How To Give A Compelling Presentation To A Smart, Jerky Or Otherwise Picky Audience

Googler Steve Yegge wrote an insightful, revealing and honest look at the internal state of Google last week, touching on topics like their internal culture and their shortcomings in developing a platform like Google+. It was meant to be sent to employees only. After a week of dealing with the blowback (minimal, actually), he’s written a follow-up talking about his time at Amazon; specifically, how to give an enthralling presentation to a tough audience (Jeff Bezos).

Image: jurvetson

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, is a notorious critic of presentations. Yegge, on the other hand, through preparation and insight into how Bezos operates, managed to craft a presentation that was among the best his co-workers had ever seen. If you’re in a similar situation, where a picky, smart and impatient person is in the audience, here’s what you do.

To prepare a presentation for Jeff, first make damn sure you know everything there is to know about the subject. Then write a prose narrative explaining the problem and solution(s). Write it exactly the way you would write it for a leading professor or industry expert on the subject.

That is: assume he already knows everything about it. Assume he knows more than you do about it. Even if you have groundbreakingly original ideas in your material, just pretend it’s old hat for him. Write your prose in the succinct, direct, no-explanations way that you would write for a world-leading expert on the material.

You’re almost done. The last step before you’re ready to present to him is this: Delete every third paragraph.

Bezos is so goddamned smart that you have to turn it into a game for him or he’ll be bored and annoyed with you. That was my first realisation about him. Who knows how smart he was before he became a billionaire — let’s just assume it was “really frigging smart”, since he did build Amazon from scratch. But for years he’s had armies of people taking care of everything for him. He doesn’t have to do anything at all except dress himself in the morning and read presentations all day long. So he’s really, REALLY good at reading presentations. He’s like the Franz Liszt of sight-reading presentations.

So you have to start tearing out whole paragraphs, or even pages, to make it interesting for him. He will fill in the gaps himself without missing a beat. And his brain will have less time to get annoyed with the slow pace of your brain.

But how do you prepare a presentation for a giant-brained alien? Well, here’s my second realisation: He will outsmart you. Knowing everything about your subject is only a first-line defence for you. It’s like armour that he’ll eat through in the first few minutes. He is going to have at least one deep insight about the subject, right there on the spot, and it’s going to make you look like a complete buffoon.

So I knew he was going to think of something that I hadn’t. I didn’t know what it might be, because I’d spent weeks trying to think of everything. I had reviewed the material with dozens of people. But it didn’t matter. I knew he was going to blind-side me, because that’s what happens when you present to Jeff.

If you assume it’s coming, then it’s not going to catch you quite as off-guard.

And of course it happened. I forgot data mining. Wasn’t in the list. He asked me point-blank, very nicely: “Why aren’t data mining and machine learning in this list?” And I laughed right in his face, which sent a shock wave through the stone-faced jury of VPs who had been listening in silence, waiting for a cue from Jeff as to whether he was going to be happy or I was headed for the salt mines.

I laughed because I was delighted. He’d caught me with my pants down around my ankles, right in front of everyone, despite all my excruciating weeks of preparation. I had even deleted about a third of the exposition just to keep his giant brain busy, but it didn’t matter. He’d done it again, and I looked like a total arse-clown in front of everyone. It was frigging awesome.

So yeah, of course I couldn’t help laughing. And I said: “Yup, you got me. I don’t know why it’s not in there. It should be. I’m a dork. I’ll add it.” And he laughed, we moved on and everything was great. Even the VPs started smiling. It annoyed the hell out of me that they’d had to wait for a cue, but whatever. Life was good.

And if you’re interested in reading more about presentations, or about Amazon in general, Yegge’s full G+ post is below.

Steve Yegge on Google+

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