Lil Regie

The shape of what you say

Avatar of Michael Lopp Michael Lopp
Michael Lopp giving a talk

With the return of the speaking season, I am regularly producing again in my favorite application, Keynote.  I’ve written extensively about Keynote elsewhere, but today I want to talk about one specific feature: rehearsing a slideshow.

To appreciate this feature go ahead and fire up Keynote - open a recent presentation. Don’t have one? Here you go:
DEMO DECK -- The Shape of What You Say.key 2.68 MB

Select Play > Rehearse Slideshow.

When selected, you enter a mode where you see:

  • The current slide and its slide number
  • The following slide and its slide number
  • The current time
  • Your speaker notes… maybe.

Keynote Rehearse Sliedshow example

Now, you might not see speakers notes because it does not default on. While in Rehearse Slideshow, click on the rectangle icon in the upper right corner and turn on speaker notes. It’s important. Done? Good.

I have now demonstrated the third most important piece of advice I can give regarding presentations: use rehearse slideshow. It’s tightly coupled with the forthcoming second most important piece of advice. 

The Confidence Monitor

A bunch of hard-earned lessons is entirely avoided by requesting that I use my computer to give my presentation at the event. The correct app, the proper typefaces, and familiar hardware. Yes, this means I need to bring different dongles to connect with various audio/video (“A/V”) systems on Planet Earth. Lugging these connective detritus around the world is trivial compared to the mental paralysis that arrives when you look up at your presentation in front of 500 humans and realize, “They didn’t install Futura,” which leads to the crippling thought, “What else is wrong in this deck?”

You are the worst version of your presentation self when all you are expecting is failure.

I get to see the AV set-up and feel the room’s vibe, but most importantly, I see my confidence monitor. Presenting from my hardware means I need to do an AV check to ensure everything works before the talk. DO THIS EVERY TIME, NO MATTER WHAT.

A confidence monitor is a display usually on the floor in front of you between you and the audience. It allows you to see the same output as what you see in Rehearse Slideshow as opposed to what your audience sees, which is just your current set-up.

After years of thinking I’d seen it all, there are still new A/V set-ups the tech folks knock together that make displaying these two distinct views from one computer problematic. The most recent variant? “We have folks on Zoom that need to see the slides but not the rehearsal view.” This setup is — by far — the most error-prone part of the A/V setup.

When someone asks me to speak right after we agree to terms, I note: “I’ll be running the presentation from my hardware, and I need a confidence monitor.”  From that moment until the moment, months later, when I see the confidence monitor successfully display the correct information, I assume it will not work.

It usually does. Thank you, A/V humans. Your job is hard. 

Ask for and use a confidence monitor. That’s your second most important piece of presentation advice. 

Here’s the most crucial bit of advice. 

Your Finest Talk

I’m speaking at my alma mater in a few weeks. It’s a pro-bono introduction to Hack Weekend. I did it a few years back, and I sucked. I thought it was 40 engineers in a classroom, but it was an army of 400+ students in a cafeteria. No slides and, suddenly, very high stakes. A speaking disaster. 

After I picked myself up off the floor from the resulting shock that they asked me to speak again, I decided to bring my A game. The problem was the same set-up: 400 students, 10 minutes, no slides, and… no confidence monitor.

Two of the finest talks I’ve done in the last two decades shared characteristics. A South-by-Southwest event where I had two minutes to answer a question and a birthday party with dear friends where I wanted to speak meaningfully but six minutes max. 

No slides, high expectations, limited time.

The most important  piece of speaking advice I can give you: use speaker notes on a confidence monitor. Wait, what? You just said no slides? I did. Wait for it. 

The most important advice others will give you is: don’t read your slides. This is super good advice, but if you’ve read my other articles or seen me speak, you’ll note my slides are often a single word, one sentence, or an image. Do you want to know how to prevent yourself from reading your slides? Do not write down word for word what you are going to say on your slide. Works every time.

Now, the clever engineer slash speaker will think, “Well, I’ll just write down, word for word, what I need to say in the speaker notes.” Not so fast. A good presentation, while practiced, is still 25% improvisation. Just because the audience can’t see your notes and you’re rocking that sweet confidence monitor doesn’t mean they can’t see you’re reading a script. 

These two fine talks above? SXSW and the birthday? No slides, right? Where’s the essential confidence monitor, Rands? 

It’s in my hand. 

I had a cheat sheet in my hand for both of those talks. For the SXSW event, it was ten names because I was saying one sentence to each person, and I memorized each line. I had five brief sentences for the birthday talk, each representing a larger thought I wanted to convey. For both talks, I rehearsed fifty times before the evening of the event, so I knew the shape of what I wanted to say. 

The notes were there to keep me headed in the correct direction. 

As I was thinking about my second talk at the alma mater, I was thinking about the constraints. A large audience, limited time, and no technology save a microphone. An idea for the talk showed up during a bike ride, but knowing there were no slides, I started to write an outline with the idea of distilling that outline into a handful of brief statements. Not the words I will say but the shape.

25% Improvisation

The rehearsal display, a working confidence monitor, and speaker notes. I can offer these essential pieces of advice because they are the ones I still use for every presentation. Yes, I’m experienced in giving presentations. Yes, I have yolo written a presentation at the bar and given the same presentation an hour later in front of hundreds and done a fine job.

I can pull off such feats because of experience, but the reason I crushed it is that I follow the speaker’s rules:

  • Make sure your presentation environment supports your ideal tool set-up.
  • Rehearse your presentation. More than you think you’ll need.
  • Don’t read your slides; tell us the story of your slides.

And how do you know how you did? Same way, I knew my SXSW and birthday talk was excellent.

The audience told me, and I listened.
Avatar of Michael Lopp

Michael Lopp

Michael Lopp is a veteran Silicon Valley-based engineering leader who builds both people and products at historic companies such as Slack, Borland, Netscape, Palantir, Pinterest, and Apple. When he’s not deeply concerned with staying relevant, he writes about leadership, bridges, superheroes, and humans at the popular weblog Rands in Repose. He currently works at Apple. This is the way.