outback spring 2019

presentation guidelines

Please read this entire document as preparation for presenting at Outback 2019

practice or perish

As a speaker at Outback 2019, you’ll be presenting around a campfire or on top of a boulder, but don’t let the setting fool you; your presentation must be focused. We’ll be looking for a prepared delivery with some sophistication, curiosity and passion. Your presentation doesn’t need to be wonkish or academic, but it should be intelligent and engaging. Aim high. Assume that your audience is literate and well-read.

Plan to speak for at least 10 minutes, or as much as 30. The precise duration is less important than the focus. Take your listeners on a journey of the imagination. Tell a story. Solve a problem. Engage our minds in some new way.

You won’t have a slide show and you won’t be able to hide behind a podium. Rather, you’ll be working mostly from memory. If you need some notes to jog your memory, that’s acceptable, but do not read your presentation. Your words should come from your heart and your life. It’s OK to make some mistakes or leave something out. What really counts is your passion, intensity and care for your subject.

beginners mind

Choose a topic that touches on the human experience, especially the human relationship with body, habitat or tribe. Make it relevant to the pressing issues of our day. Your story can be funny or serious or both, but it should touch the lives of your audience. (Do your homework: find out something about the people you’ll be speaking to.) For inspiration, listen to the Moth Radio Hour on NPR.

Forget all the college-level presentations and TED talks you’ve heard. Instead, think back to the campfire and the spirit of Old Way. Get back to emotion, humanity, and the body. Above all, take a risk and show some life. Practice, but don’t memorize. Put your curiosity and passion on display.

make it a story

Be alert for your presentation’s human significance. A good story isn’t a bunch of facts or data; it tells us something important and revealing about the experience of being alive in this mysterious, ambiguous, and tenuous world.

Craft your story to speak to the needs, desires, sufferings, and dreams of your audience. Don’t just speak to the head. Speak to the whole body, the whole animal in context.

And be careful with numbers. As some speaking consultants have pointed out, “Numbers numb. That’s why they’re called numbers.” Or as the legendary psychologist Daniel Kahneman put it, “No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.”

one big idea

In her book Resonate, Nancy Duarte encourages presenters to focus on one Big Idea that drives the entire presentation. The Big Idea must articulate your point of view, convey what’s at stake, and take the form of a complete sentence. If you can’t articulate your presentation in a simple, coherent statement, you’re not ready for prime time.

Then, when you do stand up to deliver, stick to the Big Idea. You’ll be tempted to deliver as much content as possible, but the time goes by fast, and you’ll end up racing to fit it all in. Better to say less. Give yourself a chance to breathe, and let the words bubble up from the deep body. You’ve done your practice. Now it’s time to let go and let your story tell itself.

begin with a problem

Story needs structure, and no matter your subject, a good place to begin is with a dilemma, mystery, or something that just doesn’t add up. This is the hook, the idea or image that grabs your audience and sustains their attention. Don’t just say, “My talk is about this subject.” Tell a story about someone in trouble, something that’s broken, something that feels wacky or out of place. The more vivid the contrast and the tension, the better. Once you’ve got the setup working, you can dig into the details, and people will listen.


Another powerful way to organize your ideas comes from Randy Olson in Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story. He calls it the ABT model:

Here’s a fact AND another fact that adds up to a situation, BUT there’s an anomaly or a conflict; THEREFORE, this is what it means, and here’s what we should do about it.

For example, “We’ve made tremendous strides in scientific discovery AND technological power, BUT we’re inflicting massive destruction on the biosphere; THEREFORE, we need a revolution in culture and consciousness.” If you can structure your presentation in this way, you’ve got a good chance of connecting with your audience.

Scott Berkum’s recommendations

As you prepare, see the book Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkum. Berkum has either seen or committed some of the most embarrassing mistakes a speaker can make.

He gets right into it with a list of some of the biggest blunders. These include:

Not having an interesting opinion.

Not thinking clearly about your points.

Not planning ways to make those points relevant to your audience.

Failure to practice.

Berkum’s advice is to “prepare, prepare, prepare.”

Cut the excess. Do it again, and again.

Zoom in and out; move up and down the ladder of abstraction. “Here’s a big idea and here’s a specific example.”

Get emotional about your points; don’t be afraid to show it.

Take charge and claim your time. “Be bigger than you are. Speak louder, take stronger positions, and behave more aggressively than you would in normal conversations.”

“Be a passionate, interested, fully present version of you.”

Above all, use the active voice: Active voice says “Someone is doing something.” Passive voice says “mistakes were made.” Passive voice is common in academic settings; it’s weak and boring. Don’t be afraid to say that someone actually did something.

Be assertive, but don’t portray yourself as an expert in something that you’re not. Saying “I don’t know…” can actually build connection with an audience. As Berkum puts it, “The easiest way to be interesting is to be honest.”

Make eye contact, move your body and don’t be afraid to pause. Use silence and let your words reverberate.

final words

Lastly, give some thought to your final words. You’ve set things up with a conflict or a problem and taken your listeners on a journey into the details, but don’t leave it hanging. As you reach the end of your talk, make a circle. Refer your audience back to your initial dilemma or mystery. This wraps up everything and conveys a sense of completeness. People may not remember the facts and details in the middle of your talk, but they’ll remember the totality of the journey. By connecting your conclusion to your initial proposition, you’ll make the experience whole.