Tech Life Speaking is storytelling

The Worst Seven Minutes

The worst seven minutes of a presentation are the seven minutes before you present.

Writing a deck, editing it, getting feedback, rewriting it, practicing it over and over again, final touches, one more practice, ok two more practices and now you’re standing stage left waiting those last seven minutes with absolutely nothing to do except waiting to begin.

Finally.

“Please welcome… This… amazing… speaker!”

All of your hard work, weeks of work, hours and hours of practice, and finally those last seven intolerable minutes are over. You walk on stage into the lights and…

… there are no speaker notes. And you need speaker notes.

To be an effective speaker, you must be able to handle this unfortunate situation. Your ability to elegantly react to the unexpected is part of your job as a speaker because the unexpected is a guarantee. You must turn the expected into an advantage. Whether it’s a technical malfunction or a strange audience reaction, your ability absorb, adapt, and continue amongst presentation discord is a required skill. I should write an article on managing presentation discord, but that is not this article. This article is about the perfect presentation audio-video set-up. It exists.

Brad …

I’m talking to you now, Brad1. You’re the hypothetical AV guy at a hypothetical conference, and your job is hard.

You’ve got 18 speakers each with different requirements and different temperaments. Keynote, Powerpoint, confident, nervous, Mac, PC, insistent, and opinionated. The entire situation is amplified by the fact that most humans are terrified by the prospects of public speaking which means, Brad, you’ve got humans coming at you who are not their best selves.

You and I aligned in that we want this each talk at this conference be a success. However, we not aligned with the topic of the AV set-up. To reduce the chaos, you’ve chosen a sub-optimal AV set-up. You’ve told yourself, “I’m reducing variables.” Brad, what you’ve done is only made it harder to present by removing presentation tools that you may perceive as inessential that are actually critical to an excellent presentation.

Speaking is Story Telling

I’ve already mentioned one aspect of a good talk above: improvisation. Handling the unexpected is one of my favorite speaking moves and often the source of my most significant audience reactions. Why? Because I don’t let the unexpected interrupt the story.

Speaking is storytelling. You’re not up there reading your slides; you’re up there telling a story. There’s an intriguing beginning, a complex middle, and a satisfying end. It is clear that you love this story because your enthusiasm spills off the stage. Everyone, including you, are unaware there is a presentation going on because we’re all in the middle of a great story.

95% of the work of building a great story is on you. I’ve already written about this a bunch. The other 5% is entirely controllable via the AV set-up which I’ll describe now:

Insist on your computer. Like Brad, you are looking to eliminate variables. When Brad asks for your slides, when they leave the safety of your computer, you are inviting unexpected change. Missing fonts, incorrect versions of Keynote, and missing audio/video are just a few examples of how your presentation mutates when it leaves your computer.2

Insisting on your computer means you have to meet Brad halfway. Bring every dongle possible in your backpack to make sure you can connect with his set-up. That reminds me…

Insist on an AV check. Not only do you want to see the room and get a feel for the space, but you want to make sure everything works. My preference is several hours before the talk to avoid the annoying ticking clock of You’re on in 5, RANDS.

Bring Your Clicker. Since you’re insisting on your computer and bringing your dongles, let’s stick that clicker in your heretofore named “Speaker Bag.” Your clicker (my favorite) like your computer is a familiar thing and familiar means you’re going spend your precious mental resources on telling a great story and not how to advance your slides.

Right. You’re at your AV check, you’ve plugged your computer in. What do you want to be seeing as you are pacing around the stage? You need three screens:

Screen #1: In front of you, it’s a big old screen that shows your current slide. This is the same slide the audience seeing. Why the duplication? You never ever look at their screen, just yours. Why? You staring at their screen breaks their immersion. You are no longer the storyteller, you’re them… staring at the slides. Focus.

Screen #2: Right next to Screen 1 is the most important screen. There are four essential pieces of information on this slide:

  • Current slide. Duplication of Slide 1, but important because of the next item…
  • Next slide. The ability to see your next slide is key to compelling storytelling. Each slide has a micro-story on it, and an essential part of that micro-story is figuring out how to get the audience to the next slide. These segues, in my opinion, are the largest contributor to a presentation that flows versus one that awkwardly stumbles through seemingly unrelated thoughts. Next slide is also handy for those times you intentionally (or unintentionally) go off script and need to quickly answer the question, “What the hell was I talking about?”
  • Time. A simple elapsed timer that answers the question, “Do I need to slow down or speed up?”
  • Speaker notes. These notes are very similar to the Next Slide. They are there to remind you what you are talking about. They are not a crutch to allow you to hid behind the podium and read words from Screen #2. I rarely have complete sentences on my speaker notes. I have a bulleted list of reminders of things I need to talk about on this slide. Speaker notes are especially handy on complex or information dense slides where you have many topics to cover.

Screen #3: This is your computer and if Brad is doing his job, it’s a duplicate of Screen #2. Same exact set-up. This is not critical, but as a human who likes to move around the stage, it gives me another base of operations for story-telling.

Confidence Monitors

Those monitors on the floor that Brad set up for you? They are called confidence monitors. True facts: the audience doesn’t usually even know they are there which means you have yet another storytelling challenge. How quickly can you glance at one and get the information you need to continue to effortless and elegantly tell your story?

It takes practice.

It takes confidence.

The perfect AV set-up will not make an instantly better speaker, but the ideal AV set-up eliminates variables so that you can focus on the important work ahead: telling a great story.


  1. While I am blaming hypothetical Brad here, it equally probable that hypothetical conference organizers and their budget are a source of a crappy AV set-up. 
  2. True story. One conference converted my Keynote to Powerpoint without telling me. It was an unmitigated presentation disaster. 

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6 Responses

  1. John Rauser 5 months ago

    One extra layer of defense: If the presentation is high-stakes (a keynote at a big conference), I also bring a printed copy of my notes up to the lectern. If my computer fails (or I’m not allowed to have it), and the confidence monitor fails (or I can’t read it), I still have my printed notes as a fallback.

  2. Hi Rands

    Like you, I’ve lived through this too many times.

    Here’s my rider in case anyone wants to copy the good parts:

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/038bvui7q6vbcyf/tech%20rider.pdf?dl=0

    In my experience, the biggest hassle is getting your presenter view on an outboard monitor. For Keynote on the Mac, this appears to be impossible, and it’s a shameful omission by Apple.

  3. I’ve been experimenting with not using slides. I’ve done one presentation to three hundred people using a flip chart (no writing, just really big graphs) and another using only storytelling. It takes a huge load off, and has the added benefit of keeping the lights fully on, which helps people to stay alert.

  4. Good points!

    Like @paul klipp, I have mostly quit using slides for my talks, using either whiteboard, or just the web browser if I need to show something. I must admit there have been times where a slide deck probably would make the talk better. But for most parts, it has helped me from spending time moving pixels, to, as you point out, focus on the storytelling. And has reduced those seven minutes, to five.

    I’ve written about it here, (it’s perhaps a bit didactic): https://medium.com/netlife/sliding-into-the-void-e3557ba87da6

    Going Keynoteless is certainly a good exercise once in a while.

  5. Graeme 5 months ago

    As a “Brad”, let me say that your av company wants this exact set up too. They want to sell the event organizer exactly all of the confidence monitors, good mics, and so many speakers that every single person can hear the keynote speaker. However, people don’t realize what that all costs vs the labour to set it up and operate it with the best ops. Which means your conference is reduced to the budget version almost every time by the lowest bidder.