Welcome to another special interest episode of 10 Words or Less, in which I ask brief questions of interesting people and ask them to respond with brief answers of their own. Today’s contestant is a professional speaker and the author of at least four books. He’s deeply invested in creativity and one of his outlets and speaking topics is how to make presentation slides that don’t suck. My usual admonishment to those playing at home: 10 words is a goal, not a limit, so please, no counting! It’s not easy to do.
Note: This is an edited transcript of a video interview published Sept. 23. Mike approved all edits.
Name Mike Robertson
Born when, where? “Feb. 23, 1954, in a tiny town in the brush country of Texas called Cotulla. I don’t think I have been back since."
Where do you live now? “I live in Austin, Texas. The capital city. The weirdest city in Texas."
What you do for work? “I’m a full-time speaker and designer of slides for myself and other people."
What did you create the first time you remember being creative? “I was probably sitting on the swing set in my backyard making up a song."
Something important about being creative “You have to exercise it. It’s not a good idea to be creative and then stop for a while because that muscle will begin to lose its strength. … Last year I decided I would do something different creatively each month. The first month of the year I wrote a song completely with all the tracks and recorded it. The second month I decided I would like to paint a large size painting, which I had never done. The third month I published a new book. That’s when my resolution came to a stop."
A misunderstood part of creativity “People tend to think they need a different gift to achieve something really cool and so we become envious of other people’s gifts. We say, well if I could sing like that guy, or, if I had her acting ability, I could do something really great with my life. But we each have tools already. The trick is just finding a new way to use those tools."
What was your first career? “Working in small churches as a music and youth director, which meant I would lead the hymns and the choir on Sunday morning and then I would plan activities for the teenagers on Sunday night and weekends and go to camp with them. Things like that. Believe it or not it’s possible to get tired of working with teenagers."
Why are so many slide decks boring or worse? “Most people who use slides think of that blank slide as the equivalent of the old flip charts we used in brainstorming sessions. They put as much thought into them as they do with what they’re going to write on the brainstorming session page. I like to think, instead, of that white screen as a blank canvas and myself as the artist responsible for painting something beautiful or lasting that carries a message."
What’s a key goal for the visual part of your presentations? “Keep the audience entranced, enthralled. It’s a terrible losing battle when you realize you’ve lost everyone to their iPhones and they’re checking their e-mail and Twitter and things like that. Instead, I want them, and I often get this, to gasp at some of the things I put on the screen. I want them to be surprised."
A tip for slide-making “One very simple one is use the whole picture. Use the whole frame. I’m so tired of people who put a picture of somebody they’re quoting and it’s a little picture in a little tiny box on the screen. You don’t see a billboard on the highway with a tiny little picture in one corner of it. You got real estate to work with so use it."
You speak, you design and you write. Which came first? “I did competitive speaking in high school and I did very well in it."
If one of them had to go, which would go first? “Probably the writing. That’s the one that’s hardest to make me sit down and do. I have more ideas for books in my head than I will ever get around to."
Why do you speak? “For me it is a compulsion. I can’t not speak. I don’t know where it came from, but since I was a child I’ve had the urge to perform in front of other people and it has taken all these different forms of magic and music and drama and speaking. When I played music, people would come up and say, I like your song, or, I like your set, but it’s very rare that somebody says, you know that song you wrote changed my life. But that happens when you’re a speaker."
Do you use PowerPoint or Keynote? “I’ve been a Mac guy since I bought one in 1987, so when I started using slides in my presentations, which was only a few years ago, I was exclusively Keynote. The first time I started talking about how to make better slides, people would say, ‘How do you do that on PowerPoint,’ and I would say, ‘I don’t know.’ … After my presentation [at the NSA convention] in Washington, D.C., I said, I’m going to have to start doing PowerPoint also. Now I do both."
Something about you that surprises people “At one point I was the world leading expert in Pez dispensers. I had always liked them and I remembered them from my childhood. When I was in college my roommate and I were in a dime store and we saw some and we were like, 'Oh Pez!' So I just started buying them when I would see them and after a while I had a whole drawer full of them. [Eventually,] I ended up starting a zine about Pez dispensers. Before long I had over 400 subscribers paying me $20 a year for this publication and then people were calling me from all over the world to share their discoveries with me. Media sites — Wall Street Journal, Canadian Broadcasting Radio, Playboy, People Magazine."
Something that surprises you about other people “It took me a long time to learn that other people all have amazing stories, even if they don’t necessarily realize it yet. I used to not be good at all at networking or talking to other people. I was very standoffish in groups. The first NSA convention I went to I hardly spoke during the three days I was there. I didn’t know a soul there. But since then I’ve realized that everybody has a story and you can learn some great things from their stories. Instead of me waiting for someone to talk to me, I became more comfortable at saying, what’s your story? "
Something that you wish everybody would just get right “Slides are not cue cards. They are not for you to refer to, to decide where you are in your speech. You should never turn around and read your words off the screen. That’s not what they’re for."