Expert interview: Gibson Biddle's best presentation tips

Posted by Damon Nofar | June 16, 2020
In this interview series we will ask some expert speakers to give their best presentation tips. This first interview is with Gibson Biddle who is the former VP of Product at Netflix. Today he gives about 100 talks/workshops per year, so you can say that he knows a thing or two about presenting. Given the current pandemic situation, most of his talks have moved online and the presentations are now done via webinars - which we all know has its own challenges.

Read on to get some tips on how you can engage your audience, both on stage and behind the webcam.

Given the current situation and all presentations going online, what's the biggest difference in presenting live vs presenting virtually?

I think the biggest difference is that it’s hard to maintain the attention of a virtual audience. I imagine that I am fighting for their attention -- keeping them from doing email or Slack. I can’t see them but I assume they naturally wander. Sometimes I joke that they are doing their taxes on the side.

I also spend a little time up-front to help the audience set things up for a good experience. To go to full-screen mode, place the video of me up in the right-hand corner. These are things you don’t have to do in real life.

Some of the experiences are downright terrifying for a speaker. I have presented to large virtual audiences using Hopin. Not only can I not see the audience, but all I can see is my slides. There’s no way to see what I look like on-screen. It’s a very isolating experience.

What's the best way to engage an audience? Both offline vs online.

For in-person audiences, the engagement tactics that I like best are small “What would you do?” cases. You are the head of product at Netflix and you are sued for “Throttling”, what would you do “fight or settle?”

Of course, stories are incredibly engaging and there are lots of other tactics to put the audience at the center of your presentation. “Imagine it’s the year 2030 and someone asks you, “What were you doing during the pandemic? How do you want to be remembered today as a product leader?”

I also do a lot of “polling” requiring the audience to raise their hands. "How many of you are Netflix members? How many of you are paying for your membership?" In Buenos Aires, nine-tenths of the audience drops their hand for the second question!

In a virtual setting you need to double-down on engagement tactics. Today, I use Google Slides plus Slido to do real-time polling, word clouds and to answer questions. It makes the experience incredibly interactive to the extent that I now have an equal NPS for virtual and in-person presentations.

Why do you use NPS for your talks?

I use Net Promoter Score as a proxy metric to assess the quality of each of my talks, workshops and exec events. 50 is considered very good, and seventy is world-class. I am disappointed when I can’t get a 70!

What is your best tip for people with public speaking fears? Any tips and tricks on how to manage the nerves?

Speaking is a learned art. Do it a lot. Start with small, friendly audiences and gradually work your way up to larger audiences, over time. In the beginning, I did very bad talks at friend’s companies, but over time, my talks got better and I got invited to address larger and larger audiences. I can confidently address a 2,000-person audience at this point. What do I worry about today? Will the AV gear work? Will the clicker work? If you do this type of stuff lots of crazy stuff happens.

What role do presentation design play for you as a speaker? Do good presentation slides really matter? Does it impact how you present?

You want to get to a place where you can simply share your story, using slides as a source of visual interest and with very light text to help you remember the story.
The goal state is for the slides to enhance, not get in the way of your story.
I have gone through a long journey with Damon and his team. In the beginning, I used Keynote on a Mac. We established a very light “template” -- a framework really -- that I could easily apply on my own. Lately, I have switched to Google Slides and I basically start with one Google Slide deck that Damon created for me -- a library -- that I copy then use as a basis to create my new slide deck. The fun thing is that when I am done, I share it with Damon and go to sleep. When I wake up in the morning, Damon has tuned it up a bit. And there’s no version control issues and no uploading or downloading issues. It’s kind of cool.

What gear do you use to make sure you look and sound good online? Any must-know tips for setting up a good space for virtual presenting?

Honestly, the key thing is to have great, reliable internet. I go to a friend’s work five minutes away when I do my online talks.

It’s a little embarassing, but I simply talk into my MacBook Pro and use the built-in speaker. No complaints from anyone so far. I do use a clicker and sometimes you can see it in my hand when I wildly gesticulate my hands.

I have a fancy microphone and a background that looks like a brick wall but I haven’t gotten around to using it. I have a plain white wall in the background and Damon refuses to build me a Zoom background.

Author's note on Zoom backgrounds: I believe custom backgrounds should be used with care as it might look bad if not done correctly. In short, if you don't have a green screen you should probably not use a custom background because the technology is not there yet (i.e. your image quality goes down, we can see it is a fake background, your ears get cut off when you move, etc). In short, if the custom background does not add value to your presentation, don't use it.

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