Serious presentation tips from a stand-up comic

Hosted by Neil Amato

For about 20 years, John Garrett has been crafting presentations for audiences — first as a stand-up comedian and now as a speaker at corporate events and conferences. Garrett, a former practicing CPA, likes to tell jokes, but he’s quite serious about presentations, from the number of words on a slide to the importance of “reading the room.”

What you’ll learn from this episode:

  • Why speakers should think about how they would like the audience to feel about a presentation, instead of what knowledge they want to pass along.
  • The importance of customizing a presentation based on what you know about the audience.
  • The research-backed reason you should not have too many words on presentation slides.
  • Several options for how to handle a Q&A during a presentation.
  • Why a speaker introduction should be different from a speaker bio.
  • What Garrett has learned from award-winning speaker Mark Scharenbroich.

Play the episode below:

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Neil Amato: Today we’re going in a different direction about the professional development topic of improving our presentation skills, or my secret subtitle: Conferences 101. John, thanks for being here.

John Garrett: No. Thank you so much, man. A repeat offender. I’m honored that you asked me to come back, so thank you.

Amato: One of the few. One of the few. So, first, when someone gets a chance to present at a conference, how should a speaker approach the opportunity?

Garrett: Yeah, well, it’s such a big deal to be able to speak to an audience. I mean, they’re taking their time away from their jobs and their careers to come and hear what you have to say, and so you can’t take that lightly, certainly. And on the flip side, so many speakers want to convey, “here’s all the information I have in my head,” and they really forget, how do you want these people to feel? How do you want them to feel about you, about the information, about the conference as a whole? I think we forget that side. Instead, it’s just “I’m just going to data dump all of this and, basically, throw bricks at your face for an hour, and I hope you pick up some things.”

But the real key is that if there’s no emotion attached to information, then it’s not going to be retained. It’s psychologically proven. And so you have to attach some emotion to that, whether it’s — you know, I use humor, but there’s obviously sadness or stories that pull at the heart or your own enthusiasm for the material.

’Cause basically it’s like, “Why should I listen to this?” or “Why does this matter to me?” from an audience perspective, and so you really have to make sure that you let them know that upfront and you show that throughout your presentation: is “Look, if I don’t tell you this, I’m gonna probably blow up. Like my insides are gonna explode. I need to get this out” type of a perspective.

But, yeah, definitely forgetting to think about how do you want them to feel is — you know, do you want them to love this information? Do you want them to be angry about something? Do you want them to think differently? What do you want them to feel about it, and make sure that that’s part of your preparation for that.

Amato: So part of that preparation obviously is done in advance. You have to know what you’re gonna say. You have to have some emotion behind it. You have to think about it. But what about the preparation that’s done kind of on the fly — like right when you get up to speak or maybe if you’re watching the previous presentation — about kind of reading the audience?

Garrett: Yeah, absolutely. I mean certainly doing some research beforehand, if you’re able to get a list of the attendees, to find out who’s gonna be in the room. You can customize some of the stories. You can customize some of the examples for those people. If you’re in front of a group of manufacturing CFOs and you’re talking about public accounting examples, well, that doesn’t relate. Sure, they can maybe get it, but if you use an example from their world, it’s so much more impactful. So that’s the beforehand.

But in the moment, yeah, certainly watching the speaker beforehand, how they start, especially how they end, because then that — the audience is in one long play, if you will, and you’re one of the acts of the play. And so you have to fit in to that somehow, and so it can’t go from one thing to you. I mean, if you’re really strong and really know what you’re doing, you can certainly shift that gear but, otherwise, making a smooth transition from the prior speaker — some reference to that or whatever. But, yeah, you should certainly be in the room so you can get a temperature of the audience.

One thing that I do is I have a lot of music video parodies that I’ve created, just funny videos, and I show those at the beginning. So the person introduces, “But before John comes to the stage, he’s got this short video to show us.” And so it’s about a minute-and-a-half, two-minute music video parody. So, one, it’s like a preview at a movie: It gets people to be quiet and face this way; that’s what’s gonna happen now. Number two, wow, this is different than something we’ve ever seen before. Three, I’m laughing, so it’s gonna be funny.

But it also allows me to get a temperature of the audience. If they’re laughing really, really hard, I’m like, “Oh, this is gonna be great. They’re ready to go.” And if it’s crickets and they’re like, “I don’t know what to do right now because I’m at CPE, and am I supposed to laugh? Am I allowed to laugh? Is this unprofessional?” You know, like whatever. Then I’m like, “All right. Well, this is gonna be a little bit of work at the beginning.”

But you can certainly get a feel for the audience just being in the room and seeing that. And then how can I tailor it? If it’s a smaller audience, if they’re a little bit more reserved audience, then coming at ’em and being more animated is not gonna work. And so it’s just how do I need to approach them and meet them where they’re at and how can I get them to where I want them to be. But it’s like finding someone that’s lost. You have to find them and meet them where they are and then hold their hand and get them to where they should be. And so it’s kind of looking at it that way, you know, to have that sort of perspective.

Amato: So it hit me that we haven’t actually said who you are. You’ve mentioned humor. So maybe you should talk a little bit about, “What is this humor background you speak of?”

Garrett: Right. Yeah. So I graduated from the University of Notre Dame, went to PricewaterhouseCoopers after that, and, yeah, I did that for about four years and then went to industry. And, yeah, because around that time started to do some standup for fun, just as a hobby and then accidentally got good, and then in May of 2005 left the corporate world altogether to do stand-up full time all over the country. Wrote two Emmy-nominated award shows, which was pretty awesome. Opened for Louie Anderson in several casinos, Atlantic City Borgata, and I opened for the band Train, did some really cool stuff, over 2,000 times on stage.

And then about four or five years ago realized that I can kind of marry those two lives together and bring some of that to firm all-staff events or corporate meetings, off-site retreats, partner retreats, even in industry, you know, IT department retreats, things like that, and then conferences. And so it’s kind of the content that we talked about before, of people’s hobbies and passions are really the core of your organization’s culture.

So that’s that message, but there’s an experience that I also bring, that I’ve found, to events that make it something that people talk about afterwards, which is the whole reason that you’re asking people to not go to work. I mean that’s the thing I think a lot of event planners and people that are planning these sometimes forget, is it’s an investment in the people that are there, and those people have invested a lot of time and money to be there. And forget the venue cost and the coffee and the whatever. Let’s add up all the lost opportunity of billable time that those people are passing up to be there, and that’s a lot of money.

And so get an ROI on that. There’s content, but [can it] be delivered in a way that’s actually received, is really a big deal, because I was in the audience for these so many times. And the smartest person in the room that’s up there reading bullet points off of a slide — no one’s receiving that information. That’s what I get frustrated by, is seeing these events and being like, “Man, this could be so great. People could actually learn and change the way that they’re thinking so much.” But it’s not always the case.

Amato: So I think we’ve clearly established that John knows how to read a room; he knows how to entertain; he knows of what he speaks. So let’s talk about some presentation advice, beyond your words, about things that a speaker should show on a screen, if they should use the screen at all.

Garrett: Oh, well, yeah. So that is a huge problem. And I actually had this happen at a conference a couple of years ago. The gentleman right after me had a presentation deck that there were so many words on the slide, it actually went off the screen. Like he clearly didn’t fix his PowerPoint to – and he read, word for word, the slides. He just stood there at the podium, reading the slide. And I mean people checked out within five minutes. They’re like, “We’re done. We are not doing this anymore.”

And so there’s actually been studies that show that human beings cannot read and listen at the same time, which I’m sure all of our girlfriends and wives would say, “Absolutely.” I know my fiancée’s like, “Yep,” ’cause if I’m reading something and she’s talking to me and I just go, “Yeah, absolutely,” and she’s like, “It wasn’t a yes question. It was either/or, and you just said yes.”

And so but that’s the thing, is so many speakers, they throw up these slides of tons and tons of words, and so if the audience is reading that, then they’re not listening to whatever you’re saying. And if they’re listening to you, which is what they should be doing because you’re a speaker, then they’re not reading what you took the time to type on your slide — so, less words.

If you’re gonna have a bunch of bullet points, don’t throw up all the bullets at the same time. One bullet at a time. And then the second bullet appears when you address that one. And then the third bullet appears when you address that one. That way, then it’s not just a wall of text coming at the audience and they’re like, “Oh, man, what is all of this?” It’s just one at a time.

Amato: And those are like simple PowerPoint skills to get the bullets to appear.

Garrett: Oh, super simple. Yeah, you just have them as individual things, and then you just have each bullet appear on each click. So when you click the slide advancer, it doesn’t advance the slide. It actually just brings up the new bullet to unveil that, and then you talk about that.

And you don’t have to have the bullet and then everything about it because it’s just here’s the bullet and then I’m gonna talk about it. And so it’s a dance combination of here’s the slide and then here’s me talking about it, or it’s a trigger for you to remember a story or the information to convey.

Amato: You mentioned that when you speak, it seems like you kind of control the narrative on your intro.

Garrett: Oh, for sure. And so here’s the thing on intros. Never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever have someone read your bio. Ever. Period. No one cares. No one cares. Have you ever been sitting in an audience, listening to the introduction, which is a bio being read, and thinking, “Wow, I am the luckiest person ever to be able to hear this person speak”? No. Every time it’s, “Wow, can we get to the person actually speaking? Like we’re gonna take 5 minutes of the 50 minutes to hear whatever they’ve done in their life? I mean this is ridiculous. How about we just bring them up here and have them just talk?” Really, no one cares.

And so just “here’s a couple of cool things about this person, and here they are.” It doesn’t have to be the full bio that’s in the program about the conference. That’s completely different than an intro.

Amato: Right. So we’ve talked about the start. We’ve talked some about the middle of a session. Now we’re gonna talk about — I think you have strong feelings, in fact, so strong I might have to turn down the volume before you answer — on taking questions right at the end of a session.

Garrett: Oh, I didn’t know where you were going with this ’cause I have a lot of strong feelings about a lot of things. If you want to do a Q&A, don’t ever do this at the end of your session because the very end of your talk is one of the biggest things that people will remember. They’re gonna remember how you started. They’re gonna remember how you ended. And they’re gonna remember how you made them feel in the middle.

So if you end with — which is the way every Q&A session has ever ended that I’ve seen — “Oh, so I guess there’s no more questions. Thanks.” Wow. That’s like going to a fireworks show, having the grand finale, and then some pause and then a couple of bottle rockets. It’s like, “Wow, really? That was the end? Hmm. Yeah.” So if you’re gonna do Q&A, do it about two-thirds of the way through, three-quarters of the way through, and do it for a brief period of time that you’ve determined beforehand, and then close strong.

Amato: It’s kinda like a play. I mean you say it’s like an act of a play. The end of an act of a play does not say, “Hey, anyone have any questions?”

Garrett: Right. Yeah. And so I don’t do Q&A myself because I figure you came to hear me deliver content. If you have questions, we can talk after. I’ll be here. I’m hanging out type of a thing.

Amato: Is that something you feel like maybe you had to perfect as part of your comedy routine, was having a good ending?

Garrett: Probably. I mean it probably is. Yeah, there’s definitely a closer. When you’re a comedian and a performer, there’s an opener. You have the opening and you have the closing, and those are solid and I know they work, and it’s the same when I speak. I know they work on everybody all the time because I’ve polished it and I’ve worked on it, and you record and then you listen and you perfect it and you try it again.

And it’s me being in the audience. I’ve seen so many speakers when I was a CPA myself, and you’re just sitting there, and you’re like, “Man, I don’t even know why I’m supposed to listen to this or what this has to do with me” or “Why am I being told this information?”

Amato: And have you ever seen someone — at the danger of starting another Dennis Miller-like rant — feel like they have to read through all of their slides, even as time is like — they’re over time? They’re like, “Well, let me just get through a couple more slides.”

Garrett: Oh, no. That’s also a huge, huge thing. Whatever your time is, whenever you’re supposed to stop, that’s when you stop. It’s not, “Well, I prepared for 50 minutes, but we started late, but I’m still gonna do my 50 minutes.” No, you’re not. No, you’re not, because if you go long, then now the break is shorter or now everything else is bumped longer. And if everyone does an extra “well, it’s only seven minutes,” yeah, if everyone does that, then the last person now is 30 minutes late or an hour late from when they should have been and the audience is exhausted and they’re done. And so it’s not fair to the audience. It’s not fair to the other speakers. So, as a professional, yeah, be done when you’re supposed to be done.

Amato: One other thing you touched on, you talked about having an opener and a closer, and you know they work because they’re polished and you’ve practiced them. You’ve recorded them and listened to them. Not every speaker at an event is like you and is going to do that. I mean that’s your livelihood. But is there a way that they can kind of test their material?

Garrett: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s having some people that you trust and can give good feedback, that you work with, peers of yours that you’re friends with, people from your state society or people that you’ve met that have been at conferences like that, or even friends of yours that are out of the industry — I mean just people that you trust, that you can be like, ‘Hey, how does this sound?”

And opening with a story, opening with a statistic that’s gonna make people be like, “Wow, I did not know that.” Or opening with something about the conference itself, the room that you’re in. You’re there live and they’re there live, and they’ve seen all of the speakers and you’re just part of this, so it’s addressing the elephant in the room, like, “This is what I see” or “This is it” or “I was flying here and then this happened,” or just kind of a relatable story to be like, “I’m a human, you’re a human, and we’re all in this together, so let’s just hang out for a little bit,” and then you can get into your smarty-pants stuff later.

But you have to develop that relationship with the audience, and that’s a big deal. So I think it’s trying that out on people that you trust, sharing that with them and being like, “Hey, what do you think?” And then just kind of practicing it a couple of times and not being afraid to just go out there and give it a go.

I mean, the more confidence that you have in saying it, the more that people will go for it. If you’re really tentative about it and kind of asking them to maybe come along, they’re gonna be like, well — you know, it’s like sharks with blood in the water — they’re gonna be like, “Hmm, something’s fishy here. This seems weird. Let’s aargh — you know, pounce.”

Amato: So if, for one reason or another — maybe it was the previous speaker was boring or maybe your opening was you were ridiculously nervous — and you sense that the audience has checked out, is there any way, to continue the shark and fish and blood reference, to reel them back in?

Garrett: There you go. I see what you’re doing here. He’s a real pro. Yeah. I mean, you can just say – you could just say it. I mean, just say, “Hey —” It’s almost like when Brené Brown did her TEDx that blew up and she was being vulnerable. And she was like, “Look, I don’t know what I’m talking about. I mean this is — like I’m being vulnerable right now. I’ve never said this before. I’ve never admitted this out loud,” all that stuff. And I think people appreciate that, that genuineness that you have.

So if you’re like, “Hey, I’m kind of a little nervous” — I mean you could start with that, like, “Wow, this is an intimidating group. There’s a lot of really intelligent, good-looking people here, and I’m the one that’s gotta talk to you.” It’s just what you’re thinking. And if every one of them were in your shoes, they would be thinking the exact same thing. And so it’s just being relatable and just being honest.

It’s not acting like, look, I know everything and I am perfect all the time. No one wants to hear from that person because we don’t believe you because you’re lying. That’s why. Because you’re not perfect all the time, and you’re not amazing, and you’re not — you know, there’s a handful of people in the world that are like that, that you would actually be like, “Yeah. OK. Yeah, you are. I’ll listen.”

But for everyone else, it’s like, look, you just happen to be the one that’s up in front of the room talking to us, so let’s just dial down the how important you are, and we appreciate you being here, but, yeah, you wouldn’t be a speaker if there wasn’t an audience. You’d just be a weird person standing in an empty room.

So you really have to appreciate them being there, and you have to meet them where they’re at and admitting that you’re nervous or admitting like, “Hey, I feel like we got off the rails a little bit” if you’re like, “What happened? Where did that go?” And then people will tell you. They’ll tell you, especially if you’re on the East Coast, they’ll tell you. But what’s wrong with that? We’re not watching a video of you. It’s a real, live thing. It’s organic and it’s happening in the moment, and some things you’re gonna have to change on the fly and, yeah, if you feel like you lose them.

Now if it’s something that you’ve done a lot and you’re like, “Well, I’m supposed to lose them here because I’m gonna get them right back in two minutes,” that’s fine. But if it’s your first time or you don’t present a lot, then there’s no problem to be like, “Hey, I kinda feel like, did I lose you guys or what’s going on? Hey, are we doing all right? Just doing a quick check” type of a thing. There’s no problem with that, I don’t think.

Amato: Right.

Garrett: You’re just being honest.

Amato: People who hear you speak, see you speak, one, they’re like, “Oh, he’s done this before and maybe there are some things I can pick up from him.” But who does John Garrett pick things up from?

Garrett: Well, when it comes to podcasting, Neil. [Laughter]

Yeah, just I’m a member of the National Speakers Association, so other professional speakers. There’s a guy named Mark Scharenbroich, who he actually cut his teeth doing high school gymnasiums in the ’80s, which just thinking about that makes my skin crawl ’cause I would never, ever, ever be in a high school gymnasium full of high school kids — I mean, that’s insane. But he’s done it so much, and the way that he’s able to weave message with humor and heartfelt content, it’s so baked together that you can’t really unwind it. It’s really fascinating to watch.

And then all the TED speakers that out there, you watch them and you can learn what to do, and you can also learn what not to do at the same time. Just because they’re a TED speaker doesn’t mean that they’re a great speaker. Maybe they just have a great idea. But you can learn things that — and maybe it’s get away from that podium. Maybe it’s don’t stand behind it, because that’s such a barrier between you and the audience. It’s a physical barrier that’s there. They can’t connect with you as fully as they can if you’re just out away from that. If you’re nervous and you have to be behind it, that’s fine, but if you can step away from it some, then that allows the audience to connect to you without that barrier in between.

Amato: John, thank you. This has been a fun conversation. Anything to say in closing?

Garrett: Just remember what you’re doing it for and why, and what do you want the audience to feel, and two to three points — that’s it — in your talk. Don’t back the truck up on ’em. Two to three points. They’re not gonna remember anything more. And if you try and deliver too much content and too many points to them, they’re not gonna remember anything. And so two to three points, here’s how you can apply it, and then some questions, and then big finish. And then there you go. It’s really that simple.

Amato: Well, it looks like our microphone survived your enthusiasm, so that’s a good thing.

Garrett: Oh, awesome.

Amato: Again, thank you.

Garrett: Thank you for having me on, man. This was really, really fun. Thanks, Neil.