118 Listener Q&A: How to Make a Dry and Technical Topic Compelling

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“Our job, as performers, is often to break the rules. That’s what an artist does.” – Michael Port

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On today’s episode of Steal the Show, we explore a listener’s question: how do we make the technical appear in technicolor? Well, he doesn’t exactly ask that. But how does a performer compel on a subject matter where the subject matter is dense, slides are expected, and a podium is the norm? Where’s the balance between what’s expected and breaking the rules to create a memorable experience for the audience?

There’s a difference between being a critic and being a performer. One asks you to purely look at things from the top-down, pointing out what is wrong and what needs fixing. The other asks you to build an entirely new experience from scratch, subverting whatever’s wrong with the old by transcending it with something entirely new.

Listen to this episode to hear how to apply these principles to your own high-stakes moments.

“Audience interaction should be proportionate to the amount of trust you have earned.” – Michael Port

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Steal The Points

  • Work to music that has the same emotional sensibility you want the work to evoke.
  • Break rules by creating an experience that defies expectations.
  • Develop unconventional, creative ways to relay the data to the audience.
  • Just because something is done a particular way doesn’t mean it’s the most effective way.
  • Self-expression is the name of the game, as long as it serves the audience in the room.

00:00 Michael Port: The speaker was trying to get people to see how much oil it took to make a Big Mac, and he could have just said, “Here’s how much oil it takes to make a Big Mac,” and he wasn’t talking about how much oil it takes to cook the thing, he’s talking about how much crude oil it takes to produce that one burger.

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00:26 Michael Port: Welcome to Steal the Show with Michael Port. This is Michael.

I received a letter this week and I’m ready to dive right in and just let it do the talking. So, here goes!

00:36 John: “Dear Michael, I bought Steal The Show, and loved it. I’ve listened to every episode of the podcast, up to about a month ago. (Don’t worry, the rest are on my phone, and in my queue.)”

00:44 Michael Port: Excellent!

00:45 John: “I think I may have even heard you on a few other podcasts that I frequent. The tactics and the techniques have helped me a lot in small group and business leadership moments. And I know it really helped me in a serious contract negotiation, but usually, professionally, I get to speak in front of audiences at technical conferences. You know, transmitting technical details and data.

“There’s a podium on stage, slides are expected, these are the meat-and-potatoes presentations that go on outside of the keynote at a conference. So, I’m just having a hard time seeing or thinking about how to take these types of presentations and make them come alive.

“For many people, these are the presentations we have the most opportunities to give and we want to make them special so everyone learns. I have great information and a topic that is new and, I think, exciting, but I’m not seeing how I can take it to the next level.

“I assume it is me and my lack of understanding or mastery of the skills, but it’s been on my mind for a while, and while listening to Michael and Andrew Davis talking on your podcast, I finally decided to send an e-mail. Any thoughts? (I know! Go to HPS Live, right? Ha!)”

01:58 Michael Port: That was very cute!

02:01 John: “From John.”

02:02 Michael Port: So, hey John, thank you so much for the question and thank you for the lovely way that you wrote that e-mail. You’re very, very positive, you are not assuming that you can’t make these kinds of changes and do the remarkable work that you want to do, and you’re just trying to figure out the best way to go about it. And that’s admirable, so thank you for that!

Also, I just want to say, before I get into the answers, I’m doing something a little different today on this episode, and we’ll see how it turns out. I’m actually listening to music, in my headphones, or through my headphones, while recording the episode.

So, you don’t hear the music, but I do. I’m listening to Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’, and it’s just fantastic! I just love that song so much! And the reason I’m doing this is because I was a little grumpy this morning, which is not totally unusual for me in the morning. I can be a little bit grumpy in the morning, because I want to go, and I want to go fast, and make things happen, and sometimes it takes a little while to get things going.

And so, what I’ll do, often, is I’ll put on a piece of music that will lift me up. And I’ll listen to that music over and over and over again. In fact, it’s something that I do when I’m writing. When I’m writing articles or if I’m writing any of my books, and I’ve got one particular section that I want to work on, I’ll put on a piece of music that I think has the sensibility that I want to bring to the work that I’m doing at that moment.

I want it to influence how I feel, which then, of course, influences what I actually produce. And so, Michael Jackson’s Human Nature song, on repeat, is something that, for me, will cheer me up, make me feel pretty good.

So, let’s get to the answers to the question. So, there are three different types of environments that we generally find ourselves giving professional speeches in. I don’t mean as a professional speaker all the time, but I mean, in professional environments.

So, there are keynotes and you know, in a large conference, there’s usually a keynote in the morning and a keynote in the afternoon, or just in the morning, or just in the afternoon. So, if it’s a two day conference, you may have two to four keynoters. And then you may have thirty or sixty or more breakout sessions at that same event.

So, most of the work is done by the breakout session speakers. That’s where most of the heavy lifting is done. Then there are, of course, workshops. So, you have keynotes, breakouts and workshops. And keynotes are designed to do what? Set the key note. Strike a key note.

And, usually, the person that’s hired for that particular spot, is well known, because that often brings people to the conference, and if they are required to be there, if it’s a work thing, they are excited, because that person is somebody who they’re aware of, in one way, shape or form.

And the breakouts, then, are generally focused on the training. Training the people at the event in the core aspects of whatever the theme of that event is. What the breakout speaker is usually doing, is showing people how to do something.

The keynoter is generally changing the way the audience sees the world as it relates to that subject, and then, once you change the way you see the world, and feel capable of doing the things you want to do, then in the breakout sessions, you learn how to do it.

A workshop, generally, gives you the opportunity to do the work, in the workshop, with the facilitator, the teacher, the leader, the trainer, making sure that you’re doing it well. And so, those are generally the three different types of environments that we find ourselves in when we are speaking on topics that are related to our profession, the work we do.

And you can get paid for all of those, and you can do all of those for free. So, every environment is going to be different. And the reason I mention it is because, generally, the kind of speech that you’re referring to, John, is done in a breakout.

And a breakout is often organised according to a curriculum. So, if you do X, Y and Z, you’ll produce, and whatever that promise is, the thing that you’re going to produce, is why the audience is in the room.

And, yeah, there is a certain expectation of, “Yes, it’s going to be technical,” if you’re in the technical field, and yeah, they’re going to have slides, and people might come in there assuming it’s going to be dry.

But our job as performers, is often to break the rules. That’s what an artist does. That’s what a creative performer does. Now, we don’t break the rules just to break the rules, just to be rebellious. That’s not interesting to people. That’s sophomoric, that’s adolescent, just to break the rules to break the rules.

Because anybody can tear something down. It’s much harder to build something better in its place. And if you just break things down, you just break the rules, well then, maybe you’re a critic. But the kind of rule breaking that I’m talking about is creating an experience, for the audience, that defies expectations.

Because, sometimes, expectations are constraining, and the expectations that you have around what a speaker is supposed to do, is constraining you at present. And, in order to do great work, to be fully self-expressed, and be in service of the audience, we need to throw off some of those constraints if they’re unnecessary.

Now, of course, it helps to know the rules, and that’s why I liked your little joke at the end, about attending HPS Live in October, because at HPS Live, we teach the core curriculum, so that everybody understands all of the core aspects of what it means to be performer as a speaker.

And then, once we know that, the that gives us a lot more freedom and flexibility. So, let’s talk about your slides for a second. You do not have to have slides, no matter what your topic is, frankly. Just because you’re presenting technical information, doesn’t mean you have to do it on a screen.

There are lots of different ways you can do it. Bring an abacus into the room, if you want to show comparing and contrasting of different amounts of something, or different units of something. We’re not constrained by the environment, we’re constrained by our imagination.

So, for example, let’s say, you wanted to show people how much of a particular liquid it took to run a machine of some kind. Well, you could tell them, or you could show them. So, I’ll give you an example.

I saw a TEDx where the speaker was trying to get people to see how much oil it took to make a Big Mac. You know, that two patties, special sauce, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun. That thing. And he could have just said, “Here’s how much oil it takes to make a Big Mac,” and he wasn’t talking about how much oil it takes to cook the thing, he’s talking about how much crude oil it takes to produce that one burger, from start to finish.

And so, what he did was, he took out a Big Mac, an actual Big Mac, in that little soft cardboard paper container that it comes in. And he put it on a table, and he opened it up so that the audience could see it.

Then he took out a pitcher, a big pitcher of oil, and he put it on the table next to it. And he said, “I’m going to show you how much oil it takes to make this one Big Mac.” And so he took out a glass, and he filled up the glass with the oil, put the pitcher down on the table, and said, “No, not that much,” took out another glass, put the glass on the table, filled up that glass with oil, put the pitcher back down on the table, took a nice beat and said, “No, not that much.”

Took out another glass, put it on the table, filled it up with oil, put down the pitcher, “Nope not that much.” Took out another glass, filled it halfway, put down the pitcher, and said, “It takes three and a half glasses of oil to make one Big Mac.”

Now, that was arresting. And if he had just shown you that statistic on a screen, you might have gone, “Eww! That’s weird, that’s…” but it wouldn’t have had the same impact. And certainly if he had just said, “You know, it takes three and a half glasses of oil to make one Big Mac,” you might say, “Oh, well, geez, okay.” But that’s it!

The fact that he showed you, in such a theatrical form, made it more impactful. So, think about what data are you actually trying to share with them, and then how can you share it in ways that are unconventional.

And they’re only unconventional because it takes thought, it takes creativity, it takes skill to come up with those kinds of ideas, and then deliver them well. Not because you’re not supposed to do that. Not because the right way to do it is by using slides. But because it takes a lot more work to do that, than it does just to put a whole bunch of bullet points on a screen.

That’s not very hard. So, the reason that slides are so common, is, in large part, because they’re just notes for the speaker, who is not fully prepared to deliver that speech. And they’ll use the slides to remember were they are, and, often, read off the slides, and figure, “Well, this way, I won’t forget anything, and I’ll just put everything on the slides.

And it’s not a particularly effective way of moving a group of people in a hotel room or a theatre. It just doesn’t have a lot of life. So it’s easier, that’s why we do it. Not because it’s right, or better.

So, that’s number one. You do not have to present using slides, you can find other ways to illustrate your ideas. And so, I’m not anti slides in any way. I have no personal vendetta against PowerPoint or keynote.

I think we should use whatever has an impact on our audience in a positive way, whatever helps us get them to think something different, feel something different, do something different. That’s our job. And we want to use whatever tools we have at our disposal.

And so, when you’re creating a keynote, or a breakout, or a workshop, I suggest staying away from your deck, your slides, until you’ve created all the content. You create the visuals, if you’re going to use any visuals, once you’re created the content, not the other way around.

Because, generally, what people do is, they will use those slides to create an outline, and then maybe fill it in with some bullets, and then go, “Boom, there’s my speech.” And then the speech, really, is just a slide deck. It’s not actually a speech, it’s a slide deck with someone on stage, narrating the slide deck. So, that’s number one.

Number two: How involved can you get the audience in the presentation. How much audience interaction can you incorporate, so that it feels very alive to the people in the room? So there’s this kinaesthetic experience for them.

Because people are affected intellectually, they’re affected emotionally, and they’re affected physically. So, if you get them very involved in a breakout, which is easier to do, often, than in a keynote with a massive audience that you often can’t see, because the lights are in your eyes, in a breakout session, even if it’s a large breakout session, you can still generally see the people in the room, which makes for easier audience interaction.

But, remember that all audience interaction must be proportionate to the amount of trust that you’ve earned. Audience interaction should be proportionate to the amount of trust that you’ve earned.

So, you know, we wouldn’t come out at the beginning of a breakout session, or a keynote, or any other speech and say, “Hey, listen, do me a favour. Raise your hand if you’re in debt.” Now, if you’re at a conference, where it’s all about getting out of debt, well maybe that’s a little bit different, because everybody’s going there and then they assume the other people are also in debt and they’re comfortable talking about it.

But, it’s just like saying, “Raise your hand if you’re an alcoholic.” If you’re in an AA meeting, that makes perfect sense, but it’s not appropriate at the opening of a speech that you’re giving at Content Marketing World, or Coca-Cola, or somewhere else.

Why? Because those are personal questions and when people are sitting in an audience, even if they know them from work, and, in fact, maybe especially if they know them from work, they’re not going to want to share those kinds of details. So we don’t want to ask people to do things, or to acknowledge things that are personal, until we have earned enough trust to do so.

Look, this does not apply to Oprah, or Ellen. Oprah could come out, or Ellen could come out and ask her audience almost anything, and the audience will immediately engage, and express themselves, and share. But, most of us are not like Oprah, or Ellen, we don’t have that kind of brand recognition and trust that they’ve built, and so we need to earn it over time throughout a presentation.

And we can ask for more and more and more, as we get deeper into the presentation, because they trust us more, because we keep doing what we say we’re going to do. They know that we are in service of them, they also know that we think there are many ways to do the thing that they want to do, and we’re not closed off thinking there’s only one way, and our way is the only way.

And that allows them to drop some of their filters. I would say drop their guard a little but, but that’s sometimes viewed as a negative thing, you know, drop your guard and then you’re going to get hurt or something.

But, no, it’s just that they drop their filters, so that you can get a little closer to who they are. And, as a result, it’s a really beautiful experience. So, for example, I used to do a keynote called, ‘The Think Big Revolution’, and there was a fair amount of audience interaction.

And I did that audience interaction, even in environments of three thousand or more people. But the things that I would ask them to do were often unusual, and the more unusual those things were, the later they came in the presentation.

For example, one of the things, at the very, very end of the presentation, that I would have them do, is dance. And I would, every location that I was in, I would hire two dancers, professional dancers, they would be dressed in black, the same clothing, and they would learn a particular set of choreography that I had created for this dance, so that people could do it while standing in their seats, but still feel like they were moving in a way that was unique and interesting and felt really good.

And, of course, I had to memorise the choreography, which I only wanted to do once, because, although I like to move, I am definitely not a dancer, and memorising choreography takes me a little while. So, I remember I was in Australia giving that speech and they knew what was in it, because, of course, we’d talked about it and they’d seen videos going in.

And they said, “Listen, we just don’t think people are going to dance. That’s just not going to happen.” And I said, “Okay, great!” And I remember giving that speech to an association of attorneys, and they said the same thing, “These attorneys are not going to dance. They’re all wearing suits and ties and dresses that are very constraining, because they’re professional outfit kind of dressers,” and they were very nervous about it.

And I said, “Oh, don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it. We’ll figure it out. We’ll make it work.” Because every single time I did it, it always worked. Why? Because, by the time we got to that particular moment, they trusted me, and they felt very safe, they felt comfortable, they felt safe in that environment.

And there was context around that dancing and why we were doing it. But if I asked them to do that, as the opening, that would have been tough. I could do that at HPS Live, because the people there know us, they’re coming for us, even if they’re new to us, and haven’t experienced us before, they’ve still decided to come, which means that they are extending a certain amount of trust.

Because, if you don’t trust somebody at all to deliver what they say they’re going to, you’re not going to go. But if somebody’s going to pay to go to an event, even if they’re new, they might have some hesitation, but they have some trust.

So, I could get away with it there, plus, about 30% of the people there, are alumni, people who come back, again and again. And so they’re going to be immediately doing it, and if they do it, then other people will do it to.

So, it depends on the environment you’re in and the relationship you have with them. So that’s why we use, as a litmus test, this concept of trust, audience interaction should be proportionate to the amount of trust that you’ve earned.

There is also a point in that particular speech where I would ask people to stand up, place their right hand over their heart, and say what they stood for. That’s often confronting, because you’re doing it in front of an audience, you’re standing up, you’re doing it with a full voice, and full conviction and commitment, and maybe the thing that you say you want to stand for is provoking to you, and it may be the first time you’ve said it out loud.

So, I’m not going to open the speech like that, but that comes a little bit more than three quarters into the speech and, at that point, they’re good to go. But, not everybody jumps up to do it. And, of course, I can never have everybody do it, because it would take too long.

But every time I would say, “Okay, who’s the bravest person in this room?” because that’s the person who’s going first. And that always shot some hands up right away. But once one person did it, then another would do it, then another, then another, then, eventually, you have three quarters of the audience raising their hand, wanting to stand up and say what they stood for.

So, bottom line is this: Just because something is done a particular way, doesn’t mean it’s the most effective way. It certainly doesn’t mean it’s the right way. And also remember that, just because something is done regularly, it doesn’t mean that a lot of thought went into it.

So, for example, recently we gave a speech at the National Speakers Association, the NSA, big conference, and we gave a keynote. And the keynote environment was very typical for a keynote for about 2,500 people. It was in a huge space, in a hotel, big stage, big screen, very typical.

The breakout sessions were also very typical. They were in these long, subdivided hotel rooms, with two foot, temporary mobile platforms for a stage, and then a screen in the corner, and so then you’d have maybe four people on one side of an aisle, four people on the other side, and then it was really, really long, so the people were very far away from you, kind of like a bowling alley.

So, we did the keynote, and then we also did a breakout right afterwards, and at one point Amy was teaching during the breakout and I was sitting and watching and I had this thought, and I said, “Oh, this is interesting,” because the NSA is the organisation that represents professional speakers, National Speakers Association.

And people are learning about the industry, and they’re learning best practices from the people who are speaking there. And so, the hotel room that we were in for the breakout, after the keynote, had nothing, except what I just described. Oh, and the audio didn’t work very well, either. Actually, it didn’t work at all.

And so, the people who were new to the speaking industry are going to think, “Oh, well, that’s the way you should set up a breakout session, because, if the NSA does it that way, then that’s the way to do it.

And, look, I’m not criticising the NSA, they did an amazing job producing the event, they gave us the freedom that we wanted to deliver a keynote in the way we wanted. And it was a great honour to be invited to speak there, and it was a great honour to get to meet so many wonderful and significant, substantial, meaningful people.

And, this is what I observed when I was doing the breakout. So I thought, “Oh, this is why we think this is normal.” Or actually, “This is why it is normal.” Because we see, “Well, this is a best practice type environment, so if this is how they’ve designed the breakout room, well then, this is the best practice, and so that’s okay.”

And so, we will never have an event in a hotel. We did the first two HPS Lives in a hotel, actually we did part of it in a hotel, and part of it in a theatre. The first time we did the HPS Live, we didn’t have the budget to rent the kind of theatres that we would want. So, we did two days in the hotel, and then one day in the theatre, because we wanted people to be in that theatrical environment.

And as it grew, we are now able to do the whole thing in the greatest venue in Philadelphia, called the Kimmel Centre, and so we’ve got a wonderful, wonderful environment for the keynotes, because it’s a beautiful theatre, and then we’ve got these very interesting, unusual rooms for the breakout sessions.

So, I say that, because we shouldn’t make assumptions about how we perform or how we design an environment, based on what other people do, as simple as that. We should always ask, “Is this the most effective way of moving the people in the room to get them to think differently, or act differently, or feel differently.

Simple as that. Not really simple, but you understand what I’m saying, is full self expression is the name of the game. As long as that full self expression is in service of the people in the room.

So, John, I hope that gives you some gristle to chew on, as you work on your material. I hope to see you at HPS Live, and, yes, this is the last HPS Live in its current form that we will do. And we are making it the best HPS Live we’ve ever done. That’s a promise, because we believe that the way you finish something, is as important if not more important than the way you start something.

Anybody can start strong. Finishing strong is what really, really turns us on over here. So, that’s just exciting. And people say, “Oh, you’re just going to do it a little bit differently next year.” No, no, no, we’re not doing that big, big event next year. Or the year after, or the year after, according to the plans that we have set.

Yes, of course, we’ve got really cool things planned for 2019 that are new and unusual and different, but if you’ve been thinking about going to HPS Live, and say, “Well, I’ll go next year. I’m kind of busy right now, I’ll go next year,” there will not be a next year, so this is your time.

So, that’s it! Thanks so much for listening to Steal the Show with Michael Port. I’ll sign off simply with this: Keep thinking big about who you are and what you offer the world. Bye for now.

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