This week I was supposed to be presenting at the “Mastering SAP” conference in South Africa but as might be imagined it got postponed due everyone’s favourite virus. However as I have been putting a lot of effort into thinking how best to do presentations I thought I would right a “Call to Arms” blog for everyone who gets up and speaks at SAP events in the same way Graham Robinson did a “Call to Arms” for ABAP Programmers some years back.
In the last 20 years I have gone to a great many SAP events, SAPPHIRES and TECHEDS and here in Australia we have Mastering SAP events and the Australian SAP User Group annual conference. In the last two years I also went to dozens of SAP Inside Track events all over Europe.
Naturally none of that is happening at the moment, but unless we are in a “Twelve Monkeys” sort of situation where humanity is about to be wiped out, presumably at some point in the future all those conferences will return.
I will say however that if Bruce Willis comes up to me asking for a sample of the Coronavirus in its raw form and/or I see a Talking Gorilla riding a horse then I would be forced to the conclusion that the days of SAP conferences, or indeed anything else, are gone for good.
For the sake argument though, let us say humanity is going to survive and you yourself are going to be giving a presentation/speech/whatever you want to call it at a future SAP event. Are you going to fall into the trap so many presenters do?
The trouble is – with the exception of the majority of SIT presentations – there are just so many talks at major SAP events where no matter how interesting the content is the presenter puts the audience to sleep – after a while they just sit there daydreaming and silently begging for the torture to stop. If you are really unlucky you could spend a whole day – or two days in a row – lurching from one presentation like that to another.
It shouldn’t have to be like that. I’ve seen fantastic presentations that hook the audience from start to finish, most often at SIT but occasionally at the big conferences as well. Every presentation should be like that. The whole event should be a joy from start to finish, when you finish listening to one you just cannot wait to get the next.
The thing is – it can be that way. It doesn’t even take that radical a change – just a few small things can make a world of difference. One change on its own can instantly make every conference a thousand times better. We will get to what that is in a minute….
A large amount of what I am going to talk about comes from my time with Toastmasters International which is an organisation dedicated to teaching people how to do public speaking properly. The process is a lot more scientific than you may think.
I would encourage every single person who is going to give a speech to at least attend one Toastmasters meeting – they are everywhere. The first few meetings are free to give you an idea of what this is all about and if you do decide to join (there is a meeting in the evening every two weeks) then there is a cost, but it is trivial. I probably spent more having two beers before each meeting than what I was paying to attend the meeting.
Now let us get down to it. I will give a short version and a long version of what not to do:-
Don’t read out your slides. Not one single word. Don’t do this. Not at a conference, not at work even front of your colleagues. Never. Stop doing this now and forever.
Some people even turn their back on the audience so they can concentrate on reading out the slides – this is known as the “gravitational well of PowerPoint”.
Your audience can read. If you act like they cannot then you are insulting them, plain and simple.
You can stop here if you want. As soon as you stop reading out your slides you are ten times the presenter you were before.
NB Many people read out the slides and put in a few extra words in here and think they are “adding value”. No they are not. They are still reading out the slides and no-one is listening.
I am going to try and structure this but it will end up a long rambling stream of consciousness.
Where am I Going? Why am I here?
The first point to understand is what your presentation is for. You might think it is to list the new features in the latest version of S/4HANA or give a roadmap for an SAP product or explain all the mistakes you made implementing some new SAP product and say what you would have done differently. After all that is what is says in the title of your talk and that is what it says in the synopsis and that is the content in the slides and that is what the audience have come to hear so that is what it’s all about surely? Nominally yes. In reality no.
In fact the purpose of every presentation is the same. To make the audience better off when they leave than when they walked in the room. Think about it – they (more usually their organisation) has payed something ridiculous like $2000 USD to send them there. They had better get more than $2000 worth of value out of it. Some people go to a three day conference and come out no better off than before and no-one at work questions this.
So you start by thinking about how to make every member of the audience better off and then think how you can do that by telling those things about the new version of S/4HANA or the mistakes you made implementing XYZ or whatever.
You might say that is what you were doing anyway but check carefully – are you just firing a shotgun of information at the audience and hoping they will absorb the relevant bits and somehow figure out what to do with that information?
As a case study back around 1997 I went to the annual general meeting of pharmaceutical company Smith Kline Beecham. The chairman gave a talk which was a mixture of accounting information about the financial results and complicated medical concepts. It should have been dull as dishwater but in actual fact he shined. He had the audience on the edge of their seats the whole time.
How can this be? It was because though at first glance it seemed he was talking to the shareholders about the profit and loss account/balance sheet/medicine what he was actually saying over and over again was “I am going to make you rich. I am going to make you rich. I am going to make your rich beyond your wildest dreams”. Now that is a message people want to hear, doesn’t matter if it is true or not. Next time you listen to a company – say SAP or Oracle – reporting their latest set of quarterly results have a think about what they are saying and see if it does not correspond to that “make you rich” thing. The chairman of Coca Cola once even said it explicitly.
Time Gentlemen Please
One thing that Toastmasters are obsessive about is keeping to the allocated time. You get disqualified in a speaking contest if you go more than 30 seconds over the allotted time. Each week in Toastmasters several people do 4-6 minute speeches and you can see traffic lights which go amber when you are nearing the end of your allotted time and red if you go over.
In a conference this is a million times more important. In the morning the first person waits until the room fills up, starts maybe 5 minutes after they were supposed to, then over-runs, so the next person has to wait even longer for the room to fill up and they over-run and the process continues. This means that some poor soul ends up doing the last speech of the day and they have to start their 45 minute speech 20 minutes late and they are standing in the way of the free drinks afterwards.
So please start on time and end on time. I found it is better to start on time as it is a much better feeling to have people walk into the room as you are speaking and sit down than to watch them gradually stand up and walk out because you still have fifteen minutes of your speech left as you started late and now it is beer o’clock.
One good way to avoid the irresistible temptation to read out your slides is for there to be virtually no words to read out.
Studies have shown the human being cannot usually do more than one thing at a time – especially when it comes to linear activities like interpreting speech or text. An audience member will see the text on the screen, start reading it and until they have finished they are literally unaware of anything else. The presenter can be screaming at them, calling them all the names under the sun, drop their trousers and do a dance, anything, the audience would not notice.
So if your slides are full of words, you don’t need to be there as no-one can hear or see you anyway.
It has been said that a good slide deck is useless without the presenter to explain it. Yet some people (myself included) like to print out a presentation and read it on the train. How I achieve this is by writing an essay about each slide in the “notes” section and then – after the conference – the attendee can get a PDF of the slide with first the pretty pictures and then the text explanation. That is how the quarterly results are presented by the Chairman of Oil Company BP by the way though sadly they read out their slides.
I tend to use the slides as “cue cards” for myself. I have no text except the heading and then some pictures to remind me of what I am supposed to be talking about. Some presenters use actual cue card or worse still a printed script – and then keep looking down occasionally. That also traps you behind the podium.
The podium is a shield. Staying behind it indicates you are scared of the audience and wish to create a barrier between you and them. Conversely running round the stage like a lunatic the whole time is not a good look. I tend to stand between the podium and the screen showing the slides. By the way a good time to physically move on the stage is to indicate a temporal change e.g. you have (literally) moved from talking about the time before go-live to the time after it.
Some presentations have no structure at all. Some have a list of chapters – sometimes even as many as 20 different areas to be covered in 45 minutes. I do not pretend I have the answers here – except that any sort of structure is better than no structure, as in programming – but I have read a lot about this on the internet, seen a lot of different presentations, and the first time I spoke at a “Mastering SAP” conference I got a free lesson with a public speaking expert who talked a lot about structure.
30 Seconds till Doomsday
One thing everyone (in public speaking world) agrees upon is that you have 30 seconds after you start speaking to hook your audience. If you miss that deadline they will spend the next 44 minutes and 30 seconds looking at their phone sending texts and playing games, or the more polite ones will stare at you like they are paying attention but actually they are daydreaming – concentrating on important problems like “Why did I find so much fluff in my navel this morning?” and thus not paying the slightest attention to you.
That sounds like an impossible barrier to overcome. All the articles on the internet tell you to say something “different/unusual/exciting” to which you will respond “Like What?” Well I don’t know. I wish I did.
What you can do is avoid saying guaranteed switch-off boring things in the first 30 seconds like “Hello, name is XXXX (they know that) thank you for coming here today, I am going to talk about YYYY” all of which is on the synopsis and is the reason they turned up and they know it all already, and you have wasted your first 30 seconds telling people what they already know and game over.
One guy on the internet said he started with “I’m really nervous about public speaking so thank you all for turning up naked” which is a twist on the old “imagine the audience naked” thing. I don’t actually advocate saying that but it was certainly unusual and not what the audience expected so he most likely won the 30 second battle.
In the recent film “Ready Player One” the internet billionaire is giving a speech and he says “If you’ll just look under your chair…” and everyone in the audience does “…you’ll find there is nothing there”. That sounds silly but he interacted with the audience and got a laugh and the 30 second barrier was broken.
So do something, anything, to stop them falling asleep. Pull out a hand puppet and talk to it. Stand on one leg and cluck like a chicken. Introduce yourself in rhyme (that’s not as stupid as the others but sufficiently unusual). Trying to get some interaction going is good – I once told the audience that at one point in the talk I was going to say the words “Paradigm Shift” and they all had to scream as loud as they could when I did. Only one person did but at least that meant she was hanging on my every word.
You’ve got that – ONE THING!
Once again it is time to talk about the human brain. Even to this day it is a bit of a mystery how it works but experts generally conclude there is a part that deals with what is going on right now, and a part which deals with long term memory. Some people claim that every single second of your life is recorded in 3D surround sound and stored but I have only ever met one person with that so called “eidetic memory” that can recall anything that ever happened to them at will. For most of us, even if everything is there somewhere, we can only reasonably expect to remember the important bits from the past.
What’s important is subjective, but as a general rule if ten bits of information are fired at you all at once then only three of them are going to make it to long term memory. The other seven you will forget in about ten seconds flat.
Therefore a huge mistake many presenters make is to try and hurl fifty four different pieces of information at the audience. Only three are going to remain after they have walked out of the room. In some ways only one. Possibly none at all if information overload shuts down their brains.
I start with a slide saying the title and my name for people to look at when they walk in the room for the sole purpose of re-assuring them that they are in the right place.
After I have done my exciting thing to hook them I draw back the curtains (you can literally do that in PowerPoint using the “transition” feature) and show a slide which says (in pictures) the one message of the talk.
This is the “tell them what you are going to tell them” slide – the message of the entire presentation. It has to be one sentence only (spoken not written on the slide). A human brain cannot process more than three points at once, and furthermore those three points all have to be related to one single message. Ideally that message should be ten words or less.
You can make the three points as generic as you like – a common pattern is:-
- The problem we are facing is XYZ
- Other companies have solved it by doing ABC
- We can fix it doing 123
I would stress again I am not coming up with all these recommendations myself. It is a random mixture of things I have learned at Toastmasters, things I have read online, and more importantly things I have seen I real life. You may very well disagree with some or all of it, but please at least think about each point. And don’t read out your slides. That is non-negotiable.
It’s all about ME!
So I have the first slide with images which represent my ten word main message, which naturally I explain to the audience. The next slide will be the outline of the talk – first any mandatory things you are forced to say e.g. about your company because they paid your air fare/hotel to be there and they want some sort of public recognition, then the three points you want people to remember.
I call that outline slide “What YOU will hear”
Notice the word YOU in the heading. The focus of any presentation has to be on the people in the audience. They have to get something out of it and so the focus cannot be on how wonderful the speaker or their company or whatever it is they are talking about is so wonderful, it has to be as if you were talking to one single person with the sole aim of making them better off in one way or another e.g. my company has done this great thing, look how much it helped us, you can go back next week and suggest doing this great thing at your organisation and you personally will get ( a huge pay rise and/or promoted and/or knighted ).
Have a listen the next time you hear someone speak. Do they keep using the word “I” all the time?
Here are two sentences a speaker could say which convey the exact same information:-
- I found that pressing the XYZ button during the conversion to S/4HANA delayed the project by six months. That hurt me. I got sacked.
- You will find that if you press the XYZ button during the conversion to S/4HANA you will bitterly regret it for the rest of your career. It will delay the project by six months and you will get sacked.
You have to swallow the bitter pill that as a presenter the audience don’t care about you and your problems at all. On the other hand they care about themselves a great deal.
In summary – it’s not about you, it is about them.
The one acceptable exception is if you have a story to tell about what happened to you –people love stories – act it out and role play the different people involved – but say up front “What I am going to show you happened to me –it could happen to you!” otherwise they might not care.
You might wonder what I mean by role play. I often talk about Test Driven Development. I could say that I told a colleague it was a good thing and he said such and such.
Or I could say “One Day I told my colleague about this”. Then swivel and address empty space on the stage and say “This Test Driven Development can really help our business” and then turn around and occupy the empty space I was addressing and say back to the space I was just in (in a different accent) “But this is just a theory, right? No-one has ever done this for real?”
That works a lot better. It’s a story and it involves different humans interacting and everyone can relate to that.
Slide Order of Fries
It is now time to start your presentation. For each slide I write the following question (and answer it) in the notes view.
What is the one point this slide is trying to make?
Every slide should make one point only. If you cannot answer the question “What is the one point your slide is trying to make?” you are in trouble. If the answer contains the word AND then you are making two (or more) points and thus need more slides.
This advice comes from a world champion speaker called Darren LeCroix. I will provide links to his work at the end.
You can sub-divide the main point into sub-points, that is normal, but remember – no-one can remember more than three, so if you have five sub-points then two slides is the way forward.
What I also always do in the notes section for a slide is to note the sort of thing I am going to say to transition to the next slide. Since your presentation has a logical flow this should be easy – the next slide (more precisely the next point you will make) should logically follow on from the current one.
As an example whenever I give a presentation at work to explain a new thing e.g. abapGit then half way through each slide my boss will ask a question about something. I always say that whatever it is he is asking will be explained on the next slide. And I am not lying.
This is good for two reasons. Firstly I have a boss who is smart and thinks ahead (not all bosses I have had are like that) but more importantly if my forthcoming slide answers a question raised by the concept in the current slide then I have ticked the “logical progression” box.
How do 100% of presentations at big SAP events end? With the “Question and Answer” slide.
That’s normal is it not? Everyone does that. Well don’t!
On your last “real” slide at the end say that you will take questions for a set time, and you will be available later on, then you will sum up after the questions.
So one slide whilst the questions are going then cut off – sharp – and show the summary.
Toastmasters say do not put questions right at the end, but just before. This means the presenter has the last word. It has been said people only remember the first thirty seconds and the last thirty seconds of a presentation, so you do not want the last 30 seconds to be someone asking “Does ABAP have IF statements?” or some such.
That question about “IF” statements. It actually happened. If an audience member had been approached by their boss half an hour later and asked “What was that presentation like?” they would say “Some idiot asked a question about IF statements!” as that is all they would remember.
Colonel Sanders vs Ronald McDonald
The last slide the audience sees should be the “Key Takeaways” i.e. why were you listening to this in the first place and why are you better off than if you nipped off to the bar and had a whisky instead?
This is the final slide shown. This should be a call to action. Therefore the takeaways should not be what you (person in the audience) learnt but what you can do RIGHT NOW to improve life for yourself or your organization in some way.
DON’T READ OUT WHAT’S ON THE SLIDE. Just mention that “you” can start putting what has been presented today into action straight away, as soon as you get back to your desk.
Now to me the information in that slide is the most fascinating thing I can imagine. I literally cannot think of a subject I more want to hear about. So should that slide be on the big screen? Obviously not. That is the sort of thing you include in a handout for people to read after the event. Was it actually on the big screen? Of course it was. And so I started reading it and for all I know the presenter was making derogatory remarks about my mother the whole time. How would I know? I certainly was not listening to him and no-one else was either. The content on the screen was far too interesting.
Presenters honestly do not think there is anything wrong/unusual with showing a slide with a thousand words or maybe a diagram showing a project plan with a thousand boxes and saying “you probably cannot read that”. There is no probably about it, even if an audience member had bionic vision the slide would not be on the screen long enough for them to finish reading it. And whilst they are reading it they ignore every single thing the presenter is saying.
In one of the articles on public speaking I was reading the author mentioned that someone who liked rules had come up with the “6 x 6 Rule” for slides. That is no more than six bullet points, no more than six words per bullet point. The author said that was a ridiculous rule. A comment said “What – are you saying 36 words is too many???” Back came the answer “yes, 36 words is way too many”. How many words do you think are on a road map slide?
Worst Case Scenario
About ten or twelve years ago I was at an SAP conference and there was about 15 minutes to go before I gave a speech when I was told they (conference organisers) had lost my presentation with the slides. As it turned out I had a backup copy on a memory stick. They were frantically trying to load it onto the PC and it was not working for some reason.
Amazing as it may seem I was not that bothered and thought “Oh well, I know what I wanted to talk about. Maybe it will be better this way.” As it turned out they managed to load my slides form the memory stick with minutes to spare but I sometimes wished they had not just to see how I would have done.
Once I saw a talk from the CIO of Australian Mining company Fortescue Metals. For the first five minutes he silently stood off to the side whilst the slides played automatically along to some music, and the audience read them. Then for the next 40 minutes he spoke without any slides. That was a great presentation.
I imagine if you have got this far you will think I am really arrogant and think I have all the answers. I most certainly do not. I am just regurgitating what I have read online, learned at Toastmasters and seen with my own eyes at SAP conferences where even though the content was exactly what I wanted the presenter made me wish I was anywhere else but in that lecture room.
I am also sure there may be one or two people reading this who will says – hang on, I have seen YOU speak at any SAP event and you were RUBBISH how dare you try and advise anyone else. The point is I am not saying I am better than anyone else – I am just trying to be better, and a lot of people don’t see the need/point. In Toastmasters the art of evaluating a speech – giving constructive criticism – is valued as highly, if not more, than being able to give a speech in the first place. Thus they have a contest where someone like me pops up somewhere where no-one knows me and gives a six minute speech. I am the “Target Speaker”. Then there is a contest where all the players give an evaluation of what I did wrong, did well, how to make that speech better. The one who gives the best constructive criticism wins. And since all speakers are human, all speeches are flawed and there is always constructive criticism that can be given.
Now is the time to mention Darren LeCroix. I was invited to a Toastmasters event in Sydney where he was the guest speaker, talking about how he won the world championship speaking contest one year. Then the normal part of the Toastmasters meeting happened and about five people gave 4-6 minute speeches. Normally fellow club members would evaluate them but this time they asked Darren if he would do so. He agreed on condition that everyone who had spoken would not burst into tears went he ripped into them.
They all agreed and then he proceeded to take them apart. It was no holds barred but every single thing he said made sense and I wished it was me up there getting told how useless I was at public speaking, because then I would become better. Learning from other people’s mistakes is all well and good, but it is far better to learn from your own mistakes.
Here is his website
He will be the first to tell you he is in this to make money, but there is so much free stuff he gives out as a loss leader (e.g. weekly email that I subscribe to) that you can get a load of really useful tips for nothing.
I am 51. The first pop concert I ever went to as a teenager was a singer called Toyah Willcox. I bet no-one reading this has ever even heard of her. She married the guitarist from rock group “King Crimson” who was called Robert Fripp. Again I imagine no-one has heard of that band or him. Anyway the important thing here is that his sister Patricia Fripp is pretty much the definitive expert on how to do presentations.
Call to Action
This has been a long rambling set of loosely connected nonsense, now I will attempt to do a summary and will end up rambling as well.
- The end state I desire is that every single presentation at an SAP event is a pleasure to attend as opposed to an endurance test.
- Don’t read out your slides.
- A lot of presentations, at work and at SAP events, are boring as anything, no matter how useful the subject matter is. It is painful to have to endure them.
- It is possible to present the exact same subject matter, in both environments, in such a way that the audience enjoys themselves.
- Don’t read out your slides.
- The – often forgotten – purpose of a speech is to make an audience member better off after they have heard it.
- Don’t read out your slides.
- It does not take much to make our presentations better. You don’t have to run faster than the Lion which is the audience. You just to have to run faster than all the other presenters running away from the Lion and since most of them are useless making even the slightest bit of effort should see you right.
- DON’T READ OUT YOUR SLIDES! DON’T READ OUT YOUR SLIDES! DON’T READ OUT YOUR SLIDES! DON’T READ OUT YOUR SLIDES!
I am sure there will be a lot of disagreement with the things I have said in this blog and thus hopefully you can tell me where I am wrong in the comments.