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.

or

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.


Security is Not, and Should not be Treated as, a Special Flower

My normal Wednesday lunch yesterday was rudely interrupted by my adequate friend and reasonable security advocate Javvad calling me to ask my opinion on something. This in itself was surprising enough, but the fact that I immediately gave a strong and impassioned response told me this might be something I needed to explore further…

The UK Parliament in this report have recommended that CEO salaries should be defined by their attitude and effectiveness of their cybersecurity. I am not one normally for histrionics when it comes to government reports, partly because they are often impenetrable and not directed at me or my lifestyle, but I will make an exception in this case. I think this attitude is quite simply short sighted and a knee jerk reaction to a very public breach that was admittedly caused by a lackadaisical attitude to security.

I have argued for a long time that the security function is not a “special flower” in the business, and that by supporting that case security becomes an inhibitor of the business, restricting it from taking the kind of risks that are vital to a growing and agile business. The only way I would agree to this demand would be if the CEO’s compensation was directly related to financial performance, staff attrition, number of court cases levelled and number of fires or false alarms in its premises, and have that all supported by a change in the law. If that happened, there would suddenly be a dearth of well paid, well motivated CEO’s in the country.

By calling security out individually means the security function will all to easily slip back into old behaviours of saying NO! to every request, only this time the reason given is not just “it’s not secure”, but also “Bob’s pay depends on it”.

This can only work if every other function of the CEO was also covered by similar laws as I said above. Sure, there are basic behaviour laws around financial, people, legal, facilities etc. such that a company can’t be embezzled, people can’t be exploited or put into danger etc.. But this recommendations makes security far to primary a concern. It also doesn’t even take into account the fact that determined hackers will get in anyway in many cases, or that data can easily be stolen through softer, social engineering techniques. Zero day exploit, never before seen? Sorry Mr CEO, you need to take a pay cut for not having a cyber crystal ball and defending against it. Determined nation state attacks? Tough luck you only have a cyber budget a fraction the size of the attackers, back to reduced pay.

I get that many folks are angry with the level of CEO pay and reward in the workplace these days. In the case of Talk Talk I find it astounding that Dame Dido Harding has been awarded £2.8 million GBP in pay and shares after what has to be an absolutely disastrous year fro Talk Talk. That said, I also don’t know the details of her contract and the performance related aspects of it; maybe she hit all of her targets, and cyber risk was not one of them.

This is where we need to address this; not in law and regulation, but in cyber savvy contracts and performance metrics within the workplace and enforced by the Board. No emphasis on cybersecurity, but a balanced view across the entire business.

No single part of a business is the special flower, we all have an equal and unique beauty and contribution to make.


The Art of the Conference

3CD62A58-7C5E-4117-B427-816FC0F83DEDYes, I know, it has been nearly nine months since I last graced this blog with my presence. What can I say, it has been a busy time… But as they say, if you want me something done, ask a busy person, and eventually they will get around to it. Just ask @hostunknowntv about the podcast I have been preparing for the last eleven months.
One of the reasons I have been busy (apart from the day job that sees me frequently travelling abroad) is that I have been somewhat in demand at conferences and forums. This is a lovely stroke to the ego when asked to keynote somewhere, but also a challenge because I have to come up with a new twist on an existing talk or even a brand new talk. Creating a talk from scratch takes hours and hours, much longer than the 6 CPE hours that (ISC)2 and ISACA allow you to claim. I would estimate anything from 20 to 40 hours for a 25 to 50 minute talk.
I am not complaining mind, the process may be long, but it really helps me form opinions, generate new ideas and even form unique points of view that I can apply to my day job (one of the reasons I always recommend standing up and presenting your ideas to your peers in the industry as a great way to further your own career).
So it frustrates me immensely that after I put this huge amount of effort into producing not a only a presentation, but also a performance for a conference, that the tools I am given to do so are all to often below par. Let me explain;
I like using Apple Keynote; it has a better look and feel to Powerpoint, handles animations better, and allows a finer control of the placement of images and text. I realise this is probably an entirely subjective perspective, but it is one I stand by. I can’t tell you the number of times a conference has insisted that I can’t use my own laptop and have to use PowerPoint. The conversion process not only screws up the formatting, but also the general placement and even the fonts. Those slides I spent hours on look like something from a Dunder Mifflin sales deck.
Secondly, when I can use Keynote or my own laptop, the audio visual teams almost always insist on using VGA;more often than not this messes with the proportions of the main screen, leaving my widescreen presentation stretched into a square shape. Again, I spend hours making sure the images are not distorted, text looks balanced, and then lazy A/V makes my slides look like they are being viewed through a fishbowl. Surely HDMI or even DVI is standard enough now, and the digital signal is far less likely to screw up aspect ratios.
Thirdly, secondary  and tertiary screens are important. The normal “comfort” screen in front of the speaker is starting to become more popular, but more often than not it only displays what is being shown behind me, not the secondary presenters view of the current slide, next slide and timer (the latter of which are rarely used by most conferences…). At RSA in San Francisco I was presenting on their Live TV stage, and they had a comfort screen with the presenter view and at the back of the room a screen with my main presentation on as well. Perfect!
Why is this so important?
I personally feel that the quality of presentations at most conferences, InfoSec or otherwise, is very poor. There is plenty of subject matter expertise, but it is delivered in a poor way (see this video for some heinous examples). Conference organisers should be doing everything they can so that a presenter can deliver as effective a presentation as possible, and not worry about their deck being messed around with by either the A/V or a sub optimal “presentation laptop”, or even having to struggle with their delivery. The easier it is in the speaker, the better the presentation and the more effective and impactful an experience it is for the audience.
Should I be able to stand up and talk without my slides, not rely on comfort screens or even know what slide is coming up next? Yes, of course, in an ideal world, but very few people who speak are professional presenters, have demanding day jobs, and often finish their decks days or hours before the day. Conference organisers, please help us produce the very best performances for the benefit of your audience, and get some of these basics sorted out!
And hopefully that bar will raise just a little bit higher and benefit everyone in the industry and community.