Jobs steve gates bill macworld 1997 pic Jim Bourg

I re-read the Jobs biography over the new year. This remark in particular struck a chord with me: “That was my worst and stupidest staging mistake of my life. It was bad because it made me look small, and Apple look small, and as if everything was in Bill’s hands.”

Couple of things …

1. “Staging”? Yes. Stage. Ing. You are on a stage. You are performing. It might be a mid-sized meeting room with eight tired salespeople, but if you step up to deliver news, information, inspiration or a bollocking – you are performing. Therefore how the room looks, how you look and how your material looks all matter. A lot.

What you say and how you say it are hugely important, if your content is not king in your mind, it’s probably not worth presenting; but presenting is like any complex mechanism – all the parts are inter-dependent. And as your audience is composed of advanced primates, sight is another king. So think about the space you are speaking in. Move stuff around, change the orientation of the room. Get any visual clutter out of there. Strip it back and give your audience nothing to look at but you and your material. Control their eyes. Stage your preso.

2. “it made me look small.” Ha! Yes it did Steve! It made Bill look like the Mighty Oz and you like a tiny stick figure beside him. It looked like The Mighty Bill was doing you a big favour by taking a few minutes out of his busy day to do a video call with you.

Pretty much every guest speaker at every Apple Keynote since then has had to climb the stairs at the side of the stage and come up to meet the Apple person in the middle of the stage. (Most of those guests run across the stage to demonstrate enthusiasm and, presumably, to save time. The exception I can think of was the incredibly ponderous Mr Sigman at the iPhone launch in 2007. Prior to sucking all the energy out of the room with his interminable six-minutes-of-reading-4×6-cue-cards, Stan ambled so slowly across the stage, it forced Steve to come over and join him. It’s worth a look – 27 mins into this link).

Learn from Steve’s mistake. Embiggen yourself. This is no time to hide in the shadows. Embiggen yourself. Consciously. Not by sucking in lots of air and puffing out your chest. But by giving real consideration to how your message is going to be perceived and received by your audience. Embiggen yourself.

And do you know what is the number one most common way I see speakers diminish (disembiggen?) themselves? Crappy slides.

Appalling presentation slide

Not just poor layout, poor contrast, pixellated images, or cheesy templates – although all of those diminish you in the eyes of your audience. No, the crappy slides that I’m thinking of steal your audience’s eyes and working memory, to such an extent that they steal your audience’s ears too. Crappy slides which diminish the speaker result in an audience who have homed in on the screen and are essentially ignoring the speaker. Slides with lots of text are an obvious culprit here, but slides with too much arriving all-at-once produce this effect too. They totally diminish you as a presenter.

If you can work out, at a glance, what the above slide is about, you’re some kind of genius. Because most of us are not geniuses, we’re going to squint at the screen, our eyes flicking back and forth over this wall of visual noise, trying to make sense of it. By the time we tune back in to you, the speaker, who has been patiently explaining what all this means, it’s too late. Your point has not been strongly made. You’ve probably not generated any emotional response in us, except perhaps irritation. And you have certainly not embiggened yourself in our eyes.

I like the thought that good design is not achieved when there is nothing left to add; but rather when there is nothing left to take away. Revisit your last presentation. Can you strip out some of those slides and still make your core point? What about those core slides? Could you strip them back, peel away some of the words or less important data that’s on there? Could you take one busy slide and either introduce each element sequentially, as you weave your story, or perhaps you could distribute the message(s) from a single crowded slide across three or four slides?

Be very careful, give this lots of conscious, critical thought and focus on the people who matter – your audience. Most presenters miss the mark like this because they are thinking about getting their point across, but not really thinking about their audience. This is not just disrespectful, it is disembiggening. If Steve can screw up something as fundamental as this, so can you. You’re probably doing it all the time and have become habituated to the resulting ‘vibe’ in the room. Time to break that cycle.

Embiggen yourself.

(Image credit: Jim Bourg)