Teach from the tip of the iceberg

Updated to Business on December 14, 2022.

Recently I was the MC at a large conference and I introduced Olympian Jon Montgomery (gold metal winner, Vancouver 2010 Olympics, beer stein march through Whistler…that guy) before his speech. Not only is Jon naturally a great speaker and can spin a hilarious story, he knows how to choose his content.

Normally when a speaker tells the audience about their craft, work, or sport they give lots of details. Too much detail.

Jon didn’t do that. Even though it’s fair bet that none of the 500 people in the audience knew a tinker’s damn about skeleton racing (I wasn’t even sure which end the head goes at) he didn’t go there.

Rather than making sure we all understood the sport, or how the athlete controls the sled (which Jon described as “leaping forward, head-first onto a sliding dinner plate”), he got right into the lesson.

That’s masterful. He was teaching from the tip of the iceberg.

We all know that icebergs prototypically float with about 10% of their mass exposed for us to see. The bulk of the ‘berg is there ready to be called on, but not exposed until needed. That’s exactly how to present your content.

Whether you are leading a seminar, coaching a client, or giving a keynote address to 10,000 people, you do a disservice to your audience if you tell them everything you know. Sure you look smart, but they are overwhelmed, and after a polite applause, won’t know where to start.

Prepare and delete.

A simple trick I use is to prepare my content with as much detail as I think my audience needs about 36 hours before the event. And then I let it simmer.

The danger at this point is to be in love with your work. “They really need to know this”, you think, or “I should mention this author, because their work helped me to understand this concept.” You are going below the surface and risk sucking the oxygen out of the room with your details.

Instead, I plan to delete. About 24 hours (the morning of the event is often my best time for this) before the event I revisit my objectives. Typically, I delivered a short list of bullet point objectives for my presentation to my client months before. And then I start to delete any content that doesn’t directly help me get to those objectives. This is necessary surgery.

Here’s the bonus to this trick. All the preparation I initially did makes me more resourceful even though I’m not planning to present all of it.

What this short video where I show you exactly how I decide what gets into my keynote presentations.

Be resourceful, not resource full

Nothing is quite as engaging as a speaker or coach that can pull from thin air a related point or story (providing there is enough time, of course) that supports their argument or simply entertains the audience. It seems like you are having a spontaneous conversation and your audience will love it. When you are ploughing through your full-dressed first draft you are forced to review notes, revisit stories, models, quotations, and anecdotes. You don’t need to use it all, but that’s how you become resourceful, as opposed to full-of-resources.

Your in-depth preparation arms to take those little eyes-cast-to-the-ceiling tangents for the audiences’ benefit.

Avoid the SSFF mistake

One of the biggest mistakes speakers, seminar leaders, and I’ll include interviewers, make is to SSFF (Start Slow, Finish Fast). Apologizing for not having enough time and flipping through PowerPoint slides is amateurville and to be avoided at all costs. Sure, the host started late and the sponsor went overtime, but that’s not an excuse for your poor planning.

When you remove extra content and hone your message to the tip of the iceberg you have more flexibility. Instead of being anchored to 40 slides, you start with just 10 and “talk around” them with core content and bergy bits*.

Make sense? Ok, now do it. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

* a real term I learned on my first voyage to Antarctica (a story for another time)