Now Presenting...

As you may have noticed if you're on Twitter, I've been thinking a lot about presentation skills recently. This was motivated by a few things--primarily by participating in an online webinar given by serial entrepreneur David S. Rose, which we arranged for our Google Lunar X PRIZE teams.

David's presentation made it clear that how you present is just as important as what you present, even when your audience is a group of venture capitalists considering giving you large sums of money--that might not exactly be surprising, but it was certainly good to have it confirmed from someone in a position to know.

Then, on the recommendation both of David and of our own Mike Fabio, I picked up a copy of Presentation Zen, which I had plenty of time to peruse during a recent illness. Reading that book, you certainly absorb a certain design aesthetic, which is probably just as important as the more specific tips and tricks contained in the book. So inspired, I went back and completely re-wrote my standard Google Lunar X PRIZE slide deck, going for a set of slides that feature hardly any words at all--but rather images to emphasize a point or to get people excited without detracting from what the speaker (in this case, me) is saying.

Right before finalizing that new slide deck and giving my first talk with it, I saw that the Presentation Zen blog featured one of my favorite space presenters, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Neil is a classical and supremely talented story teller, and could (and does) fill an hours time without any slides at all--and still nails it, every time.

All this got me thinking, who are my favorite space presenters (or presentations)? Why do I like them--and what can I learn from them?

I made a quick list from my own experience, but I hope you'll chime in with your own thoughts:

  • Neil deGrasse Tyson. The Presentation Zen article is spot on, in my opinion. Neil is so engaging and charismatic, and is really able to carry a huge amount of passion for his field to an audience in an pleasantly infectuous way.

  • Peter Diamandis. Yes, he'd be on here even if he wasn't my boss! Peter is a non-stop ball of energy, and has devoted basically every waking second (and if you know him, you know most of his seconds are of the waking variety) of his life to making spaceflight more accessible, easier, cheaper, and more fun. As an added bonus, having done so much at a young age, he's uniquely able to get students fired up. It certainly worked for me!

  • Nick Skytland. An ISU classmate, a great friend, and a former business partner of mine; so again, I'm biased. But in my opinion he's been a trailblazer in this field. Why the Moon? is a classic example. And even though people seem to be very heavily divided on Gen Y Perspectives (a collaborative effort, but in which Nick played a huge roll), I don't think anyone can deny that it was thought-provoking and just incredibly different.

  • Maria Zuber. In my ~5 years of formal, space-related education, Maria is probably the lecturer that stands out the most in my mind. There may have been some luck involved in that--she was a leader for one of the instruments on NEAR mission, which landed on an asteroid during the semester I took her class. But to chalk it up to luck would be to ignore her obvious talents both as a scientist and an educator. It was great to be a part of her class, with her course notes and handouts forming an essential text book of sorts that still sits on my bookshelf. Plus, I'm pretty sure that the rumor about her dedicating her PhD thesis to Rock and Roll is true.

Those are the ones who've inspired me, and from whom I try to learn every time I can. I know there a lot of others who I've never had the chance to see (a quick Twitter poll revealed support for Phil Plait and for Carl Sagan, neither of whom I've had the chance to see in person (though I've read their words, and am very inclined to agree.

Who would make your list?

QuarkSpin said...

By far one of my favorites is Dr. Steve Squyres, Principal Investigator for the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Oppy to their fans). A great example of one of his lectures can be found here:

This lecture was part of JPL's von Kármán Lecture Series, which is always worth checking out.

Mana said...

Gene Kranz would have to be on my list. He gives a very polished, well rehearsed, dynamic presentation.

William said...

Steve Squyers is definitely great--I've only seen him once, but walked away very impressed. His argument in favor of manned spaceflight as a compliment to, rather than an alternative to, unmanned spaceflight was perhaps the best I've ever seen.

I've never had the pleasure of hearing Gene Kranz, but I've read and thoroughly enjoyed his book! I'll have to scour YouTube for samples...

Guillermo Söhnlein said...


You're definitely going through a valuable exercise that very few folks take the time to do. Kudos!

Having coached hundreds of entrepreneurs in how to pitch for money (and sales!), I would give you one piece of advice: know yourself.

It's great to educate yourself on presentation essentials. It's also great to know who you personally like to listen to (I would recommend that you also look outside of "space" for role models). However, at the end of the day, you're going to have to find your own style. The best presenters are those who feel/look/sound completely natural and at ease with what they're saying and how they're saying it.

This is why people like Malcolm Gladwell and Guy Kawasaki are such effective speakers even though their styles are not necessarily smooth. It's because they're being themselves ... and it works.

Regardless, I do agree that less/no words on a slide is the right approach. ;-)

Good luck!


Guillermo Söhnlein said...

Oh, but ... I didn't answer your question!

Besides the folks on your list, I also like listening to Sir Richard Branson, George Whitesides, and Miles O'Brien talk about space.

And ... if you've seen Steve Jurvetson's video about his love of photography and rockets ... that's gotta be high on the list as well (NO words; ALL photos).

QuarkSpin said...

Courtesy of Twitterer @presentationzen: Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on having a cosmic perspective

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