this, it’s often hard to tell if someone is kidding or if they’re really angry with us. Are they just being brief, or are they upset? And the truth is that we don’t always take the time to be good readers, either, which makes it even harder to communicate clearly.

But we all need to take a little more responsibility for our writing to make sure that it isn’t going to stir up emotions unnecessarily. Is the message you need to convey something that’s loaded with emotional content? If so, maybe you would be better off considering another, more personal, format. Do you have a history of conflict with the person you intend to write? Are they likely to react badly to this particular topic? If so, you might want to reconsider using email and pick up the phone instead. Better yet, walk down the hall and see them in person if you can. I know, many of us would rather avoid conflict at all cost. But sending an email that upsets someone isn’t going to help.

Audience–This idea really builds on the topic of emotion. It’s critical that you always think about who you are writing to. How are they going to react to your message? Do they even know who you are? If not, you’ll need to introduce yourself. How are you going to get their attention when they get hundreds of emails every day? What are they interested in and what information do you have that they are going to care about? It’s important to make sure that your message is modulated for this particular audience. Are you using the right tone? If you’re writing to the president of your company in the same tone that you write to your best friend, you should probably reconsider unless you’re also a VIP. Is the person you’re writing to a stickler for spelling and grammar? If so, you’d better run that spellcheck and proofread one more time.

Rules have to be followed to make sure that all of your other hard work isn’t wasted. So far I’ve played down the importance of correct grammar and punctuation, which is why I’ve made this the last of my four topics. But the fact is that you can do everything else well and still lose all your credibility if your readers are put off by typos and missing punctuation. There are still lots of people out there who will judge your intelligence and ability based on the mechanics of your writing–whether or not that is fair. Know who those sticklers are and do your best to weed out the mistakes in your messages to them.

But really, why not do your best in all the emails you send? The rules of grammar and punctuation only exist to make language clear and easy to read. When you write poorly you increase the chances that your message will be misunderstood or not read in the first place. After all, if you can’t take the time to write clearly, why should your reader struggle to make sense out of what you have to say?

Those are the headlines, the big ideas from what follows. Follow this blog for more specifics.

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.

Steps in writing presentations: Scripting

Many people don’t want to hear this. But, yes, it is a good idea to write down what you plan to say.

Sure, it’s a lot of work. But despite how the vast majority of speakers seem to operate, just winging it isn’t good enough.

Once you have a firm handle on which ideas you’re going to discuss, you can start working on a script for your talk that will include your entire presentation—what you’ll say, how you’re going to say it, things that aren’t going to be on your slides, any ideas you have for visuals before you start creating slides, interactions you have planned with the audience.

We’re not saying that your final presentation should involve reading the script. It absolutely shouldn’t. But writing everything out gives you the chance to see if your ideas are really working together and to make an overall plan for how you want a presentation to go.

This is where you figure out the flow of your argument and write up the “performance” part of your talk. It’s the most important step for creating an impressively polished presentation. Once you have the scripting all figured out you should be ready to deliver your talk if you absolutely had to. You don’t have visual aids yet, but that’s OK because you have an argument to persuade your audience.