Great Presenters are Made, Not Born

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There has always been this belief that great communicators — writers, actors or presenters of any sort — are simply born with their outrageous skills. That the right words simply jump from their lips with no effort. That their work is hardly work at all.

In truth, communicating well is a skill that takes training, practice and hard work. The better you get, the more effortless it seems to the audience. But it only seems effortless.

Any businessperson preparing for an investor meeting, roadshow, board presentation, speech, media interview or internal event needs to understand that the skills required to be a compelling presenter must be learned before they can be deployed. To think that presenting your company’s story is as simple as reading a set of slides is completely erroneous. In fact, I guarantee that if you try to simply read each slide to your audience, all you’ll succeed in doing is developing yet another cure for insomnia.

With this in mind, I thought I’d provide some thoughts on just how great presenters are made.

Secrets to Becoming a Great Presenter

  • Start with good material. This is sometimes out of your control, as I noted in my last post about presenting bad slides well, but in a perfect world you’ll have a slideshow to present that has the right number of captivating, easy-to-present slides. It’s not enough that the story itself is good, like a presentation about financial results that exceeded expectations, The materials you actually use have to be good. Imagine going into battle with a rifle that misfires. It really doesn’t matter how good a shot you are, does it?
  • Learn proper technique. A set of skills exists that you simply must know to present well. There’s nothing so illustrative as watching a video of your presentation practice with someone who knows what they’re doing. Little things like body language, pacing, the use of props and even how you are dressed can impact the overall feel of the presentation. Everything matters when you’re in front of an audience. You need to know your technique cold.
  • Practice with proper technique. It’s often been said that practice makes perfect. Not true. Practice only makes things permanent, as an old friend once told me. In order to be perfect, you have to practice the proper technique. This means that presenters should practice by rigorously applying the skills they’ve learned to their own materials until the performance is smooth and natural. And don’t stop with the slides. Rehearse the Q&A, too.
  • Recognize you’re on stage. This is one remarkably easy mistake to make. When you’re in front of a large audience, it’s obvious that you should have your game face on. But what about sitting in your own conference room on an earnings call? Or in front of your own management team? Or board of directors? Or your own employees in a conference room you’ve used 100 times before? When you’re presenting your story to an audience, any audience, you’re on stage. Period.
  • Learn to watch your audience. How are you doing? Your audience can tell you, if you’re paying attention. Great presenters know they’re not speaking in a vacuum. If your audience is looking down at their iPhones, Galaxy S3s and Blackberrys, you need to do something. They’re bored. If they look puzzled, you’ve lost them. Figure out what you just explained and do it again in simpler terms. If you’re trying to be provocative or funny, watch to see if it’s working. You need to know.
  • Get feedback. The last thing most people want after a presentation is honest feedback. Because our egos are wrapped up in our presentations, we just want to hear how well we’ve done. Even if we haven’t. My recommendation is to have someone in the audience who will tell you honestly what worked, and what did not. You need this information to improve for the next time. If you spoke too fast or shuffled nervously on stage, you absolutely need to know. The truth can hurt but it will also make you better.
  • Look for opportunities to present. The more you do, the better you will get. This is absolutely a universal truth when it comes to presentations. You don’t need formal invitations to major events in order to present. You can work on your technique when running your team’s weekly meeting or when talking to clients about new ideas. If the opportunity arises to do a lesser conference or a media interview that’s not terribly important, jump at it. Consider it training and prepare as you would for when all the marbles are on the table.

Having read this far, I’m fairly certain you’ll have one of two thoughts. The first is, wow, these are great tips. I can apply some of these. The second is, wow, this sounds interesting but I really don’t have time to do it.

To the second, let me simply says this. For senior executives and entrepreneurs, presentation skills are terribly important. They can represent the difference between success and failure, between getting that investment or having to shut down. How you present adds a critical, personal element to the business case you are trying to make. The slides may have all the right details, but how you present them will either build confidence or erode it.

Investors don’t put their money behind slides, they put them behind people. Turn yourself into a great presenter and success will surely follow.

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The Triumph of Technique — Part 2

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Back in January, I wrote the first part of this series. I talked about the dangers of being too practiced in interview technique — ducking and “bridging” away from issues we don’t want to discuss.

Too much of this type of slick interviewing — combined with an overly aggressive focus on sticking to one’s “messages” — guarantees that the subject of an interview will end up sounding like a typical politician. Not only is this a negative, but the interview sounds so practiced that listeners tune out and the opportunity is wasted.

Well, this weekend I heard Sen. John McCain interviewed by Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. Sen. McCain violated traditional “technique” and sounded … real. Here’s some of the transcript:

MCCAIN: … more importantly, I’ve found in my life that when I do what I think is right — for example, on the marriage amendment — it always turns out in the end OK. When I do things for political expediency, which I have from time to time, it’s always turned out poorly. For better or worse, I have a pretty good compass as to what my political philosophy and base and beliefs are, and I have to stick with them.

WALLACE: Give me an example, since you bring it up. What have you done? What would you admit you did for political expediency?

MCCAIN: I went down to South Carolina and said that the flag that was flying over the state capitol, which was a confederate flag, was — that I shouldn’t be involved in it, it was a state issue. It was an act of cowardice.

WALLACE: Act of cowardice on your part.

MCCAIN: Yes.

WALLACE: And you did it because you thought this will help me in the South Carolina primary in 2000.

MCCAIN: Yes, sure, this won’t alienate a certain voting block. But I lost anyway.

WALLACE: And how did you — I mean, did you sit there — because I know you’re a man of strong opinions. How did you sit there and say you know, I don’t believe this, but I’m going to say it anyway?

MCCAIN: Oh, we’re all gifted, no matter how principled we are, with the gift of rationalization. But I knew it was wrong at the time, but I rationalized it: Well, you know, I can use this as a way to avoid a political, you know, downside. And it was wrong.

WALLACE: How do you know that if you were to run and become president that you wouldn’t do that again?

MCCAIN: Well, I’ve learned a lot of lessons in my life. I’m older than dirt. I’ve got more scars than Frankenstein, but I’ve learned a lot of things along the way. And that was a very strong lesson for me. And there have been other times in my life. But I can tell you that I know the difference between right and wrong.

Now, the major “rule” violation here is Sen. McCain brought up a negative, “When I do things for political expediency…” and Wallace picked up on it immediately, “Give me an example, since you bring it up.”

Did Sen. McCain make an error? Somehow, I doubt it. Was he being very, very clever by prompting Wallace to take up this line of discussion? Perhaps, but I’m guessing no.

So what happened here? I believe Sen. McCain instinctively stays away from those techniques that make some politicians sound like robots. He says what he wants and isn’t afraid to admit errors. In fact, in the above segment he does just that, “… it was wrong.”

Am I suggesting everyone take the McCain approach? No. In order to pull this off you’re got to be very experienced, quick on your feet, and have tremdendous natural instincts about what works and what does not. Bringing up errors and apologizing for mistakes is inherently dangerous.  However, we can all learn something from Sen. McCain’s interview.

We can resist the temptation to avoid all tough questions. We can fight the urge to drive every conversation to safe — prepared — ground. We can inject a little reality into our public personas.

And by doing this, we can create a feeling of honesty and straight shooting that more “polished” politicians and executives often lack.

I don’t know if you like Sen. McCain politically or not. But one thing’s certain: He is a man who rejects conventional wisdom, says what he wants and is willing to live with the consequences. That’s awfully refreshing today.

The Triumph of Technique — Part I

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Communicators have a big problem today. We’ve gotten too damn good at what we do.

This may sound silly, but it’s absolutely true — and a serious threat to our profession. It stems from the triumph of communications technique over the good sense to use it wisely.

Too often we see business executives and politicians interviewed on a particular topic only to duck and weave with all the skill of a bantamweight champion. Techniques we have trained into our clients — such as the ability to “bridge” out of a tricky question or to stay relentlessly “on message” — result in communication where very little is actually communicated.

Interview technique has become so overused that eyes glaze over, ears focus elsewhere and the very “messages” we are pounding away are lost. We know this has happened when are business clients are accused of spin and our political clients are said to sound like politicians.

This is a topic I’ll return to in the not-too-distant future, and that’s why I’ve given this post a Part 1 headline. It’s important that we all understand what is happening and — just as important — what we can do about it. Let’s go through the second part here.

When everyone sounds the same, has the same polished approach, has the same slick persona, it’s the straight-taking, earnest speaker who feels fresh and generates attention.

When everybody’s spinning, dodging and twisting to explain why their company’s poor performance was actually good, it’s the executive who admits a bad quarter and describes what the company is doing about it who will be heard.

In short, it’s time to lose the spin-tensive approach that flamed out so spectacularly during the Internet bubble and take a 100% straightforward stance — one that puts a premium on integrity and honesty.

How’s that for differentiation?

I don’t want to be glib about this, but what company produces perfect results quarter after quarter in perpetuity? What leader never errs? What candidate ever lived a life without mistakes?

There’s grave danger in portraying our clients as any of the above. First, the audience gets used to hearing about these impossibly perfect entities or individuals. Setting up, of course, a major letdown when reality makes itself known. Second, when enough of these impossible images blow up, the audience will cease believing any of it. And with that goes credibility, both ours and that of our clients.

Such an approach will work for a while, but it eventually implodes and undermines everything we are trying to accomplish.

Far better is to use technique sparingly and only when appropriate. At all other times, we should portray our clients as they are. Strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures.

Only then will our audiences know we’re for real.