When you spend a day with a former US vice-president and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, you know you’re going to learn some new skills. I had that opportunity as the executive producer of a climate change summit I hosted in Tokyo. It was Al Gore’s first visit to Japan after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to disseminate greater understanding of man-made climate change. I spent the day personally hosting him and got to see his keynote speech ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. His presentation was masterful. As advertising professionals are called on more and more to present at conferences, seminars, award shows and even in front of clients, I thought I would share some of the lessons from that day.
Use the latest news
It is an odd one to start with and possibly an obvious one. However, throughout Gore’s presentation he used the latest news. This brought it to life and moved it from being a “canned” speech to one offering the latest and greatest insights. He had news reports that had literally just hit the press and had them inserted perfectly into his presentation to demonstrate a point. That is impact—when you wake in the morning to read a news story and then have it dissected and analysed that very day.
Make slides visually stimulating
The most interesting thing about Gore's presentation was how many of his slides were images and how few contained any text. He used images to support what he was saying but he did not rely on the slides to tell the story. It’s quite different to your typical presentation in the boardroom with full-text slides of multiple bullet points, where the presenter just ends up reading to you, isn’t it? Make sure your audience is learning from you, not from your slide content.
Who cares how many slides you have?
There are all sorts of pseudo “best practices” out there that say how many slides your presentation should have, how many words a slide can have, or how many minutes you should spend on each slide, and Mr. Gore threw all of those out the window. He used over 250 slides in his presentation. And it was his use of image-based slides, supporting his points, that allowed him to do so without leaving the audience behind. After all, you can process and relate to an image much faster than you can read a sentence.
Be a real presenter
Mr. Gore didn’t stand behind a podium with a notebook and read it line by line or look down while shuffling through notes. He walked around the stage and used his body to be expressive. He didn't rely on a computer. He knew not to let technology get between him and the audience. If you’re a presenter, invest in a remote—and practice using it—so you don't lose any momentum in the middle of your presentation.
Even with great visuals, Mr. Gore still moved to the screen to draw attention to specific charts or data. Although not at my event, at one presentation I heard he rode a mechanical lift to point out a growth chart of CO2 levels! How's that for getting people’s attention? He didn’t use a laser pointer or point of at a slide from across the stage. He got right up there and showed the audience what they needed to see because he knew his audience had their eyes on him.
If you’re reading, your audience is sleeping
The amazing thing about ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ is that Mr. Gore is not the only person presenting these talks. He is training others to give the talk because he simply can't go everywhere that asks him to speak. In many big companies, promotional or sales decks get created by a marketing team and are then distributed to a whole sales team saying “Have at it!” and the team proceeds to lazily read the slides to prospects or worse, just email it to people who ask for more information.
Mr. Gore's team takes the opposite approach.
They have two full days of training for every new presenter that covers the context of every single slide. How can you effectively present a slide deck without knowing why every slide is been placed there? They're all trained on how to insert authentic emotion into their presentation as if Mr. Gore was presenting the talk every single time.
Seek to understand your audience
Mr. Gore was giving a controversial talk and had to meet his audience right where they were if he had any chance of connecting with them. He didn’t connect with them by endlessly spouting off facts; he connected by anticipating and answering their questions before they even asked them. Throughout the talk you could see that Mr. Gore was consistently acknowledging and answering the objections that people had in a way that was approachable and that went to the heart of the issue.
The more time you spend truly understanding your audience and what they need to hear, the better chance you have at winning them over. The more you understand your audience, the easier it is to come up with examples that they can relate to. For example, Mr. Gore talked about a certain dictator’s rise to power in the 1930s how the world ignored it despite the warnings—and how we face a somewhat similar situation right now with people ignoring the facts about climate change despite the hard science showing the change.
Anything complex should be explained simply
Many of the topics in climate change are very complex and are foreign to the average person. So Mr. Gore used relatable concepts to help people understand, like comparing the destruction of rainforests to that of coral reefs, or glacial moulins that erode glaciers to termites weakening and breaking down wood.
Complex topics are almost always filled with jargon or buzz words. Using the jargon without poking fun at it or explaining it in a simple way will alienate you from your audience. Mr. Gore went to great lengths to get on the same level as the audience and avoided using terms like “exponentially”. Instead, he used simple, hard-hitting sentences like “when your kids are my age, they’ll experience CO2 levels never seen in our lifetime”.
Don’t manufacture a personality
Humility goes a long way when presenting. Mr. Gore made no effort to disguise his Southern accent and addressed the audience as a friend sitting across the table. He was not overly energetic, and just spoke simply and clearly. Using personal stories is a great way of being more approachable. Mr. Gore talked about how his college professor was the first person who really got him thinking about this topic. He went on to share the story of inviting the professor to congress to discuss the matter. All while his slides showed the growing CO2 levels on a timeline.
If you ever have the chance to see Gore present live, jump at it. It truly is an experience. Hosting him for the day gave me many other insights, but if you want to improve your presentation skills, I don’t see many others who can show you how to better engage your audience and spur them to take action.
Tyron Giuliani is industry partner, consumer and advertising at Optia Partners in Tokyo