Make a presentation about anything you like, Simon

I’ve had a few invitations to speak recently (some paid, some asking for a favour), and it struck me that when I followed up and said “Okay, what about?” and unusually high number said something like “Anything you like!”. Now, I know that some of them are saying that to be nice, but some of them :

  • are just trying to be nice as they are so grateful that I’m going to make a presentation for them that they don’t want to impose a topic
  • know enough about what I make presentations about that they genuinely believe any of my options will be appropriate
  • just don’t care.

Whatever the motivation, all three possibilities have one major problem in common . The problem is this: if I don’t know what my presentation is supposed to achieve, how am I going to know when I’ve achieved it? In fact, how am I going to know what to say at all?


As an aside, the order in which they annoy me the most are: the last, the first and the middle one.

The whole point of a presentation is to make the world a bit of a different place. For business presentations and so on it might only be a small bit of the world, but it’s the thought that counts. And if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be changing, that’s about as sensible as trying to hit a moving target by shooting in a random direction with your eyes closed.  You might it, sure, but the chances are you’ll just cause collateral damage.

So – what to do about it?

Well the obvious thing is to just do something that benefits you – after all if it mattered to your client your client would have said something, right? But I can’t go with that on a moral basis 🙂 So what other options do you have?

  • Go back to the person who invited you – nag them. Pretty obvious, right? But all too often we just accept the vague invitation, complain about it in our heads, but don’t do anything. Perhaps that’s fear of looking fussy, I don’t know, but what ever it is, it’s not helpful. Get over yourself and pin down the topic.
  • Survey your audience – ask them. If you’ve got any way of contacting your audience in advance, use it to get a feel of what they want to know about. It doesn’t have to be a formal poll, although those are free, so why not? Alternatives include pushing up a video, for example, and looking at the comments you get… and if you don’t get any comments, that tells you something too!
  • Prep two presentations – brace yourself. This one is tricky, I know, but it’s perfectly do-able if you care enough. The way I’ve done it is to have a couple of slides at the start of my keynote which apply to anything the audience could be interested in and then have a black slide. While I’m showing that slide I tell or story or ask a question and get a show of hands. That gives me the information I need to figure out what to do next. I’ve got my slide-deck prepared with two presentations-worth of content with black slides at the start of each… and it’s a simple trick to just type in to my laptop the number of the appropriate black slide to get my software to jump to that black slide… and because it’s one black slide to another, the audience can’t see anything happening. Magic!


  1. QJ

    “It’s worse that then, he’s dead, Jim!” It’s like a presentation isn’t the most important thing in the world, when it is. Every time an audience gathers, wherever they are, whenever it is, it ‘should’ be a major event. A speaker’s influence is potentially enormous! And yet 99.9% of the time it’s just thrown away to be instantly forgotten. As in the title of an album by a famous rock band, this is ‘The Crime of the Century’. Knowing all we know about psychology, relationships, connection, et al, it’s a disgrace that anyone could use jumping on stage as anything less than an strong intention to change the world and make it a better place. Rant over …

    • Simon Raybould

      Rant away, QJ!

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