How to Ace Your Next Presentation

Greg McKeown

New York Times Bestselling Author


Mr. Frost, my superb economics teacher in England, once shared the story of two people talking about a lecture given by the late Milton Friedman, the father of Monetarism. The first said, “Twenty years ago, I went to the worst lecture I’ve ever heard! Friedman gave it and I still remember how he just muttered on and on and all I could make out was the word ‘money.’” The second man responded, “If you can remember what the key message was some twenty years later, I think it might be the best lecture you ever heard!”


Indeed, Friedman’s singular message — that by controlling the supply of money, you can stabilize the whole economy — became, arguably, the most impactful economic theory of the second half of the 20 century. The point I wish to emphasize is not an economic one, but a human one: if you try to say too many things, you don’t say anything at all.


It is clear, in the conference keynotes that I give anyway, that if we take on too many subjects, the message will not be remembered 20 days later, never mind 20 years later. The communication challenge is immense: often such events are packed with a dozen different speakers, each with a plethora of ideas. Then there is the digital distraction of the participants’ smart phones within easy reach. According to research reported in TIME magazine, the average phone user unlocks their phone 110 times a day and at the highest levels, 900 times a day. The best compliment I everreceived from a conference organizer was that she had not seen one person reach for a digital device during my presentation. That doesn’t happen every time, of course. But through trial and error over many years, I have learned a few lessons about ensuring that the essential message is heard amidst all the nonessential noise:


1. You can’t communicate what you haven’t defined. I was once asked to work with an executive team who wanted to find a sticky message for a new initiative they wanted to run. But after interviewing a series of executives involved, all on video, I realized the problem was really a strategy problem dressed up as a communications problem. They couldn’t communicate the message with greater effectiveness until they defined their message with greater clarity. And that meant making decisions about what their initiative was and what it was not. I have found that designing a message around the following helps: “I am teaching [this narrow subject] to [this specific audience] in order that they [clear learning objective/call to action].”


2. Lose the slides and have a conversation. I recently spoke at SXSW, a conference held in Austin, Texas that attracts thousands of creative movers and shakers.When I spoke, there was standing room only and a palpable energy. Sensing the pulse in the room, I killed the slides and just had a conversation. Basically, I asked one question: “Why are otherwise intelligent people tricked by the trivial?” Lots of people shared their thoughts and we riffed on each of the comments, which ranged from “We’ve been trained from our first days in school to do what we’re told without question,” to “We have so many things to do, we’re overwhelmed.”


Then, instead of simply moving on to another question, I led the conversation back to the same one. We just kept going deeper on the same question and the conversation in turn became richer. Slides would have inhibited that conversation. One person said afterwards that the session had been the highlight of SXSW for him; another said it was the most interactive session of the whole event. Slides lead people to lean back in their seats while a conversation causes them to lean forward and engage.


3. Kill your darlings. Stephen King has written that in order for a story to come to life, you must “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” The same type of self-editing can be applied to telling stories. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Square and co-founder of Twitter, thinks his primary job is to be the Chief Editor of the company in order to “present one cohesive story to the world.”


4. Be repetitive without being boring. Alastair Campbell, the communications advisor to Tony Blair for years, explained at a CIPR conference the challenge we face today in getting a message through in our noisy world: You’re in a huge room with a wall on the far side that’s painted white. Your job is to paint it blue using only the paint gun in your hand. You shoot a single ball and it hits the wall on the other side and makes the tiniest blue mark. You’ve got your message out there once, but it’s still drowned out. So you shoot another ball over. Then another and another and another. You keep going with great persistence until you look over there and the wall starts to look as if you aren’t sure if it’s white or blue. This, according to Campbell, is the best you can hope for.


But before you can be repetitive, you have to decide on the one message you want to hammer home – which means prioritizing. When the word priority came into the English language in the 1400s, it was singular. What did it mean? The very first or prior thing. It continued to have that useful definition for the next five hundred years. However, in the 1900s we pluralized the term and started speaking of priorities. But can we really have many first or prior things? Words can be potent enough to change the world, but if we try to share too many different messages, we water down the power of our message.


Whether you’re an executive preparing to give a high stakes keynote or an event organizer (which might be the most underappreciated job out there), you want participants to be impacted and inspired. You want a home run, not another forgettable talk. You want participants coming up to you months—or years—later thanking you for giving that talk or bringing in that speaker. It can be done, if you practice the disciplined pursuit of less, but better. That is the price for having people say, “That was the best lecture I’ve ever heard.”



Greg McKeown’s new book has become an instant New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Order Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less today and learn how to say and no less but accomplish more.

Article originally published in Harvard Business Review.



Photo: CC licensed (BY-NC) flickr photo by mattcornock Design: LinkedIn

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