Email Innovation Summit - straight from the stage


(Industry Veteran David Baker delivered one of the three keynote addresses at this years Email Innovations Summit. David had been away from the conference stage for a few years as a result of losing his ability to speak. Using text-to-speech technology, we were honored to invite David back to the stage. Needless to say, he hit it out of the park.I asked him to discuss his experiences in presenting. Thanks, David!)

I have a message, I have the stage, and I have the motivation. But, will I enjoy being on stage as I did in the past? Will the audience accept what I say? Can I connect with them the way I used to?  

One of my motivations of speaking in public is simple: I learn a ton. Not only does it accelerate my learning by making me prepare and dig deeper into topics, but the exposure makes me far more approachable.

I just love people, love hearing their stories. Absent a voice, it's super-hard to be proactive and demand attention. So, why would anyone put themselves through this crazy world of artificial voice? I just want to share ideas and shape an industry that is on the cusp of major change.

This year was a bit different, personally, because I was fortunate to be invited to speak at Bill McCloskey’s Email Innovations Summit.    

“But he can’t literally speak,” was Bill's comment when Morgan Stewart of Trendline Interactive proposed me for a speaker slot. What is not to love about industry colleagues investing and taking risks on you, right?  

I’ve been told, since my voice began to fade, “It's not your voice, it's your brain.” What the hell does that mean? The problem with that thinking or letting that go to your head is you begin to believe you have the answers and quit working so hard to interact with people from all over to balance nuances of different businesses and challenges.  

The balance of being a good visionary and being a change agent is manifested by how close you are to that action.

As Bill’s request I am writing about what was involved with my EIS presentation and to offer a few things you might not think about directly.

What's the point?   If you don’t have a strong opinion on something that is happening, you likely will fall flat. With some speakers, you know what type of presentation you’re going to get.

Think Dela Quist. You get a very confident, British voice that leads with data to prove his points. Bob Frady has crazy marketer experience with a hint of dark humor and realism about today’s operational world. With Ryan Phelan, Chris Marriot and others, you somewhat know what you’re going to get when you sit down in the audience.

So, I asked myself, why would someone want to come listen to me? On what topics? How far out in front can I take it without losing the audience?

Back in 2005, I coined the term "value of an email address" and applied a formula for calculating this. But, the first few times I presented this and showed the formula on stage, I saw blank stares. Kind of like talking about customer lifetime value, when maybe 5% know how to calculate it properly.

So, I landed on machine learning and artificial intelligence. A text-to-voice presentation seemed to fit that dialog. Innately, everyone is thinking about a future world where there is little human voice interacting, or, better yet, machines helping in the process.

That was my premise. I wanted to talk about this grey area of ML/AI that many don’t understand and don’t necessarily believe. In the production-centric world of email, it's simply hard to get out of the trenches for more advanced thinking.  

"I can listen to this later" versus "just see slides." In the absence of video, my approach is one of the better approaches if you want your presentation to go viral. Include voiceover. If someone can follow your slides without the benefit of text or voice, then you failed as a speaker.  

Slides are there to support. They aren't a whitepaper. Fewer words are better. We remember visuals longer than text anyway. Now, how many of you who were in the presentation, remember the baby pic or the machines in a class, learning?   Those images have lasting impressions that you’ll conjure up when similar topics are drawn out.  

Before I spoke at EIS, I had some concerns. How can I deliver this over 45 minutes with an artificial voice? Is this just a live podcast with an aging but pretty face? Will that resonate with an email audience?   Will it be weird, some guy sitting up there pushing buttons and not saying a thing? My old Phil Donahue style of rolling audience participation won’t fly today.  

What I am coming to realize is that doing presentations is akin to producing an hour-long video track. If you’ve ever produced a video, or, better yet, with presentation graphics, it is quite an endeavor to do it well. You need hard hitting points and an obvious flow to the content. This is all before you think of the voice, tone, rate, inflection you need to create the voice around.

I’ve spoken hundreds of times in my career, but I’ve never prepared more than I did this time. I just don’t have the luxury of making up for mistakes with “voiceover humor.” It must run scripted without mistakes.

I highly recommend that future speakers record their presentation scripts before taking the stage. You might find another person on the microphone. This offers two values: You can host your podcast post-event. Two: It will help you see areas where you can highlight points a bit better.

Did you really tell them anything?   It’s a mixed bag with audiences. Everyone likes humor, check. Sure, all presentations should start with a hypothesis. What are the points you really want to prove? I had a few going in:

Does this group realize what the market is doing and what is driving all the buzz for machine learning and artificial intelligence?

Can this audience make a connection to ML/AI with their daily lives? Talk about the future in a way that connects today with tomorrow.

Don’t be so obvious. We can talk about email, but there is a lot we do in our professional lives every day that use AI/ML. So, I needed to highlight outside-the-box thinking that shows the variety of how modeling data, Natural Language processing and the advent of future machine-to-consumer dialogs offer value:

  1. Make it funny, witty and provide sound bites that attendees will remember when they recall the presentation. I’d challenge anyone that sat in the presentation to tell me what they remember? Words? Ideas? Or just the experience?
  2. Never have all the answers. The flaw with many speakers is they over-promote success. This leaves little room to allow the audience to find their own answers. If I learned anything in 25 years in this industry, it's that you don’t know it all. Don’t fake it. It only hinders sharing and intimidates new idea seekers. Always leave room for self-discovery. I feel any orchestrated presentation should offer opportunities for people to free-think, “How would this change my world” versus telling them, “Your world will change.” Include a healthy balance of content, facts, opinions with the flexibility to allow listeners to apply it to their environments and understand the risks. It all comes down decisions about business and time risks, right?
  3. Voice matters. I did a lot of research on speaking without a voice. Watching Stephen Hawking's videos weren’t that motivating to me. My voice isn’t that bad, is it? What I did find is I was attracted to women's voices and wondered why I was leaning heavily on these softer voices. Maybe it was growing up with all women, or having all women in the house now. Yet, after reading up on voices and gender, I found it's far more than a feeling. It's science. For instance, who would have known that those voices in your head are men’s voices, not women's.   The vast majority of people in a study at the University of Virginia identified those inner voices as “men’s voices.” I could make a million jokes about this one, but will leave that to you and your creative mind to create those. "The female voice is actually more complex than the male voice, due to differences in the size and shape of the vocal cords and larynx between women and men, and also due to women having greater natural 'melody' in their voices. This causes a more complex range of sound frequencies than in a male voice," the study said. Here are some things that helped me do a gender search for my speaking voice:
  • Women tend to make swoopingpitch changes during speech, while men tend to use their full pitch range conservatively.
  • Women tend to have more "breathy" voices as compared to men.
  • Women tend to use their articulators more than men. Sometimes voice coaches describe this as "increased energy" around the articulators, especially the lips.
  • "Feminine" communication isn't defined just by sound. Women tend to use more hand gestures, gentler articulation and "softer" word choices.

I also needed to think about each slide and what I wanted to convey. Is it a sound bite? Is it humorous? Does it require a story-telling mode?  

I landed on using both male and female voices. I reserved the man’s voice for facts, stats, introductions and a calming influence, not to mention any reference to humor. I used the female voice for concepts, futuristic thinking and storytelling. I adjusted rate of speech when the female voice talked, as I had more control over pitch for those inflection points.    

Now it's time to put everything together. You have your script, you are preparing your voices and working on pace. With voice technology, you can control so many things. It's honestly like a recording studio mixing panel. Rate, pitch, pauses – all require substantial thought. I was concerned about not sounding like “me.” As I write far more than I talk today, it's very easy to lose your personality in the written word. Worse, you can sound like a total asshole.

One of the things that made me so approachable is using levity to disarm people who get intimidated or don’t feel they are deep enough on a topic. Without the ability to verbally navigate, you tend not to get the value out of the dialog. So, on stage, it's not the same, but, really, it is. People want to hear people with personalities entertain them.  

The presentation:   All was set, audio recorded, embedded in the slides. I practiced it, but what about the intro and close?   That requires a person, not a pre-scripted machine, right?   I can’t start off with interactive polls, I can’t challenge the questions coming in, or at least not in a human flow, and I can’t have interactive fun with those nervous to speak up.

While the content and presentation were good, I did identify 4 areas that needed work. These came from my experience, but they're relevant to anyone making a presentation:

  1. Work harder up front. Creating that connection early must be a combination of personality, style and properly organized themes you’ll present around. Mine were simple: 1. Machine learning is ubiquitous, and all indicators show it's far more than a buzz word. 2. Don’t live in a cave. Learn about its uses, and don’t end with “Machines will take over the world.” 3. Touch on process improvement versus data modeling for customer insight. There are many uses, and insight is valuable, but productivity is where the margins are made.
  2. Be synchronous during Q/A. The problem with text-to-speech is there is latency when I’m typing and talking. Onstage, 10 seconds can seem like 60 for you and the audience. I don’t have the luxury of ice breakers to bridge time.   Next time, I’ll show my interface to the audience as I type (may need to retrain myself, as I’m a horrible speller now). Maybe a stronger opening, one that is more video- centric and emotive.
  3. Smile and have fun. People want to be around people who are positive, unapologetic and prepared. Humor and humanism are the catalysts to connecting with any content. Use it appropriately. Don’t be a goofball. Don’t use humor at your expense, but do find ways to make people smile. More importantly, find reasons for you to smile. It's contagious.
  4. Build in time. The fun thing about scripting your presentation is you can’t mess up. That removes a ton of anxiety. What you don’t have is the unscripted pieces. Without a live interaction, you are on point. So, I built 10 minutes of questions and timed it at 40 minutes. Guess what? I finished in 41 minutes – far too fast, but even with the best timing, you need to factor in time. It's far easier to sit up there and answer questions than scramble to finish.

Wrapping up

We have so many more voices in our industry than we had 10 years ago or even 5 years ago. While I’ve been speaking most of my career, I highly recommend it for anyone. It's not self-promotion. It's about learning. You become approachable. You get to share ideas, to learn, to stretch yourself likely farther than anyone else would. Embrace it, and find ways to contribute your insights to our industry.  

Thanks again, Bill and Morgan, for supporting me as they have the entire industry.

Title: Email Innovation Summit - straight from the stage
About: Speaking at a Conference
Audience: Marketers
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