The epic failure of the world’s best presenter

30 05 2011

Over the past few weeks I’ve been out and about in the legal community and seen a number of presentations from eminent QCs.

The verdict was in. EPIC FAIL!

Now for those of you outside the UK, Queen’s Counsel (QCs) are the creme de la creme of that part of our legal profession that performs in court.

As a result, they need to be super persuasive, brilliant communicators, and able to influence the toughest of judges and juries.

Now I have to admit, other than a trip to see the House of Lords (the judicial arm, not the political chamber) when I was a law student, I’ve never actually seen any of them live in action, as litigation was never my area of practice as a lawyer. That said, I have no reason at all to suspect their professional abilities are anything other than tremendous – I suspect the market for their services would have found them out well before they reached the top if they didn’t cut the mustard.

However, my recent exposure to their presenting abilities was not in the familiar setting of a courtroom, but the cold, harsh reality of the seminar circuit.

These, were very much “away” matches and not comfortable home fixtures.

The most astonishing presentation was from an eminent QC who had thoughtfully prepared for his audience a 90+ page summary of the recent developments in the law in his area of practice over the last twelve months.

“Great”, I thought to myself as I settled down before the seminar began, “this means I won’t need to take notes during the lecture, and I’ll be able to really concentrate on what he’ll say”.

As our presenter took the stage to applause, and the audience settled down in anticipation, my expectations were high. After a few brief, humorous anecdotes, it was time to get down to business.

Our presenter then produce his own set of notes, identical to the audience’s, but heavily highlighted and with a massive amount of post-it notes poking out all over the place. They looked like a giant, fluorescent hedgehog, and my spidey-sense began to tingle. Something was wrong.

“If you’ll all please turn to page 4 of your notes, we’ll begin with paragraph 16…..”.

The presenter then began to read his notes.

Yes. Really.

We then had, I kid you not, 75 minutes of this heavyweight QC reading his notes out to an audience of at least 200 delegates. It was truly painful. Did he not think we could read them ourselves? What value did he think he was bringing to the written material? Did he think about the audience at all? It was truly astonishing.

The other QC presentations (different events) were a marginal improvement, but continued on a central theme. All the others involved powerpoint (which as a tool can be very useful, but is often grossly misused IMHO) , and typically the presentations were built using a standard Microsoft template with the chambers logo hastily cut and pasted on the last slide. They all used bullet points and seemed to be a font size of about 16, which meant the writing was (just) legible for those at the back of the auditorium, but small enough so the QC could pack enough text on to simply read out for 30-45 minutes.

All of the presentations were, by today’s standards, epic failures of the highest order.

You’ll have gathered that nil points were awarded for presentation style. But on top of that, the content itself was so dry and dusty, cobwebs began to form on my ears as I listened. These people are often at the absolute cutting edge of legal developments in the areas they were speaking about, and so surely (surely!) must have had some practical examples they could have shared, some war stories to make the law seem a little more “real”? A little human warmth to bring things alive?

The other unifying theme through all of the presentations, and for me, the final nail in the coffin was the timing. Each of the presentations finished in a huge rush, with material at the end of the talk being either run through at a million miles an hour, or skipped entirely.

Now I appreciate there are undoubtedly times when time can be difficult to manage in a presentation – when you are presenting towards the end of a conference, other sessions have overrun, and as a result your time is compressed. Fine. Or perhaps if you are taking questions as you present, and either some really interesting debate arises, or you have a particularly difficult audience member.

But in the examples I’m describing, these factors weren’t present, it was just bad time management from the presenters.

What made this even more unforgivable, was that I saw two of the QCs take questions at the end of their presentations, and both were brilliant. Utterly fantastic.

They came alive – their personalities shone through, they were engaging and their mastery of their subject matter became crystal clear. Difficult questions were not brushed aside, but met head on with relish and grace. Stories and really useful hints and tips came tumbling from their lips.

It was like night and day.

In short, they became (as I expected from a QC), truly world-class presenters.

But, in my mind, this only made their performance during the main presentation even more surprising.

Let’s be clear, they are far from the only people who have given poor presentations. I know I’ve presented and not lived up to my own standards, and I also know there are plenty of people who present and do so either being absolutely terrified, or do so without being given appropriate training or experience.

Regular readers will know I’m a big fan of an approach called “Presentation Zen” by Gary Reynolds, but just following the presentation basics would have worked for the QCs in question.

Think of your audience. Build a story. Structure your message. Work out the timings. Practice.

You don’t need to be a QC to shine.

Presentation Shock and Awe

6 04 2011

Ever sat through a truly awesome presentation? Seen one on TED?


Hardkins & Partners were determined to show the client all 114 of their slides in the allotted 45 min presentation slot

What about during a law firm pitch?


As a reader of this blog, you’ve probably had some experience of pitches. Been on the receiving end? Starred in one? Orchestrated one? Been shoved in one at the last minute as a “subject matter expert” or simply to make up the numbers?

In today’s post I’ll share an interesting technique that might liven up your pitch experience, but first let me tell you why I think it might be useful.

In my experience both as a buyer of legal services and during my time consulting with law firms, I saw a surprising variety of approaches to pitches to win work. Some presentation formats were prescribed by the potential purchaser, but more often than not the law firm were often left to their own devices. The results (in my experience) ranged from expectation-bustingly good to a straight up car crash.

The good firms had really thought things through, probably got some insight from people at (or at least who know) the prospect, and maybe had used a pitch consultant.

Those that hadn’t turned up, usually mob handed to cover ever possible question the client may ask (ostensibly to “show commitment”) and armed with a battalion of powerpoint slides to pummel the prospect into submission.

Here’s a slide showing where all our offices are in the world.

Here’s a slide with some client logos.

Here’s a slide with some directory quotes (which I’ll read out loud to you).

You get the impression.

Now, it’s no secret that I’m not a fan of overly complex (particularly text heavy) powerpoint slides.

Who is?

Yet why (oh why!) do a large number of sophisticated, multi-million pound law firms still use them as the back bone of a pitch?

But wait.

Not all powerpoint is bad.

Far from it.

Powerpoint can be beautiful.

My bible in this area is Beyond Bullets by Cliff Atkinson, but Presentation Zen and Presentation Zen design (both by Reynolds) are also inspirational and can fundamentally change the way you use the tool to communicate.

But today I want to talk about an approach called Pecha Kucha. This is a presentation methodology that emerged from the Japanese design industry in 2003. The format is breathtakingly simple. Twenty slides (I Like to select powerful visuals for my slides, and I don’t think this approach requires anything different), each with a time limit of twenty seconds before it auto advances.


Six minutes and fourty seconds.


It forces the speaker to be concise, ideally entertaining, and to know his or her material. Critically, it encourages flawless delivery, which must be the aim for an important pitch, right?

Always keen to “eat my own dog food” I tried this earlier this week, with a small audience of around 25 people comprising lawyers (from in-house and private practice backgrounds), sales professionals, editors, conference organisers, training specialists and marketeers.

Here’s how I did it.

I started by identifying the key messages I wanted to deliver, and then ordering them among the 20 slides so I told a coherent story. I then pulled out three key points for each message and bullet pointed them. At this point I searched for images to bring them for life, and once complete I had the basics of my structure. I then did an approximate run through (without the auto-timing on), and then used the flow to write the text for each slide. Five lines of text seemed about right.

Next I set the auto-timing part (much harder than it should be on Powerpoint 2007, thank you very much Microsoft!) and did a timed run through to tailor the text.

Finalise text, repeat. Practice.

It took me around 3 run throughs to learn the material (given the work I’d already put in to building it, which undoubtedly primed my memory). The delivery was fine (but not, by my standards perfect – always good to learn what I can do better), and most importantly the feedback universally positive.

Now it’s definitely not going to be appropriate for all situations, audiences or presenters, but why not add it to your armoury?

How about using it as a tool to see if you can summarise what your law firm is all about in 20×20? What if you got several different successful salespeople to do it and see how similar (or different) the messages were?

If you used it in a pitch situation, how could you use the time you’ve saved to create more value from the meeting for the prospective client? (Suggestion: ask more questions, create a real dialogue).

Could you get five different lawyers to sum up the recent activity in their practice areas in 6min 40 and present to each other as a form of “show and tell”. Great way to update teams without sending them to sleep!

It’s a deceptively simple technique, but one that to my mind has a great number of powerful applications.

Why not give it a go?

I’d love to hear how you get on.


The beautiful ones (law firm responses to tenders)

13 12 2010

Aware that often the third part of a trilogy can be a disappointment (think Return of the Jedi….) I want to finish my musings on how law firms respond to tenders on a high. In the previous two posts (here and here) I’ve looked at some of the mistakes I’ve seen when evaluating law firm responses to RFPs (requests for proposals), now it’s time to celebrate some of the goodness!

Inspiration for the tender design was taken seriously at Scratchit & Co

When I think back to those responses that have really impressed evaluation panels (and not just me), I think the key word is “relevance”. The more effort the law firm puts into the document or presentation, in terms of tailoring it for the prospect’s specific needs, the stronger the submission.

The challenge for me is to give examples without giving away any trade secrets. So here goes.

One project that I put out to tender five years ago spanned around 15 European countries. The firm who won the project submitted a tremendous document that had a huge amount of material that really created value for our organisation. It had points for us to think about both for the project as a whole and for each country in the project scope.

This did two things. Firstly it showed that the law firm had experience of the areas of law we needed help with, in these particular countries. Secondly it give us a “heads up” of things we should be aware of, even if we didn’t select the law firm in question.

The other thing that the winning law firm did on that pitch, was make sure that all examples of experience were relevant (even down to tailoring CVs). The amount of responses I’ve seen where standard blocks of text and vanilla CVs have been appended on the back is huge, so when a firm goes to the trouble of really thinking about what the prospect organisation wants, it stands out a mile.

I’ve seen a similar approach taken at presentation stage. At a pitch I ran for financial services legal support, the winning firm gave a virtuoso presentation. The lead partner had asked some great questions early in the process, and had clearly spent significant time thinking about the issues we would face, and how best to deal with them. Rather that the presentation being a verbal version of the paper RFP response (which often happens, with firms taking the opportunity to spend an hour using extensive powerpoint to tell the prospect how good they are) the partner and his team took the evaluation panel through a mini-workshop, illustrating  points with war stories and other relevant examples.

We came out of the presentation with a much better understanding of the project, a good rapport with the law firm, and a clear action plan if we chose to work with that firm (we did).

Another area where firms can distinguish themselves is in the presentation of the document. I’ve seen a wide variety of creative approaches, from mocking-up a trade publication, through using corporate colours and imagery, to just some really nice, clear presentation (I respectfully refer people once again to Impact by Jon Moon and Presentation Zen Design by Gary Reynolds). Of course presentation is superficial, but it does make a difference, particularly if it makes the content easy to digest. It’s also another area where law firms can demonstrate they have thought about the particular client, rather than just plugged the information into the tender-team sausage factory.

So, it’s relevant, it adds value and it looks great?

Go forth and win!