Slidegenius, Inc.

The Overwhelmed Creative Team: A Cautionary “Design Ops” Tale

Back in 2011, fresh out of college, I worked for an advertising agency in New York City as an account manager.

It was one of the most stressful jobs I’ve ever had.

One of my responsibilities was overseeing the creation of my clients’ pitch decks, which — unsurprisingly — weren’t considered “mission critical” deliverables for the creative team.

There was never time to be idle; we were always on the go, brainstorming, producing content, and running to client meetings. The job was stressful but we were fortunate to have the right people that were easy to work with, passionate, and fun.

Over the next year though, the team began to thin. Some members left for bigger opportunities, others were poached by competing agencies, and some even started their own businesses.

Eventually, most of our veterans in the creative department were gone and the empty seats were filled with junior art directors and copywriters. 

I remember being worried about how things would unfold without some of the key employees I had come to rely on. Everyone had to step up. 

And for a while, everything ran smoothly. But as the agency grew and workloads increased, our internal design processes began to break down.

The creative team — consisting mostly of junior employees — were overwhelmed with pitch deck projects. At one point, they were unable to handle one of the decks assigned to them.

I remember it like it was yesterday…

As the account manager, I had to keep things moving and decided to just make the deck myself. 

Never did I think creating the PowerPoint deck would stress me out. After all, I’d used the tool for years to present my school reports and projects. The pre-loaded animations were there for the choosing and I knew I could find some cool-looking pre-designed templates somewhere online and simply visit YouTube for “design hack” tutorials.

Boy was I wrong.

See, the problem is that we’ve all worked with PowerPoint for years (even decades) and we trick ourselves into thinking we know enough.

Think about that for a moment.

That’s basically saying because we’ve driven cars since we were 16 years old, we feel comfortable with how the machine works.

In reality, most of us only know how to get from Point A to Point B (in most cases), and keep ourselves comfortable along the way.

We don’t know how to make the car more fuel efficient, or give it more horsepower to make it faster, or how to adjust the shocks for more on-road comfort or off-road capability—things that would undoubtedly benefit us in our week-to-week (depending on one’s lifestyle of course).

Instead, we use the same vehicle in its original configuration until it’s time to move on—because that’s what we’re used to.

If you think about it, that’s basically the same as downloading a pre-designed template that appears suitable, uploading content, and then hitting the proverbial gas pedal.

I felt I knew enough about PowerPoint to make the pitch deck acceptable.

Let’s be clear: when the goal for any project is “acceptable,” it’s safe to assume—in this day and age—it probably won’t move any needles in the right direction.

To no-one’s surprise, I came up with an almost plain deck with cheesy animations. You know, your typical box-in, appear, dissolve-type effects—stuff that causes Death by PowerPoint and makes you look old.

Fortunately, my presentation skills were good enough to outshine my unoriginal slides and the materials my creative team came up with were downright beautiful. 

But just seeing how the deck came out was a humbling experience. It was definitely something I was not proud of. I used to be so giddy presenting with the spectacular decks that our creative team came up with, but for this presentation, my deck was as good as just writing on the board with a marker

Heck, a whiteboard session might have even been more engaging than what I came up with. What’s worse is I could’ve had more hours to sleep and focus on what I was going to say rather than spend so much time on the deck.

The lesson here is pretty clear: we aren’t necessarily experts when we’ve done something many times, and just knowing “enough” is never good enough in high stakes environments like sales presentations, boardroom meetings, and keynote speeches (among others).

Whether you’re guiding a prospect through a product demo, trying to garner buy-in in the boardroom, or announcing upcoming products at your company’s annual internal conference, your ability to achieve the goals you set out to accomplish with your presentation rests on four key factors: 

1) Your presentation skills (obviously)

2) The narrative of your presentation

3) The design quality of your visual aid (typically a PowerPoint deck), and

4) MOST IMPORTANTLY: your audience’s level of engagement

Thankfully, I had the first one—but imagine what my team could have accomplished if we had all four!

Extreme Presenting: An Example from Ted Cruz

Amid the craze of the government shutdown fueled by heated debate inside our federal government, one almost unbelievable phenomenon was the 21-hour filibuster by Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz.

For those needing a U.S. history reminder, a filibuster is essentially when an elected official prevents anyone in his legislative body from voting by refusing to end the debate, usually, by hogging the floor talking. It’s an age-old tactic in the politician’s playbook, dating all the way back to Ancient Rome, where Roman Senator Cato the Young would give long, drawn-out speeches until nightfall to foil the political maneuvers of Julius Caesar.

This strategy still thrives in today’s political landscape, and it’s gotten no less extreme. While Cruz’s 21-hour speech may seem unfathomable, there have been several other extreme examples in modern politics. But how do these politicians prepare for these dauntingly long presentations? Here’re a few famously employed tactics that have allowed politicians to remain at the podium long after hours.

 

Not to be crude, but to address many of us have probably wondered: How do these politicians not run off to the restroom after all these hours at the podium?  

There’s actually been a lot of unanswered questions surrounding this mystery, perhaps because it’s one we might not want the answer to.

wendy-davis3-e1372439462263Texas State Senator Wendy Davis reportedly donned a catheter during her 11-hour filibuster of an abortion bill earlier this year. The 50-year-old democrat also wore pink running shoes and a back brace to remain standing and speaking to block this legislation, a move that was apparently effective, resulting in the bill failing.

 

 

 

 

Steam baths?

strom
The longest filibuster by a lone senator occurred in 1957, when Strom Thurmond of North Carolina spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes, from 8:54 p.m. on August 28, 1957 and did not stop until 9:12 p.m. on the 29th, in an attempt to prevent the Civil Rights Act of 1957 from passing. In order to prepare for this insanely long speaking engagement, Thurmond took steam baths up until the day of his speech in order to dehydrate himself, “ridding himself of any access liquid.” While speaking, other senators purposefully asked lengthy questions in order for Thurmond to quickly take a break and gobble down a sandwich in the cloakroom before running back to the stage.

 

 

 

21 hours of things to say

I don’t care how good of a speaker you are, even my chattiest acquaintances would have Greeneggtrouble finding things to talk about for half that time. While Senator Cruz spoke primarily about the Affordable Care Act,  A.K.A. Obamacare, he made a few off-color references in order to keep his train of thought going, bringing in Darth Vader and even reciting the famous Dr. Seuss children’s book, “Green Eggs and Ham.”

 

 

 

 

My personal favorite filibuster?

Well, it’s not exactly real, but it’s the most entertaining to me. For those of you fellow Parks and Recreation fans, you might remember comedian Patton Oswalt guest starring on an episode this past season, where he ‘citizen filibustered’ the Pawnee City Council from amending its constitution.

The episode that aired only showed a small bit of what Oswald actually said. In reality, Oswald showed up, the show didn’t give him a script and just told him to “start talking.”

 

References:

Filibuster”. Dictionary.com. The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.

Putting Your Presentation before Your PowerPoint.SlideGenius. December 9, 2013.

Root, Jay. “Ted Cruz Ends 2013 As He Began It: No Apologies.The Huffington Post. December 19, 2013.

A Guide to Tackling Stage Fright

In a corporate or professional presentation, there’s rarely a shortage of pressure to impress. We usually only have one shot with a client or investor, so it’s important to always make it count. Often heightened by this pressure not to choke, many experience serious stage fright when a presentation looms in the near future.

Shockingly, some people prefer this to public speaking.
Shockingly, some people prefer this to public speaking.

Most of us experience at least some sort of nervousness when speaking in public. While this can range from just mild discomfort to full-on panic, it’s an extremely common phenomenon. In fact, a recent study gave people the option between a mild electroshock and giving a short speech, and most people chose electrocution!

The adrenaline we experience prior to a presentation can be a distraction or a tool to help you focus; it’s all a matter of embracing it correctly. Here are a few tips to help channel your heightened anticipation in a positive way.

Maintain a Positive Outlook

It’s often instinctual to begin running through every possible awful thing that could go wrong during a speech when we become anxious about it. Getting stuck in a negative cycle of thought doesn’t do anyone any good, and if anything, over thinking these problems increases their chance of actually occurring.

Instead of sitting and brooding over what might go wrong, channel your energy toward something positive. When you feel yourself becoming anxious about a future presentation, address it in a constructive way. Run through your speech aloud or in your head, go through and edit your PowerPoint, or rethink your talking points. This will not only improve your speech, but this will also help provide you with a healthy distraction.

 

A Healthy Body and Mind are Key

Previously, we wrote about controlling one’s physiology for a presentation, which cannot be overstressed, especially when stage fright is a factor. Leading up to the presentation, avoid sugar, caffeine, and alcohol as much as possible.

Going for a run or taking a yoga class can help your body process stress much more effectively, which can help in alleviating the physical symptoms of stage fright.

Meditation can be a practical tool in relaxing and managing stress.
Meditation can be a practical tool in relaxing and managing stress.

Care for your mental health should be just as important. Deep breathing exercises are a great way to calm yourself down leading up a speech. Other alternatives are taking long walks or practicing meditation. Don’t underestimate these types of exercises when you encounter stressful situations.

Keep Your Focus on the Audience

Overcoming stage fright won’t be fixed overnight. Even if you do your best to follow the tips listed above, you may still be overwrought with nerves when it comes to show time. Here, it’s important to reinforce why you’re giving the speech: to present something of value to the audience. Try to put your focus on the message you’ll convey rather than being terrified about having to convey a message.

Most importantly, don’t shy away from fear of presenting. The more you practice and embrace speaking opportunities, the better and more comfortable you’ll be doing so.

Public Speaking Lessons to Take Away from “The King’s Speech”

Released to huge acclaim from audiences and critics in 2011, The King’s Speech details King George VI’s struggle to overcome his stammer and fear of public speaking, and his relationship with his unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue.

While it’s a very captivating movie, it also has a lot of practical application as a guide to public speaking, and there are many lessons to learn from the challenges King George VI overcame during his journey in becoming an effective public speaker.

Confidence is Key

The primary struggle of The King’s Speech is King George VI’s struggle to learn to trust his voice. Throughout the film, he learned to become comfortable in his own skin and accept his faults, which translated to overcoming his stutter.

Confidence is imperative to giving an effective presentation, especially during an investor or interview presentation where instilling confidence in one’s audience is a must. It’s difficult to fake sincere confidence, which emanates throughout your presentation in a variety of ways, but if you can’t find confidence in your ability to speak in public, a good substitute is to reassure yourself with confidence for what you’re presenting.

During the film, a primary reason “Bertie” developed his stammer and fear of public speaking was because he got caught in a cycle of negative reinforcement, where previous public speaking failures caused him to lose confidence in himself, and resulted in him continuing to give poor speeches because of it. After a bad presentation, it’s important to learn from your mistakes, then forget about the bad performance and move forward.

Realize There is Room for Improvement

Chances are you’re not the greatest presenter or public speaker on the planet. There is always room for improvement. However, for those who struggle with public speaking, the greater challenge isn’t realizing you have a problem, but openly addressing it.

Whether you seek to improve your public speaking privately, with a college course or elsewhere, the most important factor is that you are addressing the fact that public speaking is a challenge for you. Running and hiding from it will do nothing but make the problem worse.

One of my favorite moments in The King’s Speech was the conversation between “Bertie” and his speech therapist when he admitted he needed help:

“Lionel Logue: What was your earliest memory?
King George VI: I’m not… -here to discuss… -personal matters.
Lionel Logue: Why are you here then?
King George VI: Because I bloody well stammer!”

Practice

Every great presenter, especially those whose skill appears to be effortless and relaxed, became great through practice and repetition.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book, “Outliers,” he presents the “10-hour rule” as the reason for success behind Bill Gates’ wealth and business success and the enormous popularity of the Beatles. He theorizes that these two entities had approximately 10,000 hours of exposure to their craft, which is what made them become so legendary.

Practice and experience produces success. Great presentations aren’t improvised. If you want to “wow” an audience, you have to put in the work.

Rehearse your presentation until it’s ingrained in your memory–to the point of monotony. Orchestrate your talking points with your visual aid.

Check out ‘The King’s Speech’ if you haven’t seen it yet. It’s a captivating film where you can find lessons ingrained within the challenges overcome by this tongue-tied monarch.