Presentation lessons from Leo and Bruce

I've worked with many speakers over the years and have seen countless presentations given at all sorts of events, from private corporate meetings to TED and SXSW. Creating a killer presentation is no easy task - and it's much more difficult when you have to fit all you want to say into a small window of time, as in a 5 minute IGNITE talk or a 2-minute Oscar acceptance speech. 

The other night at the Oscars, Leo got it perfectly right.  I have no idea whether he had help crafting his speech, but he was prepared and practiced. The pace, timing, language, and message was just right for the brief amount of time allotted before the exit music began. It was gracious, powerful, and clear. 

One of the best speeches I've heard was Bruce Springsteen's keynote at SXSW. At the time, I was not a fan of Bruce Springsteen and almost skipped it. I'm glad I didn't, because it left me in awe. It was real and poetic, as you might imagine - but, it was also well written, thoughtful, and covered a lot of ground. He ran through the history of music that influenced him and how it affected his songwriting. It was a perfect keynote - sharp, personal, funny, and emotional. (and the occasional musical interlude didn't hurt)

Not everyone has the talent to be on stage, of course. But if you are aiming to speak publicly, either because your job requires it or you want to add it to your repertoire, you must work at it. A number of years ago, I worked with Jack Welch's presentation coach for a week helping to prepare an executive for a big presentation. I learned a lot in that week: A presentation shouldn't be longer than 20 minutes. 10, if you can do it. Write it out first, then create the slides (sounds obvious, but you know as well as I do that people write their presentations on the slides). Keep it simple - what do you really have to say? In fact, Jack Welch wrote a post for LinkedIn on this very topic a week ago. Clear and to the point.

Perhaps the best way to get better at presenting is to participate in an IGNITE talk. Last year at the Lean Startup Conference, we ran an evening of IGNITE and most of the presenters didn't have much experience in giving presentations. They were a collective of startup founders from various places around the country, chosen from 3 minute videos they'd submitted during the call for proposals phase. For five months, we worked with them on their IGNITE presentations, through drafts and rehearsals via Google Hangout. They worked hard, and on the evening of the event, huddled together backstage, anxious and excited to step out in front of a packed theater. They did incredibly well, and all expressed gratitude for having been put through the paces to get their presentations just right. 

So whether you've got 2 minutes or 60, write it down, cut out the fat, make it real, and give it personality. Leave them laughing and crying.