by Byron Kalies
INT training room North of England somewhere. It’s dark and frightening. Twelve senior managers are sitting in a semi facing me. They look absolutely petrified. “Fake it ’till you make it.” Blank looks.“Pretend you can do something, keep doing it until you wake up one morning and find you really can.” I continue “Pretend you’re really confident about presenting. Visualise someone who does it well. Copy them. Really. Trust me — try it — it works.” They trust me, they try it, it works — for some of them.
Presentations are the most feared part of most managers’ lives. I’ve read that most managers would prefer the stress caused by moving house than give a ten-minute presentation. To some extent I get it. It can be intimidating to stand up in front of a room full of people and talk. In another way I definitely don’t. A lot of the blame must go to “presentation skills courses.” Yes, it’s nice to be able to project your voice to the back of the room. It’s great to have exciting slides. It’s superb if you can manage the correct eye contact with your audience. Unfortunately (fortunately) within a few minutes of the start of the presentation most of the audience has taken this for granted, however effectively you carry this out. The message is far more important. Get that right — in your own head — and you’re winning.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” I ask.
The replies tend to fall into two categories; physical and mental. On the physical side there’s; projector failing, nothing to write on, nothing to write with, no chairs, too many chairs, room too hot, room too cold, no one turning up, too many turning up, finishing too early, finishing too late, audience being bored. Go through these one by one and ask yourself “So what?” Think of everything that can go wrong and plan an alternative. Great. Something you hadn’t even thought of will still undo you. Something will not go exactly to plan. You know that. How many things in any other part of your life have gone perfectly? Exactly.
The good thing is that people don’t judge us on the mistakes we make but on the speed of recovery from those mistakes. Think of the best customer care you’ve received. Nine out of ten occasions people recall a situation that went wrong. It went wrong but the service they received to put it right led them to remember it and recommend the company to their friends years later. Speed of recovery.
OK now that you know there will be mistakes and you’ve accepted it, truly accepted it, life gets easier. You can arrive early, do all your last minute panicking in peace, relax and wait. People will forgive you if you’ve prepared as thoroughly as possible. You can’t help it if it’s the day of a tube strike, the room gets flooded or police have cordoned off the area looking for armed terrorists. It happens.
The second category of things that can go wrong is the mental side — your mental side. You do need to get this right. Preparation is the key. I know it’s a cliché but it’s also true. This preparation starts right from the moment it’s decided you’re the one for the presentation. Firstly, do you agree? If not get out now. It doesn’t get easier the longer you ignore it. It’s like that sink full of washing up you leave in the kitchen for a few hours, a day, a few days. It never gets easier — just a bit worse, a bit harder to face each day.
Once you’ve decided it is definitely going to be you — accept it and go for it properly. Do you really want them to know and understand something they didn’t know before or do you just want to tell them something and get off? If it’s the latter and you just want to impart knowledge, send them an email and save yourself and your audience some grief. If it’s the former then you need to prepare thoroughly. This means that on the day you can throw away your notes, talk and listen. And to listen effectively you’ve got to involve the audience.
It is so much better for everyone if you interact from the start. Find out what the audience knows and doesn’t know. Find out why they’re there. Find out their particular interests. Get them involved — they’ll enjoy it more and so will you. It may well be more nerve racking than hiding behind a script, but it is so much more rewarding. But this can only happen if you’ve got your head straight first. To do this you need to ask questions and get them to ask you questions.
How presenters deal with questions from the audience is a tremendous indication of where they are in terms of confidence. If the first line in a presentation is “I’ll take questions at the end” then the odds are that;
a) they are petrified,
b) they have no idea what they are talking about, or
c) they have hours worth of material and they’ll never reach the end.
You need to take a deep breath, throw away your neat, colour-coded notes and go for it. The audience will certainly enjoy it more and guess what? So will you. I promise.
The author can be reached at: www.byronkalies.com