10 Things I Learned Talking to 500 People

At the IdeaLab! 2014 hosted by the WHU

At the IdeaLab! 2014 hosted by the WHU

End of September I was sitting in the Google office in Buenos Aires working on an analysis of the ±10 different partnership conversations we had conducted throughout Brazil and Argentina. It was already late PM when I got a Facebook message from the head organizer of the “IdeaLab! Founders’ Conference” in Germany, inviting me to attend their conference as a speaker – flights and accommodation all covered. Not only did I feel humbled by the invitation, I was also fascinated by the fact that I was invited by the WHU in Vallendar, the host university of the conference which happens to be the main academic rival of my own alma mater, the EBS in Oestrich-Winkel. 

Feelings of surprise aside, the idea of speaking to 400 people in less than 3 weeks made me extremely uncomfortable and excited – uncomfortably excited as we say at Google. Especially as I would be sharing the stage with successful entrepreneurs and CEOs (of Microsoft Germany or Rocket Internet). But what would I talk about? How could I possible make this a worthwhile 45 minutes? I was torn between “what an amazing opportunity” and “how the heck am I going to pull this off”?

After a brief conversation with Christian, the organizer, I understood that they were less interested in Google, but more in my story of being a fellow undergrad business student (albeit from their competitor) and how I made it to Google in Silicon Valley. And as the title of the conference was called “The Art of Innovation,” I aptly called my speech “The Art of Re/Inventing yourself” – focusing on both my story and the lessons I learned throughout my journey. By leaving Google out of this, I was able to go ahead without requiring any PR approval. I submitted my vacation request and booked my flights. 

Soon enough, a friend and EBS alum suggested I should also speak at the EBSpreneurship forum, the equivalent of the IdeaLab!. While I would have loved to – especially because the events were at consecutive weekends – I couldn’t because of timing (and I didn’t want to break the exclusivity I had with the IdeaLab!). Nevertheless, I agreed to stop by for a separately organized talk with different content. 

The past three days in Germany were extremely exciting (writing this article while on my flight back from Germany). My talk at the EBS was just 3 hours after I landed in Frankfurt. I headed straight to the campus of my alma mater (imagine all those feelings of nostalgia I had) and gave a 90-minutes talk to some 110+ students. We had expected 60 folks, so this was absolutely amazing. Two days later, I gave my talk at the IdeaLab! Based on my own feelings and the feedback I received from attendants, the organizers and fellow speakers, I think the presentation went extremely well. Most importantly though, I learned a ton about public speaking, was able to identify areas I further need to work on, and was extremely delighted about the opportunity to share my story with others. 

Here are some of my “lessons learned”: 

  1. Do an Energizer: I started the talk at the IdeaLab! with an “energizer” (My buddy Pete had advised me to). It was already the 2nd day of the conference and I wanted folks to leave behind their stresses, messes, dramas and traumas. I asked them all to stand up and we did a little group stretch. After that I asked them to pull up something personal on their smartphones, lock the screen and give it to a neighbor. I said that on the count of three, we would have to tell our neighbor the password of our phone … 3 … 2… JUST KIDDING GUYS! Huge laughter ensued… "So, who felt uncomfortable about sharing something personal? Ok, and who felt excited about seeing something personal of someone else? Well, today I’m sharing a personal story and I hope you feel uncomfortably excited." Boom – everyone was 100% present.  
  2. Make it Simple: I used 15 slides – one picture per slide, no text. Make it loud and visual. Let the pictures support your ideas and message, not distract from them. 
  3. Diversify Your Presentation Tools: In addition to using the slides, I also made use of the Flip Chart at two occasions. It gave the presentation a strong sense of spontaneity since Flip Chart drawings rarely look well planned. People love unplanned things during presentations (except they are unplanned technical errors which I was saved from).
  4. Reference Other Speakers: One thing I did that people LOVED was that I picked up something that key note speaker Oliver Samwer (CEO of Rocket Internet) had said just the day before. I redrew Oliver’s one-dimensional graph which he used to explain a theory and added a second axis to it through which I further developed his theory. It was a fine line of criticizing someone’s theory and expanding it, but from the feedback I got, people felt the latter was the case.  
  5. More Q&A is not Always Better: When you speak to such large crowds, the Q&A can be quite messy. At the EBS, I thought that 45 mins Q&A would add a lot of value (after a 45-minute no-slide talk), but I got way too many questions that were too specific. Someone asked me about Google’s Android strategy in China. Not only was that unrelated to my presentation topic, but also uninteresting to others. More Q&A is not always better. I skipped the Q&A at the IdeaLab! entirely and did 45-mins of pure talking. I took questions in 1:few conversations afterwards. 
  6. Make the Known Unknown: Well-known concepts need to be conveyed under a new perspective. For example, I wanted to talk about the importance of moving out of your comfort zone. But I could have not just used that expression “move out of your comfort zone”. It’s overused, it has too much of a “coaching”-character to it. That’s why I had to convey this concept differently. So instead of saying “move out of your comfort zone”, I centered that part of my presentation around the question of “when was the last time you did something for the first time” – an important question they should ask themselves on a regular basis to ensure they are developing new skills that make them uncomfortable. Known concepts need to be conveyed in an unknown way.
  7. Make Yourself Relatable: One of the key things I learned in my global course on Storytelling this year, was how to make yourself relatable to the audience. As someone who had been “in their position” just 5 years ago (studying at a private school, being close to graduation, figuring out life), I played on that angle really hard. This caused a big “wow, this guy knows how I’m feeling” – type reaction. People felt much more connected.  
  8. Vulnerability Leads to Authenticity: I could have told them only about my successes, but I also talked about the insecurity I experienced throughout my path. I was afraid this wouldn’t fly in front of a German crowd, but it did. Sharing emotions and feelings shows vulnerability which increases your authenticity as a result. 
  9. Story and Anecdotes: My presentation would have been absolutely meaningless if I had not filled it with personal stories and anecdotes. I talked about how my friend Nico referred me to Google, I talked about my former manager John and his advise on my first day at Google, I mentioned my random encounter with noble peace price nominee Wael Ghonim, I even told folks that my 70-year old dad started yoga (note: he was sitting in the audience). People loved the stories. And I loved telling them. Win/Win. 
  10. Explore the Space: Gestures are important. What’s also important, is to move your body. I went back and I went forth. To the left and to the right. I even went up (while stretching during the energizer) and down (when demonstrating a moment of sadness during which I was sliding with my back against the door). Explore the space, but keep it real. If you move too much, you emit stress. Find a balance that will make your movements interesting and not distracting.