Summit News: Nolan Haims to Keynote in San Diego

The Presentation Summit has announced its first keynote speaker for the 2014 event, to be held October 12-15 in San Diego CA. Nolan Haims, former executive at Edelman P.R. and now heading up his own presentation consultancy, will make his fifth trip to the conference. He will speak on a topic that he says has practically become a personal mantra:


What do the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, a Beatles song and Star Wars have in common? And why is it that the vast majority of presentations sweated over and and crammed with information each day are instantly forgotten? The answers lie in one of the hardest of all objectives to achieve: simplicity.

Nolan Haims“Simplicity of design, of intention and of message are more important than ever,” says Haims. “In our current environment of 24-hour information, media and consumerism, how can we use simplicity to rise above the din? And how can we battle the enemies of simplicity such as bureaucracies, design by committee and fear?

“A designer knows he or she has achieved perfection, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. I love taking the lessons of successful simplification that are all around us every day and finding ways to put those lessons to use in my and my client’s work.”

Conference host Rick Altman has a more practical matter at hand, as well. “The decision to offer Nolan a keynote was a no-brainer for me,” he jokes, “because when he was in the tracks, practically everyone went to his seminars. We got tired of lining up chairs in the foyer outside the breakout rooms!”

The Presentation Summit enters its 12th season this year and registration is open. Complete information is available at


What’s the Problem with “Creating a PowerPoint”?

Most presentation consultants in business today have become a bit oblivious  to the common practice of referring to a presentation by the tool used to create its visuals. No other product in the Office suite shares this distinction — I know nobody who composes a Word, crunches an Excel, or fires off an Outlook. For today, however, I am not going to turn a deaf ear to this. Today, I am going to treat this like the potentially insidious practice that it is. Tomorrow, I might return to resignation, but today, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.

Almost on a weekly basis, I have clients refer to their slides as their presentation, and I have long since resisted the temptation to say to them, “no, that is just a printed copy of the visuals you intend to show behind your presentation.” After all, wouldn’t you develop a deep and lasting loathing for someone who was that anal? Wouldn’t you be tempted to say, “shut up, you idiot, you know what I meant!”And most of the time, I do indeed know what they mean, so for the good of my career, I don’t correct my clients that way.

This is different. Referring to your slides as your presentation might be nothing more than lazy semantics. But “creating a PowerPoint” could influence the way you approach a presentation project, could impact your ability to design the presentation, and could indeed lead directly to Death by PowerPoint.

You are the presentation

Let’s start with what should be obvious but strangely isn’t: why people attend one of your presentations. People come to a presentation because they hope that you have information that will be of use to them. They want to draw on your expertise, share in your vision, feel your passion, or just listen to what you have to say. Nobody walks into the room looking forward to seeing your slides — that hasn’t happened in the history of PowerPoint. The minute you make your slides more important than you, you do everyone in the room a disservice, including yourself. You are the reason people come to a presentation, not your slides.

Elevating the importance of slides is only natural, given that you will probably spend more time inside PowerPoint than you will any other software application during the process of preparing your presentation. Few of us would be able to work as well without Word, without Excel, or without Photoshop than we would with it. The tools of our craft are crucial to our success, so again, why is this not just a question of proper semantics that most of us shouldn’t care about?

Answer: because it could affect the way we approach the project in the first place. Simply put, PowerPoint is a perfectly fine place to finish a presentation project, but it is the wrong place to start. All wrong!

Being creative

In a perfect world, you would begin a presentation project by thinking about the story you want to tell, getting in touch with your feelings about that story, exploring how you want your audience to feel about the story, and envisioning a positive result.

Exactly none of those things is likely to happen while you are working within PowerPoint.

In order to think creatively, you should remove yourself from your normal work environment. You want to free associate, scribble thoughts, and toss out ideas, unencumbered by the permanence of software. It’s not just PowerPoint; the computer in general is a poor place to begin any sort of creative process. Even Word creates too much temptation to get it perfect the first time, and that’s the last thing you want to think about when you are trying to think creatively. I routinely get paralyzed in front of all those wizards, auto-correct thingies, and even the Backspace key. When that happens, I immediately retreat to my legal pad, where I can start scribbling.

The veritable cocktail napkin is a better place to begin a presentation project. That kind of free and loose environment affords you the best chance of opening your creative canal as wide as possible, and that should be your only objective when you begin to think about a presentation project.

Creating vs. building

This is really the central distinction: what does it mean to create and what does it mean to build? I don’t think I have ever witnessed anyone sit down in front of PowerPoint, place hand to mouse, be confronted with Title-Bullet-Bullet-Bullet, and become brilliant. It just doesn’t work that way, and yet so many try. You’re in your cube, you have a meeting in 30 minutes, you just want to dash off a few ideas, and before you know it, you find yourself trying to craft the perfect presentation, all within the confines of Title-Bullet-Bullet-Bullet.

Separate these two processes. Don’t think about PowerPoint at all when you embark on “creating” your presentation. Think about message, story, mental pictures, emotion, and result. Scribble, doodle, talk out loud, or sure, try out software designed for free-flowing idea exchange. Think about how you want to begin, identify major topics, noodle on transitions between those topics, look for killer endings.

With this in place, now you are ready to build slides. Now you can indulge in all the lazy language you want. Go ahead and “build your PowerPoint,” or “PowerPoint your presentation,” or “slide deck your ideas.” Whatever you want to call it, the building process will be a better experience and will produce a better result because you didn’t confuse it with the creation process.

There are plenty of fundamentals that can make you better at building, there is no shortage of ideas on how to craft the strongest message, and I will happily write on these topics later this year. First, however, let’s keep distinct these two broadest of notions. Let’s remember that PowerPoint is not capable of creating a good presentation. You are the presentation — your ideas, your vision, your passion are the fuel for success. Once you allow that to surface, then you can think about building slides to complement the message.

That’s why you shouldn’t create PowerPoints…

Memorable Moments from the 2013 Summit

It is Sunday evening at the Presentation Summit, about 85% of our patrons have now checked in and most of them are in our ballroom foyer enjoying a beverage and a gnash. The energy is contagious as a sentiment of anticipation infects the room. Jetlag be damned, everyone is alive, alert, fresh, and full of spirit. Most in the room are making their first trip to the conference (we typically run at about 60% first-timers) and they can sense the excitement building.

The buzz (pun intended) at the Sunday Evening Reception is palpable (pun intended).

The buzz (pun intended) at the Sunday Evening Reception is palpable.

This is my memorable moment. The following morning is when things really start, but I’m usually too nervous to enjoy it. But Sunday evening (we call it Day Zero) with the energy in the room so incredible, so vibrant, so full of anticipation — there is nothing quite like it for me.

I’m not the only one who felt a moment this year. Here is a sampling…

Nolan Haims, Edelman in New York NY
Member of the presenting team, fourth year attending

This year, I saw increased use of software that isn’t PowerPoint and I saw PowerPoint being used for things other than slides. Danielle Jotham from Turner Broadcasting showed the many software solutions employed by the design team there and Matt Stevenson from Fathom Creative gave a killer talk on Prezi.

PowerPoint is the primary software tool of corporate America, and its relative ease of use is leading many to abandon the bloated and clunky world of Microsoft Word in favor of the slideware’s greener pastures. I also spoke with numerous attendees who told me that their companies were abandoning Microsoft Publisher and Word in favor of PowerPoint as a layout tool.

Sam Thatt, independent consultant, southern California
Second year attending

I attended Sunday evening’s Entrepreneur’s Roundtable, an informal discussion for those who run their own businesses or who are considering it. None of us yet knew each other but I was astonished at how open and willing to share everyone was. It’s not every day that you would trade experiences, issues, secrets, and even what you charge your customers with people you don’t know, and who, for all we know, might be our competitors! I thought that was remarkable.

Sunday's roundtable included an extraordinary amount of sharing by people who had just met one another.

Sunday’s roundtable included an extraordinary amount of sharing by
people who had just met one another.

Dave Paradi, Think Outside the Slide, Mississauga ON
Moderator of the Sunday roundtable (at left, above)

During that roundtable, one of the big issues for people trying to make a change to the presentation culture in an organization is the phrase, “It’s good enough.” Change doesn’t happen unless someone recognizes the value of that change. If the decision makers don’t see the problem as big enough, they won’t pay for a solution. We need to look at the cost of presentations in organizations, including the costs of people spending more time creating presentations than they should because they haven’t been given the training they need. I created an online calculator to quantify the dollar cost of presentations that require rework.

There are also hidden costs of sales not made or productivity gains not realized because the audience was confused or not convinced to take action. When totaled, these costs can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you want to change the presentation culture in your organization, quantify these costs and present that large dollar figure to your boss. Now they may be willing to solve the problem with the type of customized training and other resources that consultants can provide to their clients.

Doug Thomas, Microsoft, Seattle WA
First time attending

I had heard from others at Microsoft about the Help Center, where technical support is offered to patrons in less formal fashion than the seminars. Then I arrived on site to discover that the Help Center is situated right in the main ballroom, in the heart of everything, instead of being relegated to a room down the hall, as is usually the case. That provided me with my first sense that this was going to be closer-knit, friendlier, and more hands-on than other conferences.

Ines Natale, Silicon Images in Sunnyvale CA
First time attending

Sam Horn’s keynote stuck with me. Back in the office this week I spent some time looking at the conference download page for her slides, only to conclude that she did not use any slides. But that story she told about the dog abandoned on the giant tanker ship was so vivid, I could have sworn I saw photos of the dog. At the end of the day nothing beats a good story and this is what I will always try to implement when building a presentation.

It seems a bit ironic that one of my favorite moments from the Presentation Summit did not include any slides at all.

Sam Horn painted such vivid pictures in the minds of audience members, she didn't need to project any.

Sam Horn painted such vivid pictures in the minds of audience members, she didn’t need to project any.

Sam Horn, Intrigue Agency in Reston VA
Monday morning keynote speaker, first time attending

I was introduced at 8:30 in the morning. Then everyone attended seminars until 4:30p. Then there was a social hour. Then a trivia contest. At 6:00p, there were as many people in the main ballroom as there were at 8:30a and they were all totally engaged. I don’t think I have ever seen that before.

Paul Deloney, Boeing in Arlington VA
Second time attending

The thing that resonated most with me was the strong sense of community and sharing. And it wasn’t confined to the seminar sessions; it spilled over to the breaks, meals, and well after hours. Four of us conducted our own mini guru session one night, exchanging ideas, workarounds, slide designs, and more. We went nearly until midnight.

James Gordon, University of Buffalo
Second time attending

My moment was watching Echo Swinford introduce her audience to XML. I’ve been to several XML training sessions and all except for Echo’s took the approach that, in order to learn XML, you have to be a geeky computer programmer. Echo showed her audience how to get at XML in PowerPoint files and edit it for useful purposes — all without going into the geeky stuff. Practical, painless XML. It was the first time I ever saw anyone take that approach.

Echo Swinford on XML: No geek-speak required.

Echo Swinford on XML: No geek-speak required.

Kelly Maiberger, Creative Counsel in Chicago IL
Second time attending

If you asked me last year what I walked away with, I would have said it was the technical knowledge. I got that this year too — it’s impossible not to — but what was more significant for me this year was walking away with inspiration. It may not seem as tangible as being able to tally up the number of new tips and tricks you’ve added to your “ah-ha” list. But being inspired to attempt new approaches in our designs has proven to be just as valuable. Actually, more so.

Anna Dunmeyer, TMS Health in Mercerville NJ
First time attending

What strikes me most is the sheer amount of resources I was able to add to my personal toolkit. How could I not realize these resources were available in the 15 years I’ve been in sales and marketing? I actually quantified it:

  • Twelve new websites to explore
  • Ten new books on my reading list
  • Two TED talks to check out
  • Eight slide redesign ideas that were triggered just while sitting in conference sessions

The last word belongs to Jen Palmer, a first-timer from Thornburg Investment Management in Santa Fe NM, who used the conference tote bag in a creative way:

I bought a preserved shark as a souvenir and had to check it because it exceeded the max for carry-on liquids. I wrapped it in newspaper and packed it in the conference tote and it actually made it back to Albuquerque intact! So, kudos on your tote bag selection — beats Samsonite any day.

Can PowerPoint Make You Stupid?

This is an excerpt from the third edition of Rick Altman’s provocatively-titled book on presentation best practices. Available now in paperback, PDF, ePub, and Kindle. You can learn more about it at the BetterPresenting website.

ONE OF THE MOST INFLAMMATORY ideas circulating among PowerPoint skeptics has received quite a bit of credible press in the past decade. In a widely-circulated 2004 article, New York Times columnist Clive Thompson all but blamed the space shuttle Columbia accident on the use of PowerPoint. (

And the ever-bombastic Edward Tufte has essentially made a living out of attributing many of society’s communication problems to Microsoft’s venerable slide-making tool.

It’s hard to imagine that a software program could be credited with something as profound as affecting one’s intellect, but read on—there is a real dynamic at work here.

Where Good Ideas Go to Die

Several years ago, my friend Lon came to me for assistance with a keynote address he was giving to a group of professional tennis teachers. These teachers were working with some of the most talented junior players in Northern California; their jobs were to turn these kids into seasoned athletes, help them land college scholarships, and maybe prepare them for professional tennis.

Lon had some innovative ideas about how to turn kids with raw talent into strong competitors and winners. As an avid tennis player myself, I loved talking with him. When his ideas were flowing, he was a joy to listen to—fluent with such heady concepts as the ideal performance state, living in the present moment, and his most novel theory, having to do with calming the mind to maximize the body’s energy.

Lon needed to distill all of his wonderful ideas into a 45-minute after-dinner talk, and he made the mistake of creating PowerPoint slides as part of the process. Here was his weak attempt to fit his thoughts onto a bullet slide.

Can this slide help a coach talk to other coaches? Not likely...

It sounded like mumbo-jumbo, something his ideas never did when he spoke about them informally. Worse, when he practiced his speech with his slides, he found himself trying to explain the meaning of the words on the slides, instead of just sharing the thoughts in his head. I call this “going on defense” and it is a sure sign that you are at risk for committing Death by PowerPoint.

Ultimately, I convinced Lon to go with the following slide instead. His ideas were more than enough to carry the hour; all he needed were a good image to evoke an emotional response and a few talking points. And when he realized that his original slides were doing him no good, he decided to forego slides altogether. Good call, Lon.

This slide did not inhibit Lon’s ability to articulate his thoughts.

This was a classic example of good ideas getting torpedoed by PowerPoint. Lon’s ideas were far too nuanced to be contained within one title and three bullet points. Most good ideas can’t survive such a boiling down, yet that is the default medium for sharing ideas in public. When smart people try to represent their good ideas with such a limiting medium, they come off sounding less smart.

PowerPoint does indeed dumb them down.

One chapter from now, you will read about my prescribed “three-word challenge”—a call to distill long bullets down to short ones. This might sound like a contradiction to the point I am making here, and it certainly won’t be the last time you feel that way. I will explain the difference more fully then; for now, I will specify that the danger here is trying to use bullets to explain an idea, instead of just represent it.

Talking Points Can Create Talking Heads

Unless presenters practice with their material and with the medium, even simple and succinct bullets can derail them. I witnessed a good example of this while watching a volleyball match on ESPN (lots of sports analogies, I know—I’m pathetic that way).

Calling the action were Chris Marlowe, an experienced play-by-play professional, and Vince, a former Olympic player. Each of them was required, at various times during the broadcast, to comment on a statistic or a notable fact being displayed in a graphic.

One of Vince’s assignments was to discuss the factors that he thought were significant during a particular match. The graphic displayed three items: return of serve, ability to set a double-block, and free-ball passing. With only a few months of experience as a television commentator and no formal training or background, Vince did nothing more than read, word for word, the three items in the graphic. He would have done far better if he were instructed to describe, in his own words, the three key elements of the match. The audience didn’t need to see the graphic, but when ESPN showed it, it paralyzed Vince, reducing him to a cue-card reader.

Chris Marlowe is much more experienced in these matters. The graphic he was asked to elaborate on showed how many times UCLA, the top-ranked team in the nation at the time, had come back to win after the other team had reached game point. While the graphic showed the percentages and statistics, Marlowe said, “You don’t win four championships in six years without playing the big points well, and here is why so many consider UCLA to be one of history’s most successful teams.”

Now that’s the way to speak to bullet points! Marlowe didn’t insult his audience’s literacy by reading the graphic. Instead, he made the moment greater than the sum of its parts by telling us something more than just the raw facts.

While inexperienced with talking points, Vince proved to be an acute analyst of the game. When allowed to simply react to what he was watching, he was articulate, relaxed, and confident.

I suspect there are many executives and corporate speechmakers who are like Lon or Vince: astute, well-spoken, but ultimately hampered by the implicit (or explicit) requirement that all high-tech speeches be accompanied by a PowerPoint slide show. I had lunch recently with a Silicon Valley-based executive and he summed up the situation perfectly. First, he acknowledged that most of his colleagues are too busy to spend more than a half-hour working on their slides.

“Is it so important that they have slides?” I asked.

“Today,” he replied, “you can’t give a talk in this business without showing slides.”

“But what can you do in 30 minutes?”

“Copy and paste your notes into the bullet holders.”

“But if you just turn your notes into slides, your slides will be the same as what you say.”

“That’s right.”

“That’s sad.”

“That’s right.”

You can’t give a talk today without showing slides. Those are some of the most distressing words I have ever heard. Too busy to spend more than 30 minutes on their slides. Executives with good speaking skills don’t necessarily need slides as they speak, and if they do, their slides should elaborate on their ideas, not repeat them. And executives who lack speaking skills make the situation worse with bad slides that compel them to read their speech instead of deliver it.

The Wrong Place to Start

Where do people go wrong? Often, their fatal errors are made in the first 10 seconds of a project: they put hand to mouse, after which it becomes exceedingly difficult to think creatively.

Even though it doesn’t involve PowerPoint, a recent experience I had crystallized this issue for me. On a flight home a few years ago, I sat inbetween two businessmen, both using their notebook computers. I couldn’t resist spying on them.

One of them was using CorelDraw, a graphic drawing program that I have been using since its inception in the late 1980s. The other was composing in Microsoft Word. The man using Draw was producing some sort of flier or publicity sheet, and he was struggling. He kept creating objects and text strings, fiddling with them, and then deleting them. He appeared to have no direction or objective.

I couldn’t see what the other man was writing about, but what struck me was that he spent half his time making notes on a yellow legal pad. Funny, I thought, why doesn’t he just use Word to keep his notes, and I asked him that very thing: “This is the way I’ve always done it,” he said, “and I can’t break the habit. I always make my outlines longhand before writing.”

Well, the irony of this situation was delicious. The man who least needed to use pencil and paper before embarking on a computer-based project couldn’t work without them, and the man who desperately needed to do a bit of sketching or scribbling was trying to create a drawing using an eraser head to move the cursor.

Why do we computer users do this to ourselves? Let’s first point out the obvious: when you embark on a task—any task—first you decide what it is you want to do, then you determine how you are going to do it, and then you do it. That’s how people do things in real life. All too often, however, users of creative software, like CorelDraw or PowerPoint, go about everything backwards. They sit in front of the computer, place their hand on the mouse, and start creating objects, hoping that a finished piece will spontaneously occur. In no other aspect of their lives do they expect to achieve success in this manner, but they hold exempt from natural laws their relationship with their software applications.

This was certainly the case with the man in seat 16C. He knew that he had to produce a flier on a particular topic, but I doubt that he started with much more direction than that. He kept drawing shapes, creating text, moving them around, stopping, thinking, stretching, rotating, filling, deleting, redrawing…and all the while growing visibly frustrated. He expected CorelDraw to act as his sketch pad, or better yet, to magically produce the flier for him.

We see this same dynamic among PowerPoint users, usually to the same detriment. The cold hard fact is that programs like CorelDraw, Photoshop, Dreamweaver, and PowerPoint are the wrong tools for the beginning phases of a project, totally wrong. This is not a criticism of PowerPoint and the others—let’s please just acknowledge that these programs are finishing tools, not starting tools.

PowerPoint lets you do a lot of things quickly and easily, but sketching or roughing out a creative concept is not one of them. There’s way too much temptation to make everything perfect, and that’s exactly what you don’t want to do at the initial stages of a project. When starting work on a presentation, experienced content creators look to get ideas out as quickly as they think of them. This is the time to open the creative canal as wide as possible—to scribble, cross out, throw away, start over, blab to colleagues, and do all of that all over again. It is not the time to be thinking of transitions, animation choices, backgrounds, or color schemes. In fact, it’s not the time to be handling the mouse at all.

The man in seat 16A had the right idea. While only creating a word-processed document, he realized that he’s better off mapping out his route on paper first. Even a simple program like Word offers too many temptations to make a first draft perfect, what with spell and grammar checkers, document controls, wizards, and paragraph formatting tools. He just wanted a brain dump, and the best dumping ground is the legal pad. He didn’t have very good handwriting; I doubt that he got an A in third grade penmanship. But that is of no consequence during the idea stage.

Here is a sketch of a presentation prepared by Julie Terberg, one of the most prominent and talented presentation designers in the world. She is a regular at the Presentation Summit, where she shares her vast knowledge of design theory and how it is best applied to the presentation medium.

Even the pros begin with pencil and paper, not with slides.

Many in the audience were surprised when she showed this sketch, but in her own words, “I always start with pencil and paper. I’m freer that way.”

It is not the product of your sketching that is so important to the process, it is the act of sketching. Sketching…doodling…free-associating…these are the secret ingredients to brilliance! Kind of funny when you think of it. One of the secrets to using PowerPoint effectively is knowing when not to use it.

It’s Not About Being Perfect

It takes a rock star to show us presenters
what is truly important in communication

Did you watch the Grammy Awards last week? Winners for Best Rock Performance, the Foo Fighters provided the most memorable moment of any award show in years when lead singer Dave Grohl accepted the award on behalf of the band. Grohl shared with the world how the band bypassed a modern studio, choosing instead to record songs in his garage, “with microphones and a tape machine.” Listen to how he describes the process:

Could any of us in the presentation business possibly have said it any better? That was an incredible (dare I say perfect?) summation of the importance of humanity in human endeavors. I’m sure it is as easy for musicians to get lost in studio gadgetry as it is for presenters to get lost in PowerPoint features, and in both cases the result is the subordination of the human to the technology. (It was with mild disappointment that I learned that the band had to post a retraction/clarification on its Facebook page, as a result of the flak they received for implying that this style of music was better than modern, studio- and technology-driven music.)

As Jim Endicott has said on many occasions to Presentation Summit patrons over the years, audiences don’t want perfect presenters. They want to feel that presenters are just like they are. That they are part of the human condition, they deal with life’s struggles, they get nervous, they forget stuff. That they, like Grohl, would have to ask a spouse for permission before converting a garage into a music studio. The genuine display of human emotion and the honest portrayal of the human condition can never be supplanted as the most important components of any storytelling experience, including a presentation.

In my travels as a presentation consultant and in my experiences as the host of the Summit, there are plenty of opportunities to focus on tools and techniques. In fact, the other day, I mentally reviewed a few of the pieces of advice that I regularly dole out over the course of a day-long presentation skills workshop:

  • Use semi-transparent shapes over photos to blend text with them
  • Extend photos all the way to the edges of slides for a better look
  • Rename objects so it is easier to animate them
  • Use custom shows to help create menus for better navigation through a slide deck
  • Stand on the audience’s left side
  • Exaggerate upper-body gestures, minimize lower-body movement

I believe each of these to be valid suggestions that could improve one’s performance with slides or help one’s comfort level in front of an audience. At the conference, we will offer over 40 seminars, focusing on message, design, creation, and delivery, and from them will flow several hundred tips and tricks like the ones above.

But the day that I make any of this more important than how one person can communicate more honestly with others is the day that I must contemplate retirement.

The Power of the Apology

As one year turns into another, I seek topics with larger reach, in the hopes that they could function as resolutions. This one certainly qualifies: the fine art of showing contrition and remorse. I fancy myself somewhat of an authority on the subject, given that my wife has been telling me for two decades that my apologies are lousy.

To an audience, there are few things more powerful than a presenter who offers a true apology. Showing that level of humanity, sincerity, and vulnerability is difficult to do and proves endearing on many levels. So let’s talk about what qualifies as a sincere-sounding apology.

If you include “I’m sorry” in a sentence, there is no guarantee that it will be interpreted as an apology, and in fact, the exact opposite effect is in play. Take these examples:

“I’m sorry that you feel this way…”

“I’m sorry that you took offense…”

“If my advice upsets you, well, I’m sorry…”

These are unfortunate word choices that could backfire. In the first case, you are not taking responsibility for making the person feel that way; you’re only expressing dismay that he or she does. In the second example, you are allowing for the suggestion that the person is wrong to have taken offense, and the third example sounds downright defensive. All three of these statements could make a situation worse, not better.

Being sorry is really a mediocre commodity. It could be thrown into dozens of phrases, in which it loses all resemblance to contrition. One of my standard lines when discussing people’s expectation of PowerPoint is: “Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.” This phrase does not get me into trouble because nobody interprets it as an actual apology. The “well sorrrrree” remark is universally interpreted as sarcasm. And that’s precisely the point: being “sorry” is really not worth much.

It is far more difficult to misuse the words “I apologize” or “forgive me” and therefore they carry more weight.

“I apologize for making you feel that way.”

“I apologize for any offense taken.”

“Please forgive me for that upsetting advice.”

What a difference! These sentences acknowledge accountability — they show you know that your actions or words made something bad happen. They deal with real pain and real awareness. They are more genuine and more impactful.

To strengthen my argument here, I look to a portion of my audience for whom this advice is implausible. I have clients who work for city governments, planning commissions, public utilities, and in political arenas. For many of them, the public apology could be politicized and used against them. This is why you often hear the watered-down phrase of “regret.”

“We regret the actions that caused the local grocery to close down.”

“We regret that 50 people lost their jobs.”

If you regret something, it could mean little more than that you wish it hadn’t happened (definition: to feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over). Don’t use language like that unless you are blatantly dancing around an apology. The fact that issuing an apology could get politicians into trouble is exactly why I want you to use it when warranted. It is real, it is raw, it is powerful.

The next time you have to offer up a mea culpa, don’t just be sorry. Apologize!


Steve Jobs’ Untapped Potential

The world is surely a diminished place in the wake of the passing of Steven Paul Jobs. He is arguably the greatest public speaker of his generation, and while many analyzed and parsed his manner and tried to dissect the secret of his success, few succeeded. He was great simply because he was.

As a professional observer of the craft, I admit to feeling a bit cheated. But not because I will never be able to witness him in action again; I feel cheated because I will not be able to watch him realize his potential. Indeed, I believe Steve Jobs was only half as good as he could have been and I believe he was about to find that other half.

Why was Jobs such a great speaker? It’s a bit easier to answer that if you start with the end result: he compelled audiences to feel the weight of his message. He made people around him feel better about themselves, and he inspired others to look beyond their own perspective. He did all this with an impossible-to-imagine ease of accomplishment that defies explanation. This made him fascinating beyond proportion.

What I find equally fascinating about the man is the qualities of great public speaking that he did not exhibit. If you were to add up all of the reasons why he was effective, compile lists of his qualities, there would be one that is conspicuously absent:


He gave very little of himself. As wonderful as they were, his product announcements and state-of-the-technology addresses were consistently devoid of personal glimpses. It is clear that he worked very hard at them, that he practiced diligently, that he mastered the craft, and that he dedicated untold effort to this mastery. But you would not come away from them with any heightened sense of knowing better the man. He almost never made his speeches personal; he almost never let you in.

Those who knew or studied Jobs would attest to his being intensely private. Most of us learned more about his personal life in the five days since his passing than in the previous three decades. His having been an orphan, his having fathered a child prior to his marriage to Laurene Powell, his having dated Joan Baez. While these personal factoids were not closely guarded, neither were they well known. With few exceptions, Steve himself offered none of them. I always wondered how amazing it would have been if he had.

I chalked it up to the crafted facade of the CEO of arguably the most enigmatic corporation in the world. I really wanted to believe that it was calculated, that the Jobs mystique would make product launches, and the products themselves, all the more tantalizing. And as a result, a part of me actually looked forward to his resignation. As is so often the case, once people are out of the game, they tend to let a bit more of their hair down. They open up more, they share more, they are more honest with and about themselves. I was so looking forward to Jobs’ first public appearance post-resignation. I had it in mind that it would be a true coming out, that he would make it more about himself.

Were that to have happened, I believe his speeches would have become even more powerful. Is that even possible? That’s the scary thing — I think Steve Jobs could have been twice as effective as he was. Imagine all of the personal stories he could have shared about his time with Apple, about those heady early days, about creating all of that insane greatness. All of the things that he never allowed in his product demos and MacWorld keynotes.

It is the exception that proves the rule: watch this under-the-radar speech he gave for 2005 Commencement from Stanford University. It is more formal than his keynotes, as he stands behind a podium and reads from a script. But focus on the substance — listen to how he weaves his personal stories into his message. And imagine if he had done that at MacWorld all those years.

It’s almost scary to imagine how impactful his speeches could have been. And I feel cheated that we will never know.

The Yin and the Yang of the Presentation Summit

With less than a month now before the ninth annual Presentation Summit, Sep 18-21 in Austin TX, here is our official yin/yang guide to the conference, showcasing the interesting and eclectic duality in our lineup this year:

YIN: Julie Terberg returns for her incredible makeover sessions, creating something wonderful from something…less than wonderful.
YANG: Sandra Johnson shows how to create complex shapes in PowerPoint, creating something from nothing.

YIN: Connie Malamed returns to discuss the significance and impact of visual communication.
YANG: Nick Morgan makes his debut to expose the hidden communication, the so-called “second conversation.”

YIN: Wayne Michael wants to talk to you about freshman orientation.
YANG: Nigel Holmes wants to talk to you about hot dogs and helium balloons.

YIN: Olivia Mitchell flies in from New Zealand to show you how to create a presentation in one hour.
YANG: Ric Bretschneider wants to show you how to give a presentation in six minutes and 40 seconds.

YIN: Ric will also go until nearly midnight in his traditional Guru session Monday night.
YANG: Garr Reynolds will start his keynote address right about then, from his home in Osaka Japan.

YIN: Troy Chollar will show you how to design for wide screens and large impacts.
YANG: Dave Paradi will show you how to reduce your environmental footprint.

YIN: You’ll learn amazing amounts all day long.
YANG: We’ll go out for amazing evenings in downtown Austin, including a fully-hosted private reception on the ultra-happening Sixth Street Tuesday night.

All of the components that have made our conference famous will be in place: The ever-accommodating Help Center, for free, drop-in technical support; the flexible scheduling that allows you to pick and choose seminars as you go; the delicious meals; and perhaps above all, the friendly and intimate atmosphere that we create for the presentation community, facilitating true relationship-building and bonding — unmatched at any other business conference you will attend.

We have about 30 seats left and we would enjoy nothing more than to see you reserve one of them.

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The Magic of the Makeover

Before-and-after sessions
a perennial conference favorite

Now in its ninth season, the Presentation Summit has offered seminars and workshops on such far-reaching topics as software automation, simultaneous projection on multiple screens, presenting in non-native languages, and dealing with unfriendly audiences. Since its inception in 2003, however, no seminar topic has been more popular than the traditional makeover — where a member of the conference design team reviews and redesigns slide decks.

This year, there are three distinct before-and-after sessions: a template makeover and two design makeovers, all from work submitted by conference attendees.

“People love makeovers of all kinds,” notes Julie Terberg, who has starred in enough makeover sessions as to earn the unofficial title of Makeover Maven. “Turn on the TV and you’ll see an endless variety: home makeovers, room makeovers, garden makeovers, personal style makeovers, fitness and lifestyle makeovers. You usually can relate to something in the ‘before’ situations and so you want to see what the experts do with their transformation.

“The same applies with presentation design. How would another designer treat this concept? How will he or she transform the graphics or images? What can I learn to make my own work that much better?”

Conference attendees have several reasons to enjoy these sessions. As Julie notes, everyone can relate to the struggles and issues that are typically represented in the “before” slides and they love being inspired by the metamorphosis. Further, if your slides are chosen for one of these makeover sessions, you will be able to return home with the “after” slides, compliments of the designer. That translates into a takeaway that would typically cost a client several thousand dollars.

This is not to say that there is no reward for the designer, who can measure the return in warm-and-fuzzies. “I love when patrons say how much they learned from the makeovers,” says Terberg. “It warms my heart to hear from them about how they applied the ideas to their own work.”

You can view a snippet of one of Terberg’s makeovers at the conference’s Video Vault.

Conference host Rick Altman also stages a makeover session, but he will be the first to tell you that he is not in Julie’s league. “I am not a professional designer,” he says, “and ironically, that is what makes it work. I focus on creating clean and consistent business design and I’m pretty good evaluating message and story. I’m not going to inspire anyone with my design brilliance as Julie does, but I can infuse confidence in people. My hope is that people come away from my sessions saying, ‘I see what he did, why he did it, and I could do it too.’”

Conference patrons pay nothing extra to have their work accepted for a makeover, and with three sessions on tap this year, late registrants can still get in on the action.

The Presentation Summit runs September 18-21 in Austin TX. You can read more about makeover sessions and  see the entire schedule, at Seating at the conference is limited to 200 patrons.

Hot Dogs, Shadows, and Helium

Nigel Holmes’ keynote address to focus
on what we see, not just what we hear

You might think that an opening keynote address for a presentation conference would discuss technology, or PowerPoint, or slide design, or how to speak more effectively.

You wouldn’t normally expect it to focus on how to win an eating contest.

Patrons of the Presentation Summit have come to expect the unexpected, and after his 2010 debut, Nigel Holmes has become famous for providing it. Last year, the former art director for Time magazine squeezed out an entire tube of toothpaste along the stage and later dressed up in a caveman suit.

This year, it will be eating hot dogs. And studying shadows. And, allegedly, helium, and the inhaling thereof.

Last year’s keynote might prove a tough act to follow and Holmes is quick to note that integrating physical performance into a presentation can’t be just about shock and awe. “When thinking about ‘performance,’ never do it just for theatrical effect,” he says. “There must always be a point. When dealing with statistics, the possibilities are endless. It’s a great way to depart from yet another bar chart.” Indeed, last year’s toothpaste caper was in lieu of a conventional chart to show personal hygiene statistics.

“While this kind of presentation is not for everyone, you’d be surprised at what you can pull off, if you relax and try. Presenters are too often tethered to the podium, but it really pays for the audience to become part of your presentation. They will remember being part of it for a long time.”

And the risks of eating hot dogs, sucking in helium, or donning a caveman suit? Holmes is more concerned about being gratuitous than in having something go wrong on stage. “Do not worry if things don’t go according to plan. Mistakes are a perfect introduction to talk about why it went wrong, so I see mistakes as opportunities. It also makes people understand that you are just another human, like them. So to fail slightly and then recover is good, in a funny way.”

Mistakes and all, the Presentation Summit runs September 18-21 in Austin TX. You can read more about Nigel Holmes’ keynote address, and see the entire schedule, at Seating at the conference is limited to 200 patrons.