Your Presentation is the Ugly Baby

There's an old Seinfeld episode where Jerry and Elaine struggle with their friends' baby being ugly. Their friends, you see, think their baby is adorable. Of course they do. It's their BABY. They viewed it with bias and love and affection (and I'm sure it had many redeeming qualities), but it was objectively unattractive.

The author William Faulkner once said: "In writing, you must kill your darlings." Which was not in reference to characters or themes, but rather in sometimes having to cut a particular turn of phrase or paragraph that you are particularly in love with.

What do these two anecdotes have in common? Perspective. When one is too close to something--when it's their life, their livelihood, their expertise--it is hard to view it objectively. It's tough to see that your presentation baby is ugly and you might need to kill that darling section.

The audience, an overwhelming majority of the time, will come at your presentation with a different view--being on the outside of it--than you have on the inside.

Here are things to consider when crafting your presentation to kill your own darlings, make sure your baby isn't ugly, and keep the audience in mind:

The audience doesn't share your perspective:
Where you may see the beautiful poetry of the R&D story of your product, your audience may see unnecessary background that won't help them sell.

When you are convinced that everyone absolutely must know the last 20 years of sales data for your niche silo, your audience may struggle with seeing the relevance (but succeed at seeing the inside of their eyelids).

Consider your audience first and then think about how you fit into their needs.

Filter what's "nice to know" versus what they "need to know": 
You have limited real estate in your audiences' brains. Use it wisely. Your audience will not be able to take in your 10-point-plan-for-success. They will maaaaaybe remember 3-5 points. But are those 3 points going to be the most important?

How do you make sure the most critical things are remembered? Hone your message down to the truly important--the need-to-know--and include ways the audience can find additional information and detail as their curiosity dictates. (You may even want to play a game to get them familiar with resources they may need to find the nice-to-know stuff.)

Unlimited slides, limited words:
Everyone is familiar with "Death by Powerpoint" as an expression--so we've had clients try to limit their presenter's slides...only to find that their presenters will add more information to each individual slide (we once had a company whose standard practice became a "quad"--4 slides on one--because they limited the slide number but not the content).

We never put a limit on the number of slides, but each slide should be clean, clear, and minimalistic.

The audience must be able to see your information.
To that end; Slides shouldn't be fancy. They should be uncluttered, message-supporting (as opposed to message-conveying), and should NOT be speaker notes. Numbers should be easily seen and uninterpreted data charts should be minimized.

It doesn't matter how important your number charts are (and they are!), if the audience can't see them and easily interpret them--they're a distraction.

Producers vs. Presenters: Taming the Presentation Deadline Beast

There is an eternal struggle between the event production team and the presenters (internal and, less frequently, external) to get presentation content in the hands of the production team well before an event.

This needs to happen for several reasons.

  • All parties need to know the content of the presentations so that presenters do not overlap, contradict, or conflict with each other
  • Presentations need to be coherent and valuable for the audience
  • Timing needs to be taken into account for realistic agendas
  • Slides need to be checked for clarity/mistakes
  • Media needs to be tested and procured in advance
  • It helps ensure that the event goes smoothly

This doesn't happen for several reasons.

  • Presenters are busy
  • The event isn't a priority because they have more important/critical/time-sensitive things to do in their day-to-day jobs
  • Presenters have turned in presentations last-minute before and everything has worked out
  • Content changes may occur on time-sensitive presentations (i.e. first quarter results are announced, acquisitions happen, etc.)
  • Presenters are waiting for other co-presenters/key players to contribute
  • There is an established culture of "putting together the presentation on the plane", etc. 

In our minds, this will be an ongoing struggle, because the reasons for this needing to happen and the reasons why it doesn't happen are both pretty legitimate and need to be balanced in a diplomatic manner.

However, based on our experiences working with clients and other production teams there are certain things you should NOT do.


Create artificial deadlines: Don't be the event producer who cries wolf. A presenter knows that it's unnecessary to have a finished presentation two months before an event occurs. We once worked with a presentation team that wanted locked-in teleprompter copy (with no changes on-site) MORE THAN ONE MONTH before the event. It was unrealistic and it made it easy for every single presenter to completely disregard the legitimacy of other (more crucial) deadlines.

Ignore deadlines and hope for the best: Presenters should have a good outline of when things are expected of them. Some production companies set the final deadline as "When the presentation is being presented on stage" with no other milestone/check-in points. Deadlines *do* need to be managed, and timetables help set everyone's expectations.

Mismanage the presenters: Think of this like Goldilocks and the Three Event Producers: One micromanages too much, the other isn't attentive enough...and one is just right. Don't be the presentation task-master without a healthy dose of flexibility and diplomacy. We worked with an event producer who was incredibly harsh about presenters getting their stuff in by exact deadlines. Not only did the presenters resent the event producer, but they started to actively ignore their requests because they weren't presented in a reasonable way...and the presenters were the *client*.

Cut off changes completely: You can say that changes at the last minute are not ideal, but to cut off changes completely at an event because presenters didn't meet the deadline is not going to benefit the event overall. Be prepared for changes to happen because events are a dynamic animal, subject to interjections from the world, from the audience, from the company, from the event itself. A presenter wanting to add in a slide in the morning because they heard a concern over and over again at the networking reception the night before is something that can and should happen.


Here are some things that have worked for us:

Use peer pressure: We worked with a client who used a peer-review session deadline; a week before the event, every presenter would get together in a room and present their content for the event to each other. They would then get presentation feedback. This forced presenters to get the content done--they didn't want to be the only one who hadn't done their part, or let down their other peers. Even having an updated list of who has/hasn't turned in their presentation can apply a bit of peer pressure to help move deadlines along.

Utilize rehearsals: The previous example not only utilized peer pressure, but it also included another component: rehearsals. Often times we like to do a "dry run" of an event a week before--even if it's over the phone. Scheduling ample rehearsal time on-site (and clearing a presenter's schedule of on-site obligations so they can attend) will also minimize VERY last minute changes.

Provide Incentives: In a particular company, presenters got $50 if they turned in their presentations on time. It's not that $50 was so much money, but it provided a tangible incentive to be on-time--and everyone in the procrastination-prone company turned everything in on time. One can also take the stick approach--meet deadlines or get time taken away--but the carrot is more diplomatic.

Shape the event and give talking points: Having a very concise theme (we're not talking "A year to win" or similar event themes, but rather a content throughline) and talking points that you'd like each presenter to hit can help them get a head start on their presentation. It gives them something to react to instead of having to generate a presentation from scratch (which can frequently hold up initial deadlines).

An example of this might be (roughly):
Theme: Everything about this event is geared toward helping the sales force get their "swagger" back after a tough few years.

Direction for presenter: How will the marketing strategy for this year help the audience feel like they have swagger? What specific things are you doing to support them?

Frame the value: Face to face events are a huge opportunity for a presenter to get in front of their audience. They are also a huge opportunity for a company to give the attendees a unified message. The importance and impact are so great that a last-minute presentation is most likely not going to cut it. Events are an investment. Framing the value of the event to presenters may seem like common sense or something that they already know (or should know), but often times no one frames it like this. Letting presenters know that this is their time to shine and step up, and communicating what it means to them and the company can help them to be more thoughtful about their presentation and attendant timelines.


Good event production teams are flexible and pros at making last-minute changes look effortless and flawless. That doesn't mean they *are* effortless.

Good production teams may be able to get presenters to turn in their content well before an event, but they are also equipped to handle situations in which this does not happen. This may mean extra on-site staffing, people dedicated to working exclusively with particular presenters, etc. If a production team has worked with a company before and it's been an issue at previous events, building in extra staff in the contract and citing past experience is in the client's best interest and in the interest of the sanity of the production team as well.

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