Friday, 5 March 2010

The Icarus Principle

This morning I delivered a three hour, intense presentation to a group of executives. The feedback I got was that it was an excellent session and I am relieved as I put a lot of effort into preparing for it and I never take these things for granted. The question, though, is how much effort should you put into a presentation like this? Well, in my case it was about three days. yes, three days of going back over a subject area I know inside out, of structuring my thoughts, preparing my slides, running through them to see if they hang together and packaging it all up!

Now this was an exceptional case but the reality is that preparation is everything and as a rule of thumb you should be putting at least three times the presentation time in to the preparation time. You should spend three hours in advance on your one hour presentation. And you should practice, practice, practice.

I still shudder when I hear about people who have sweated to prise open the door to an important business prospect and then turn up on the day saying "I haven't really prepared but, ah well, let's wing it." Wing it? Wing it! Are you some sort of bird? The audience know, you know. They are not stupid. You can easily see someone who is busking their way through a presentation and someone who has taken the effort to master their subject and their pitch.

Even the basics get overlooked. Listen people - the rule is 4 minutes per slide. This is not optional. Okay, I'll let you slip in one or two extra slides if I'm in a good mood, but if you are given 20 minutes to present, make sure you can tell your story in FIVE slides. If you can't then get out the way and let someone who can take over. You think its clever to flash through 15 slides in a 20 minute presentation? It's not. It's amateur. Five slides, people, take it or leave it.

And let me tell you straight, even though I have never heard you speak. You talk too fast. SLOW DOWN. At my son's primary school, they had a great way of teaching them to present. When you get to a comma, count to one. When you get to a full stop, count to three. It's amusing to watch the kids say a sentence, pause and silently but obviously say "one, two, three" then start again. But it force you to slow, down and as it becomes natural and your confidence grows it means you present at a measured pace that is right for the audience. Try it. If it seems too slow and unnatural, you have probably got the pace about right.

But if you are one of these fast-talking, gum chewing, all guns blazing guys who wanders along, grins a cheeky grin and says "let's just wing it" just remember what happen to that other over-confident guy who winged it - Icarus.


Tim Trent said...

You know, Tom, circumstances alter cases! I agree about preparation time, but I do not agree with your slide speed. Sometimes 15 slides, perhaps more, in a 20 minute presentation is perfect. Sometimes just one single slide is perfect. It depends on your use of material on the slides.

Preparation and practice are essential, but the pace of slides depend on whether they are used as cue cards (which is wrong and tempts fools to read every word, slowly), as illustrations, or as detail.

You also have to decide on revealing the entire slide in advance, or using a build up reveal sequence. You need to judge the level of animation versus the topic at hand.

Most people don't speak to fast. But they try to fill every second with, erm, sound, actually, and basically use filler, erm, words, you know. Apart from that excruciating set of sins most people do not understand the use of pauses, of silence.

A silence for the presenter seems five times longer than it does for the audience. We speakers need to practice silence.

So I think you should give some extra consideration in your article to the use of pace, pauses, vocal modulation. In fact you should look at the drama.

Whatever the message, a presentation, with or without visual aids, is a performance. And we expect amateur performers who happen to be good at business to be able to give a polished stage performance!

How on earth can you speak for three hours, by the way? Or, how can you expect your audience to listen for three hours, especially with no change of speaker?

Tom Ilube said...

Tim, you are absolutely right and you make great points. I was being a bit tongue in cheek with the "rules" and was complaining about the unplanned presentation, when people just wander in off the street and "wing it".

Speaking of presentations that break all my own rules, you only have to look at the preentation I gave last year at the World Economic Forum, Davos. 5 minutes total, 30 seconds per slide, a bit of Tai Chi ( So wrong on so many levels :)

Tim Trent said...

Ah, the only two things wrong with that presentation were that you appeared not to have control of your own slides, so got ahead of them, possibly because a cue word was absent, and that you held a piece of paper, obviously not a script, but nonetheless a set of prompts.

That piece of paper held you back. You may not not even have realised it, but watch again. It restrained your body language and natural exuberance and enthusiasm

I never did understand Tai Chi!

That was a nicely downplayed presentation, too. It left the audience asking "So, what does Garlik do? Why is Tom here?" and knowing that triples must have something to do with it.

Curriedflavouredproductions said...

Hi Tom,

Loving your blog as alwayS. As you know I don't make pitches to business, therefore my clients are students. What I do know is this:
When it comes to making a presentation you have to split the preparation into two areas. CONCEPTUAL and TACTICAL.
The CONCEPTUAL includes: *thinking of your final slide presentation as the communication of your project's end product. *Outline areas of research at the beginning of project to focus your analyses. *It helps to handwrite slide drafts on paper before approaching the computer.
The TACTICAL includes: *depending on audience structure the content on a slide from left to right. *Write your key learnings directly on the slide. *Reuse slides you have previously created that has brought a significant amount of success to save time. Finally bind the presentation by ensuring it is pitched to the right AUDIENCE with the right PURPOSE in mind. The presentation needs to focus on some sort of action. It must be telling some type of connected story ; )

When you have time check out my multimedia blogspot:

a response to your article on bullying.

Tom Ilube said...


That's the great thing about blogs. I post up some nonsense and you add genuinely insightful comments. Keep commenting!

Your blog response to the bullying post is very thoughtful heartfelt. Love the music too :)