How I made a rocking conference presentation

simon presenting again
simon presenting

I recently closed Andrew & Pete‘s first Atomic-X conference – it’s a mini-conference leading into a Christmas party. Any why the hell not, eh? Before I go into detail of how I did it and how the presentation went, you need to know the stakes.

Andrew & Pete run Atomic, a marketing-and-business-development community that I’m part of. Two things are important, in terms of the presentation’s fall-out:

  • I’m known there as a presentation expert; the group looks to my expertise in the area of presenting; and
  • I’ve got to see these people online again and again (and again, and again!) after the event – they’re not strangers I’m never going to see again

Essentially, if I didn’t do a cracking presentation at the conference it was going to be humiliating. So here’s a personal confession – I let myself concentrate a little on second order impact as I designed the presentation. Having a long term impact is great, and generally my moral compass says my presentations should concentrate on impact, not flashy-in-the-room-presentations, but this time part of my success was going to be how well the presentation went down in the room. That’s not my normal M.O. but I thought about it long and hard and decided a bit more hype-in-the-room-style-presentation was appropriate for this conference, with this audience.

After all, I’d seen this group of people at conferences before.

Don’t panic – the story has a happy ending! 🙂 You’ll probably get that idea if you read this message I got from Laura (one of the photographers at the even) not long after the presentations ended. (Want Laura? Go here.)

So what did I put into my presentation?

One looooong coffee-meeting (at Central Bean if anyone cares) with Andrew & Pete came up with a “sort-of” idea. The theme of the conference was to blitz 2020 (obviously!) so we kicked around thoughts to do with confidence. Obviously they didn’t need a presentation about how to make presentations, but confidence is one of the things I’ve studied to help my clients… so I was happy with that.

Then I did what everyone should do, but most of us don’t have the luxury – I did nothing formal about the presentation for quite a long time. I let my subconscious go to work. I asked a few questions about what other people were doing and I left it at that. I realised that the previous three speakers were very strategic and ‘big picture’, concentrating on what audience members should do – so I decided to get tactical and give the audience specific tools for how to do those things.

Pro presentation tip… don’t use letting your subconscious mean you skip out on the work or leave it too late, but at the same time, remember that your conscious brain isn’t as clever at sorting out things as you think. Your subconscious works best if you give it the facts and leave it alone to let ideas percolate to the surface when they’re ready.

You’ll get a feeling for the style of the conference when I tell you that the title we agreed on was in the image taken from the marketing…

The marketing for my presentation

Silly? Yes. Appropriate for their audience? Yes. Something I’d do for anyone else? No. Hell no!

And what’s special about how I did that presentation?

Structuring presentations is easy when you’ve got a system (and I do, obviously! See To be honest, given the title, the structure was easy: a kick off to explain why the five tools were useful, tools one to five, and a brief wrapping up. So far so bloody obvious.

The issue here is that I needed to be seen to have a great presentation, not just give a great presentation. And I needed to finish the conference in a way that really hyped things up before Christmas Party Time. Time to let my subconscious ideas out, and run them past two tests:

  • test one: in the cold light of day is it a good idea or did it just seem like a good idea while you were asleep?
  • test two: in the cold light of day is it physically and logistically practical?

Pro presentation tip… test one works much, much better if you have a clear set of objective criteria to compare things by. Ideally you need to sort these out well before you start creating your ideas, obviously.

One of the big five principles for designing presentations is to try and match the medium to the message. The message here is that using these tools allows you to do things you’d not otherwise be able to do. I needed to ‘simulate’ that on stage. And in a “hyper” way.

Enter the “dirty trick”.

If my tools work, I should be able to use them myself, right there and then – in front of the audience for the presentation itself. How to do that?

Drumming, said my subconscious ideas generation machine.

“Say what?” said my cold-light-of-day test!

I play the djembe (as long term readers will know) and I’ve also got into playing the Cajon. I’m not good. In fact I’m pretty rubbish – but that turned out to be the point. If I could play my Cajon in front of everyone, knowing that in that audience were half a dozen professional musicians it would be an illustration of how useful my tools were.

If you care, you can hear me messing about on my djembe, in a warm-up, on SoundCloud. Trust me – there are no recordings of my Cajon playing… it’s even worse!

To show the five tools I shared in my presentation I had to work on the edge of my confidence zone. I wasn’t supposed to jump miles out of it (that was one of the ideas of my presentation based on some pretty convincing research) – but I was supposed to work at the edge of it. And the cajon is a big pace outside my zone of confidence!

Remember the stakes here too – I had to be good and I had to be seen to be good – in front of people I’d have to see repeatedly. What’s more, as soon as I thought about it, I remembered that there were a handful of professional musicians in the audience too. As my younger daughter would say “Sub-optimal, bordering on nightmare”.

So how did that idea get used in the presentation?

The cajon was stored away behind the set, well before the audience got there. The idea wouldn’t work if people knew it was set up. (Of course if they thought about it for more than a moment they’d know it must have been, but people didn’t!) Then, on my last slide, Andrew (remember him? One of the hosts/conference organisers) apparently crashed the presentation by jumping on stage and challenging me to prove the tools worked.

Finishing the presentation playing a cajon
Finishing the presentation playing a cajon

To the delight of the audience, I was “taken unawares” and Andrew triumphantly produced my cajon, leaving me with no choice but to play.

So play I did – badly… but that was absolutely the point.

I’d very successfully illustrated to the audience how the tools worked by using them myself, during my own presentation. You don’t need to be brilliant at something to have a go, to be good enough at it to make a start and make a difference. And, of course, you get more confidence, so that the next time I’m invited to play the cajon on stage, I’ll be more sure of it. (Yes, I know, the chances of that are mind-numbingly small but you get the point.)

But that’s not really a dirty trick, Simon

Well no – not really. I’d really done what I said I was going to do. The only thing dirty about it on the day was that I knew it was coming.

But what is a dirty trick is the photographs. Remember I said I’d got a photographer lined up all for me? Not the event photographer (who was great and who took most of the pics in this blog! Shout out to Tynesight Photographic Services here!) but a dedicated photographer who was in on the ‘dirty trick’.

Once I’d done the embarrassingly bad bit of cajon-playing I had the audience in the right mood – warmed up and on my side. So I did the obvious thing and got them to stand up, and clap a slow and steady four-beat. That allowed me to do stuff on the cajon that looked flashier but was in fact easier than my other stuff. Importantly what it also allowed to happen was for Laura, the photographer, to take pics of an audience standing and clapping while I’m taking a bow on stage.

How’s that for a marketing dirty trick? 😉

What other dirty tricks did I use in the presentation?

Glad you asked! There were a few presentation tips that come to mind.

Presentation tip number one – check out presenter view. It’s a setting within PowerPoint (or Keynote if you can use that) which allows you to see the current slide and the next slide. It’s a tremendous confidence booster.

Presentation tip number two – I chatted early (remember I had to be there early) with Martin, who was doing sound and lights to make sure that he faded in and out a count-down timer for how long I’d got left of my presentation. We discussed how often he’d put it up on my screen (my screen, not the one the audience could see slides on!) and how he’d know I’d seen it to take it away. There was nearly a nasty ‘gotcha’ moment here and it’s a good job I did this paranoid check. Why? Because I’m used to my count-down timer telling me how long I’d got left in my presentation but this one told me how long I’d been going for. It’s a simple sounding thing to get used to, but it took a little practice.

Presentation tip number three – during the session before me, I asked Martin (seriously, make friends with the Audio-visual folks!) if he could put a slide from each of the previous presenters into the start of my slides. It’s easy if you’re technically competent, honest.

What’s the advantage of that third presentation trick, Simon? Well you remember how I’d observed earlier that the speakers before me were more about strategy and big ideas than anything else? And how I’d decided to go tactical by comparison – other speakers talked about what to try and do while I concentrated on how to actually do it? Well by picking a critical slide form each of the previous presenters I could really hammer this point home by saying, in effect “Remember when Presenter#1 said to do Thing#1? Here’s how you do that! And remember when Presenter#2 said to do Thing#2? Well here is how to do that!”

It kick-started my presentation in an immediately, obviously relevant way.


Want a bit of a silly giggle?


  1. I love the way you gave us a “behind-the-scenes” view on your process. Adding other speakers’ slides and including tips to achieve what they mentioned sounds like a killer move. Were the other speakers OK with you doing that?

    Such a standout title, too! I often use what I call “ABCD headlines” for my talks ( Looks like your title covers all 4 of those bases.

    • Simon says...

      Hi Craig – and what a great question. The short answer is yes, they were fine about it. The longer (more helpful!) answer is that it isn’t something I would have done if I’d not known the speakers and been 99% sure they’d have been okay. I wouldn’t do it to strangers but all but one of the other speakers were people I’d shared-a-beer-with-sort-of-thing.

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