What I Learned When I Gave My First DisruptHR Talk

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Jan 23, 2020
This article is part of a series called Videos.

When I was selected to speak at Portland, Oregon’s first DisruptHR conference last year, my excitement quickly turned to a storm of questions and doubt. What will people be excited to hear about? Can I really get my points across in 5 minutes? Oh no! I am not a PowerPoint wizard! Will my topic be, well, disruptive enough?

Modeled on the TEDx concept, DisruptHR is an event series designed to energize, inform, and empower people in the HR field on talent, culture, and technology. Presenters deliver finely tuned messages in 5 minutes with no more than 20 slides advancing automatically every 15 seconds.

I knew my presentation had to be laser-focused and tight. But, I couldn’t find any advice or inspiration. There was nothing to give me a framework to get started. This is the article I wish someone had written before I took the DisruptHR stage. So I decided to write this, my gift to the brave speakers who follow and take on this challenging format.

Why put yourself through this?

Preparing is time consuming and hard. Really hard. I have over 20 years in the HR field doing everything from recruiting, training, facilitating, and now career coaching executives, yet I had no clue the road to the DisruptHR stage could be so time intensive and mentally challenging. However, the payoff was amazing.

So why do this? Three reasons:

  1. Build your professional brand — DisruptHR is a fantastic way to build your personal and company brand by speaking on a topic for which you have passion and expertise. My topic, “How to Survive the No Friends Zone,” (the video is at the end of this article) was designed to encourage HR professionals to network outside our own workplace. With an audience of 150 HR professionals, it was a great place to spark connections and promote the sharing of ideas.
  2. Meet other talented speakers — An unanticipated benefit is the opportunity to meet other talented professionals. The camaraderie and excitement were energizing. As fellow speaker, Dan Fisher said, “I think the best thing for me was meeting the other presenters in the prep room. The speaker camaraderie was a nice part of the experience for me.”
  3. Professional development — Challenge yourself to do something new and outside the box.

Getting started

Select a topic you know really, really well. It should live under your skin and be authentic to you. Those who know you well will nod with approval and say, “Yep, that sounds like you!” It is likely something you read and talk about frequently. “Most importantly, speak from the heart about what you know, the audience will follow passion, not bullet points and acronyms,” said fellow speaker, Genevieve Martin.

This is a very challenging format, even for an experienced trainer or speaker. Think carefully about what you want the audience to learn and the key takeaway.

Process and timing are the keys to confidence and success. If you have time, start a month out. Your last week should be dedicated to practicing your presentation every single day. Here are six tips to help you:

  1. Write out your narrative. Get it all out. The arc of your storyline is critical to the audience going on this five-minute journey with you. The best speakers draw the audience in with a compelling opening, cohesive story and memorable conclusion or call to action. “Let your story outweigh your desire to crank through facts. It is about telling a damn good story first,” Jordan Hayles, another speaker, says.
  2. Your presentation needs to be how you say it, not how you would write it. Don’t press through a lot of material. Free yourself up to “own” what you say (versus reading). You want the freedom to talk naturally. Take them on a journey with a compelling story. “Don’t make too many points. Stick to one takeaway point and hit that point over and over again,” said fellow speaker, Casey Boggs.
  3. Organize your presentation by creating a word table. Draw 3 columns and 20 rows. Column 1 is the slide number, column 2 for a small thumbnail of the slide, and column 3 is a place to cut and paste your storyline. Once I did this, I quickly saw I had way, way too much commentary.
  4. Start cutting. Cut, cut, cut. Some golden advice I received was to trim to two points per slide and let the slide be the visual cue to remembering them. These cues will help you avoid stiffly repeating just what you memorized. Attractive, simple and modern slides are important visual cues helping to communicate messages and elicit emotions – but less is more. Limit the words on the screen, or you will lose your audience to reading as the slides advance. “Stick with images or very minimal words on the slides. 15 seconds only gets about 2 sentences max,” said fellow speaker, Andrea Herron.
  5. Use a voice recording app on your phone and read your story aloud. How does it sound? Does it make sense? How long is it? Are you rushing?
  6. Give your presentation space to breath. You need to breathe. Your audience needs you to breathe so they can digest what you are saying. It is really hard to follow a speaker who is nervously and quickly tripping over words. Because I had to focus on the breathing space between my points, it helped me pare down a lot of the commentary. The least impactful speaker rushes through and exhausts the audience.

Some tips and tricks

Record the final presentation. Play it while your slideshow flips every 15 seconds (pre-set) and check your timing. This is critical. Tweak your commentary to match the slide flow. If you have a really important point to make and you need more than 15 seconds, I’ll share a little secret with you: Create a duplicate slide so you don’t feel rushed to move to your next point – nobody will notice! If you have 2-4 seconds hanging at the end of a slide, remember, breathe! You shouldn’t be speaking every single second. If you are, the audience will tune you out.

Remember the table I suggested you make? Put it to use by creating notecards. One side for your key points (only a couple of words) and the other side for a rough sketch of the thumbnail from the PowerPoint presentation.

During the last week of preparation, go for long walks and repeat your presentation aloud. Every day leading up to presentation day, I took a four-mile walk to get the jitters out and to help me feel my message. “Practice while walking. Run through it as fast as you can, just to get it in your mouth and body,” says fellow speaker Katy Green.

Have a “recovery slide.” If you lose your flow, have a slide in mind where you know your stuff cold, so you can stick the landing! Believe me, the only time I lost my place during my presentation was at the mid-point, where I had made too many changes and I couldn’t keep the flow for two to three slides. The recovery slide saved the day. Go back and watch my performance and see if you find this sweet spot. Hopefully, you don’t notice!

Review the set up. You may not know if you will get to see your slides out in front of you or even a timer, which was the case for our presentations in Portland. Mentally prepare for this eventuality and for the possibility you may have to turn your head to see the screen and know what slide is showing.

Be disruptive, but not too disruptive

Aside from storytelling, I knew one thing was for certain. Because I deeply believe in the power of professional networking, I wanted the audience to take something away and to inspire ACTION. I wanted them to DO something. My call to action would be noisy and “disruptive.” It is also the reason I asked to be the last presenter in the lineup, even knowing that going last would mean an excruciatingly long wait.

This disruptive activity was initially set to take place on slide 14, however, when I thought it through, I knew I couldn’t keep their attention through the last 60 seconds. I relocated my disruptive call to action to slide 19. That’s where I had the audience take out their phones, open the LinkedIn app, and follow the hashtag #disrupthrpdx as a first step to building our virtual HR community.

Sure enough, I lost the audience. They were so busy, they didn’t realize my speech had ended. I briefly wondered why they weren’t clapping (“Oh my gosh, I bombed!”), when I realized they were doing what I asked!

Watch my presentation to the end where you’ll see my short attention getting dance signaling the end of DisruptHR Portland.

Incidentally, we went from 3 hashtag followers to over a hundred in a matter of a minute and now have a way to share professional information via LinkedIn.

In summary

As I organized this article and gathered feedback from the other Portland speakers, I realized a good DisruptHR presentation has very little to do with PowerPoint and everything to do with the story or narrative.

I found limiting the words was how to hold the audience’s attention during each critical 15 second slide window. One of my favorite speakers of the evening, Genevieve Martin, expressively waved at the screen, declaring, “You can start the slides at any point in time because I am not going to use them at all.” The slides aren’t the story.

To sum it up, speaking at Portland’s first DisruptHR was a rewarding experience and I would be honored to be selected to speak again. Next time I would prepare two points per slide, plan for a conversational tone to match my training and style, and practice like crazy until I felt it in my body. And of course, I would have a call to action.

This article is part of a series called Videos.
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