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Lessons from the Cluetrain: Imperatives for presenters

ConversationsIf you follow people like Hugh Macleod and Robert Scoble, etc., you know that we're living in the era of "the cluetrain." I first read the Cluetrain Manifesto four-five years ago. One of the central ideas in the book is this: markets are conversations and companies by a large do not get that (even if their employees do). Traditional ways of mass-media marketing need to adapt or get out of the way. What Cluetrain was talking about were changes in current company-to-consumer interactions, though their emphasis was on how technology and the web, among other things, was changing this interaction in a radical way. What the Cluetrain Manifesto is saying, at it's heart, is that communication matters and that the way we think about organization-to-customer communication needs to change.

It's all communication
Websites, intranets, message boards, email blasts, blogs, developer conferences, sales presentations, and CEO keynotes — it's about communicating. It all matters. Whether it's a blog, an e-news letter, or a presentation, what audiences and customers yearn for from organizations is authenticity and transparency, simplicity, and a real human, emotion-without-the-BS approach to communicating. A real conversation...for a change.

The Cluetrain tenets — the "95 Theses" at the beginning of the book — speak largely to wired communications. But it's all communication. While the "Theses" may not have been written with presentations in mind, many of the items fit nearly perfectly and can serve as good advice or reminders for how we need to connect and engage with our audiences today. Below are ten items (in bold) I took from the list of "95 Theses" in the Cluetrain (my comments follow).  I suggest purchasing the book, but you can get most of it free here.

Top-10 Cluetrain Theses: Imperatives for presenters

Cluetrain(1) "Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors."
Markets are not abstractions, and neither are our audiences. They're people worthy of our full attention and respect. If we can remember that it's about them and not about us...we're on the right path.

(2) "Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice."
I don't hate politicians and I don't hate marketers...but I hate the way they talk. "Mission-critical, forward-looking value propositions...." People do not talk that way! Many corporate speakers have a special gift for the "blah-blah-blah." Is anyone listening? Speeches and presentation do not have to be be stuffy and dull, but neither do they need to be hyped-up and shallow — your audience is praying you'll be different.

(3) "Already, companies that speak in the language of the pitch, the dog-and-pony show, are no longer speaking to anyone."
Even if your presentation is directly sales related, you have to believe in your product (not the hype) deep down inside. I'm not talking about drinking the Koolaid kind of belief, I'm talking about believing in your product (your cause, research, etc.) like you believe in yourself. Speak to the audience like you respect them, like you think they are smart, like you think they are interesting. Don't be a TV commercial. Commercials more often than not insult us. And even when they're clever, we don't really care and soon forget because...they're not real.

(4) "Companies need to lighten up and take themselves less seriously. They need to get a sense of humor."
The best presenters take their cause and their audience very seriously...but they do not take themselves too seriously. They are relaxed...they have nothing to hide. At that moment, nothing could be better than sharing time with the audience, and the audience feels that.

(5) "Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived."
Your speaking does not have to be perfect. In fact, perfect speech and too much polish may alienate a crowd. It's not real. Each case is different, but an open, natural, friendly, relax approach — away from the podium — is usually best. People pay more attention to a natural, open voice. And few things are more boring for a crowd than the reading of a long manuscript from a podium.

(6) "By speaking in language that is distant, uninviting, arrogant, they build walls to keep markets at bay."
If you want your talk to fail, simply build a wall between you and your audience. There are many ways to do that: Speak in abstractions, stand in the dark, insult the competition, speak too long, create dreadful visuals, be evasive, and on and on.

(7)"Learning to speak with a human voice is not a parlor trick. It can't be 'picked up' at some tony conference."
You can learn a lot from presentation coaches and communication books, but this is not rocket science. We can be much better by simply looking at the presentation as an opportunity to have a conversation with others about something we care about. All the technique, training, and "PowerPoint" tricks are useless if the talk doesn't come from your gut, from your heart and soul.

(8) "The inflated self-important jargon you sling around — in the press, at your conferences — what's that got to do with us?"
Never try to impress. It didn't work in high school (lord knows I tried) and it won't work with your audiences (or your markets) either. A good presentation is like a good blog: it's transparent, unique, fresh, honest, authentic, and accurate even if not perfect.

(9) "If you want us to talk to you, tell us something. Make it something interesting for a change."
Most sales presentations are designed by committee and sent to people in the field with scripts in the PowerPoint notes view. No wonder the presenter sounds distant and "corporate."

(10) "De-cloaking, getting personal: We are those markets. We want to talk to you."

As the Cluetrain authors say, people " not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations..." The best presentations feel like a conversation.

Checkout Microsoft's Robert Scoble's presentation at the LIFT conference in Geneva last Friday. The content is relevant and his style is a good example of a more human, more engaging approach to a presentation. Sure, it is not perfect, it is not slick or polished, but it is good and it is genuine. (See "Robert Scoble Überblogger at Microsoft" last presenter on Friday). 

Other online examples of good presentations?


Robert Padbury

I just posted a blog entry ( about this very thing. It drives me crazy when companies try to sound 'professional'.

I just added 'The Cluetrain Manifesto' to my shopping cart - thanks for the recommendation.


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Excellent, Robert. Nice post! Thanks for the link.

Harry Chittenden

Good job, Garr. Your Cluetrain points, often considered in terms of technology, apply just as aptly to "live" space. In fact, by removing the middleman, the Internet has made cyberspace more like live space. Keep live space live. Don't hide from it behind PowerPoint.

Heidi Miller

Excellent article! Cluetrain Manifesto is now also on my to-read list. And your summary point #7 so struck me that I wrote a bit on it on my own blog here:

Thank you for the inspiration!

Mark Howell

This will make for a good discussion on our team. Thanks!


>Keep live space live.

I love that line!

It's funny: Internet technology, etc. helps use get virtually closer and have more "live" experiences. And yet slideware technology, if used poorly, can take a genuine "live" opportunity and make it less personal than an email blast. -G


Right you are Garr!

I taught presentation skills to salespeople for many years and was always astounded at their fear of speaking authentically. I would always start the class by saying "Great presenters don't create a persona, they AMPLIFY who they really are." When I mentioned cutting way back on PowerPoint slides, they would often look at me with intense mistrust, as if I were a card-carrying communist during the McCarthy era. I guess all we can do is keep advocating for engaging presentations, and sooner or later people will come around.


>When I mentioned cutting way back on PowerPoint slides, they would often look at me with intense mistrust, as if I were a card-carrying communist during the McCarthy era.

LOL! Good one, Pamela. Yes, changes like this take time. Moving away from "the way we've always done things" is a hard sell sometimes. And it's scary to move away from hiding behind slides to being front and center and "yourself." The pushback is understandable, but not insurmountable...


Matthew Stibbe

Right - off to Amazon to buy this book! Thanks for the tip. I did a lecture a few years ago at a computer game developers conference about this history of computer games. I wanted to put it online and thought quite hard about how to do it and keep some of the flavour of the talk, which was somewhat autobiographical, and allow people to link to the games and actually play them. The technology is pretty basic and some of the links have died but I think the results sort of stand up. Anyhow, here's the link:
I also liked the point about meaningless jargon. I blogged about this a while back:

Jamie Nelson

I think that The Cluetrain really got it right and that so many more people need to get hip to it. Thanks for the reminder. I'm sharing this with my colleagues at work. Cheers!

ken brand

Thanks Garr. I read the CM a while back and of course it's referred to frequently by the cognizenti...your written conversation slappped me to attention. Thanks, I'll reread the book and share your post with my sales team. Thanks...rock on.

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