The Art of the Presentation (Part 1 of 3)

In a post a few years ago I talked about The Art of the Conference, and what conference organisers can do to improve their conferences and make lives easier for their presenters. I was reminded of this post again recently as this is the sixth year that I am mentoring a rookie speaker at BSides London, and in my initial conversation with them I discussed a three stage approach to creating, practising and delivering the talk (the latter of which touches on the content of my previous post).

This post focusses on the first part of this process, the actual creation of the talk.

The Idea

This is actually the hardest part of the entire process (aside perhaps from actually standing in front of 200 people of course). In my experience many people try to not only come up with a wholly unique idea, but then try and explore it in too much detail. Given your talk will probably be competing against many other talks, the easiest way to make yours stand out is with it’s simplicity. Take the core of a topic, and honestly ask yourself what your view on it is; do you agree with it, if not why not, what could be better, what is your experience of it and how have you addressed it? By keeping it simple your audience will have more chance of remembering what you said. This process could take anywhere from minutes to weeks and weeks dependent upon your experience, knowledge and confidence. Don’t assume however that just because you have an opinion that everyone else is fully knowledgeable of it either; if nothing else you are bringing your own unique viewpoint.

The Creative

This is a point at which your approach may differ, but I have always found this the best way of actually inspiring myself and getting my story straight. I fill a sheet of paper with boxes (below) and then start to sketch out, not always legibly) the approach I am going to take on the deck I produce. I do this because it ensures I don’t write any actual prose on the topic; personally when I do this I find it very difficult to then pull myself away from the prose when presenting. It is a mental block of sorts of course, but this approach allows me to sketch out the story of my talk without having to get attached to a certain way of saying things

I try and avoid too many words as they are a distraction to the audience, and focus on high resolution images that help embellish my point or provoke an appropriate reaction from the audience. There are some very good books on creating slides for presentation that I have referenced, Presentation Zen and Slide:ology; I strongly recommend these to anyone who wants to up their game on the visual presentation side of things.

This approach also allows you to build a story; making sure your presentation has a beginning, middle and end help draw your audience in. What talk would you rather watch…

My talk is about a simple technology we used to allow someone to Tweet over a phone call.


John Doe is a man who was imprisoned on the flimsiest of evidence and with ludicrously high bail. He had restricted access to legal counsel and even family were not allowed to visit him. His entire campaign for justice was focussed around his significant Twitter followers, and given his elevated fame in his industry was where most of his support would come from. Here is the story of how we used a Raspberry Pi, two cans, a length of string and Python to allow him to live Tweet from his weekly phone call, directly and un-redacted, and ultimately beat the corrupt government that had arrested him.

Your approach needs to be simple, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be dull.

The Timings

Timing a presentation is very difficult, but after some experience I have found I can not only tell roughly what the length of a presentation created like this, but can also vary it in length, sometimes upon to 100%. The other rule of thumb is to dive the number of minutes you have by the number of slides. One slide for roughly every minute is a good place to start, but keep an eye out for when that number increases. Trying to cover more than one slide every 15 seconds is going to be very challenging.

The Takeaways

I often say that people will remember less than 30% of what you said less that 30 minutes after you have finished speaking. Not only is this where the simplicity of your deck is important, but also making sure you leave the audience with clear activities or advice on what to do next is vitally important. If you don’t do this, you will leave the audience somewhat nonplussed even if your content is great. As one close friend of mine said to me after I had asked for feedback:

It was a good talk, but I got to the end and thought “meh, so what?”

Your talk can be interesting, but if it doesn’t have a point, you will always be in the “meh” zone.

Next time (or maybe the time after), The Art of the Presentation (Part 2 of 3) – Practising.

The Power of Silence

Not so many years ago in the dim and distant past, the very first full length public talk I did was called “An Anatomy of a Risk Assessment”; it was a successful talk and one I was asked to present several times again in the following years. Below is a film of the second time I presented it, this time at BSides London:

My presentation style left a lot to be desired, and I seemed unable to stop using note cards until almost eighteen months later despite me not using them for other talks I gave! (Top speaking tip folks, never use printed notes when speaking, it conditions your mind to think it can only deliver when using them.) But that is not the focus of this message.

One of the pieces of “anatomy” that I spoke about in terms of risk assessments was the ears. The principle being that since you have two ears and one mouth, when auditing or assessing you should be listen twice as much as be speaking. This is important for two reasons, the second of which may not be as obvious as the first:

  1. If you are assessing someone or something, you should be drawing information from them. When you are speaking you are not gaining any information from them which is a wasted opportunity. As a consequence of this therefore,
  2. There will be periods of silence which you must not feel tempted to break. Just as nature fills a vacuum so a human wants to fill a silence. Silence therefore will encourage the target of the assessment to open up even more, just so as not to feel awkward!

Interestingly, after my very first presentation of this talk, a member of the audience asked me if i had ever been in the Police Force. “I haven’t” I replied.

Well, some of the techniques you just described are exactly like police interrogation techniques, especially the silence. I should know, I used them every day!

Flattered though I was, I did become a little concerned! Was i taking this risk assessment malarkey a little too seriously? Was i subjecting people to what amounted to an interrogation?

Obviously this was not the case, but it occurred to me that in the many books i have read on risk assessment and audit, never is the softer side of the process covered. We tend to focus on the technology, or the boxes that need to be ticked, when actually we can simply sit back and let others do the talking. I also employ humour very often to help people relax, and even do it when i am on the other side of the table too. It can make a gruelling and mindless activity far more engaging and allow you to connect with the person on the other side of the table more effectively.

It engenders trust.

You can apply many of the techniques described in the presentation in your daily work lives, especially when on a discovery programme or wanting to get to the bottom of an incident. In fact, I can’t think of anything easier than having a (one-sided) chat with someone and getting the assessment completed.

Or as Will Rogers, actor and vaudeville performer in the early 1900’s put it:

Never miss a good chance to shut up

On another note, look out for a new series of YouTube films coming from me in the next few weeks.

I give you, The Lost CISO

What does a CISO actually do?

I read this wonderful article by Helen Patton  a CISO and contributor to Medium, and in it she describes the seven main areas she spends her time as a CISO; Technology, Data, Business, All The Other Internal Stuff, Vendors and Partners, Law Enforcement and Customers. (She also adds an eighth area, her Security Team of course!).

It is a fascinating read and one that tells a lot about the type of work a CISO will find themselves doing, and much of it resonated with me. I do believe however that the viewpoint is constrained by one aspect of her role, and one Helen states upfront:

Given that Cyber Security is about, well, cyber, and given that in my organization my administrative reporting line goes through the CIO, I spend a fair amount of time working on technology strategy.

It prompted me to write this post because I feel a CISO can do so much more once the role is removed from the auspices of IT. This has been a pet topic of mine for a number of years now, and it is a similar challenge CIO’s once faced, i.e. not reporting into the highest level of management possible. even spoke back in 2013 at RSA on just this topic.

This is a very common reporting line of course, largely because information security responsibilities often come out of IT, or the focus is purely on IT security and therefore fits into that service. It does however create potential issues:

  • The infosec message is filtered through the IT lens, and security issues become a smaller part of the overall IT programme.
  • The role is focussed significantly more on technology (the first item on Helen’s list above) and doesn’t take into account other factors, such as physical, people, or even awareness.
  • If the security function is dictating or heavily influencing technology and architecture, a conflict of intents can arise if there are security deficiencies in those aspects. There is no independent perspective on testing the environments, and a conflict of interest in highlighting deficiencies therein.

In these circumstances the role has a tighter focus, is more hands on, and may potentially not bring the benefits to an organisation that it could.

So what should CISO be doing then?

The CISO primarily needs to be a representative of the business, and not of a department. By that I mean that the CISO is not always going to be the best information Security professional in the same way that the CFO is not always the best accountant. They are however the best person to make decisions that span their area of responsibility AND the business, and actually focus on the bigger picture.

My role as a CISO therefore is not to make the company the most secure company in the world. If I did that, it would be out of business in a matter of months; loss of agility, inability to invest, reluctance to accept certain projects etc etc would make the company wholly unprofitable. My role is to help the company sell more, do more, innovate more and earn more… through the judicious application of security as a competitive advantage.

Put simply, a CISO needs to stop saying “No” to projects or requests that on the face of it are high risk, and stop expecting 100% security on rollouts prior to launch. That doesn’t mean we can’t aspire to perfection, or aim to build the very best environment we can, we just have to accept that something that is a high risk to us, may be a low risk to the business overall. Of course the business needs to understand what the security risks are and be cognisant of the risk when taking decisions, but security is not the single most important input here, it is one of many. We are advisors, not dictators.

The CISO therefore not only does many of the things Helen points out in her article, but it goes beyond that; above everything else in my opinion is being able to truly understand the business, it’s challenges, goals and vision, provide performance information, read the company reports and educate the senior leadership on what risks there are without sowing F(ear), U(ncertainty) and D(oubt). In other words then, what does a CISO do…?

Powerpoint and politics.

Everything else is just details.

Everything that is happening now has happened before

While looking through old notebooks, I found this piece that I wrote in 2014 for a book that never got published. Reading it through it surprised me how much we are still facing the same challenges today as we did four years ago. Security awareness and security training are no different…

So, you have just been given responsibility for your company’s information security awareness programme and you have rolled out an off the shelf training product to the company. Job done? Probably not unfortunately, because like so many things in security, there is far more to an education and awareness programme than meets the eye. The following nine areas presented here are intended to give you guidance when establishing or improving your programme. Some may not be relevant to your organisation, some will be very relevant, but all of them are intended to provide ideas and insight into what is often a very emotive and personal subject.


Start at the Top

No business programme, least of all a security awareness one, is going to have any ongoing impact in an organisation if it doesn’t have the full support the senior leadership. Depending upon the type and size of organisation this could be the Board, the senior management team or even the C level executives.

Be wary of them just paying lip service as well, as they are crucial for the ongoing engagement of the company and your programme’s success. If they are the ones that haven’t taken their training then they are not committed to your programme. Senior leadership should be helping to not only communicate the training, but also reinforcing key messages and certainly leading by example.

Finally, make sure you can report back the senior leadership on the value of the training on a regular basis, be it every three, six or twelve months. However you choose to do this, bear in mind that the key purpose is to ensure your awareness programme is aligned with the business goals, and that is seen as a part of your organisations continued success.

Don’t Rely on Compliance

Using compliance as a key driver for acquiring investment for an education programme does work, but it is a short sighted approach that will limit what you can do in the future. This is because compliance is a very specific business problem that awareness addresses, and when the compliance requirement has been met there is no reason for the business to invest more money, investigate alternative approaches or expand the programme. That tick in the box limits the future of your programme.

Instead, use compliance as just one of the many drivers to build your programme, along with profit retention, reputational damage control and a protection against lost billable time for instance. These drivers will help your programme, again, align better with the company’s goals.

Teach Them to Fish

Now onto the content! No training is going to be able to put across the correct response to every single threat, every single implication of regulations and laws, and every single type of social engineering approach. The goal of the training is to arm people with a mindset, not all the answers.

Educating people on the implications of their actions, and not their actions alone is key here. By understanding that clicking on a link could result in something bad happening is more effective than just telling them not to click on links. Helping them appreciate that social engineers use an array of techniques to build a picture of the environment is more important than telling them to mistrust every interaction with every person they interact with.

In your position as an InfoSec professional, how do you know when a link or a question is dangerous? Try to put that across, and you should end up with an awareness programme that educates people not programs them.

Make it Relevant

Off the shelf awareness programmes are often seen as a quick, cost effective and easy approach to educating people. Many of the courses are very good too. However, you should be aware of your own organisational culture. Large, regulated organisations probably couldn’t effectively train through regular lunchtime briefings, and smaller organisations probably wouldn’t receive too well being in a room for three hours and having a PowerPoint shouted at them.

Additionally, there are going to be activities, lexicon and even teams and roles that are unique to your organisation. Try and avoid people having to “translate” the training they are taking to be relevant to their daily lives as much of the impact of the training will be lost.

Make it Useful

Not only should the training be useful in someone’s working lives, but also in their personal lives. In a world of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) the lines between the workplace and home are increasingly blurred, and home networks, tablets and computers are increasingly being used to deliver into the workplace.

Educating people on how to secure their home network and WiFi, how to use a VPN in a cafe with their personal laptop, and even how to manage their own online lives not only helps secure the workplace, but also gives them a sense of being valued for the contributions they are making to the organisation.

Don’t be Too Serious

Humour is always an awkward subject when it comes to education and awareness, as it is rarely a universally agreed topic. However it is worth bearing in mind that given the often large amounts of “compliance” training often required these days (ethics, anti bribery, harassment etc training) making your course stand out is important.

Wherever possible draw upon the culture of the organisation, use in-house references (so everyone understand them) and try and avoid obscure internet humour as many people in the workplace may not understand it. Never, ever use offensive humour, or even anything that comes close to it. If your grandparents are unlikely to laugh then don’t use it!

Go MultiChannel

Taking a leaf out of the book of the marketeers and advertisers, your awareness program should be multichannel and use a number of different approaches to ensure the message gets across. Consider using videos wherever possible, leaflets, internal blogs, “sponsoring” internal events, using town halls and company meetings to present on specific security awareness projects. Poster campaigns are also a useful method of putting core concepts and points across, although a key part to their success is that they get changed on a regular basis to avoid becoming blind to them over time.

Also consider branding items like stickers, pens and pencils with a tagline or advice that ties in with your overall campaign in order to keep your security message in regularly being reviewed. Again this depends very much on the culture of your organisation as to what may seem like a cheap gimmick versus a good idea.

The core concept with this is to constantly engage with people through different means to maintain their attention and recollection of your security training.

Confirm Their Understanding

Making sure people actually understand the fruits of your hard labour goes beyond asking ten banal and blindingly obvious questions at the end of the training. These questions are table stakes when it comes to meeting compliance requirements but do nothing for actually confirming understanding. Conducting social engineering tests, sending false phishing emails (a whole topic in of itself) and even leaving trackable USB sticks lying around are valid ways to test peoples knowledge. The results of these tests can be written up providing even further educational opportunities in articles for the intranet and email updates.

Get Feedback & Start Again

The only way your awareness programme is going to improve over time is to ensure you gather open and honest feedback from all of those that you engage with throughout every phase of your involvement in your security awareness programme. Feedback from all of the recipients of the training, after every talk or awareness session and certainly feedback from the overall programme on an annual basis is an important way of ensuring good elements are enhanced and bad elements are removed.

Gathering feedback however is only half of the story; providing feedback on the effectiveness of the security awareness programme to senior leadership is also important. Consider metrics and the correlation of elements of the training as they roll out over the year to reported security incidents. Wherever possible do you best to monetise the incidents in terms of cost to the business so that over time, as security incidents decline (which they should do!) you can demonstrate the value of the programme and its contribution to the business.

Not all of these may be applicable to you and your organisation, but they should provide some guidance and ideas for you and your security awareness programme.

Ground Control to Major Thom

I recently finished a book called “Into the Black” by Roland White, charting the birth of the space shuttle from the beginnings of the space race through to it’s untimely retirement. It is a fascinating account of why “space is hard” and exemplifies the need for compromise and balance of risks in even the harshest of environments.

Having seen two shuttles first hand in the last nine months (the Enterprise on USS Intrepid in New York and the Atlanta at Kennedy Space Centre), it boggles my mind that something so big could get into space and back again, to be reused. Facts like the exhaust from each of the three main engines on the shuttle burn hotter than the melting temperature of the metal the engine ‘bells’ are made of (they ingeniously pipe supercooled fuel down the outside of the bells to not only act as an afterburner of sorts but also cool the bells themselves) go to show the kind of engineering challenges that needed to be overcome.

There was one incident however that really struck me regarding the relationship between the crew onboard and the crew on the ground. On the Shuttle’s maiden flight into space, STS-1 also known as Columbia carried out 37 orbits of the earth with two crew on board, mission commander John W. Young and pilot Robert L. Crippen. Once orbit was achieved an inspection of the critical heat tiles on the underside of the shuttle showed some potential damage. If the damage was too extensive the return to earth would (as later events in the Shuttle’s history proved) be fatal.

The crew however were tasked with a variety of other activities, including fixing problems onboard they could address. They left the task of assessing and calculating the damage to those on the ground who were better equipped and experienced to deal with the situation. This they duly did and as we know Columbia landed safely just over two days later.

It struck me that this reflects well the way information Security professionals should treat the individuals we are tasked with supporting. There is much that individuals can do to help of course, and that is why training and awareness efforts are so important, but too often it is the case that “we would be secure if it wasn’t for the dumb users”. The sole purpose of the Columbia ground crew was to support and ensure the safe return of those on board STS-1 so that they could get on with their jobs in space. Ours is the same.

Just because te crew had extensive training to deal with issues as they arose, the best use of their time was to focus on the job in hand and let ground crew worry about other problems. The people we support should also be trained to deal with security issues, but sometimes they really need to just get on with the deliverables at hand and let us deal with the security issue. They might be trained and capable, but we need to identify when the best course of action is to deal with their security issues for them, freeing them to do their work.

Never forget that we support our organisations/businesses to do their jobs. We provide tools to allow them to be more effective in their end goals but it is still our responsibility to do the heavy lifting when the time comes. Except in very rare cases we are there because of them, not in spite of them.

(Photo courtesy of William Lau @lausecurity)