Lessons from Presenting

Last week I had a long and challenging presentation to give. Here’s some lessons that I take away from that experience:

Blogging helped: all the ideas in my keynote had been explored out loud before on this blog. It is so much easier to put together a big presentation when you have ideas that you have worked up, shared and discussed with others. Where I saw gaps in the presentation, I even blogged them to make sure I had worked out what I wanted to say.

Networks helped: a fortnight out from the talk I lost confidence that what I had to say was worth saying. I asked my Change Agent Worldwide colleagues for advice. As ever they were wonderful encouraging me to speak to my passions, tell stories and be practical.

A Role Models helps:: Looking for a role model to emulate, I studied Nilofer Merchant’s TED talk. At once, I saw a way to connect quickly with the audience and to advance my presentation.

Structure helped:With days to go I had my content, but a mess of a presentation. I went back to first principles and used Barabara Minto’s pyramid principle to rebuild the presentation. I discovered my issue. I had forgotten to explicitly make & support my main point. It sounds obvious but your point can get lost in all the action & theatrics. Fixing that helped.

Practice helped: All the way along I had been practising and refining the pitch. There was one more glitch. The night before I delivered the talk I felt my stories were like a laundry list and not very practical. As I grappled with this I realised I needed to add a pattern to help the audience follow the stories. I settled on Idea>Story>So What>Extended Story. This pattern forced me to make the ‘so what’ real in another story of the same organisation. That was good discipline and helped the flow.

Preparation Helps:Because of all the changes I need not have time to commit my talk to memory. I created a bullet point list of key points, lines and transitions. This enabled me to iron out kinks and simplify again. I was very nervous when I woke but the preparation gave me confidence it couldn’t be too bad. Thankfully my nerves vanished as I began to speak.

The audience enjoyed the talk. I couldn’t have been more thrilled that the message connected and people had idea to take away and try.

Much Loved Tools: Pyramid Principle

In a summer job during university I was introduced to Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle as a structure for communication. I’ve used the logic ever since. The lessons of that approach dig me out of all sorts of presentation messes.

Here are the big lessons I’ve learned applying the Pyramid Principle approach to fix communication:

– Remember to have one message: it is surprising how often you see a presentation without a message. These presentations forget to make their point succinctly because they are overfilled with ideas and with elaborate introductions, narratives and evidence
– Structure promotes simplicity: Structure clarifies thinking. Structure clarifies for the listener too. Best of all understanding the structure also makes you more adaptable to change. Only got 5 mins for your half hour presentation? Knowing your key points will help you home.
– Support ideas with evidence: Others forget to support their assertions. In those that do use evidence, in many cases the charts usually tell a different story to the text. Make it easy for your audience to see your evidence.
– Pyramids beats chains: Many presentations are long fragile chains of logic. I’ve seen someone fly around the world only to have the presentation fail at the first question. That presentation depended on all of a long chain of premises. The failure of one idea left all the work bereft. Pyramids stand on other support when one element falls.