How Good Are Your Presentations? Observations From a Paid Listener.

As a graphic recorder, I’m hired to go to conferences and meetings to listen, synthesize information, and create a “picture” of what the group is hearing or creating together.

I do this work live in the room on very large paper using key words and illustrations to record and enhance communication and increase memory retention.

Over the years, I’ve graphically captured the key points of dozens of high-profile speakers.

Most recently, I was fortunate to to be the graphic recorder at the 25th Annual People of Color Conference in Houston, TX. Listening to the speakers over two and a half days allowed me to see patterns and notice things they all had in common and did well.

Consider this speech by Dr. Steven Jones, an author and national expert on diversity, inclusion, and leadership development.

Map by Michelle Boos-Stone and Alece Birnbach

The author of Journey to Excellence: An Introduction to E4, Jones has presented several workshop sessions at PoCC and led the Adult Leadership Seminar in 2011. He has consulted with independent schools throughout the country such as Athenian School, Beauvoir School, The Dalton School, Episcopal High School, Marin Country Day School, The Mirman School, Oakwood School, The Pingry School, and Potomac School.

He talked about how leaders can make real change that prepares their organizations to effectively step into the 21st Century.

Another featured speaker was Keshni Kashyap.

Born in Singapore and raised in California, Keshni Kashyap is most recently the writer and creator of the award-winning graphic novel, Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary, which was published in January 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and chronicles the life and times of a 15-year-old Indian-American teenager growing up in contemporary Los Angeles.

The trained filmmaker talked about her book, and her work—which fascinated and charmed the audience.

Map by Alece Birnbach

Lessons Learned

Every time I am chosen to be the graphic recorder at a top-notch event, I learn something new. In fact, it’s from my unique perspective as a paid listener that I’d like to share a few observations on what makes a great speech.

  • Make it personal: If you’re connected to the content of your presentation, that will connect you to your audience, and that’s when people feel moved.
  • Have a clear point: What is the main message you want your audience to know? Articulate it clearly and then repeat it often and slowly. You may feel like you’ve heard it yourself too many times, but your audience is hearing it for the first time. John Medina makes this point in his book “Brain Rules.” Rule #6: For long-term memory retention, “Remember to repeat.” John suggests repeating every 10 minutes, which again may seem like a lot to you, but listeners will appreciate it and most importantly, they’ll remember your point.
  • Silence is golden: I recently captured a speech by author Keshni Kashyap. Keshni paused for what felt like a long time after each key statement she made. Over the hour she spoke, she fell silent four or five times. It was so powerful. The audience stayed completely engaged, even leaned forward in anticipation of the next thing she’d say.
  • A note about notes: The best speakers I’ve seen don’t read anything during their speech. That includes notes in their hand or at a podium as well as PowerPoint slides.
  • PPT—Ughhh: I’m obviously all for using visuals to enhance a message. A powerful photograph projected while the audience is listening to a story is very helpful in driving home your point and creating an emotional connection. I suggest using your slides only to enhance your point. Never read from them. I recently recorded a speaker who used statistics in his speech. The numbers were important to the point he was making, but he didn’t show graphs or charts. He REPEATED the numbers slowly and paused each time to let them sink in. This was far more effective than a PPT slide ever could have been.
  • Move: People don’t pay attention to boring things (rule #4 in Brain Rules). What’s more boring than watching someone who’s standing still behind a podium? Move around as much as your surroundings allow.
Dan Choi

Dan Choi

  • Get Loud: West Point graduate and Operation Iraqi Freedom combat veteran Dan Choi (pictured right) made a real impact at the conference. After formally announcing that he was gay on “The Rachel Maddow Show,” he was discharged by the New York National Guard—despite his outstanding service record, and the fact that he has the very desirable skill of speaking multiple Arabic languages. Dan casually walked onto the stage, paused, made eye contact with his audience, and began to shout in Arabic. It was amazing. He owned the room.

The Bottom Line

When your passion comes through, that passion is contagious. It will connect you to your audience and they will see things differently than they did before. They will be transformed.

From Alece Birnbach's January Presentations column at


New sketch animation

Tandem recording at the People of Color Conference.