Two months ago I had the opportunity to speak about Artificial Intelligence (AI) at the 68th Annual Meeting of the Seventh Circuit Bar Association and the Judicial Conference of the Seventh Circuit in Milwaukee at the historic Pfister Hotel and at the Judicial Conference of the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. Both myself and James Dempsey – the Executive Director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology – were invited to speak and we did a similar presentation last year at the Sixth Circuit Judicial Conference in Nashville.
In my experience, the audiences for these events are typically federal judges, federal magistrates, their staffs and leading lawyers from their local areas. They all have different degrees of sophistication about technology and how it can be used to better serve the public and their clients. As technology continues to change our lives, the Federal Judicial Center seems very focused on improving the technical competence of the federal judiciary.
As we were assembling at the speakers table in the front of the room for our presentation on AI at the Seventh Circuit Judicial Conference, I noticed a very familiar-looking man heading to the front row to be seated. It was new US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh as Justice Kavanaugh serves as the Circuit Justice to the Seventh Circuit and he attended the conference.
Shortly afterwards, the President of the Seventh Circuit Bar Association introduced James and I as speakers and also specifically thanked Justice Kavanaugh for attending this session. I was the first speaker so I took a deep breath and approached the lecturn knowing that as a “paper pushing” corporate lawyer I would have may proverbial “day in court” with a sitting US Supreme Court Justice to deliver a presentation on a leading technology that has the potential to reshape the entire legal profession.
Several years ago I am not sure I would have been confident enough to deliver a presentation in front of a US Supreme Court Justice – let alone so many federal judges and magistrate judges. It has been a long journey for me to gain greater confidence in public speaking – and that journey still continues.
In no particular order, here are some of my public-speaking “lessons learned” through the years:
Public Speaking Fear & Anxiety
It has been extensively reported that people fear public speaking more than death. While I find that to be incredible, it is also not surprising to me. Over the years I have had my fair share of anxiety and fear before delivering presentations – and I continue to be nervous before a presentation. However I have grown to realize that while some level of nervousness is okay, being overly nervous and/or having anxiety is simply not productive and will inhibit my ability to deliver a high-quality presentation. Please keep your presentation and public-speaking activities in proper perspective as it really is not a very big deal in the larger scheme of things of life. Try not to over-engineer what public speaking is all about because at its essence it is really just about having a conversation – which is something we do all the time. The difference is that this conversation is to a group of people versus just one person or a few people. Also try not to be overly fixated or obsessed in what your audience may think about you and your presentation. While of course you want to do your best and be appropriately prepared to deliver your presentation, in my experience the less you care about what your audience thinks about you and your presentation – the less fear you will have. In my experience embracing this type of mindset can be liberating.
Get Repititions & Grow Confidence
To be an effective and confident public speaker you need to actually do it as it does not happen by magic. As we know regardless of our profession, we all need to constantly work at our respective crafts in order to improve – and the same holds true for public speaking. Actively look for opportunities to speak in front of people – whether it be in the workplace or outside of the workplace – and do not shy away from delivering presentations. In order to keep my public-speaking skills sharp I make sure to speak publicly at least one a month – whether at work or as part of an external presentation or participation on an external panel discussion.
Create Your Slides
Not all presentations require visual slides but I am a big fan of using slides for talks that are greater than five minutes of length. Of course being a Microsoft employee, I am partial to using PowerPoint – but we all still need to avoid the proverbial “PowerPoint by Death.” PowerPoint is an excellent presentation tool and while I consider myself very proficient in using it, there are still so many PowerPoint features that I still do not use. In fact, PowerPoint just released some new AI-powered features to help make you a stronger presenter. When I need to deliver a presentation I try to begin to construct my slides a few weeks in advance so that I can take the time to properly develop a story (or stories) for my presentation. When I develop my slides I also add just a few words per slide at most. Many lawyers like to add lots of words to their slides, but I find that by doing so your audience has a tendency to read the words on your slides versus listening to your message and there is more of a temptation for a presenter to read her/his slides as a “safety-net” – which is one of the worst things a presenter could do – instead of telling a story. I view each of my slides as a mini-presentation and most of my slides contain interesting pictures and/or graphics that aim to capture the attention of my audience. Being a big user of social media and Twitter, I also make sure that my Twitter handle is on the bottom right hand side of each slide so that people have a way of connecting with me as needed. Finally, I am somewhat of a control freak with my slides as I prefer to develop them on my own rather than having someone else do it – and possibly screw them up.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Before you deliver a presentation – even if it is only a few minutes in length – you should invest the time to appropriately prepare for it. Doing so will provide you with more confidence and in my experience it never makes sense to try to “wing” a presentation without the appropriate preparation. As to how much time you need to prepare that all depends on the individual presenter and her/his comfort level with the subject matter of the presentation. When you practice your talk be sure to time yourself so that you can stay within the allotted time of your talk and practice under the same conditions under which you will be delivering a presentation (e.g., using a clicker to advance slides, standing up if you are expected to stand during your presentation). You should also be mindful of overpreparing. In the past I have over overprepared with too much practicing during the day of or the day before my presentation – which resulted in my voice being overly tired, raspy and not strong enough for my presentation.
Invest the time to understand your presentation environment and the technology associated with that environment (and always prepare for the worst and assume that technology will not work during your presentation). Be sure to arrive well in advance of your presentation timeslot and here is a checklist of key logistical considerations for your presentation:
- Try to check out the presentation location/room in advance.
- Will you be speaking from a lecturn, a podium or can you walk around?
- Do you need your laptop/device to present the slides? If so, is the laptop/device charged up and do you have the appropriate adapters?
- Will there be microphones? If so, are they handheld or lavalier microphones?
- Will there be confidence monitors?
- How many people will be in the audience?
- Have a back-up copy of your presentation slides on a thumb drive.
- Will the audience have access to your presentation slides?
- Will members of the media be present?
- Will conference organizers be videotaping or audiotaping your presentation? If so, they should first obtain your express written consent to do so.
- Print out copies of your slides in the event you cannot glance at your slides via a laptop/device or a confidence monitor.
The Shorter Your Talk, the Better
I have been asked to deliver presentations at conferences or work-related events for 45 minutes or an hour in length. In my opinion that is way too long to speak. First, our attention spans as audience members are very limited – especially when presenters are competing with an audience’s smartphones. Also I do not know of many people who want to listen to someone speak for that long – especially a lawyer (and while my business may like me, they expect me to embrace the 3 B’s: Be Brilliant, Be Brief and Be Gone). Secondly, it takes a lot out of a presenter to speak that long in a compelling fashion – and to also invest the amount time to prepare for a talk of that length. Ideally I try to speak for no more than 15 minutes tops for a presentation and if an agenda requires 30 minutes, than I will speak for 20 minutes and have 10 minutes for questions and answers from the audience.
Know Your Audience
It is very critical to understand the make-up of your audience and their backgrounds so that you can create a presentation experience that connects you with them and is memorable. Several years ago when I traveled to various cities across the United States to deliver presentations to customers on how Microsoft inspires trust with its cloud solutions, my slides included images to local landmarks and sports teams so that I could develop a better rapport with my audience. Presenters should serve their audiences by earning their attention and providing them with useful content they can easily absorb.
Self-Care Before Your Presentation
It is so important to be well-rested and in the proper positive mindset right before your presentation. Getting a good night’s sleep before your presentation is incredibly important and if you need to travel for your presentation try to arrive the day/night before if possible so that you can become properly acclimated to your environment, be rested and not be rushed. Also doing some physical activity earlier on the day of your presentation may be beneficial to you. I am a big fan of going for a run a few hours before my presentation as it serves to clear my mind, it calms me down and it makes me feel great. Also consider embracing some mindfulness practices such as using deep breathing techniques immediately before your presentation – and of course remember to breathe properly during your presentation. I also avoid drinking too much water/coffee immediately before my presentation as I may have a sudden urge to go to the bathroom. In addition, I try to avoid eating too much food prior to my talk so that I can avoid potentially having an upset stomach and I am careful to not eating something that has a higher likelihood of getting stuck in my throat during a talk (that has happened to me before). Finally just like a professional baseball player has his favorite “walk-up song” that the stadium plays before that player heads to the pitching mound or at-bat, consider listening to your own “walk-up songs” before your presentation that will make you feel good and put you in a positive frame of mind. Here are a few of my own “walk-up songs”: Feels Like the First Time, Thunderstruck and Gonna Fly Now.
Don’t Seek Perfection
Remember that it is virtually impossible to deliver a “perfect” presentation and the definition of “perfection” as it relates to presentations is highly subjective. Most of us are not professional presenters, we will make mistakes during our presentation and our audiences do not expect perfection from presenters. It is okay to make mistakes, just move forward with your presentation when that occurs and if you have to quickly correct an error or mistake, you should feel free to do so.
Control the Slides
Whenever possible make sure that you have a clicker/slide advancer available so that you can move the slides forward at your own pace and for a smooth and professional presentation versus having to tell someone else to do so on your behalf. Also practice on advancing the slides prior to your presentation in the proper order in which you want them displayed.
I am a big believer that presenters should always be gracious and should begin their talks by thanking both the people who have invited them to speak and the members of the audience who have taken time out of their busy schedules to listen to you speak.
Open your presentation in a strong manner that grabs the audience’s attention and builds positive momentum for the duration of your talk. Avoid wasting valuable time introducing yourself – hopefully your bio will be provided to attendees by the organizers of your talk or perhaps someone else will introduce you. Instead, work hard to capture the audience’s attention in the first few minutes of your presentation or you risk losing them. Consider opening your presentation with a provocative question, a memorable story or another technique that makes your audience want to listen to you versus checking out their smartphones.
Be Authentic & Energetic
Please be yourself – and not someone else – when delivering your presentations. I find it refreshing when presenters display their own personalities and styles when delivering presentations as they come across more authentic and genuine. I have seen too many presenters come across very robotic-like and stiff during their presentations. In my opinion, if you deliver a presentation in a monotone fashion, if you speak just like everyone else, if you speak in the language known as “corporate speak” or if you are just reading from your slides like a news anchor, you risk losing your audience very quickly. Also while we can all learn a lot from great speakers, still be sure to develop your own unique presence and style. Also please bring some energy and passion to your talk. The last thing people want to hear are presenters who are boring and lethargic like this teacher from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Make it very easy for your audience to digest and understand your presentation as the best presenters are highly skilled at “decomplexifying” topics. Avoid using verbose words, acronyms or corporate jargon. Also consider highlighting the main takeaways from you talk at both the beginning and end of your presentation.
Add a Video
We are all visual people and incorporating a compelling video into your presentation is a great way to convey messaging to an audience during your presentation – and it provides the presenter with a few minutes to catch her/his breath and regroup. In my experience I have seen many senior executives weave in videos into their presentations. Just make sure that your video works properly so that there will be no glitches during your presentation – and if you are presenting at an external conference/event please let their information technology people know in advance that you plan to show a video during your presentation. During my presentations on AI at the Fifth and Seventh Circuit judicial conferences I played a Seeing AI App video which demonstrates a unique application that was created by Microsoft and powered by AI to improve the lives of people with visual impairments. In fact, even Justice Kavanaugh liked the video and applauded along with the other attendees at the Seventh Circuit judicial conference after the video was finished.
In our smartphone and social media driven world always assume that whatever you say during a presentation can be easily recorded or quickly shared via social media. So if you are speaking at an external conference or event please be very thoughtful in what you say as you will be viewed as an ambassador of your employer or industry whether you like it our not.
Always try to leave some time at the end of your talk to answer questions from the audience as that provides additional opportunities for others to learn from you and it also demonstrates your transparency. Also if the audience is small, consider fielding questions during your presentation. However, if you do take questions during your presentation try to avoid going down the so-called “rathole” by spending too much time answering a specific question as you can always get into a deeper discussion with the person asking the question after the presentation is over. Remember to repeat the specific question from the audience member so that others can hear it and do your best in trying to address a question. If for whatever reason you do not know the answer to a particular question simply say that you do not know the answer, you will research that issue and get back to that person as soon as you can.
After your presentation is over proactively seek the feedback of attendees and ask them what you could have done to make your presentation more impactful. Usually at external conferences and events attendees are asked to provide formal feedback on all presenters so be sure to obtain such feedback from the conference/event organizers. Learn from such feedback so that you can become an even stronger presenter in the future.
Get a Coach
When needed do not be shy to enlist the support of an executive coach or trainer to help you be a stronger presenter. It is not a sign of weakness to do so, many senior executives have such coaches, and if your employer is unable to absorb an expense for a coach consider doing so on your own nickel as it is an investment in yourself and your career.
Embrace Diversity & Inclusion
Over the years I have been asked to speak at external conferences and panels where unfortunately the event’s organizers did not do a very good job at having a diverse slate of speakers – which is totally inexcusable in my opinion. Nowadays I refuse to participate in all male panels AKA “manels” and I am performing better due diligence with conference organizers to help ensure that the event I am speaking at will include an appropriate amount of diverse speakers before I commit to participating in such event. If you are a frequent speaker at events please be a strong advocate for greater diversity of speakers at industry events like Dr. Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health.
Best of luck being a stronger and more effective presenter. Remember that it is a journey, stay positive and never ever get discouraged.