Sitting through a multi-presenter meeting the other day, I was struck by the difference in styles of the folks who took the dais. Most were soft-spoken — it was a smallish meeting among friends — but the differences in pace and tone were telling.
My summary judgment is hardly groundbreaking: Slow and clear beat fast and mumbled every time. When you’re presenting to any audience, plant your feet, open up your chest (ask anybody who’s ever did high-school theater how to do this), and raise your chin. Slow down so that your audience can distinguish your words, and be willing to say less, but more clearly, in the service of making your point. Whatever you have to say, be it ever so humble, say it with conviction.
What’s that? What if you don’t have conviction about what you’re saying? Then you shouldn’t be standing in front of an audience — any audience — until you can muster it. Consider finding that conviction as an exercise in coming clean with yourself, about your speaking abilities and about the content of what you have to say.
If your lack of conviction comes from a lack of confidence in your presentation skills, that can be addressed with simple practice. Find someone you know who gives good presentations, and ask them to coach you, if not formally, at least in the sense of listening to a run-through and telling you whether you’re loud enough, slow enough, and easy to understand. If you’re using slides, make sure they make sense. The basics of presentation skills are just that: basic. You can practice them as surely as a you can a sand wedge or a piano etude. And if you’re going to be called on to make presentations in your career, you should practice them.
Now, what about content? Even if what you’re saying is simple, even if it will only take two minutes of your audience’s time, do yourself and your listeners the favor of polishing the material in your mind before you take the stage. In the right setting, there is room for thinking out loud in front of a friendly audience, but that’s a very different thing from presuming to take up that audience’s time with information that you haven’t made an effort to digest for yourself. Do not take the stage to deliver a first-draft presentation; to do so insults the busy people who are trying to listen to your wanderings. At the very least, subject your material to the same test that Marilu Henner’s character did in L.A. Story when she was preparing to go out for the evening: take a quick look back over everything, and remove the first thing that sticks out to you as being too much.
When you’ve earned your own confidence in your material and your mode of delivering it — that is, when you’ve come clean with yourself — you can stand and deliver with the best of them, even if you never attain the seemingly effortless grace of a Godin or a Kawasaki. Until you’ve come clean with yourself in this way, you could be delivering the gospel truth to willing listeners, but you’ll still sound like you’re ignorant or you have something to hide.
Addendum: Following up on the suggestion of Phil Lynch in the comments on yesterday’s post, I’ve added blogroll links to Beyond Bullets and Presentation Zen, two sites I referred to almost exactly a year ago. If you want to make better presentations, by all means you should check out these sites, as well as Cliff Atkinson’s book, Beyond Bullet Points.