Tear the Banana (Tips on Public Speaking)


I’ve been speaking and giving presentations professionally for almost 20 years. I recently returned from conducting a seminar in Los Angeles yesterday and I started thinking about what tips/advice I would give to someone who has an upcoming presentation to give.

I narrowed down to what I believe to be the ten most important items to master for a successful presentation.

#1 - Tear the top of the banana
(AKA: Prepare everything, always)

In other words, prepare each and every possible thing in advance – even the most minor of details. I recently gave a seminar on Time Management. During the seminar, I knew I was going to discuss the myth of multitasking. I thought it would be a funny idea that, while I was talking about the problems of trying to do two things at once, I would bite into a banana in the middle of my discussion and just continue talking so that the speakers would not understand a word I was saying. It would be a funny sight gag and I think would convey a point that they would remember.

So, that morning, I purchased a banana in the hotel coffee shop. It was to be my “prop” for the presentation. When I arrived in the lecture room to begin setting up my presentation, I thought about the moment in my speech when I would take the banana out, peel it back, and then bite into it. In order for this trick to work, it needed to be seamless. Meaning, if I had the banana in my right hand, and I was holding the microphone in my left, the last thing I wanted to deal with was fumbling to try and peel the banana first. Did you ever get that banana that sometimes refuses to open? Right! Even those one-two seconds of time would take away from the flow of the sight gag. Therefore, about 1 1/ 2 hours before showtime, I peeled the banana just slightly and cracked the top of it. I then set it back down on the napkin at my podium. This way, it would be ready to instantly grab and begin peeling immediately – no delay – seamlessly while I continued talking and the timing would be perfect.

Here is a close-up photo I took of that exact banana the moment after I had prepared it for my presentation.

Banana. See the tear? Quick and ready to peel.

Banana. See the tear? Quick and ready to peel.

This is a silly example, but this kind of advanced preparation is what you need to do. Every single time. No exceptions. Everything must be prepared, everything. Why? Because, quite frankly, it sucks to travel, check in and out of hotels, deal with airports, time zone changes, parking, etc. the people that are there to see you expect a five star, A+, perfect first-class show. And extreme preparation and attention to even the tiniest of details will give them just that. Prepare everything, always.

#2 - Arrive Early

Arrive early. And I do mean early. If your presentation is scheduled to start at 9 am – be completely ready to give that presentation at 7 am. That means dressed, notes in order, your computer set up and ready to go, etc.

The reason for this is that there will always be some little problem, technical or otherwise, that comes up at the last minute. I have never, ever, not once in 20 years had a presentation without a problem that came up at the last minute. Sometimes the problems are big. Sometimes the problems are small. But there is always something that comes up.

What you don’t want is for the problem to come up five minutes before you are scheduled to begin speaking. Or even worse, in front of a group of people that you are about to teach (your sacred audience). They should not see anything that goes on behind the scenes. Get there early. Ask the hotel the earliest you can examine the room. Ask the night before. Call at 6:30 am and asked again in the morning. See if you can get the cell phone number of the individual who will be setting up your room and try and coordinate the day before. Anything you can do to accomplish all your preparation work in advance will be so helpful. As I mentioned in #1 above, preparing everything is key. Make sure you get there early! Always.

3 – Do not rehearse the morning of your presentation

For example, if your presentation is in the late afternoon, do not rehearse your slides or your timing in the morning. This should have been done earlier. On the day of your presentation, you should be doing nothing else but relaxing and presenting. If you feel the need to go over some of your notes or to check some of your slides – then you are not prepared and should have done that earlier.

#4 - Triple-check your slides and fonts

Speaking of slides, make sure you triple-check them. The reason for this has to do with two things: the font size and the animation timing.

For the font size, I feel stupid telling you that obviously they need to be able to read your slides from the back of the room. But I’ve seen so many presentations where the slides have such tiny font sizes that this bears repeating. Use a simple font like Arial, make it large enough so that it can be read from the very back of the room, and make sure it is legible and stands out from the background of your slide.

Speaking also of fonts, less is more. When you have your finished draft of your slides, go back into your slides again and cut exactly 1/2 of all of your written material out of the slides. If you can use a single picture to convey the message instead of three bullet points, that’s even better. Less text – more images. And most importantly: Less slides – more you. Those are the keys to a good presentation.

The second issue of this has to do with animation. In programs such as PowerPoint, it is very easy to add animation for each click of the slide presenter. So for example, a slide comes up on the screen and it is completely blank. Then the presenter clicks the button on his remote control or presses the keyboard space key on his laptop and the first bullet point appears on the screen. Don’t do this. Rather, have the first point already appear when the slide first appears on the screen.

PowerPoint and other slide authoring software do not do this by default. When you simply select all the bullet points and tell them to “Appear”, the slide will be blank when it first comes up and you have to then in front of the audience click for the first one. So, in PowerPoint, go into the settings of the first bullet point and set that bullet point so that it appears “With Previous”. Do this for every slide that you have bullet points on. This way, your presentation will flow faster and you won’t have a lot of gaps with blank slides.

#5 - Be nice to the hotel tech!

If you have a technical person on staff or a hotel representative to assist you with set up, be as nice as possible to them. For example, our hotel package did not include a wireless microphone. I prefer to use wireless mics so that I’m not tripping over the cord because I like to walk around the room and go right up close and personal to the students. However, the tech person and I had had several nice conversations as I was setting up (early, about two hours before showtime, and as an extra bonus, we listened to Pink Floyd during the setup!), and, well, lo and behold, suddenly he was able to out of the blue locate a wireless mic and got one for me. Not only that, he found a distinct feedback hum in the audio and fixed that problem also. Not only that, he noticed that when I walked too close to the left playback speaker, there was over-modulated feedback sound – and so he got on a stool and raised the speaker way up high. I honestly don’t believe he would’ve done any of that if I had been rude or non-communicative or pompous like I have seen some speakers act towards these hotel staff. These people do not get paid a lot of money – be nice to them and they will be nice to you.

#6 - Sit in the worst seat

Before your students arrive, make sure you take the time to walk to the very worst seat in the room. In other words, go to the very back of the room corner side seat. You know, the one that you would be stuck with if you showed up late. The seat that sucks. Sit down in that seat. Then, imagine remaining seated in that seat staring at this tiny screen way up front for the next 3 1/2 hours (or however long your speech is). This will give you more perspective and how animated you should be when you are on stage. It also will remind you that not everyone has a front row center view.

#7 - Find something in common with the audience

Find the one thing you have in common with your audience. For example, if it is a group of dog trainers that have a joke or an anecdote about a dog. But in order to do this and have it come off properly (and you not looking like a fool trying too hard), you need to really get to know them and their “culture”. This should’ve been part of your presentation preparation anyway.

I mention this because it is such a powerful tool in order to connect with the audience. If you are in a foreign country, then learn a phrase or two that you can rattle off. Even if you mispronounce things, the audience will love it. I recently did a presentation in Guam. Now Guam as part of the United States obviously, but I was able to absorb some of the local cultures while I was there and I integrated that into my presentation. Maybe just a single slide with a photo of the location will do. Something to make it location specific. Your audience wants to feel special. This will go a long way toward helping them feel that way.

#8 - Start on time

Start your presentation on time. Not early. Not late. On time. I don’t care if there is only one person in the room and you have 500 open seats. It is rude to the one person who made the effort to travel and see you, review the schedule, take whatever necessary preparations that morning or afternoon were necessary to ensure they could arrive with the maximum amount of learning experience. Don’t cut them short by waiting for the late people. The hell with the late people. They will miss the beginning of your presentation and that’s okay. They do that anyway with other events in their lives and you’re not gonna change them. You should not punish those that actually do want to make the effort to be there the entire time.

#9 - Cut 1/4 from your presentation

Figuring out how long your presentation is going to last is the most difficult part of giving a presentation. Remember this: when you practice your presentation alone, it will flow much faster than it will in front of a live audience.

The reason for this is that there are a lot of other elements that contribute to additional time which occur only in front of a live audience. There may be questions or interruptions on the fly. Someone may be in the middle of writing something down from one of your slides and you need to wait for a few minutes. Also, you will get nervous (as is normal being in front of a large group of people) and this nervous energy will cause you to often expand upon topics and keep talking talking talking. Either way, you will notice that your presentation will last longer than you originally thought.

It is absolutely critical that you cut at least 1/4 the time out of your presentation to make up for this kind of time. So, for example, if your presentation is for one hour, then prepare 45 minutes worth of material. In the absolute worst possible case scenario, if everything goes like clockwork and you finish at exactly 45 minutes, then you can have an audience Q&A session. Or, you can make a big joke about how, for the first time ever, you were able to finish a bit early and so they have more time for lunch, dinner, whatever. They will love you for that.

You cannot go wrong by cutting about 1/4 out of what you initially think you’re going to need for doing your presentation.

#10 - Pay attention to when they are “in the zone”

When it comes to the material itself, you need to decide what aspects of it they really need to hear and what aspects of it they are going to ignore. Nobody listens 100% of the time to 100% of what you say. Sorry to mention that, but it’s true.

Therefore, you need to be sure you are teaching them the critically important items during those periods where they are paying 100% attention. Those are the periods that they are tuned in. This is easy to figure out.

First, you will always have 100% of their attention during the first 5 to 10 minutes of your presentation. Everyone will be paying attention at that time. This is the time you want to give them your BANG statement. Something that blows their mind. Something that, if they walked out of the room right afterward, they will still get their money’s worth by attending your presentation. It could be the main point of your presentation. It could also be a story that ties into the main point. But be thinking about that first 10 minutes – it’s absolutely critical.

A big mistake I see a lot of speakers make is that they waste this time talking about where the bathrooms are located, umm…can you hear me in the back yes no, and other stupid administrative time wasters. While they are necessary, they are low priority items that can be provided after that first 10 minutes is passed.

When I go on stage, the first 10 minutes I do not even introduce who I am. I begin by a compelling story or video or something else that immediately sucks the audience in. Then, once that has concluded, I put the title slide of my presentation and then go into the administrative stuff like bathroom location, etc.

During the presentation itself, you will see an ebb and flow to your audience. You may even see some people beginning to nod off from time to time – especially those people who are in different time zones if you present internationally. However, there will be other times that you will see everyone completely tuned in. This is normal.

You need to recognize those times and work with them. I have noticed that when people seem to be low-energy, that is the time I might even skip over a few points if they’re not absolutely necessary and start in on something a lot more engaging such as a story, etc.

This recently happened at a section of a presentation I gave regarding social media. While social media normally carries a high attention value factor for the audience (since everyone is glued to their phones these days), in this particular case we were at the end of a long stretch without a break. The organizers had us stuck with only one break when there probably should have been two. Unfortunately, unless you are planning your entire speaking gig, you are at the mercy of the organizers and often there are some elements you simply cannot control.

This is what happened to me. Thus, between the first break and the end of my presentation, the attendees began to get a bit drowsy. Low blood sugar sort of thing. Therefore, when I began to launch into my session about social media, I had a number of graphs and statistics about attention deficit, “continuous partial attention” syndrome, and a few other cognitive problems associated with too much social media and smartphone use.

As I was presenting these points, I looked around and could tell that while about one-half of the people were vigorously taking notes and plugged in, the other half were looking very tired and ready for a break. Since I couldn’t quite give them a break for another 15 minutes, and because this was such important material, I took my hand and slammed it down on the desk which created an audible pop. Everyone looked up. I then said, “You know what? I am sick of these boring-ass slides! Thus, I’m giving a choice now to you…” And I stopped for about three seconds dramatically while they all stood staring fixedly at me.

I said “Here’s what we can do, I can continue the next three slides and talk more and more about the problems and distractions of social media, or I can tell you a story about a time last year when I was almost killed by social media. So let’s take a vote, who wants the story versus who wants the social media?”

We took a vote. It was 100% unanimous everyone wanted the story. So I launched into a true story about a traffic accident I was involved in because some stupid person was using Instagram and not paying attention to her driving. I had photos of the accident, hospital, etc. all on a slide that I had as a backup “just in case” though I really thought that I wasn’t going to use it. It turned out to be the highest point of my presentation. In fact, after my presentation, this was the one thing that everyone came up to me and said made a difference in how they thought about their relationship with their smartphone.

Sometimes it is really about the presentation and the material and the bullet points and the research.

Other times, it’s all about you.

Find that balance and always be you. They will love it.

P.S. I didn’t really get into the nitty-gritty technical tips here on presenting itself and focused just on the general stuff. However, if there’s a request for more articles/tips, I’ll gladly write them in the future. Hope this helps!