Coaching fun Presentation

Beware the uncanny valley of presentation design and delivery

uncanny valley

A performer and presentation can be overly polished and perfect. Creepily so.

Borrowing from the world of robotics, I call this phenomenon the uncanny valley of design and delivery. This is when a presenter looms a bit too near perfection. I don’t run into the uncanny valley of presentation design and delivery too often, but when I do — my hair stands on end.

Yours will, too. Presentation perfection is creepy. It’s just not human.

When presenters carefully design and deliver a flawless presentation, the audience will dislike both the topic as well as the presenter. I’ve seen that happen twice in my lifetime.

throat punch

See? It’s not just me. Presentation perfection can be off-putting.

If you find yourself making a mistake during your presentation, rejoice! You’ve escaped the uncanny valley.

If you find yourself tirelessly rehearsing the smallest gestures and facial expressions before your presentation — be warned! You might be unwittingly entering the uncanny valley!

As you rehearse, remember that your goal is not to deliver a perfect speech or presentation. The perfect speech or presentation does not exist.

Rather, what’s your real goal? To educate? Inform? Persuade? Entertain?

Being human will help you achieve these goals better than striving for perfection.

And hey — it may save you from a punch you in the throat!

Have you ever encountered a presentation that was a little too perfect? How did it make you feel?

Coaching Presentation

How long do you plan for Q&A?

Cats with questions

Q&A — questions and answers — is my favorite part of any business or training presentation. I’m curious. I like hearing what’s going on in the heads of the audience. I like learning from the audience every bit as much as learning from the presenter.

When I give a presentation or training session, I almost always plan for Q&A. I first offer the audience some content to chew on, so that we can enjoy a conversation near the end.

But just how much time do you plan for questions and answers?

Over time, I’ve discovered a formula that works for me.

  • When I’m speaking to professionals, I plan for 15-20 minutes of Q&A.
  • However, if I’m speaking to students (college age or younger) I plan for 5-10 minutes of Q&A.

I find that professionals will often ask more detailed and specific questions based on their work experience. Students are more likely to ask for broad clarification rather than specific advice.

This formula works for me to keep things from ending too late/too early. Also, I never end on Q&A — I reserve a minute or two for a more formal close.

I’ve found a Q&A timing formula that works for me — but your results may vary. What works for you?


Coaching Education

Why do you need a building to get an education?

A few weeks ago, I went to tour the new Seidman Business School Building on the downtown GVSU campus. Reports say the new building cost around $40 million.

Wow. All that money for a business school building! Accounting, economics, finance, management, marketing — fields like that.

You know, the kind of topics people all over the world are learning online. Not in buildings.

The Seidman building is huge — four floors — and richly appointed with artwork and sumptuous furniture. I took the elevator up to the top floor and worked my way down. On every floor I walked from one end to the other, exploring a few rooms, and marveling at the museum quality artwork in the hallways and conference rooms.

When I left the building, my pedometer registered over 3,000 steps. And I have very long legs.

Like I said, huge building. Shockingly so.

Even more shocking: all this new space, and no new faculty. And only one of the floors was devoted to classrooms. The rest were offices, meeting rooms, study rooms, computer rooms, break rooms, copy rooms, and washrooms.

I can’t say for sure, but I think I saw more washrooms than classrooms.

It reminded me of a giant cruise ship. So well appointed. So opulent. So grand.

I’m walking through the open vastness, smelling the new building smell, and all I can think is,

“This reminds me of the Titanic.”

As Mark Cuban recently blogged in Will Your College Go Out of Business Before You Graduate?,

Why in the world are schools building new buildings? What is required in a business school classroom that is any different from the classroom for psychology or sociology or English or any other number of classes?

Like Cuban, I believe that colleges can offer educational value to students. The question isn’t whether young people need to go to college, but whether that college will be in business by the time students graduate. And whether colleges are making smart, sustainable decisions about how they provide value to students and society.

Are giant buildings like these really necessary to get an excellent business education? Especially since online learning is where the future of business education lies? Is racking up enormous student debt to pay for this four year cruise ship experience worth it?

It’s past time for colleges (and students!) to ask tough questions.

  • How does a giant cruise ship of a building provide educational value to a four year business student?
  • How much effort has the college devoted to understanding how to deliver excellent learning opportunities in online environments?
  • How else can students get the same or superior educational value for a fraction of the cost of a traditional 4 year education?
  • How does amassing enormous college debt while in your twenties enrich the lives of students and our society?

I graduated from GVSU. I even taught as an adjunct there. I hope it sticks around for a long, long time. I hope students learn and grow and accomplish great work.

I hope GVSU is not too big to fail. I really hope it’s not the Titanic.

I hope it only looks that way, for now.

Coaching Presentation

Where were you when the tech went out?

Well, it happened again. The event coordinator gave me a firm 50 minutes to speak — no wiggle room! — and a nifty state-of-the-art presentation system. I love walking into a building with shiny new equipment! Just plunk in a thumb drive, do a simple sound test, and I’m ready to go on with the show.

Except that 5 minutes into the presentation, the brand new computer system decided it needed to do a Windows update. And nothing could stop it from shutting down and doing its own thing.

The update might take minutes, it might take hours — but I only had 50 minutes, so I didn’t waste time. I whipped out a standard sized piece of paper. The night before, I had rehearsed my presentation. I jotted down my key points on paper and tucked it into my briefcase.

When the computer system went down, I acknowledged its crazy behavior to the audience.

“Oh, man. Windows update! Did you ever notice that Windows will update whether you want it to or not? Well, that’s a computer for you. While the computer and tech crew are doing their thing, I can continue without visuals…”

…and I went right on with my presentation. About 15 minutes later, the computer finished updating itself, and I said,

“Now let me show you what some of the approaches I’ve been telling you about actually look like.”

Was this ideal? Of course not! (Especially when the computer updated itself again 10 minutes later! Argh!)

But rehearsing my presentation (with brand new material) the night before helped my recall, as did my low-tech written cheat sheet. Acknowledging the tech failure helped me emotionally connect with the audience (hey, who among us can’t empathize with the frustration of a tech melt down at an inappropriate moment?) And because I had 50 minutes, I only planned to speak for 30. I find that no one is ever upset if a meeting runs short (but heaven help you if it goes long!)

Sure, I had a thumb drive and a laptop as a backup. But with a tight 50 minutes, I couldn’t take 5 minutes to re-wire the presentation system. I simply went on with the show while the tech crew valiantly tried to reason with an unruly computer.

I’ve delivered presentations with tech failures before, so I know the importance of backups. However, when the electricity completely fails or time is tight, a thumb drive and backup laptop won’t help you.

You’ve got to go low-tech. Know your topic cold and keep your soft skills sharp.

Remember, you’re in a position of leadership when you stand in front of a crowd. How you respond to an unplanned or stressful situation is an opportunity. It speaks volumes about your ability and willingness to lead.

How have you responded to a tech meltdown? Where were you when the tech went out?


How is emotional manipulation a bad thing?

For a public speaking exercise, I ask students to tell a 2-3 minute story in front of the class. I also hand out a stack of simple evaluation sheets to the class — students anonymously rate the speaker’s storytelling skills, vocal skills, body language, and story value from 1-5. I also leave a brief space for written comments.

In one class session, a particular student was a clear standout. Her showmanship was exceptional and she delivered a remarkable performance. She received straight 5’s across the board and a number of enthusiastic and positive comments in her evaluations.

A week later, I asked the class who they thought gave the best presentation. They actually answered in unison — there was no question who delivered the over-the-top knockout performance.

“Great.” I said. “Now, what was her story was about?”

The class fell silent. Seven days later, and no one in class remembered the actual content of the story!

How many times has this happened to you? You see or hear a terrific act (or read a phenomenal book or see a fantastic theatrical performance) — but when someone asks you, “Well? What was it about?” — you mutter something like, “Well, it’s hard to explain. You really had to be there.”

The showmanship upstaged the story.

The razzle-dazzle of the presentation took over the message.

It happens quite a bit. A talented performer, presenter, or artist can actually trick the audience into believing that they understand more than they actually know!

Good showmanship is a form of flattery. When you make your audience feel smarter or better than they actually are, they’re going to like you more. You’re not just selling your audience on an idea, you’re simultaneously selling them the idea that they’re smarter, better, cooler people for paying attention to you.

Is showmanship emotionally manipulative? Yes. Without question.

But how is it a bad thing?

Coaching Presentation

What no one will tell you: your voice is distracting

I heard a young woman speak on the topic of feminism. Her content was valuable, thoughtful, and well-organized.

However, her voice caught me off completely off guard. She spoke in a high, squeaky, Betty Boop voice.

Betty Boop - I  Have A Large Betty Boop In My ApartmentPhoto credit: infomatique 

Initially, I assumed the speaker was adopting a cartoonish voice to illustrate something about her subject matter. Instead of listening to her actual words, I began waiting for her to use her natural voice to explain the point of her cartoon voice.

I was mistaken. The speaker used the squeaky voice throughout her entire presentation, without explanation.

I suspect that the speaker did not have a medical problem. She simply didn’t know how to find or use a natural speaking voice.

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to notice when we use a distracting voice. And it’s not like our friends are going to tell us, either.

I recently overheard a middle-aged woman whine to her friend.

“My teenage daughter is always whining,” she whined. The woman’s tone was high-pitched and nasally. “Why do my kids always whine?”

She asked this without a hint of irony!

Her friend didn’t offer the obvious answer. Instead, she smiled and sympathized with her friend’s complaint. I didn’t jump in with the answer, either — my eavesdropping was already rude enough!

Whining, squealing, speaking in a montone, mumbling, talking too loudly — we’ve all used a distracting voice from time to time. But when was the last time someone actually called you on it?

If your friends, family, and colleagues won’t tell you that your voice is distracting: how will you know? And how will you get help?

Coaching social media

Talk like a human, not like a robot

This morning, a company rep told me, “”Customer satisfaction is our number one priority.”

I laughed, because no human being actually talks like that, right? Clearly, he was badly coached. Stilted words guaranteed a clumsy delivery. This turned into an awkward, laugh-out-loud moment.

Later this afternoon, I worked with another service.

“Customer service is our top priority,” the customer service person squawked at me, stiffly.

I didn’t laugh this time. I felt alarmed. Twice in one day? Two different companies? What gives?

When did training employees to talk like robots sneak back into fashion?

talk like a robot

The rise of social media taught us that robotic corporate scripts do little to help customers connect to the brand. Instead of training employees to ‘speak to a script’ — it’s far superior to learn business improvisational skills.

  • How might a customer react to a certain situation? How might an employee respond?
  • How might an employee initiate a conversation? How might a customer respond?

The answers to each set of questions are limitless. Limiting conversations to a small set of scripts dehumanizes the interaction. It’s a painful and humiliating experience for both the employee and the customer.

Instead of scripting your business interactions, imagine a training session where employees present each other with a variety of customer-facing situations. Employees can practice responding to the many moods and scenarios they encounter on a daily basis. Employees learn and practice empathy skills when they act as customers in each scenario.

Why would anyone ‘stick to the script’ when they can instead present an opportunity to make an authentic personal connection?

Coaching Presentation video

For your next video conference: think Nixon…

Watch the first televised presidential debate on YouTube. Kennedy and Nixon go head-to-head in 1960. Today, this debate is often discussed as an example of how much your personal appearance matters when it comes to an important televised presentation.

Kennedy took great care to look good on camera. He wore a neatly pressed dark suit. He appeared clean shaven. Also, Kennedy actually wore makeup during the debate.

Kennedy Nixon First Televised debate

By contrast, Nixon didn’t seem to bother much with his appearance. He wore a rumpled suit. Under the bright lights of the TV cameras, every wrinkle in this light-colored suit became deeply exaggerated. Nixon also pooh-poohed makeup. At certain points in the video, you can see sweat beading on Nixon’s face.

And, oh dear…I wonder if Nixon even shaved. Is that razor stubble I see?

When people talk about the first televised Nixon-Kennedy debate, you most often hear them discuss the way each candidate looked. Very few people talk about the actual content of this debate.

For the TV generation — appearance matters.

Let’s fast forward 35 years from 1960. In 1995, I participated in my first video conference for business. In the mid-90’s, video conferencing was very expensive, but it allowed us to significantly trim travel costs with our established customers.

Today, I still participate in business video conferences. Inexpensive and easy-to-use tools like Skype and Google Hangouts help keep travel and productivity costs in check. I also participate in webinars and perform in online videos on YouTube and video tutorials.

But if there’s one tip I’d like to share with you about appearing in any web video for business purposes today, it’s this:

Think Nixon.

You may think, “Oh, but I’m an engineer/programmer/technician. The way I look in my web video conference doesn’t matter. People really care more about my content. They won’t judge me on the way I look…”

Think Nixon.

Or if you’re a salesperson and you think, “Hey, my customers and prospects are smart. They understand that I’m not really greenish-grey. They know that fluorescent lighting just makes me look that way on camera…”

Think Nixon.

Or if you’re a designer and you find yourself saying, “Honestly, looks don’t matter…”

(Wait…you’re a designer and you think the way stuff looks on screen doesn’t matter???)

Think Nixon.

Your audience is the TV generation. They have expectations for how people look and perform on screen. If you fall short, they’re probably not going to tell you to your face.

But will they secretly judge you? Sure. They can’t help it.

There’s a heck of a lot of work that goes into looking and sounding acceptable on camera! Lighting. Hair. Makeup. Wardrobe. Camera angles. Props. Set design. And much, much more….

In person, you may look like a polished professional. And even if you’re slightly “off” — a few small raindrop stains on your suit, a bit of a 5 o’clock shadow, faded post-coffee lipstick – we regularly overlook these minor flaws in people we work with in person.

But on camera? With people you have yet to meet?

As the saying goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression!

Think Nixon.

If you’re going to participate in a video conference for business, I strongly suggest that you try conferencing with people who already know you. Meet people in person first – they’ll be far more likely to forgive any technical shortcomings with regard to your video appearance. If they already like you in person, they’ll actually be glad to see you on camera.

However, if you’re looking to make a positive first impression with customers by offering an online video experience — invest in the important facets of video production. Take some time to polish your personal appearance and presentation techniques.

Think Nixon.

Coaching Presentation

What’s next in online education?

Earlier this year, I wrote and performed Public Speaking Fundamentals for the Online Training Library. I wrote the scripts from April through June, and then flew out to California to shoot the series in July. The course went live on August 31. Go check it out — beyond my course, provides a massive library of very high quality video instruction. (Get 10 days of free unlimited access to

Now that it’s October, I find myself back in the traditional classroom. I’m teaching Creativity in Marketing and Social Media/Web Marketing at Grand Valley State University. And I coach/train corporate clients, as well.

I enjoy teaching. Always have.

But it’s not a classroom that makes you a teacher. More likely, it’s a passion for learning and the desire to enthusiastically share knowledge makes you a teacher.

Other than the traditional classroom, there must be a zillion different ways to teach and learn. Some of the best computer programmers I’ve ever worked with are self-taught. They read, they tinker, they pick things apart, they experiment…and they become absolutely phenomenal at what they do.

My adventure this year got me thinking — what’s next with education? I see and hear vivid discussions about college courses going online. For example, sites like Coursera partner with top universities to offer college courses online — for anyone, for free. Other sites like Udemy and Skillshare let teachers create and market hybrid courses that can feature both online learning as well as in-person workshops.

Where are we going with online education? I hear mixed reviews. Some of my colleagues and students bristle at the idea of online education: they feel it cheapens the credential of obtaining a ‘real’ education in the ‘real’ world. Others view online education as new material that can help enhance the learning experience.

Obviously, I’m biased. After all, I’m a learning junkie. And I never would have participated in the adventure if I didn’t believe in the quality and efficacy of online education. (And did I mention that people are particularly great at delivering high quality content?)

On the other hand, I also believe we learn tremendous amounts by bumping into each other in the real world. Grand Valley State University fosters a diverse and inclusive atmosphere. When students get to jam it up with people with different backgrounds and perspectives, why, that in itself drives creativity and innovation.

I have my own opinions, but I’d like to hear yours.

Where are we going with online education? What’s new — and what’s next?

Coaching fun PowerPoint Presentation Presentation

How do you feel about the “thank you” slide?

At the end of a presentation, you can say, “thank you.”

Sure, it’s not the strongest close in the world. However, it’s certainly acceptable to say “thank you” if you’re feeling especially grateful or moved.

But a slide that reads “Thank You” at the end of your presentation? That’s weak.

Thank You Slide

A “Thank You” slide takes the focus off the genuine emotional gratitude of the speaker. It reduces authentic warmth to an emotionally hollow visual cliché.

Further, it shows that you assume that your audience will be grateful for your presentation. What if they aren’t? What if they’re hostile to you and your message? And then you go ahead and put up your ‘thank you’ slide while they’re all booing, further antagonizing them with your sarcasm.

What’s your excuse for using a “Thank You” slide at the end of your presentation?