My 4 favorite tactics for delivering killer presentations

JD during Learning DevCamp 2016 keynote
Me keynoting Learning DevCamp 2016

I’ve been speaking in public since my freshman year in college. I started with campus tours at UCF. Then I studied radio/television and became the default campus DJ. Eventually I was facilitating 3 classes a day / 5 days per week with Disney. Today, I speak at a growing number of L&D industry events – big and small, in-person and online. It’s been a long journey for a kid who was scared OUT OF HIS MIND to speak in front of people in high school. More on that story here.

This post originated with some AWESOME feedback I received during my session at the ATD International Conference & Expo in May. An attendee approached me after the session and opened with …

I thought this was going to be horrible …

Ummmmmmmm … I was surprised and mildly horrified. However, I was delighted when she continued with …

… but it was great. The best session I’ve been to so far.

If you’ve been to one of my sessions, you’ll likely agree that my style is a bit … different. I deliver with an almost kinetic energy while trying to balance engagement with insight. I want everyone to enjoy their limited time in the “room” but also walk away with a limited number of practical ideas.

What that ICE session attendee didn’t realize right away is that there is actually a method to my madness. I may look like I’m making things up as I go – and I sometimes am – but there is an underlying structure to how I build and deliver a presentation. It’s that structure that has helped me become a moderately successful – and undeniably unique – industry speaker (humble brag).

Under no circumstances do I recommend anyone else try to speak just like me. However, I do think a few of my “tricks” may prove useful to other speakers, regardless of content topic or personal style. Here are my 5 favorite speaking tactics that drive high engagement AND clear value for participants.


Engage Participants BEFORE the Session Begins

Have you ever sat back and watched people file into a conference session room? The majority sit as far apart from one another as possible and immediately go heads-down into their devices. Waiting until the scheduled start time is like receiving the baton in a relay race while standing still. It’s a lot easier to get going with a running start. That’s why I always start talking 15 minutes before the session actually begins. I don’t just walk up and introduce myself to individual attendees. Rather, I talk to the entire group and focus on specific people as necessary – but loud enough for everyone to engage.

I don’t talk about anything of real value during those 15 minutes. I don’t even introduce myself formally. Rather, I’m using the time to check off a few tactical boxes …

  • I’m strategically exposing participants to my personality and communication style in order to quickly build rapport and get a sense of what may/not work with this audience.
  • I’m probing for useful information from participants, including where they’re from, what they do, what they care about and why they chose my session.
  • I’m progressively raising the energy level of the room to match my delivery style.
  • I’m pulling people’s attention back into the room and away from work, even if I’m not speaking directly to the individual at the time.

Sure, I do a variety of somewhat wacky things during this period. I’m known to offer participants a list of other sessions that they should consider if they don’t like me (which tends to have the opposite effect). I offer people water. I tell stories about my more interesting professional experiences (cough Disney cough). It’s all in service of preparing myself and the participants for the fully-designed session experience.

If I don’t get my 15 minutes with the room prior to beginning the session, I usually spend the first 5 minutes or so rapidly checking those same boxes.


Start and End with Results

This is a two-part technique. First, how many speakers actually provide tangible proof that their ideas work in real life? In my experience, not many. If you can’t tell me how your strategy or tool will help my organization make money, improve customer experiences or keep people safe, I’m much less interested. For a presentation to really have bite, you have to show people a meaningful outcome. When I mention that my microlearning tactics helped a large retailer save $2.2 million per year – and I can prove it – people want to hear more.

The second piece of this technique is stolen from popular narrative structures. Have you seen American Beauty? Kevin Spacey’s character opens the film by saying …

My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood; this is my street; this is my life. I am 42 years old; in less than a year I will be dead. Of course I don’t know that yet, and in a way, I am dead already.

You then spend the rest of the movie anticipating his death and wondering how it will happen. You are immediately engaged, but the story isn’t ruined. The narrative is heightened. Yes, this is a much more dramatic application of the technique, but showing business results at the beginning of a presentation achieves the same result. People are immediately interested in how you got to those numbers. It provides a clear bookend to your story, especially when you end with those same results to remind participants of the potential outcome of applying your ideas.


Use Big Pictures

90% of my presentation decks are big pictures. That’s it! No text. No clipart. Just big, high-quality (typically free) pictures. For example …

I build my presentations in this way for 2 reasons …

  1. I want the participants’ attention to be on me, not the slides. The value is in the story, not the visuals.
  2. Pictures provide flexibility. I can essentially make them mean whatever I need them to mean in order to take the session in the best possible direction. If I lock myself to on-screen text, I can’t pivot to meet the needs of the audience.

I use text, graphs and charts to provide concrete examples and explanations, but I explain concepts with only big, colorful, representative pictures on-screen.


Share an Annotated Deck

You may have noticed something if you looked at the slide deck I shared earlier in this post. I was saying how rarely I use text, but there’s text on almost every slide. That’s because I never share the same slides I use during the delivery. After all, how much value would you get out of a pile of lovely pictures with no context?

After the session is over, I go back into the presentation and create an annotated version that matches the real-world delivery. First, I remove any proprietary information or examples I don’t want plastered on the internet. Then, because I never use speaker notes, I add a single line of text to each slide to explain the main point. I may rearrange the deck a bit to match what really happened in the session vs what I had planned. I sometimes insert additional details to help articulate the story more clearly before uploading the deck to SlideShare.

While I always know I’m going to do this, I never share the upload location until the end of the presentation. I want participants to pay FULL attention during our time together – jotting notes and taking photos of the slides. This helps ensure people won’t tune out because they can rely on my shared materials later. It also helps me understand where they find value during the presentation. When cameras go up to take a picture of a slide, I recognize it must be a pretty good slide. šŸ™‚


What tactics do you use to build and deliver killer conference presentations? What have made past sessions you’ve attended stand out?

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