Presenting: Preparation, Process, and Pizzazz

Presenting: Preparation, Process, and Pizzazz

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By Lea Alcantara

Published on April 9, 2008

When the organizers of SXSW let me know that my panel proposal was accepted and I was going to be one of the presenters at the largest interactive festival of the year, I was ecstatic. What a great opportunity! But as quickly as the elation rose, so did the nerves. I realized what this all really meant: people attending your panel with a lot of expectations and hopes, ready to judge your presentation skills, your content, and—most of all—you. There is a reason why public speaking is a common phobia; just because someone is knowledgeable about a subject does not mean they know how to communicate their ideas for others to absorb.

Armed with that knowledge and responsibility, I began to plan.


Never dive into creating your presentation without knowing the constraints within which you are working, as they can really alter how you present. When I started to prepare for my presentation, I had to ruthlessly narrow down what my goals for speaking were before I tackled the nitty gritty.

Time constraints

At SXSW I only had one hour to talk about The Art of Self-Branding, a subject that is pretty broad and can mean different things to different people. If I had had 3 hours to kill, the presentation would be entirely different—equally if I had only had 10 minutes to buzz through, you would have seen a very different presentation. Of course, the time you have to present does not necessarily equal the quality—one of my favourite presentations is Secrets to Success in 8 words, 3 minutes from Ted Talks. However, the more complicated your topic is, the more time you need to really get your ideas across. Be mindful of this. It could mean sacrificing important content to make sure only the higher-level points are delivered as clearly as possible—which also means communicating that there is more content to delve into given additional time.

Audience size

Speaking to a classroom of ten to twenty people is not the same as speaking to an auditorium of a thousand. In a more intimate setting, you can afford to be more casual, make individual eye contact, and have people interject with feedback and questions during the presentation. However, in an auditorium setting, just like an actor in a theatre, you need to project. You have to be larger than life and use any means possible to convey your point, so that John in the back row— as well as Jane in the front row—can see how excited you are to be there.

Audience type

Who are you speaking to? This is one of the hardest to nail when speaking at a large conference like SXSW or Future of Web Design. There are veteran creative directors working for the best technology companies in the world; start-up entrepreneurs who have no formal business education or degree; and even college students who haven’t quite yet made the leap to the professional world.

This is where you have to make a big decision: who do you want to appeal to the most? Of course, the best bet is to aim for the middle ground, but those on the fringes will always feel neglected—beginners will be lost, advanced types will be bored. The biggest thing you have to consider when preparing a presentation is understanding you can’t and won’t and shouldn’t please everyone. Once you accept that, you can basically choose which aspect you feel you know the most about, or are strongest to present, and run with it.

What are my main goals?

As I prepared, I asked myself what my goals for the session were:

  • Am I there to sell?
  • Am I there to teach/inform?
  • Am I there to entertain?
  • Am I there to provoke action/thinking?

Some will argue that when you have an opportunity to speak you are really doing all four, but—depending on the subject and time constraints—you simply cannot give a stellar presentation without focusing on one. I decided my focus was to provoke action and thought. The reason was simple: self-branding itself is a topic that is too broad to do it complete justice in an hour, but I knew that I could possibly spark motivation for people to do more research based on the tidbits I gave them.

Hidden Considerations and Speaking Motivations

Kathy Sierra has always mentioned it is better to out-teach than out-spend. Always keep that in the back of your mind when presenting. However, you have to be mindful that your biggest assets are your ideas and how you execute them—do you necessarily want to explain to a room full of your competitors or potential clients how to do something without you? In Jim Durbin’s post, Silence in Social Media? Are you giving your content away for free?, he questions the idea of complete openness in this space. Openness has helped individuals and the industry as a whole learn and grow, but at the end of the day we have to recognize that our individual approaches to ideas and their execution are what gives us value.

In short, give the basic ingredients, but not the entire recipe. You want people to contact you to know and learn more. You want them to pay you for that knowledge and subsequent execution. The opportunity to present at SXSW , specifically, is to share your knowledge, to become a thought leader, to inspire people. Anything more, you should kindly and firmly make clear that is going to be a business discussion with business benefits and charges.

Art of Self-Branding Breakdown

When presenting on a broad subject, you have to be cognizant of the fact that you probably won’t be able to say everything you wanted to say. For the Art of Self-Branding, I could have chosen to do several things:

  • Speak about my personal experience anecdotally, with actual examples of what I’ve done
  • Speak about actual branding I’ve worked on with my own clients
  • Analyze several individuals and how I perceive their personal brand
  • Analyze several companies and relate it back to personal branding

I wanted to present something that wasn’t easily findable online, something I hadn’t written before or a rehash of a previous presentation. In the end, I decided on the last option—despite the fact that it would have been more “obvious” to focus on individuals or even myself, I really had to think about the context of where I am speaking and who I am speaking to. I didn’t want to talk too much about myself—all of it is on in great detail, and it was also addressed in my presentation at Future of Web Design, albeit briefly. I also didn’t want to talk about my actual clients, as what I do with them is what I want to keep my unique advantage. Analyzing individuals in the tech industry would have been the next strongest and most logical choice—but I couldn’t find two great individuals that were easily comparable.

Essentially, I wanted to compare apples to apples. I could have talked about Tim Ferris, who is an excellent personal brander in this space; I could have spoken about Steve Jobs; I could have spoken about 37signals’ Jason Fried, or the entire Threadless crew. That being said, what I really wanted to do was drive home the point that branding is the difference to greater success—and I couldn’t find two individuals that were in the same industry, the same space, with the same restrictions and similar enough backgrounds that I could compare and say Individual A is doing better than Individual B due to successful branding.

Comparisons were much easier to find when I turned to companies. I didn’t want to choose something too obvious, like Apple vs. Sony, although it may have been a strong example of the power of branding. I also knew that I would be dealing with a web-apps loving crowd—so when I saw Wesabe and Mint side by side, it hit me how the biggest difference between the two were their branding initiatives.

But what did comparing companies have to do with personal branding, especially since branding a company is different from branding a person? The fact is that the principles of successful branding are exactly the same: relevance, brand/design identity, message/communication, understanding the target, and consistency. All of those apply to a human being as much as it does a company.

Twitterati, Meebo, Love, and Hate

Only at a festival like SXSW can you get such instantaneous feedback. Terra Minds has a litany of feedback for the search term “self branding”, and this year SXSW introduced their own panel-specific chat rooms with conversation logs—you can run but you can’t hide, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. A rule of thumb in the teaching field is that as long as 70% of your audience is happy with your performance and talk, then you’re doing well—anything more is gravy. Anything less, you have to take a good, hard look at what you may be missing or doing wrong.

Analyzing Feedback: Love

This is the feedback you want to have, but you also have to ask yourself: Would you rather be liked or respected? Both is great—but even if they hate your personality, as long as they respect you you’re doing something right. Even for feedback of the “You rock!” or “I love you!!!” variety, you should clarify what they especially liked. By analyzing the critical feedback, you can see if there are similarities; from there, you can focus on your strengths and weaknesses.

The most popular aspect of my talk, apparently, was the ‘Nice Guy’ vs. ‘Guy’s Guy’ metaphor. Some people were motivated enough by that point to realize that they were currently too “Nice” and will focus on that aspect of their branding to alter that perception.

Analyzing Feedback: Hate

Don’t take criticism immediately to heart. It can be hard to hear someone dislikes you or your presentation, but you have to be willing to hear and take criticism in order to improve. If you can’t take the bad with the good, you are not cut out for the speaking circuit. Be willing to acknowledge you messed up in some parts! No one is perfect.

It’s also worth remembering that a 140-character limit is not enough to convey someone’s full thoughts. Dave Lester expressed his disappointment very succinctly with his tweet, and I respectfully asked him to expand on his thoughts. What I received was a thoughtful response that conveyed the weaknesses he personally found, that could help me in the future when conveying my thoughts.

The big lesson is not to assume your audience knows where you’re coming from at all times. It is a delicate balance between trying not to insult their intelligence by constantly repeating yourself, and clarifying a really strong point.

Analyzing Feedback: Wesabe

If you ever decide to use actual people and companies as examples in a presentation, you should be prepared to actually have them contact you. In this case, ‘Nice Guy’ Wesabe’s software engineer, Coda Hale, helped clarify some statistics I used in my presentation, (which were found on to more accurate ones from Business Week. He did not sound offended at all by my presentation, but was very passionate about the direction Wesabe was going; this was further emphasized when their PR representative, Debbie Pfiefer, helped connect me with their new head of marketing, Gabe Griego.

Gabe and I had a great conversation about the importance of branding, which he confirmed is definitely something Wesabe is working to refine. There were a few things he wanted to clarify regarding working with startups and focus:

“Branding and packaging is the entry point, but smart business people recognize there may need to be trade-offs to work with budgets and other constraints for priority.”

In this sense, Wesabe decided to put most of their resources into developing their product—now they have, they are going to start putting more emphasis onto their marketing efforts.

If their enthusiasm and passion is any indication, Wesabe could be well on their way to improving their brand perception. Gabe suggests that these efforts will be more apparent to end users within the year.

Final Lessons

  • Be prepared: consider time constraints, audience size, audience type, and presentation goals.
  • Consider your own motivations for speaking.
  • Lather, rinse, repeat: if you are going to make only a few points, make them repeatedly; realize that some people won’t be at the presentation from beginning to end.
  • Leave room for questions: they could be the most interesting and important part of your presentation.
  • Try not to blast through your presentation. Unfortunately, I now realize this was something I did, out of pure nervousness. If you can, take pauses and expand your thoughts as much as possible.
  • Clarify your points, repeatedly and emphatically.
  • Answer questions as honestly as you can—and if you don’t know the answer, be up front and say so.

Further reading

Related Topics: Planning, Business, Basics

Lea Alcantara is a lover, fighter, designer and rhymer…she also happens to be the Chief Hired Gun for Lealea Design, a design and branding consultancy based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. She’s often dispatched to kill bad design and implement websites with her weapon of choice, ExpressionEngine. She has spoken about the subject of branding at conferences such as Future of Web Design and SXSW, and when not feeding her web addiction, she loves to play amateur chef and sing—at the same time.