The Parallels between Tennis and Public Speaking

When I took time off last summer to write a book about tennis, I had intended for it to be merely a diversion. Having played the sport for decades, I have long felt that there is little support for adult doubles players. The major networks feed us nothing but singles and the only content you can find focuses on stroke mechanics…as if those of us in our fourth or fifth decade in life will suddenly overhaul our games. So I set out to write a book about doubles strategy, playing tactics, and even a bit of tennis philosophy.

killer doublesI didn’t expect to find so many parallels with my day job. Here is an excerpt that contains a surprising amount of relevance for those in the presentation community.

Channeling Against the Choke

“Novak, if you win your quarterfinal match, you’ll play either Murray or Nadal. Have you thought at all about whom you’d rather go up against?”

“I’m just trying to get through this next match. I just need to go one match at a time and focus on what I need to do against [Joe Nobody].”

This typical interview surely accounts for some of the most boring television in the history of broadcasting, played out at every single major by every single player who has ever had a microphone thrust in his or her face. Wait, there’s one that’s even worse:

“Maria, what do you need to do today against [Jane Nobodyova]?”

“I just need to go out there and concentrate on each point, not try to do too much, take what she gives me, and oh yes, have fun out there.”

Let’s start with the obvious—that no players in their right minds would reveal their strategies before a match when, in the modern age, it would arrive on an opponent’s smartphone screen about 30 seconds later. But that’s not the only reason why the pros are so boring—after all, they’ve been being boring on camera since before Al Gore invented the Internet. They know that putting blinders on best prepares them for the match ahead.

There might not be a major in your future, or a television interview, but you would be well-advised to consider the same approach, especially if you battle with nerves during competition.

The anatomy of the choke

Why do people get nervous? I face that question on a daily basis, thanks to my day job coaching people on how to speak in public. I regularly cite the Jerry Seinfeld joke about how people would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy. (No joke, actually: In the 2012 Book of Lists, public speaking ranks as our No. 1 fear. Death is No 7.)

At the biological level, your nerves are an anachronistic response to a perceived threat. When our prehistoric ancestors faced a mortal threat, like a tiger ready to attack, their choices were to fight or run away, and in either case, the adrenalin that their bodies produced helped them do that. This so-called fight-or-flight response no longer serves us—having our bodies flooded with adrenalin in no way helps us prepare for a challenge in which our fine motor skills are required.

It is also not terribly helpful that we humans have an easier time thinking about the past or the future than we do the present. Your body knows how to perform a certain task, but when your mind begins to focus on the last time you attempted it and failed, or worse, dwells on what happens if you fail at it again, that just gunks up everything.

Dwelling on past mistakes and worrying about mistakes we might make are practically instinctual, and they stand as two gigantic impediments to performance.

Can you avoid nerves?

Our biology and our psychology have not evolved with the times. Wouldn’t it be great if our bodies were to automatically produce endorphins when the stakes rise? And wouldn’t it be something if we could create a state of temporary amnesia when called upon to focus on a particular task?

No, we’re stuck with nerves instead, so the question becomes how you deal with that inconvenience. Your teammates might be well-intended by assuring you that there is no reason to be nervous, but that is beyond your control. As I tell my clients about the specter of giving a public presentation, you can’t make yourself not be nervous. You either are or you are not, and given those two choices, I’d rather you be nervous. Your nerves are a sign that you are doing something that matters to you, something whose outcome is important to you. Also, your nerves provide energy—for all of the trouble that it might cause, adrenalin is an extremely efficient fuel.

The question before you is how you deal with all of that excess energy. How do you channel all of that energy into positive performance?

The mind/body relationship

One of the ways to channel nervous energy is to work your large muscle groups and we tennis players have plenty of opportunity to use our big muscles. However, you cannot ignore our small muscle groups. You must hit delicate volleys and deft lobs and call upon the thousands of tiny muscles in your wrists, hands, and fingers. And that is not so easy to do when every system in your body is operating faster than factory specification.

You might think at first that fast-twitch muscles would operate better if the rest of your body were also moving at a fast pace, but that is not how it works. The small muscles in your body work best when they are encased in calm. The slower your body systems are working, the more readily fast-twitch muscles can fire. The obvious analogy is the feline—watch the cat respond to his environment and you will be witness to one of the finer athletes in our midst. A cat who is minding his own business on the top of a fence is at complete rest and calm. When he hears or sees a disturbance, he responds with only the body parts needed to better perceive its source. He turns his head and watches or listens; no other part of his body moves. If the commotion is caused by his owner taking out the trash, he puts his head back down. If the noise is the dog next door, he immediately springs to action, ready to dash in any direction.

Can you be quick as a cat? Yes, but it will require a level of mastery that most humans do not think about. In order to move with that type of efficiency, you must quiet the rest of your body, and if a gallon of adrenalin has just been dumped into it, that won’t be so easy.

How can you slow down your world when facing break point on your serve? How can you shut out all of the distractions around you or within you? Those are the $64K questions here.

Turning back time

The cognitive leap that I am going to ask of you here is to regard these distractions not so much as a matter of what, but as a matter of when. Two of the most notable distractions to performance are fretting about errors that you just made and worrying about errors you might make. The past and the future are not your friends here.

We don’t say to ourselves: “Oh no, I am making an error right now!”

Instead we say: “You missed that volley. You suck.”

And: “What if I make another error on this next point.”

Is there a mortal threat before you on the tennis court? No. Despite all perceptions to the contrary, you are not about to die out there. It is also unlikely that the result of your match will affect your career, your marriage, or your financial well-being. None of the perceived threats actually exist in the present moment—there is no tiger staring you down—they are all about things that might happen.

That is why the pros are so boring in their interviews: they know that talking about the last match or about a future match is a distraction. All they want to do is focus on the task at hand. This match. This game. This point.

And that is the very best response to nerves and pressure. It is also perhaps the most important skill you can develop as a competitor, superseding most of the advice that this book offers. And I choose my words carefully here: this is a skill. You can learn to do this.

Let’s set the scene. It’s the third set and you’re facing match point against you, serving at 4-5, 30-40. The stakes can hardly be higher here—lose this point and you go home. The nervous, conscious mind is invariably going to some bad places here.

It’s going to the past: How could I have missed that easy forehand? If I hadn’t blown that shot, I wouldn’t be in this mess right now.

And it’s going to wander into the future: If I miss another forehand, I will have let my team down.

Instead, you must learn to focus on nothing but the task at hand. What do I want to accomplish here?

I want to hit a serve deep to the backhand and then look for a crosscourt volley or groundstroke.

That’s a good start, but you can focus the task even more.

In order to hit a deep serve, I want to toss a bit more over my head and hit up and out. Then I’m going to look for an opportunity to hit crosscourt.

Fear can’t live in that moment. Fear does not exist in the present, only in the future. When you contain your thoughts to the task at hand—to the thing happening right now—you take the first step toward facing down pressure.

Okay, that’s my task. I’ve got this. I can do this. I have each of those shots in my game. Now I just need to let myself do it. Let’s just play.

That is healthy thinking. That puts you in a really good place to compete under pressure. If you combine that mental approach with some of the physical exercises discussed here, you come up with a working recipe for dealing with stress on the tennis court:

  • Take one or two deep slow breaths.
  • Make two or three long slow circles with your shoulder.
  • Ask yourself what you want to get done on this next point.
  • Identify the key fundamentals needed to accomplish that task.
  • Recognize that those fundamentals are things you know how to do.
  • Now turn your mind off and just let yourself do it.

I’m not here to suggest that any of this is easy. We all know the stakes we choose to associate with competitive tennis. The point I want to leave you with is that dealing with nerves and stress involves a set of skills that you can learn, practice, and master.

The True Meaning Of Confidence

Now we get to one of the most important concepts of all. The word is pretty simple and nobody has to think too hard to grasp its meaning. You identify it as a good thing. You want to be confident. You want to play confidently. You want to exude confidence.

But do you actually know what it means? And more important, do you know how to harness it on demand when you are in a pressure situation and need it the most?

Many players do not. Let’s say that you and your partner are up 6-1, 2-0, and you’re cruising. Everything you hit goes in and you feel invincible. Backhand overheads that paint both lines…half-volley stabs…even your mishits are winners. You are hitting second serves almost as hard as firsts, and you have that wonderful feeling that you just can’t miss. It’s awesome. You love it. You’re in the zone. It’s a wonderful high.

But it’s not confidence.

Don’t misunderstand, playing out of your minds is a wonderful feeling and you and your partner hope it lasts all match. You should play quickly, in case the tennis gods have a timer, so you can get in as many points as you can while you are in this wonderful zone.

But this is not confidence, it’s magic, and those two things are quite different. In fact, maybe they are opposites of one another. True confidence does not come from the feeling that you are invincible and can hit any shot imaginable. True confidence comes from knowing which shots you really can hit. Confidence is what you rely on once you leave the magic zone.

Here is a simple litmus test: That amazing backhand overhead that you hit deep into the corner of the court without a care in the world—would you attempt it at 6-6 in a tiebreaker? No? Why not? Because it is too risky, you say? Aren’t you confident in your ability to hit it?

Well, no, you’re not. Because you are a reasonably intelligent person and you know better. Being able to hit a shot while in the zone does not provide you with any confidence that you can also execute it when the pressure is on. In fact, it might make you feel unconfident about it, like you can only hit it when you are in an otherworldly state.

So what shots can you hit under pressure? Here are mine:

  • Medium-pace serve to the backhand
  • Crosscourt backhand volley
  • Waist-high forehand volley
  • Rolling forehand from an open stance
  • Slice backhand

No matter what the situation, I harbor the belief that I can execute those five strokes. If I can orchestrate a point so that I would be attempting them, I would be quite confident in the outcome.

The time to attempt ridiculous shots is when you are in the zone and feel as if you can miss nothing. But when you find yourself in a must-make situation, you need to know what shots you really can hit.

When you find that out, you will be a truly confident tennis player.

What parallels do you recognize here with speaking in public? I’d love to hear your thoughts about them in the Comments. And if you want to pick up a great stocking stuffer for a tennis-playing friend, visit

What Does “Design” Mean, Anyway?

Every year during and after the Presentation Summit, a fascinating exchange of ideas takes shape. This happens without fail — in the hallways and ballrooms during the days of the conference, in the lounge after hours, and in the post-conference evaluations that we read. This year’s discussion took its most salient turn with two observations from two patrons in two evaluations.

Here is the first:

“I absolutely loved the common-sense approach to packaging messages and designing presentations with a focus on the audience and how they can best absorb the message. This is designers teaching us design in the best possible way. Bravo!”

And the second:

“The conference was a disappointment. The design sessions were for people who have hardly used the program. There were numerous sessions presented by non-designers. I can just see this conference doing so much more to bring up the level of craft.”

Were these two people attending the same event? This is reminiscent of movies that depict the same scene from two perspectives that are so different as to be comical.

Of the two quotes above, the first was delivered by a man in his 40s who has attended the conference many times. He represents the millions of people who came to presentation from using PowerPoint, not from having pursued an education in graphic design. He holds out hope that his slides might one day look better, but what he really wants to accomplish is to craft better stories and to build slides that help him tell those better stories better.

The second quote was authored by a young woman, I’m going to guess late 20s, making her first trip to the conference (and probably her last!). She is a graphic designer by trade and her slides are beautiful. She came to the conference to network (which she succeeded in doing) and to further hone her design skills (which she did not). She was frustrated because few in the building, if any, exhibited her eye for slide design.

Neither of these people was wrong in his or her assessment. He was right that we pursue common-sense approaches to presentation design. And she was right that our Design track did include presenters who would not call themselves professional designers. The only thing she was wrong about was her assessment about software usage: none of our sessions is for people who have hardly used PowerPoint; 99% of our patrons use PowerPoint on a regular basis. But several of the seminars were geared for people who don’t have much sense of good slide design.

This is at the core of the debate that we spark every year. It goes to show you how differently we can interpret the word design, and how challenging our task can be as choreographers of conference topics.

To bring this issue into sharper focus, I will reminisce back to one of the first years we held the conference. One of our seminar tracks was entitled “Design and Décor,” and that did not sit well with one of our design stars, Nancy Duarte. “Can you take out the word décor in the track name?” she asked. “There is a huge difference between it and design, and decorating a slide is bad.”

I agreed that there was a big difference between the two words and maintained that the track was intended to include both concepts. Both she and I had encountered the situation in which a client only wants to pretty up a slide, without regard for how the slide deck functions, how it was built, or above all, what message it is trying to communicate.

Slide decoration is not an intrinsically bad thing, unless it is done in lieu of design. And Nancy had bore witness to that enough times that she had soured on the word itself. “Décor is simply for visual pleasure. If you look at they even use words like decorative baubles to describe it. Whereas the word design has its origins in the word designate. That means there is an intentional way to designate or display things for optimal visual and cognitive intake. Randomly placing baubles in places because you like them there is very different than thinking through hierarchy, purpose, and intentional arrangement of the information.”

This had me thinking back to the days when interior designers were called decorators. We had a terrific one who would have been offended by the suggestion that she dealt in baubles of visual pleasure. But it was when I spoke with Julie Terberg about this that the issue came into sharper focus. When Julie performs makeovers at our conference, she often does not have the luxury of being able to scrutinize the message or revisit the foundation of a slide deck. Sometimes, she’s just in rescue mode! Yet she too bristles at the idea of being a mere decorator of slides. “I never use the word décor. I would use the term embellishment or design element. I like to try to create a cleaner layout, simplify, create consistency, pick up elements that might be pleasant already. Décor says that you are fancying it up, sometimes to excess. It has a negative connotation. We don’t want to just fancy them up.”

Julie put her finger on it: The word has a bad reputation. In far too many cases, the only help that a bad slide deck gets is a futile attempt to get prettied up — the quintessential lipstick-on-a-pig situation. So it’s no wonder that the mere suggestion of taking into account the aesthetic nature of a slide deck is met with scorn.

To avoid this type of confusion when working with clients, I make the distinction between “presentation design” and “slide design.” The first is a more inclusive notion of how you go about conceptualizing and building a presentation, while the latter focuses more on aesthetics. There is nothing wrong with wanting to have well-designed slides, unless that is all you pursue, in which case you won’t end up with much at all.

This is why two people who attend our conference can draw such starkly different conclusions about it when regarding the same word. The gentleman was grateful for our focusing on presentation design, while the woman wanted us to offer more on slide design. Add to this challenge the fact that we get many repeat patrons and must therefore bring variety to our offerings. Add to that the equally salient fact that there are core principles so important to the discipline that we must offer them every year. Add this all up and you can begin to see why I have just about lost all of my hair.

In a funny sort of way, I consider it a greater testament to the strength of the conference that we engender both types of commentary. If everyone loved all of our content, it would seem like a hollow experience. Not unlike the word design itself: it’s only when you take in the good and the bad that you begin to develop a sense of what is truly important to you. May that word continue to beguile us for many years to come…





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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