5/15/2008

Corporate Survival Guide: Slide Ruler

If corporate life is a war, then conferences are the critical skirmishes, turf wars that, one by one, capture the land parcels and postage-stamp lawns that eventually add up to a captured subdivision. These battles not only help lay the groundwork for the overall conflict, they also serve as tests of your will and help you hone your skirmishing skills.

The Corporate Warrior must attend conferences in their chosen field at least one a year, but ideally many more. The successful soldier will attend at least a conference per month, more if possible. If you occasionally forget what your family looks like and start referring to the hotel front desk person as "Hon," you'll know that you're reaching the right balance in your life.

Attending conferences is one thing, but knowing how to conduct yourself to achieve your Maximum Importance Factor is another thing entirely. This is why I've written up the terribly important tips below.

Unfortunately, I don't have the time to cover the gamut of effective conference attendance behavior, which includes such items as cutting to the front of the toilet line, sleeping through the keynotes, and selling the conference lunches to the homeless. So I'll just focus on one aspect of conferences here, albeit the most important one for a soldier of the bureaucracy:

Speaking at a Conference

Attending a conference is important; the opportunity to schmooze while eating a box lunch with strangers in a cavernous, damp hall is invaluable. But if at all possible, you should be a speaker at conferences. This is where the Big Importance is. Not only can you blow it out of proportion on your resume and make it sound like you presented "I Have a Dream 2," but you get an entire hour on stage to pontificate to others, an opportunity that you haven't had since your ex-wife took off.

Applying as a speaker for conferences turns out to be a simple task; you just need to lie. Acceptance of speakers is based on their session proposal. Whatever the conference is about, think about one of the hard, unsolved problems in the space that the conference is about and submit a talk abstract that claims a new and complete solution for that problem. Submit an outline for the presentation like this:

  1. Title: "At Last, a Solution to (some important problem)"
  2. Introduction
  3. Background: a history of the problem
  4. Context: where we are now with respect to the problem
  5. Solution: how I've solved it and you can too
  6. Future work
  7. Conclusion

Once you are accepted, write your slides about whatever you want. The people that accepted your talk won't look at your slides and probably won't even be at the conference, so contents of your slides are irrelevant.

Speaking Style

You want to be a speaker they remember, not one of the nameless throng of presenters at the conference. Wars are won by generals, not by committees, and the Corporate Battlefield is taken by the individual, not by the mob.

Most regular speakers speak authoritatively and articulately, handily balancing dense content with an easy speaking style. There are so many of these 'good speakers' out there that audiences are bored of this approach and will tune you out if you go this route. You want to stand out in their minds, to capture their imagination as well as their attention. To do this, you need to be different.

It doesn't matter how you do this, but pick particular mannerisms that will distinguish you from the rabble. Some possibilities include a pronounced limp or even an amputation, a strong stutter, a very slow drawl, or constant shouting. Any of these will make the audience sit up and pay attention. Using all of them would astonish them. But don't stop there; think about what you could do to personalize the experience. Can you dribble a basketball during the whole presentation? Or just dribble without the ball. What about firing off a shotgun to emphasize particular bullet points? Or whispering quietly without the microphone, so that the audience must listen closely. Use your imagination - and capture that of your audience.

Start with a Joke

A good presentation imparts information. A great one entertains. Strive for greatness and begin your presentations with a joke:

"Good afternoon. Or is it? We wouldn't know because we've been inside here all day! Ha, ha!" [smile]
This bit of levity does two things. First, it makes you one of them, with the important distinction that you're the one on stage with the microphone. It also adds a fantastic bit of humor to break the ice and make everyone look forward to the rest of your presentation. It is the last joke you will make, of course; you don't want to distract from the important material coming up. But your audience will hold out hope that you will crack another one as funny as the first, and will stick around through a lot of tedious slides just in case.

Presentation Contents

The most important part of your presentation is what's in your slides. This is what the conference attendees will take home with them on that CD that they never take out of the sleeve. This is what you'll be speaking to when you're on stage. And this is what you can tell your boss that you're working on feverishly for several weeks prior to the conference while you're actually just watching YouTube videos.

The most important slide is, of course, the title slide. It is the slide that must capture the attention of the people trying to sleep in the room, or that are walking by the room in an attempt to ditch the conference and hit a bar. But most importantly, it has your name on it. You must ensure that your name is huge on the slide. It might even be worth learning some of the fancy animation tricks in the presentation program to make your name blink and glow.

The second most important slide is one that is in the template that the conference organizers supplied to you: "Speaker's Qualifications." This is the slide where you are supposed to tell the audience why you're more qualified to be up there on stage than they are.

This is your moment, your opportunity to shine. When was the last time that someone other than the person in the mirror asked you to tell them how important you are?

Some of the best presentations I have seen have spent the entire time on this single slide. It is where you give the audience a good idea of Who You Are, potentially covering a difficult but significant birth, prestigious schooling, awards received in little league and debate teams, and tragic tales of the injustices of college rejection letters. But all of this is just the foundation for the real meat of the issue: your career. You should go over the details of the jobs you've held, the positions of responsibility you've held (or wanted to hold; the crowd does not know you and won't be able to spot the lies), the problems you've solved, the committees you've been on, the important meetings that you were almost invited to, and the executives you've glimpsed in the lunchroom. You should go over your goals and aspirations, talk about the people you'd like to meet some day, the types of meetings you'd like to chair, and the dress code you would enforce if you owned a company.

Ideally, you will continue this tirade until the end of your session. If you run out of things to say about yourself (note: if this is the case, you need more practice), say that you would have liked to finish the slides and have time for Q&A, but that you must vacate the stage so that the next speaker can get ready for their session. Then pack up and run out of the room before anyone can catch you and ask about your presentation.

And So, in Conclusion

Remember, in corporate war, as in life, presentation is everything. And conference presentation is even more.
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