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Giving Kick-Ass Presentations In The Age Of Social Media

Seven (somewhat snarky) new rules for public speaking in the social media era.

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It was painful to watch. Jon Bond, the former ad giant turned social media honcho, was actually getting heckled at the Pivot Conference. When faced with what was a feisty crowd to begin with, Bond admitting that he "didn’t like Twitter" was like throwing fresh meat at rabid dogs. But rather than raise their voices, they let their fingers do the shouting. So while Bond continued to speak, a steady stream of snarky tweets projected on the wall behind him, acting like foghorns and essentially drowning him out.

Being a great speaker was never easy, but now, with your audience likely to have a mobile device in hand and real-time access to multiple social channels, the challenges have gotten that much greater. To get a sense of the impact of social media on conference presentations, I interviewed a bunch of regulars on the social media circuit. In the process, they helped me identify these seven (somewhat snarky) new rules for public speaking in the social media era.

1. Don’t Panic if They Aren’t Looking at You
Sure, it's disconcerting when you gaze out at the audience and no one looks back. But whatever you do—don’t panic. Just because they are transfixed by their mobile devices, doesn’t mean they aren’t all ears. "I think the body language tells you if they’re paying attention—it’s far more distracting to see people whispering to each other than it is to see someone tapping on an iPad" said Jenny Dervin, VP of Corporate Communications at JetBlue, who received raves at a recent BDI event

2. Stifle the Temptation to Ask for a Device Moratorium
As tempting as it might be to ask your audience to shut down their devices, every speaker I talked to thought this would be a huge mistake. "I might get their undivided attention, but it would be mixed with their ire at being told how to watch my presentation," said former actor and speaker extraordinaire John C. Havens, who reminded me that in the old days, before digital devices, a lot of people would take notes on a pad of paper, which isn’t all that different than tapping out a tweet.

3. If You Aren’t Nervous, You Should Be Now
When I first learned public speaking, an experience advisor suggested that you "imagine the audience is naked," to quell the initial butterflies. Today, speakers are probably better off reminding themselves that they are the naked ones. If your facts are wrong, your audiences will Google then tweet the corrected data before you can say, "I’m just sayin’." And if that isn’t scary enough, as author and speaker Jeff Jarvis proclaimed last year at TED-NY, "the lecture, as a form, is bullshit," so you better ask yourself what you’re doing up there, anyway!

4. If You Don’t Speak Twitterese, It’s Time to Learn It
Let’s just imagine for the moment that your audience is absolutely riveted by your every word. Chances are some, if not many of them, will want to share your wisdom with their network, not tomorrow when they get back to the office, but right at that very moment. It is for this reason today’s effective speakers are not just sharing their Twitter handles upfront but also mixing in tweetable quotes. "Puns, sound bites and pithy phrases are [also] ways to aid in retention," Havens said. 

5. Congratulations! You May Be Speaking to Millions You Can’t See
The irony of speaking in the social media era is that audience in front of you may be far less significant than the collective reach of that particular group. "I’d much rather have the broader reach; it is one of the better measurements of speaking at events," said Frank Eliason, SVP of Social Media for Citibank. Havens adds that if his audience is glued to their devices, "odds are half of them are tweeting about my presentation and they’re helping market me!"

6. The Reviews Are In—In Real Time
Rather than waiting to ask a friend after the fact how you did, today’s skilled presenters welcome this feedback in real time. "It’s fun to respond to a tweet when I am on stage, and it personalizes the interaction with the audience," said Eliason. JetBlue’s Dervin finds these tweets helpful as well. "I go back in the stream to see what landed, based on how many people tweeted the same quoted," he said. "It’s an instant evaluation of my key messages."

7. When All Else Fails, Surprise the Audience with Honesty
Bringing this article back full circle, Jon Bond perplexed the Pivot crowd with his admission of not liking Twitter. While this honesty may have cost him some street cred with a Twitter-loving crowd, I recently saw another speaker use honesty to extraordinary advantage. Ray Kerins, VP of Corporate Communications at Pfizer, transfixed a BDI crowd with tales of a crisis that had befallen ChapStick on Facebook the day before. By admitting that Pfizer’s social media activities were a "work in progress," Kerins earned credibility that reverberated through the Twitterverse.

Final Note

All of the people we spoke to for this piece are very effective speakers, and though each has their own distinctive style, there are a few other commonalities I’d like to point out. First, none of them depend on word-laden PowerPoint presentations. Second, most are good storytellers and use humor, often self-deprecating, to connect with their audiences. Finally, each of them manages to keep their presentations short enough to allow time for a healthy Q&A. Speaking of Q&A’s, you can find my complete interviews with Dervin, Havens, Eliason, and Jarvis on

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[Image: Flickr user Umberto Brayj]

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  • Ted Rubin

    Just want to quickly address Kimberly Reyes and her strong statement about how Twitter is "supposed" to be used. People should feel totally free, and comfortable, making statements without needing to continue and engage after doing so. Just as those who want to engage can do so if that is their intent. There is no right way, and wrong way, especially when it comes to individual comments and editorial... IMHO. 

    Yes... the power, and uniqueness, of Twitter is it's ability to spark conversation and engagement in real time, and as a broadcast medium it has it's limitations, but there are many ways to add value and participate, and we all should feel free to use it as we see fit and add to the conversation whether it be comments, conversation, or engagement. 

  • Drew Neisser

    Ted--As someone who speaks a lot at social media conferences and is a master of Twitter, your comments are much appreciated and dead on.  

  • Chris Reich

    There is a bunch here to chew on. I'll start with a rant that's right no matter how you tap it. Unless you're part of the media, it's rude to be playing with your twitter when someone is speaking. That comment about how we used to take notes on paper was a bogus cover for rude behavior. It's a self-deluded twit that actually think their tweet matters a tinker's cuss.

    Next. It's false that an audience can play with their I-Pads and "smart" phones AND actually absorb what the speaker is saying at the same time. That simply isn't true.

    Now, to come full sail, full circle, this generation which requires constant electrical stimulation and perpetual instant feedback, or back feed, needs more action than speech in a presentation. There is nothing wrong with an audience expecting bore than to be assailed by bullets, pointed or rubber.

    Today's presenter has a responsibility to deliver content in an engaging manner. Look at the tools available! Use images, sounds, demonstrations, stories and yes, your body to get the point across.

    Finally, one thing I teach budding presenters is that just because you have been allotted 20 minutes you need not fill 20 minutes.

    Should you worry if you are not making eye contact with your audience? You bet. If they don't want to put the toys away and listen to what you have to say, you would have better off tweeting it in the first place.

    Chris Reich    

  • Chris Reich

    I wanted to make some grammar corrections after posting but couldn't find a way. My computer loves to randomly reboot itself so when I write posts, I need to get them up quickly or my efforts vaporize without notice.

  • Angela Richardson

    I enjoyed the quick tips provided by this blog.  I've just begun to do much more public speaking recently with a variety of different audiences.  I am curious about the comment that powerpoint in the social media age is not used as often. So what are these effective speakers doing to present material and also appeal to the listener who is into the visual?

  • Drew Neisser

    Some of the best speakers I've seen use no visual support. They also happen to be great storytellers. The really good ones that do have slide support use PowerPoint slides like billboards with one dominant visual and/or phrase. The worst are the word heavy slides that require careful study and don't align with the words of the speaker.  Of course, speakers who don't have the words on their slides can't use the slides as crutches and thus have to know their topic inside and out...

  • Tracy Reiss

    This article gives helpful facts to presenters who struggle in capturing the audiences attention. I particularly enjoyed the idea of tweeting responses to individuals throughout the presentation. This triggers good marketing and establishes a connection with the audience.

  • Jeffrey Cufaude

    If the lecture is bullshit as Jarvis apparently asserts, that certainly would be news to TED, PopTech, Do Lectures and the millions of people who watch their videotaped Talks.  The primary (if not only) presentation format at those conferences is lecture.  What that suggests is a prepared speaker doing interesting things can still stand alone on a stage and command attention for an appropriately concentrated period of time.

  • Drew Neisser

    Thanks for your comments Jeffrey.  I do think it is a lot harder to be a great speaker today given all the available distractions for the audience.  And the punishment for not being great is more severe. 

  • Molly E. Holzschlag

    Everything here except the language could have stood as great tips for street preachers throughout history. A great presentation is a great presentation and it by its very essence should be social.

  • Kristin Arnold

    Kimberly is spot on about having a "brand channel manager" watching and responding to the backchannel in real time during the presentation - as it is a bit awkward for the presenter to pause, look at and digest the comments, no less DO something about them.  You may not have a "Kimberly" who can address the backchannel, but you can ask someone to be an "ombudsman" - someone who is monitoring the backchannel for you.  At certain times in your presentation, you can check in with the ombudsman and ask, "What's the buzz" or "What are people liking or not liking?"  You can also ask if there are questions that need clarification. And you can also give the ombudsman your permission to intervene/ask a question.  Then, be prepared to adapt your presentation!

    If you can't find someone to take on the ombudsman role, I suggest you take a quick "Twitter break" every ten or fifteen minutes to check the back channel by giving the group a quick question to ask their neighbor or a short activity.One other thing that I think is terribly important if you are brave enough (or didn't have a choice!) to have the backchannel projected on a screen that everyone (including you) can see.  While this can be visibly distracting for some, and others will submit asinine tweets (Hi Dad!), you should explain HOW you will respond to the Twitter stream at the beginning of your presentation.  The audience will then be more likely to use it responsibly.      

  • Michael E. Rubin

    But there's a part of me that thinks it might be more rude to be standing up on stage and responding to Tweets instead of focusing on the audience in front of you. Many times, they've paid over $1000 to attend the event and learn from you. Doesn't it cheapen the experience if the speaker isn't fully engaged with the people right there in the room?
    FWIW, I've moderated panels before and helped manage the Twitter back-channel. I also manage social media at a corporation, and give plenty of presentations during the year. I recognize the need for conversation and openness. But I also believe in civility and politeness.

    Thoughts? Is it rude?

  • Drew Neisser

    Michael--thanks for your comments. Responding to tweets in real-time on stage would probably only be rude if it takes up an inordinate amount of time or sends the speaker down a rabbit hole of irrelevance.  I'm not recommending this approach to most speakers but those that can pull it off, especially at a social media related conference, are likely to increase the sense that the speaker cares about the audience's POV.  That said, lots of conferences now ask for questions via Twitter so that responding to a tweet doesn't have to break up the speech but rather can enhance it.  

  • Carrie Cassidy

    Although these were good comments about presenting to a tech-savvy audience, it didn't say how to "wow" them specifically. It was more an article about what to be aware of and how to help them promote you. I enjoyed the article, but would really like pointers on how to make the techies sit up and notice.

  • Drew Neisser

    Carrie-thanks for your comments. You're right--I purposely stayed away from the "how to wow" part (other than my footnote) since i felt like that many of the old rules like relevant content, lots of preparation, storytelling, positive body language, etc, all still apply.  Perhaps a speech coach will chime in here OR someone else will provide a link to a good story on that topic.  

  • Jabez LeBret

    Also as a person that delivers tons of keynote presentations I echo that the presentation must still be good.  Great blog post -- the "Final Note" was packed with enough information for a whole other post!  People should really read that last note and take it to heart. 

  • Matthew Smith

    Great tips! Although, I feel like one fairly important one was left this age of live Tweeting, every presenter should designate a presentation hashtag and share it with his or her handle. This way, the audience's collective Tweets can be easily filtered/sorted by a tag controlled by the speaker. It's not enough to simply use a conference's hashtag, although that's a decent start.

  • Drew Neisser

    Thanks Matthew--Conference organizers should definitely have a hash tag for the event (BDI, Pivot, TheCMOClub do this among others).  This makes it really easy to track comments.  As for the speakers, John C. Havens makes a habit of putting his Twitter name on his first slide so tweeters can tweet about his talk. This is really smart and I believe more speakers should follow his lead.  

  • david bill

    Drew. Nice article but I wanted to mention that you were incorrect about Jeff Jarvis' talk. He did not give that talk this year at TED. Rather, he presented that idea at TEDxNYED, an event I ran last year (2010) in New York City.