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.

Change Management Institute – CMI Disrupt Conference 11-12 November

The following Q&A was prepared for the CMI Disrupt Conference in Sydney and London on 11-12 November


Conference Speaker – Simon Terry disrupts


What does the future of change look like?

The power of digital disruption is in its power to leverage learning at scale and speed. If we consider our stakeholders as individuals, who we work with and learn from, things change radically. We need to start to apply these new ways of working throughout our organisations.

Are we being replaced by robots?

Automation and mechanisation have been disruptive throughout human history. But in the past, people were only considered inputs to production. But now we have real alternatives. Enabled by digital tools, we can focus on creativity to realise human potential. That’s shifting the game, from one of simple mechanical efficiency to human effectiveness.

How do we change our approach?

Start small. Start now. Start at the edges, with change agents, positive deviants inside and outside the organisation. Look out for rapid and dynamic influences which force change. Adapt and be accountable. Work with and through your people.

JOIN the conversation on Twitter #cmidisrupt

Chairing a Conference – Working Out Loud Notes


Harold Jarche and I before the Edutech Workplace Learning Congress began. Photo by Shannon Tipton (@stipton)

Over the last two days, I chaired the EdutechAU Workplace Learning Congress in Brisbane.  In the spirit of working out loud, I wanted to share a little bit of the process of preparing and managing that experience. I will also share a separate post shortly on the conference itself.

Part 1 – Preparation

Any time you are presenting or facilitating, the work needs to be done before the event.  Preparation is critical to put you in the best possible position to do a good job but also to manage the likely eventualities.  The goal of preparation is not to enable you to follow the plan. The goal is to give you the capability to adjust to whatever happens on the day.

Clarity of expectations

That preparation began when I was asked to take on the role of Chair.  The first step was to answer the question “What do they expect from this role?”. Upfront I wanted to understand how I came to be offered the position and what they had been told by those who had suggested me. Understanding the role expectations involved a number of conversations with the conference organisers to understand the event, the audience, the experience that they were seeking to create, the speakers and how they saw the role of a chair. Making sure the expectations are clear up front helps both parties in the lead up to the event.

Understand the Speakers 

Bios & topics help you with the what and sometimes the how of speakers.  Mostly the audience wants to know why they are listening to someone. The more time you can spend understanding the speakers the better. I didn’t have an opportunity to brief with speakers before the event which would have been ideal. However, I devoted a weekend to reviewing the work of speakers and their accessible profiles on social channels and the internet.  That was very useful in helping develop ways to introduce the speakers with some consistency, to enrich their bios and also to anticipate the messages that speakers were likely to be reinforcing in their talks.

Plan any Panels

Planning a panel is more than putting together a list of questions on the chosen topic. You need to understand panellists’ positions, likely areas of conflict, any areas of expertise and areas where there is none. There is nothing more dull than asking a series of questions of the entire panel and running down panellist by panellist until time expires. The goal is to get the value of collaboration from the panel.  Work out where discussion, conflict and collaboration will add value to the audience’s understanding of the topic. Facilitate that debate and try to make it a cumulative and seamless experience with the design of your questions.

If your panel is going to involve a mix of questions from the chair and the audience you need to be prepared for all eventualities. How many questions is the audience likely to have? How much time do they need? To whom will you direct undirected questions from the audience? Work out when to give the audience a warning to get their questions ready. Prepare back up questions in case the audience is meek.

It is also important to think through how you will move on from audience members who want to dominate discussion and change topics when required.

Create Tools to Help

The conference organisers had supplied me with bios and a detailed runsheet. However, I needed to create a tool that I could use to guide me through the event. I settled on a simple landscape format document with three columns – times, comments and notes. The document used bullet points because I normally work to create any talk from a few guiding points of structure.


I typed the information from the bios and the runsheet into this integrated document. I didn’t cut and paste. I typed. I retyped it manually for two reasons

  • To make sure I put understood things in my own words and could express them simply
  • To help me to remember the key facts so that I could more easily speak without notes

This process of recreating my own tool helped me to sort out a few ambiguities that I needed to check with the organisers. It also enabled me to see all the speaker information in a consistent format and work on balance and integration of the story of the event.

The advantage of a simple document was also redundancy. I had the document in the cloud, printed and available on two back up devices. I also made sure I had all the key source materials with me as well. That way I was covered for power failures, late changes and any nasty technology surprises.

Understand What You Want to Say

A chair is there to facilitate the event, not to star in it. My role models were some great chairs and masters of ceremony that I had seen at similar events, particularly Colin James, Anne Bartlett-Bragg, James Dellow and the MC of DoLectures Australia in 2014 Col Duthie. You aren’t hired to draw attention to yourself or deliver long speeches. However as someone who is a continuous voice through the event, there is a chance to tell a story across the two days by drawing connections and framing the speakers. I spent some time considering how what the speakers were addressing related to key themes that I address in my work and this blog.  That helped me see that there were consistent themes of transformational change, culture, leadership and a new role for learning in the future of work running through the event.  I wanted to share some of my personal purpose & stories of making work more human through drawing out these connections

Part 2 – Creating the Experience

A good chair will help create a great experience for the speakers and the participants at the event. Not everything will go to plan. Nothing will go to time. The role of chair to to help smooth the experience and also to help the participants to weave it together into one learning and collaborative experience.

Stay in Contact with Everyone: Everyone means everyone: the organisers, the AV team, the next speaker, future speakers and audience members. Check-in at breaks and use what you learn to think ahead. Check everyone’s understanding. Get feedback. Make sure everyone is on the same page as to what is happening next. Over communicate. When I had issues with the experience, it was because I didn’t follow this simple rule.

Pay attention: There can be a lot going on. You need to be concentrating for the whole journey of the event. A speaker might make a single comment that helps you to draw together the theme of the event. Time can quickly get away from you. Paying attention helps you to anticipate the speakers who are running behind and those that are ahead. That gives you ways that you can help them and the audience.

Roll with the Issues: We lost the time for opening remarks due to late arrivals. I accidentally spoke over an introductory video. Technical issues happened. Changes & corrections were needed throughout the event. Realise that this is all part of the live theatre that is a conference event.  Adapt and move on. Whatever you do, don’t panic.

Adapt the Plan:  My tool above had room for notes. As you can see there were lots of scrawls. I knew I would need to change what I had to say as I heard the full presentations from the speakers. I knew that if we got behind or ahead then timelines would need to be tweaked to adjust. Some times you will have time to do this in advance and other times you will need to adapt on the fly.

Make connections: Connect ideas. Connect people. Use the social streams around the event to share relevant information to help the speakers and the participants. Help audience members to connect to the speakers. There’s a lot that a Chair can do to assist the event to be a successful one just by bringing people together.

Help Make Sense:  Two days of talks, discussions and panels can be overwhelming. However, your role as chair is to help everyone to take away some insight and some themes from the event.  Take notes.  Digest those notes into themes and share them back to foster further discussion.

These are my notes. What else would you add? I am keen to learn more. Please feel free to comment on twitter or in the comments below.

SCNOW Webinar Series from Socialcast and Change Agents Worldwide

Change Agents Worldwide and Socialcast have now completed four great webinars on the future of work, enterprise social networking and collaboration:

Recordings of these webinars are available at the Socialcast webinar centre.