Presentation Skills: Lessons Learned from SXSW

I was at South by Southwest Interactive last week and got to watch a lot of people present.  Here’s a bit of what I took away about how to give a better presentation:

1/ Respect your audience – Gary Vaynerchuk shook hands and hugged attendees as they entered his session and gave bottles of wine to people that asked questions.  This is a presenter that doesn’t just talk about customer service, he’s a practitioner.  I loved his approach to working with an audience instead of lecturing to us.

2/ Come prepared – It was painfully obvious when folks hadn’t prepared and even some seasoned presenters blew it.  At one panel, Robert Scoble ran a laptop connected to the screens and we squirmed watching him search online for the hashtag (a way to reference the talk on Twitter) that was printed on the card in front of him facing the audience.   The hashtag was (ironically/appropriately): “twittertools”

3/ Keep us awake – The Evan Williams keynote Q&A may have contained what interviewer Umair Haque called “nuggets of brilliance” but it was delivered with the passion of a bowl of oatmeal, and the majority of the audience chose to get up and leave.  I also think that anyone speaking on the fourth day of a conference that is well known for its, um, evening activities, should probably err on the side of less intellectual noodling and more punch.  In this case the punch we were looking for was more details around @anywhere.

4/ Slides are optional – Clay Shirky gave a smart, engaging talk without any visual aides whatsoever (excluding his three wolf moon t-shirt).  Others I saw used the screens only to project the Twitter stream for their talk.  More and more, I think presenters are coming around to the idea that less really is more when it comes to visual presentation materials.

5/ Watch out for “crazy” hecklers – My favorite moment of SXSW was at a panel on Neuromarketing called “Big Brother in Your Brain.”  Someone sat beside me and I recognized him as Dan Ariely (Duke professor and author of Predictably Irrational, one of my favorite books).  As the panel got started, the moderator said something and Dan shouted “That’s wrong!” causing the audience to wonder who the heck that crazy heckler in the third row was.

I showed Dan the above Tweet and at the Q&A he introduced himself like this “Hi, I’m Dan Ariely, I’m giving a talk tomorrow and I’m the crazy guy that shouted at the start of this session.”  Lesson: be careful, sometimes there are folks in the audience that know way more than you do.

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27 thoughts on “Presentation Skills: Lessons Learned from SXSW”

  1. Fantastic overview April and agree on each point. Specifically #2. SXSW has developed a reputation of “You don’t come to see the panels”

    and therefore it seems a lot of presenters take that too literally and in turn, don’t prepare or put forth great effort.

    While I do believe the greatest value from SXSW is from the people you meet, I still think panels should be valuable and beneficial.

    If I were a panelist, I’d take ‘you don’t come for the panels’ as an opportunity to blow everyone away with an amazing panel. I wish others would as well!

    1. Hi Kelly – I saw a few great panels where you could tell the people had deep knowledge and were really excited by what they were presenting. I agree with you that there was a real opportunity for folks to shine in the panels and some of them did. Surprisingly the panels where there were more well-known presenters were a disappointment, and I suspected that was due to lack of preparation. The “featured presenters” series with Clay, Gary, Dan and others was great.
      April

  2. Fantastic takeaways, April! It was so nice to hang out during SXSW & I completely agree w/ #5 – it’s important to not talk down to the audience & keep an open floor throughout the session.

  3. Great points April.

    For anyone who’s interesting in public speaking, I have to recommend Scott Berkun’s book, “Confessions of a Public Speaker”. I just finished reading it last week and it’s full of valuable lessons like April shared above.

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  5. I wasn’t there, but I thought Jay Rosen’s post captured the way the game has changed. While SXSW is the canary in the coal mine, we’re seeing similar trends at corporate events such as SAP, IBM and others as well.

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