I had the pleasure of chatting with my colleague and co-conspiring mischief maker, Shel Israel, about his latest book, Stellar Presentations. Shel and I first met as Founding Fellows of the new media research think tank, Society for New Communications Research, sncr.org.

A masterful storyteller, Shel Israel is a writer, consultant and keynote speaker. He is CEO of SI Associates and is located in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has written four books, including Naked Conversations, Twitterville, The Conversational Corporation, and Stellar Presentations. Israel is also a contributing columnist at Forbes.com and has contributed previously to OpenForum, BusinessWeek and FastCompany. He has been a keynote speaker on five continents and in 14 countries. His blog is GlobalNeighbourhoods.net. Stop by and say hi!


Kathy Klotz-Guest (KKG): Humans are wired to think in stories, as you and I know so well given what we do for a living. Yet, many business people fail to use presentations as a chance to tell great stories. Why don’t more people focus on thinking about their presentation as a “story” vs. as a bunch of bullets?

Shel Israel (SI): I wish I could answer your question but I don’t know why. I believe presentations would be more memorable if presenters understood the powerful advantage to storytelling.  I’ve seen bullet-based slide decks where each slide was presented for three minutes, but it felt to us in the audience like 3000 years.

Conversely, there are stories that were first told 3000 years ago, passed down from one generation to another, have been embedded in history, culture, religion and family. Some have endured for well over 3000 years.


KKG: You are known as a social media writer. Why write a book on presentations?

SI: I have been coaching startup executives on presenting to press, investors and at conferences for over 25 years, but it never dawned on me to write a book on the subject until I was invited to India to speak at their largest entrepreneurial conference, NASSCOM. They wanted me to speak on how to give a good presentation.

It was the first time, in 100 engagements that I was invited to speak on a topic not related to social media and I was going to decline, until I realized how much I knew, not just from my presentation coaching, but because I had also covered countless presentations at conference and in recent years had become pretty accomplished at it as a speaker myself.

So I decided to do what I always do. I put together a bunch of stories I knew about other presentations that worked or failed and built it out into my own presentation. Last November, I found myself standing in front of a few hundred people in a country I had never visited, in a culture where I was an outsider and I was more nervous than I had been in a long time.

“What if I really suck,” I wondered. Then I realized that the people who were in the room probably had that same fear, when they had to speak on behalf of their startups. So I began my talk buy saying, “I have been asked to give a presentation about how to give a great presentation–but what if I suck?”

There was an awkward moment, then laughter, the applause, and I knew I was on my way. It turned out to be the most enthusiastic reception I had ever received. I was the top-rated speaker at the conference and it felt very good.

On the flight home, I realized that over many years, I had acquired a good deal of wisdom on a topic that mattered to a great many people and the topic fit extremely well into my storytelling style of writing. Two weeks later, I put everything aside and wrote the book almost straight through. It’s a very short book but I’m very proud of it.


KKG: What are the three worst mistakes speakers make?

SI: Here you go…

They try to say too much in too short a period of time. Speakers should make as few points as they possibly can, but they should make those points extremely well.

They try to make the Powerpoint the presentation. It is not. It is the background and when moved to stage center, it can make for an excruciatingly boring presentation. I use Powerpoint to illustrate a talk in the same way I use photos on a blog.

They assume formal identities. The nicest, most approachable people filled with passion and enthusiasm, stand on a dais and suddenly sound like that professor who cured your insomnia during his lectures in sophomore year. They say big words when little ones will do. They use data-dense slides that make a train schedule look fascinating by comparison.

Speakers should remember that a presentation should not answer all questions. They should make diverse people in the room–editors and analysts, investors, customers, competitors and future hires all want to know more about you, your company, your product and your dream.


KKG:  What was your most embarrassing moment as a speaker?

SI: Yikes. That goes back a long, long time to when I was an upperclassman at Northeastern University. I was selected to be host of Freshman night, in which upper-class students produced satiric skits of campus life.

I was not supposed to be all that funny. I was just supposed to introduce the acts. As I walked out, a very attractive woman in the front row started smiling from ear-to-ear. I thought she liked me and it bolstered my confidence. Then she was whispering to the guy next to her, and he started smiling and he turned to the next person and in seconds, the whole front two rows were chatting and chuckling.

Finally, I stopped talking. I looked at the young woman who started it going and asked her what was so funny. She hesitated for a long moment and I insisted again that she share the joke.

“Your fly is open,” she said. That was over 40 years ago. I still haven’t topped it and I really hope I don’t.


KKG: What are the key elements to telling a great story in the context of a presentation?

SI: Keep it focused and reasonably short. Have fun telling it. Make certain people understand why you told the story. If possible insert some humor. Presenters often vastly undervalue humor for making memorable points.


KKG: Amen! You are preaching to the humor choir! What’s the best story given in a presentation you have heard lately?

SI: When I was in Israel, I heard a presentation by an advocate of greater tolerance between Israelis and Arabs. I don’t remember the name of the storyteller, but I will never forget how he opened: “A Jew and a Muslim walk into a bar and kill each other. Then everyone else joins in. They kill each other. The bar has no one to serve, so it goes out of business. The owner kills himself. My moral is: All this killing is bad for everyone and really ought to stop.

Compare that with a bullet point presentation. I defy you to think of three bullet items on a page that would make the point more powerfully than that.


KKG:  What is the most important piece of advice you would give to making your presentations more memorable?

SI: Make the fewest points you can possibly make to get the audience to walk away wanting to know more.


KKG: Thanks, Shel, you’re a masterful conversationalist. And, no, Israel was NOT named after you! <laughs!>


Follow Shel: @ShelIsrael

Follow Kathy @KathyKlotzGuest