Shhhhh! | 3 Presentation Secrets I Pinched From the World’s Leading Engagement Agency  


My passion for presenting started on my first day of university.

It was 1992, Ebeneezer Goode was number 1 and I found myself sitting in a dusty old lecture theatre with 100 other students waiting for our first lecture to start.

It was on a subject mysteriously called ‘Systems Thinking’.

The doors at the back of the room creaked open and the lecturer, a tall and imposing chap, strode purposefully into the room. He stood at the lectern, paused, brushed one hand through his long hair and eyed up the room. He then spoke, measured and quietly, as if he was Gandalf sharing a piece of long forgotten wisdom.

Here’s a picture of the actual lecture theatre.

Everybody in the lecture theatre seemed to take a breath and collectively lean in.

He said something along these lines: “Good morning ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Hull. In this course, you are going to learn about some of the complexities of how organisations operate and work together. And the best way I can introduce you to this is to draw you a picture”.

At which point he got out a pen and a sheet of acetate and switched on the overhead projector. (And for those of you who remember those horrible machines from hell, let’s thank god we don’t have to use them anymore!)

He then wrote two words in capitals in the centre of the page that flashed up on the projector screen. These were: “LONDON” and “PROSTITUTION”.

I can safely say he had grabbed the attention of everybody in the room.

I sat there mesmerised yet puzzled. Was I in the right room? Should I be copying this in my book? Would I be getting an exam question on prostitution?

He then proceeded to sketch out how prostitution worked in London. He drew this out (using a technique called a ‘rich picture’) showing the interactions between various groups such as prostitutes, law enforcement, social services, pimps, impact on society, relationships between groups, how information and money was exchanged etc.

I turned to the hippie in the Levellers tie dye hoody next to me and whispered “I wasn’t expecting this; Hull is really quite progressive isn’t it?”.

That day ignited something in me that I have had all through my career where I’ve been fascinated by presentations and how people use different techniques to pitch ideas to others.

I’m always interested in learning different techniques for sharing information and telling stories. Over the years, I’ve tried out various approaches – some have worked well. Some not so well. I’ve taken risks, I’ve given presentations with no slides. I’ve told stories. I’ve used props. Made mini movies. Built Prezi’s. I once dressed up as a rock star…

Here’s a pic of me as a rock star emcee hosting an all employee event for the awesome team at SAS.  Scariest. Day. Ever.

You name it, I’ve tried it. Just call me a presentation geek.

So, last year I jumped at the chance when I got an amazing opportunity to work with upstage – the world’s leading customer and employee engagement agency and support some of their fantastic clients with their transformation programmes.

I want to share some very interesting ‘secret’ techniques I leaned whilst there around how we crafted, pitched and sold new ideas to their existing and prospective clients. Why do I consider these secrets? Because they seemed to subtly break the rules of how to approach pitching and presenting.

Now, of course I’m not going into the nitty gritty and share the family jewels of how upstage do things – because that is their secret sauce.  However, I can share a few things that really stood out to me that are very transferable. (And massive thanks to their awesome and extremely handsome CEO Phil White for letting me do this!)

Secret #1 – Recruit others

Typically, when we come to create presentations, we usually do this on our own don’t we? I know I often have. It’s just the way we’ve learnt to do it right? And then the ego comes into play – because a presentation is a personal thing. Occasionally, other people may get drafted in to help gather feedback, but it’s often a solo effort.

So, the first thing I learned at upstage was to unlearn this thinking, check the ego at the door and see who was around you that I could recruit and engage, even for an ideas knock around session, to craft ideas that could be used in a presentation.

This thinking isn’t new. In America, many of the big budget TV shows such as Saturday Night Live adopt a strategy to craft content through something called a “writing room”. In this approach, a group of writers work together to create and develop content.

Here’s a shot of the Saturday Night Live Writing Room in action.

I saw the writing room method in action daily during my time at upstage. This would involve pulling different members of the team together to work through a challenge a client was having and to brainstorm ideas on how that could be approached. It was high energy stuff.

Everything we did went through this approach, without fail. It would always result in new ideas being presented and suggestions for how the key messages could be delivered in each slide. By riffing and playing on ideas, new magical ideas started to form.

Secret #2 – Get personal

Helping people understand what they are getting is key in a presentation; it needs to be personal. And getting personal in presentations is typically a bit of a no-no, isn’t it? Here’s the next secret – make things personal.

In my time at upstage, we didn’t just talk in theory – we really got deep down and personal by clearly saying what was going to happen. How? By using a technique called ‘activations’. Think of an activation like an ‘mini event’ that is described so clearly, after you have heard it you think – ‘I get what this is all about now!’.

Here’s an example: I was involved in creating a presentation for a pitch one day and we needed to describe how we would physically transfer a group of very important people from one place to another during a conference. So, we made the journey an activation opportunity by describing how 2 buskers who would magically appear and serenade our group of people between the locations. We created a story outline on a few slides that described the experience and used images, music and catchy lines with interesting fonts. Each slide looked beautiful. What we had done was to personalise our message.

The client was sold and the feedback we got on the day was incredible – it got people ready for the main event, because it was personal and engaging. So, think about any activations you can use as part of your presentation, and make them personal.

Secret #3 – Thread stories

I thought I was pretty good at telling stories in my presentations. How wrong I was.

Here’s what I used to do; I would write my presentation out and get all the key stuff in that I wanted to say to pitch my idea. I would then front load it with a story. So far so good, right? Wrong! Because I’d never return to the story. I’d leave it hanging there and wouldn’t mention the story again and dive right into my warm comfy security blanket of my content. I’d then end the presentation and say ‘thanks everyone, any questions?’ The result? My audience’s passions weren’t set on fire and I had missed opportunities to get people really engaged.

Here’s the secret I learned: a good, engaging story used throughout the presentation is key to hook and truly engage people.

The story needs to be woven into the very fabric of the presentation – think of it like a ‘red thread’ that people can follow from start to end. The story would be used to set up the presentation, and every so often part of the story would be told – it had a beginning, middle and end. All the while, the audience would hear the key messages using a ‘drip-drip-drip’ effect while being engaged during the presentation.

The stories we used really resonated with the audience when we pitched ideas to them because they were truly engaged, helped sell our message and kept things joined up. It got to the point where clients were conditioned to expect to be engaged – and in the process made the pitching process that little bit easier. How cool is that?

But there’s a bigger picture at play here…

Let’s face it. The world seems to have pivoted massively over the last twelve months. We seem to have entered a world of huge political and social upheaval, with strange new phrases like ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ in the headlines daily. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO even said recently that fake news was killing people’s minds. We are in danger of moving apart instead of pulling together.

Now more than ever, people need authentic and personal engagement. And this presents an opportunity for each of us to make ‘an engaging difference’ when we present to each other.


I’m not talking of ‘shock and awe’ like my university professor used all those years ago, but adopting more subtle, interactive techniques that I pinched from upstage

Why? Because the world really needs it – really needs all of us – to truly engage each other (I’m thinking along the lines of a massive crowd sourced butterfly effect!). I’m sure we all AIM to do this but, sometimes, for whatever reasons – time, audience, message etc. – it’s easy to just dive into the detail, I know sometimes I do, even today. And please believe me that I am not preaching from the pulpit here, it’s just my take on things.

This is the bottom line everyone, it’s time we always consider engagement as a key element each time we present – and in the process make the world a better place.

It’s time to ENGAGE.

A cheeky selfie with the awesome upstage team at their Christmas Party!

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