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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Don’t Get Stuck with Knee-Jerk PR

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It’s an easy trap to fall into. Make a new hire? Put out a press release. Redesign your website? Put out a press release. Move to a new building? Put out a press release.

Yada. Yada. Yada.

These types of “news” announcements have the makings of what I call knee-jerk PR. Now, that doesn’t mean these events don’t have any value. The new hire may be something important for your staff and customers to know about. The website may have some great new content. The new building may be news to your local community. Perhaps.

The problem comes when such announcements become the bread and butter of your PR program. That’s a clear sign that something is off.

A PR program that generates results must be based on your overall business strategy and either drive toward your key goals or address your core challenges. If your company is expanding into a new business, develop stories about that. If you are having a problem with your organization’s reputation, then your PR communications should address this issue. Firing out a blizzard of extraneous, non-strategic press releases will not help.

Let’s look at this another way, from the press-release consumer’s perspective. Reporters are quite sophisticated about PR and marketing. If you ever have a chance to look at a reporter’s inbox, you’ll see dozens and dozens of unsolicited press releases and story pitches.

Breaking through the noise, even for a company regularly covered by a particular reporter, requires a real story. Actual news. Something substantive. A busy reporter is not going to look twice at a release about a mid-level hire, a website with a new color scheme, or a move from one building to another down the block.

There’s always been the argument that companies need to keep up a certain news flow to generate “momentum.” This is true to some extent, but only if these momentum releases are newsworthy. Otherwise, they are little more than spam. You can actually end up annoying the reporters you are trying to impress.

Here’s a quick exercise that will tell you quickly whether your outreach to the press is falling into this knee-jerk category.

Look at your website’s list of press releases, most recent first. Open up each one and read the headlines and the first paragraph or two. Ask the following questions:

  • Is this release newsworthy? Specifically, have you even seen reporters write stories about this type of news? Be honest here. A personnel announcement about a new CEO is very different than one about a new sales associate.
  • Is this press release strategic? Does the news discussed have anything to do with your business strategy? Or is it entirely extraneous?

Jot down the answers and then look at what you’ve got. If you’ve been engaging in knee-jerk PR, you’ll know it.

Then, the only challenge is fixing it. But you’ve gone a long way already by identifying the problem.

Find Your PR Sweet Spot

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There’s never been a better time to do public relations.

Organizations of all sizes and in all industries can mount successful PR campaigns, efforts that yield real results. These PR programs can be used to bolster reputation, fill your sales pipeline, react to crises and a host of other business-critical goals.

But there’s a catch. In order to be successful, you must pick those PR activities that work for your particular organization. This is where most companies veer off course.

The problem is context. Most businesspeople think of PR in a one-dimensional way: traditional media relations. This is understandable, since for many years reaching out to newspapers, magazines, TV and radio with press releases was the bulk of what PR had to offer. If you got clips for your outreach, success! If not, failure.

Fortunately, the game has changed. Today, PR does not have to rely upon traditional media relations. We can create our own content and make it available through a variety of channels, some of which we create ourselves. We can tap into social media networks with audiences so large they easily outstrip the reach of the traditional media. In other words, we have options. The key is selecting the right ones.

Traditional Media Relations. Let’s start with the most well-known first. Here, we are in the realm of reaching out to reporters and producers with stories of our own creation, hoping to get quoted or interviewed. This tends to work best for certain kinds of organizations:

  • Well-known companies/individuals with established brands and reputations.
  • Companies operating in industries with a lot of media attention, such as financial services.
  • Organizations with a “celebrity” CEO or founder.
  • Local companies serving a distinct geography.

There are lots of organizations that fall outside these categories, though. Successful, innovative companies in industries that don’t get much of a following in the traditional media, for example, can have a very difficult time winning traditional media attention. Midsize companies in an industry full of giants can also have difficulty breaking through. Technology startups, likewise, can have a hard time with the mainstream press. You get the idea.

Content-Based PR. This is an exciting area where companies literally create the stories, videos and audio interviews that the traditional media would have done instead. Importantly, when you create your own, there’s no reporter or editor to get in the way of your message. Tis definitely the season for this type of approach, as the tools and talent needed to pursue such a strategy are available in abundance.

For example, a company that wants to announce new service offering could create a YouTube video interviewing its CEO and then email the link to prospective clients, existing customers and other influencers. The video could also be posted to social networks and the company’s website/blog. This won’t reach as many people as, say, appearing on CNBC. But it will reach the right ones.

In fact, in terms of hitting the right audiences, content-based PR may be significantly more effective. It works for organizations of all sizes and in all industries.

Social Network Outreach. Here I am referring to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the like. Social networks today are huge, reaching millions upon millions of users. They are a direct line to your customers and influencers in a way that has never before been possible.

Creating a following on these networks does take a bit of work, but the payoff is pure PR gold. You can put your content — produced just as you wish — directly in front of a large and targeted audience.

There are two keys to being successful in this area. First, you must spend the time to build a following, whether friends, followers or contacts. Second, you must have something interesting to say to these individuals. Exactly what this is depends a great deal on what your business is all about and what kind of content you are able to produce. Obviously, social network outreach works hand-in-hand with content-based PR.

Again, social networking works for organizations of all sizes and in all industries. The key is to just stick with it.

OK, so what’s the next step?

Let’s say you have a midsize company that is national in scope but in an industry that is relatively obscure, without a lot of media coverage. Be honest in assessing this. An industry story every six months in The Wall Street Journal is not a big-time media focus.

In this case, traditional media relations probably won’t move the needle. It’s perhaps worth some effort, but it should not be a major focus of your PR efforts. You need something that can consistently create value. What should that be? A content-based program might be a good fit. You could start a podcast, newsletter or video series. Create stories that will add value to your audience and highlight your expertise.

Then, add a social media component by creating a Facebook page and a Twitter account. Engage with your new audience and share the content you’ve created in these networks. Continue to build your following over time and the value of your content-based PR will expand exponentially.

This won’t be the perfect strategy for every organization — as each should do its own analysis — and there are details and approaches that I’ve skipped over for brevity.

However, the overall concept holds true no matter who you are and what you are doing. Assess your organization and industry environment honestly and then create a PR program whose components are the best possible match. Stick with your program and watch the results accrue over time.