McKinsey Presentation Tips – Gene Zelazny at Wharton

In the Spring of 2001, McKinsey presentation guru Gene Zelazny shared public speaking insights gleaned over his forty-plus year career (video at bottom of post).  Here, I have summarized his very well structured tips:



1. The only thing that matters at the end of your presentation is the answer to the question: Did I accomplish my objective.

2. Nervousness is natural and should be viewed as a sign of respect for your audience.  Accept that you will make mistakes.


I. Define the situation

A. Objective: Why are you presenting? What do you reasonably hope to accomplish? What do you expect from your audience?

  B. Audience: Who are the key decision makers with authority to say yes or no? How interested do you expect them to be in your recommendation? How knowledgeable are they about your topic? Why would they say no?

  C. Facts/Message

  D. Scope: Your material should be no more comprehensive than the minimum needed to accomplish your objective or the time your have with your audience.

  E. Media/Facilities: Use the simplest, most-appropriate tools for the task.

II. Design the presentation

A. Structure the story

1. Body: Do not chronologically recreate the months long discovery process you endured to find the recommendation. Start with the overall context (see II.A.2) and use the body for support.  The exception is when you have an audience that will be hostile to your recommendation and they need to be taken there more slowly.

2. Introduction: You want to light a fire in the first minute.  Use the PIP (purpose + importance + preview) approach.

3. Ending: Repeat your recommendations. Give your action program to turn your overall recommendation into reality. This includes: people responsible, time required, costs, etc.  Last, finish with Next Steps.  Note that the next steps should not be premeditated; instead, document the next steps that emerge from the discussion.

B. Sketch the storyboard

1. Visuals (based on Zelazny’s book: Say it With Charts)

a. Select the chart form

b. Write titles that ARE the message/point you want your audience to know

c. Use graphical treatment (ex: contrast) to draw attention to your message

(“Take responsibility for your point of view.”)

2. So-what

3. Transitions

C. Produce visual aids & handouts

III. Deliver the presentation

A. Rehearse: Once alone in a room out loud. Once in front of three or four constructive colleagues.

B. Set up the facilities: including physical setup, room layout, lighting, etc.

C. Set the tone

1. Competence

2. Conviction: You must believe in what you are recommending or someone else should present.

3. Enthusiasm/energy

D. Apply delivery skills

1. Verbal: natural, conversational word choice

2. Vocal: expand your range

3. Visual: open body language, natural gestures, and effective eye-contact (FYI: It is OK to occasionally refer to notes, but put them down when you are not referring to them.)

E. Work with visual aids: If your slide is complex, you will likely want to get close to it and point out the elements you are describing.

F. Handle questions: It is appropriate to say “I don’t know.”

1. Try to anticipate the three most difficult questions you will get from the most difficult people in the audience.

2. Listen the the question completely

3. If the question has multiple parts, it is OK to write down the parts

4. Pause to think

5. Repeat the question only if people were not likely to have heard it. Do not rephrase the question unless you must and, if so, you need to ask for permission to do so.

6. Assume everyone is interested in the answer so balance the eye-contact with the entire audience. (Tip: If you want to move on from the questioner, finish your eye contact with someone else.)

7. If you get a very difficult question, try to avoid saying, “I’ll get back to you later.”  Instead, it is OK to say, “I don’t know.”  Or, even better, consider reaching out to the rest of the audience to see if someone else has the answer!


Presentation SuperSummit: How to Deliver a TED Talk (Interview)

Here is a link to my session at  Marco Montemagno’s Presentation Super Summit.  I believe you will need to complete a registration form, but it is worth it for free access to all past talks as well as 19 public speaking experts including: Nick Morgan, Oren Klaff, and Scott Schwertly.


How Janna Levin Told Her Moth Story

In case you are not familiar with The Moth, it is a not-for-profit devoted to ‘true stories told live.’  The stories are short, intimate, and funny.  Most Moth storytellers, including Janna Levin, draw from one (or several) moments of profound personal transformation; more often than not, these moments were catalyzed by foolishness, futility, character flaws, or failure. While polished in plot, setting, and character development, the best Moth stories retain raw, honest sincerity and offer an uplifting moral.

In this post, I’ll deconstruct Janna Levin’s Life on a Mobius Strip, the lead-off story in The Moth’s new book.  I recommend you enjoy the video below and then read my analysis.


Tip #1: Develop a richly plotted story

Plot, setting, and dialog-rich character are the key elements that add texture to a story.  Let’s examine how Janna developed the first element, plot.  As shown in the table below, notice that Janna impressively wove dual-plots that converged in the end.

Boiled down, the essence of plot is the topsy-turvy journey characters must undergo is search of the answer to a profound question.  The types of questions that work best do not have an obvious or even a single answer; in fact, depending on the path taken, diametrically opposed answers may be equally viable.  Despite that challenge, storytellers (usually) share their answer to the question at the end in the form of a revelation that allows the protagonist to achieve her goals and live happily ever after.

Sometimes characters know the question the storyteller is exploring, and sometimes they do not.  In Plot A, Janna as protagonist knows the question and frames it early on as, “The hazard for a scientist working on something so esoteric is the possibility that it just might not be true or it might not be answerable.”  She is asking: Is it worth dedicating your professional life to fundamental scientific research when it is unlikely that your effort will amount to anything? In Plot B, in contrast, Janna as protagonist does not know the question: Do we get to choose who we love?

Quite cleverly, these two plots share a common theme summarized by the overarching question: Are our lives determined by fate or free will? At the end of her story, Janna discovers the answer in the symbolism of her anatomically unusual son – Love, like the universe, is unpredictable, improbable, circular, and worthwhile.

Plot A Plot B
Once upon a time and every day… (1) I was working at Berkeley as an astrophysicist obsessed with an esoteric, probably unanswerable topic (2) I met Warren, an uneducated obsessive compulsive musician, in a coffee shop in San Francisco
Until one day… (4) My fellowship ended and I accepted a job in Cambridge, England (3) Warren moved in with me
And because of that… (5) I shifted to the exciting topic of Black Holes and got to hang out with Nobel laureates (6) Warren worked as a dishwasher and focused on his music
Until finally… (8) I wrote a book about the universe and the unraveling of an obsessive compulsive mind (7) Our relationship ended explosively
And after that… (9) I returned to San Francisco… (10a) … and saw Warren working in the coffee shop
(10b) We married a year later
(10c) We had a son whose internal organs (harmlessly) are reversed
And the moral of the story is… (11) Love, like the universe, is unpredictable, improbable, circular, and worthwhile


Tip #2: Get laughs early and often

Compelling personal stories, including if not especially traumatic ones, need generous helpings of humor.  I find that humor can typically be classified in three buckets: superiority (ex: laughing at people with bad judgement, particularly those in positions of authority); surprise (ex: absurd overstatement or understatement); and emotional release as a salve to embarrassment, discomfort, or fear (ex: gallows and scatological humor).

Janna used all three types early and often.  She got her first laugh with superiority humor a mere nine seconds into her story with the following: “Einstein famously said, ‘Only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity.’ Then he added, ‘And I’m not so sure about the universe.” Though it may be painfully obvious, this is superiority humor because implies that people are infinitely stupid.  Since Einstein’s and Janna’s audiences were in on the joke, they get to feel superior to the rest of the world.

(Note: I advise speakers to avoid quoting famous people, especially at the opening or closing of a speech.  Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.  The main exception is when the speaker either knows the famous person or heard the quote first-hand.  Janna reveals another exception which is when the quote perfectly sets up the fundamental theme of the story and ties to a major story element – in this case, Janna is an astrophysicist studying whether or not the universe is infinite.)

Janna’s second laugh relied on surprise humor in the form of understatement as follows: “Warren came charging past me the first day I saw him and pinned me with his blue eyes and said, ‘You’re the astrophysicist.’  (pause) Which I knew.

She employed release humor a bit later on when she recounted living in low-cost accommodations upon arriving in England, “… we spend a few weeks in a coin-operated bed-sit in Brighton. If you ran out of pound coins, your electricity went off and the lights went out. We often ran out of pound coins, and towards the end we were so despondent we would just sit in the dark.”

By the end of her 16 minute 20 second story, Janna garnered 31 laughs – a rate of 1.9 laughs per minute. While shy of the stand-up comedy standard of four to six laughs-per-minute, the rate is both impressive and typical of entertaining personal stories. If the laughter density is too low, below 1 laugh-per minute, a story becomes heavy and dull; if the laughter density is too high, above 4 laughs per minute, a story loses meaning and becomes just a pleasant, in-the-moment experience.

 Tip #3: Be vulnerable

Over the course of the story, the audience learns that Janna holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from MIT, did post-doctoral work at Berkeley, hobnobbed with Stephen Hawking and Nobel laureates at Cambridge, wrote and published a book that “came out of me fully formed,” and has a healthy, happy family.  If Janna had led with all of this, or even any of this, the audience would have immediately disconnected from her.  However, she paired vulnerabilities with each of her bona fides – foolishness, frustration, futility, and failure always preceded good fortune:

  • The futile pursuit of fundamental science precedes Janna’s disclosure of being an MIT-trained astrophysicist.
  • The frustration of living in squalor precedes Janna’s opportunity to work at Cambridge with Stephen Hawking.
  • The failure of her relationship precedes Janna’s book deal.
  • The foolishness of falling in love with the wrong kind of man precedes Janna’s happy family life.


The Bottom Line

While I have touched on the most powerful insights that I drew from Janna’s story, there is much more richness to explore in character and setting development as well as in Janna’s engagingly raw verbal and non-verbal delivery.  Please listen to her story and share what struck you as valuable in the comments section below.

Actionable Tips From Dave Paradi’s 2013 Annoying PowerPoint Survey

With so many opinions expressed about public speaking (something I too am guilty of),  I was excited to see Dave Paradi’s fact-based survey exploring the most annoying behaviors of presenters.

With Dave’s permission, I have taken the annoyances he found and transformed them into actionable tips:


I. Content

– Have a clear, primary purpose (to inform, persuade, inspire, or entertain)

– Have a single message framed from the audience’s perspective as: To (what) so that (why/outcome/benefit). This will help eliminate information overload and ‘data dump.’

– Apply a narrative flow that supports your purpose & message

– Customize your content (at least to a degree) for your specific audience


II. Delivery

– Instead of reading text from slides, use them as a launching and landing point

– Limit the amount of time you spend facing the screen

– Rehearse to figure out what slides belong in your presentation. Delete or Appendix the rest.  Never skip slides.

– “Mute” your slide by going to black (hit the “b” key) when you want to focus your audience’s attention on you

– Use pauses to eliminate filler words

– Plan where you will stand and where you will move to (avoid standing projector’s line-of-sight)


III. Design

– Make sure text is large enough to be read easily by people seated in the back of the room

– Proofread your slides to eliminate typos

– Use short bursts of text (or bullets), not full sentences

– Use the simplest diagram possible to support/prove the message of a slide. (Tables are rarely the best choice.)

– Use a harmonious color palette and apply intentional use of contrast

– Avoid clip-art and random images that just dress-up a slide

– Use video sparingly and only when contextually relevant (and well tested in the environment/room you present in)

– Builds are fine but avoid decorative animation


IV. Odds & Ends

– Ask yourself if the topic warrants a presentation or could be handled more efficiently with an email or a conversation

– Recognize that design software can be used to create presentations or documents.  Create one or the other depending on where and how you will use it.


Try it Out!

Dave Paradi also has a couple great, free self-assessments.  Check them out at:

Best Practices for Effective PowerPoint Presentations Assessment

PowerPoint Skills Inventory

How Dan Pallotta Delivered His TED Talk

Dan Pallotta is a humanitarian, author, speaker, social entrepreneur, and activist involved with countless charities.  His focus is primarily on heath and human services causes.  His TED2013 talk already has nearly 3 million views.  In this post, I deconstruct the factors that make his talk so popular.


Tip 1: Share an idea worth spreading

The most powerful TED Talks generally have a single idea worth spreading.  Having more than one tends to water down the message. However, Dan’s talk proves the exception to the rule by combining two intrinsically linked ideas where one is at the macro/societal level and the other is at the personal level.

a. (Macro/Societal) To scale charitable giving from 2% of GDP to 3% of GDP, focusing the resulting $150 billion increase on health & human services charities so that we can have real change

b. (Personal): To judge charities on the scale of their dreams, their progress, and their resources so that the not-for-profit sector can play a massive role on behalf of people in most desperate need


Tip 2: Build the narrative by raising and answering a series of questions

In How to Deliver a TED Talk, I outlined three structures for highly-effective presentations. One is the classical hero’s journey structure. The second is the inductive logic group which consists of an introduction, a series of supporting points that could be re-ordered without much loss of clarity, and a conclusion.  Dan went with the third approach which I call a logic chain.  A good way to spot a logic chain is that the speaker builds his or her narrative by raising and answering a series of questions that grow progressively more nuanced and profound.


Element Premise Proof
Ice Breaker (1) I’m here to talk about social innovation and social entrepreneurship.  (2) I have triplets and am gay which is the most socially innovative thing I have done.
Introduction (3) What we have been taught about the NFP sector is undermining the causes we love.  (none)
Part 1 (4) Does the NFP sector have a role to play in changing the world with the emergence of FP social business? (5) FP sector is having a positive impact. But, NFP establishes a markets for laughter, compassion, and love (ex. Center for the Developmentally Disabled) that creates a world that works for everyone.
Part 2 (6) But why is the NFP sector struggling to affect change in cancer, homelessness, poverty? (7) The NFP rulebook is broken in 5 ways:
a.Incentive compensation viewed as parasitic, so top MBAs stay away
b.Paid advertising viewed as wasteful overhead
c.Risk-taking is punished by reputation destruction
d.NFPs face expectation of instant (time) return-on-investment.
e. NFPs have no access to capital markets so few NFPs have achieved scale
Part 3 (8) Why do we impose these restrictions on NFP sector? (9) Charity was way for Puritans to do penance at 5 cents on the dollar for their profit-seeking behavior. In 400 years, nothing has intervened to change this.
Part 4 (10) How does this ideology get policed today? (11) “This ideology gets policed by the question, ‘What percentage of my donation goes to the cause versus overhead?’” We confuse morality with frugality.
Conclusion (12a) To scale charitable giving from 2% of GDP to 3% of GDP, focusing the  resulting $150 billion increase on health & human services charities so that  we can drive real change
(12b)  To assess charities on the scale of their dreams, their progress, and their resources so that the NFP sector can play a massive role on behalf of those most desperately in need

(Note: NFP = Not-For-Profit; FP=For-Profit)


Tip 3:  Expose your passion and your emotion

Every speaker has a persona. The more their on-stage persona matches their off-stage persona, the more powerful the talk.  For the majority of his talk, Dan’s (genuine) tone is a thoughtful and concerned humanitarian.  At 14:45, his tone intensifies (genuinely) to outraged activist when he says, “On one day, all 350 of our great employees lost their jobs (pause to compose himself) because they were labeled as overhead.”

At 17:20, he makes one more (genuine) tone shift to hopeful visionary when he says, “The next time you are looking at a charity, don’t ask about the rate of their overhead. Ask about the scale of their dreams, their Apple, Google, Amazon scale dreams, how they measure their progress toward those dreams, and what resources they need to make them come true regardless of what the overhead is…”


Tip 4: Stay contextually relevant at all time

Dan’s talk is extremely powerful, but I have one tiny nit to pick.  Everything inside a talk should be contextually relevant to the idea worth spreading.  I am not a big fan of Ice-breakers at the beginning of talks.  They can work when they bridge the content of previous speakers to a new theme as Ken Robinson did in the beginning of his TED Talk.

At the beginning of his talk, Dan built rapport with his audience by introducing the audience to a photo of his children; but, in hindsight, his personal life did not have strong contextual relevance to the rest of his material.  Additionally, at the end of his talk, Dan used a video to ‘call-back’ his lovely children who said,  “That would be a real social innovation.”  To me, this ending felt formulaic and took away from the momentum he built.  While his kids are cute and touching, I did not feel they belonged in this talk – they might have been an effective addition if he were talking mainly about children’s charities.

Again, this was a small nit and other viewers could easily argue that his icebreaker and video clip ending were clever and emotionally effective.  Either way, his powerful talk earned him a standing ovation and, more importantly, will drive critical change in charitable giving.

Zen and the Art of Public Speaking

Though I spend most of my time reading books about public speaking and leadership, every so often I consume five books on a topic far outside of what I have exposed myself to in the past.  While I do this mostly for intellectual enjoyment, I often find concepts and techniques to apply to public speaking.  Over the years, I used this approach to explore screenplay writing, fiction, and comedy, three genres that are gold mines for speakers.

Inspired by the fact that Steve Jobs left “The Autobiography of a Yogi” as a final gift to mourners at his funeral, I recently decided to read up on Eastern religion – particularly Buddhism.  While I have gained no more than a rudimentary, ‘arm-chair’ understanding, the core concepts of mindfulness and compassion that comprise enlightenment reminded me of the journey toward public speaking mastery.

To explore this analogy, I’ll use Noel Burch’s ‘Conscious Competence” learning model:

Stage I – Unconscious incompetence: This stage is best described as obliviousness.  A public speaker in this stage would stand up without fear, deliver a terrible presentation, and then sit back down again without awareness of how poor their speech went.  While I have not encountered many people in this stage, I imagine there are two sub-types: (a) those deluded about their ability (b) those who could care less about public speaking.

Stage II – Conscious incompetence:  In this stage, an individual knows public speaking is a critical part of sharing ideas worth spreading (i.e. they know “WHY”), but they have not yet learned “HOW” to be an effective communicator.  From what I can tell, this is where most people are. This is also the stage where natural speaking anxiety causes fear.

Stage III – Conscious competence: I like to refer to individuals in this stage as “expert speakers.”  They know the why and the how of public speaking.  They know, for example, to speak loud and slow to be authoritative or to make deliberate eye-contact for 3 seconds in a random pattern.

Stage IV – Unconscious competence: Here is where Buddhism comes back into the picture.  Individuals in this stage are “enlightened speakers;” they are “experts who speak” rather than “expert speakers.”  In my own experience, this is actually a state rather than a stage since, like enlightenment, it happens in the delightful situations where you are both fully mindful and compassionate. It is a state Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as Flow.  To be mindful in the public speaking context is to be one with your content, free of expectations of what may or may not result from your speech.  To be compassionate in the public speaking context is to speak purely in the service of your audience and without self-judgement.

The fascinating thing to me about being in the Stage IV, enlightened speaking state is that you do not get there by learning. You get there by unlearning.  Watch a very young child speak; they inspire with great passion and no fear.  Enlightened speaking is inside all of us; we simply have share ideas we are passionate about with people we care about and without regard for what came before or what will come after.