| Presentation S.O.S. |
By Mark Wiskup
Genre: Business & Money
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What You Will Learn From This Chapter:
It is healthy and reasonable to be fearful of your upcoming presentation.
The reasons why your fears are well founded.
How to use your fears to create a great presentation.
It's going to be okay! I know you are nervous about your next presentation, and that is understandable. I also say it's good. Being nervous will give you the energy you need to create a vibrant talk and then deliver it to your audience with power and confidence. The fact that your upcoming presentation is giving you a case of the willies is a good sign. It shows you care. It shows you want to be good, and improve. Please don't wish for the jitters to go away! Accomplished speakers, like athletes and entertainers, recognize that sense of discomfort is a tool to help them focus, prepare thoroughly, and perform well. The physiological distress signals your body sends out to stop you from taking the podium-sweaty palms (as well as upper lips, foreheads, and underarms), constricted throat, butterflies in the stomach, shortness of breath-come from realistic fears. Good. In fact, as my kids say, "It's all good."
Your body is telling you, "You're in for a fight." Get ready. This anxiety can be channeled to help you heighten your senses, intellect, creativity, and drive. Deliver a powerful performance, receive encouragement and insightful questions from the audience, and you've jumped a major hurdle: You've kicked a little tail on those presentation fears.
I don't want to talk you out of your fear. I'm not going to tell you not to worry about your next presentation. Your anxiety shows me you're perceptive, not paranoid. You understand that when you stand in front of an audience, every single face hides a fair-weather fan. You can get those in the audience to become fans and cheer for you, your ideas, and your proposals. All you have to do is create a strong connection with every one of them, no matter how big the room is. You can do it, and understanding and accepting your fear is the first step. The worst presenters, I believe, are the ones with no fear, no sweat. They think they're already pretty good and don't care about improving the impact of their presentation on the audience.
The comic dying onstage always says, "Wow, tough crowd." I say they're all tough. From the PTA parents in cafeterias to the corporate "C-levels" (MBA marketing lingo for CEOs, COOs, CIOs, and CFOs) in mahogany conference rooms, to the colleagues you hang out with every day in the coffee room, every audience is demanding. They expect the speaker to be good, even if you're their "bud," "sister," "bro," or the only one in the office they can talk to about the suspense behind last night's eviction ceremony on Big Brother Five.
Audiences don't like being disappointed. They will quickly turn on any speaker who's not building a connection. Therefore, the task ahead is easy. When the spotlight is on you, never let the audience down and you'll be golden. It's a good goal-one you can reach.
I can say, after years of sitting in them and talking to them, that audiences are not unfair. But they are quick to judge. Once you understand how to connect with the audience members, you'll find you can please them every time. Audiences will keep buying what you're selling as long as they think they want and need your ideas, your insights, and your thoughts. They are the ultimate conspicuous consumers, right out of Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class (wow, Dad, five years of college wasn't down the drain!). They will cheer you and keep buying your thoughts as long as you please them. Keep pleasing them, and you'll keep the boo birds at bay, forever.
That's a good ambition because a disparaging audience won't actually boo you to your face if you bore them. Boos might be more helpful than what really happens because instead, they'll do worse. They will cruelly mock you behind your back if you fail to connect with them. For the next fifteen to thirty minutes, they want you to rock their world. And they expect you to know how to do it. After all, there you are, in front of everybody, commanding all the attention.
So your fears are well placed. I guarantee they will not "love you for just being you," as your mom told you while wiping away your tears on the way to the first day at a new elementary school. The audience is filled with professional adults who will only "love you" if you connect with them, inform them, and help them. Follow the right steps and you can do all three every time. If you're a week away from the presentation and your palms are starting to sweat, know that you're in good company. Everyone who has to stand in front of others, in the figurative spotlight, begins with these same fears. Those who succeed will embrace the fears, akin to that famous Hollywood stereotype: the vacant, unemployed blond-haired surfer assessing ferocious fifteen-foot swells that crest and violently pound the shore. The tanned and seemingly inarticulate surfer gazes intently at the threatening horizon and says directly to the waves, "Come on, dude, let's party!"
That's how confident and successful speakers feel, imagining the faces in the audience they'll be standing in front of in an hour or a week. The real pros fully understand this is treacherous professional territory. They understand it can cause embarrassment and pain, and might even "leave a mark" on their careers as well as their psyches. They also know fear creates realizations that will enable them to perform well, navigate the punishing environment, and bring them a rewarding and exhilarating experience that our character out of Malibu central casting would describe as "totally righteous."
Your fear is good. No one should talk you out of it. And they'll try. Heavens yes, they'll stick their noses right in the middle of your fears. Who hasn't experienced that surreal scene that could have come out of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, or The Brady Bunch? Here's how it goes in case you haven't had the pleasure:
You're going over your notes at your desk. You're feeling tense because your presentation is tomorrow. Enter the foreverpatronizing Mike Brady character (Mike being the natural father of Greg, Bobby, and Peter) in your life. With a gentle wave of the hand and head tilted in full condescension mode, he says, "I know you're nervous. But here's a little trick that always works. Just pretend everyone in the audience is in their underwear and you'll be fine." As my daughter says, "Eeeoow! Gross!"
How is this underwear thing supposed to help? It's cruel. Well intentioned, but cruel nonetheless. It may be disturbing and even slightly sickening to envision your peers, your customers, your bosses in matching sets of Hanes, but it's not calming to a jumpy speaker. Only in the bizarre alternative universe of sitcoms does the "underwear" advice assuage the dread of the next presentation, transforming an anxious frown into a smile of earnest enthusiasm and confidence.That probably didn't help you in high school and it's not going to help you now. "They" are wrong. There is something to fret about. And it's real! I want to take a look at your biggest fears, show you why they aren't imagined, and prove that is the first step to overcome in your meaningful and connecting presentation.
It's worth the effort. You may never bring yourself to say, "Come on, dude, let's party," as you step to the podium, but you'll be more confident at the front of the room as you open you mouth to speak.
Presentation Fear #1:The Audience Will Judge Me
Because I'm Taking Up Their Valuable Time
You're right. They will. Take their time and you're taking something from them they'll never get back. That's why audiences are brutal. It's not that audiences set out to be unkind. Bad speakers force the harsh judgments, barely stifled anger, unpleasant thoughts, and lack of compassion a disgruntled audience tends to spit out. I don't have sympathy for a speaker who is professionally "falling and can't get up" during a failing presentation. I say the bad karma is well deserved. The speaker didn't prepare enough, one way or the other. Lousy presenters are thieves; they steal time.
Audiences are investing their most valuable asset in you.
They're giving you a chunk of their lives. And they expect return on that investment. They expect to be better off after giving you fifteen to thirty minutes of their time. Everybody expects to gain after spending something: money on that new top from Abercrombie & Fitch, that new ionic freshener from the Sharper Image (how many different models of ionic air fresheners are there anyway?), or their time listening to you. They want return on their money, their time, their investment. They don't expect a huge return. A few new ideas, something that will help them-delivered in a pleasant way-is all they ask. And so many times they get ripped off. No return on the investment, and even worse, the principal is gone. Thirty minutes of their life they will never get back. And there is no return policy.
On top of that, this all takes place in a closed conference room environment that is not an exercise in democracy. It's a dictatorship. For a short time, you're the omnipotent overlord of the room, whether or not you want to be. You're spewing forth information, and the audience members have no choice but to let it spill over them, and perhaps soak it in. Everyone accepts this premise. It's what a presentation scenario is. The audience members for your upcoming talk will accept it. You accept it when you're in the audience for the speaker who follows you. We all have learned to accept a dictator at the front of the room. We all will keep doing so as long at the rule is pleasing to us.
The core of a presentation tableau lies in the fact that for it to work, everyone in the room must stop conversing so you can talk. Not just for a minute or two, like cocktail party conversations, but for fifteen to thirty minutes. For that period, you're not only the center of your universe; you're the center of theirs. They're stuck listening to you, and the rules of social decency mandate they have to at least act like they're listening.
It's a false dictatorship, though, and here's the nerve-racking part. The speaker doesn't have the real power, the audience does. That's why your stomach churns more and more as the presentation looms ever closer. You are in danger of a riotous corporate rebellion in the mind of every audience member, from the moment you as the "pseudo-dictator" assume a very tenuous control of the room.
If you're engaging, helpful, and fun to listen to, audience members won't mind delivering their power to you. They'll know you're the boss. As long as you connect, the audience will suffer your false dictatorship gladly, not minding at all that you're doing all the talking. If they like the way you handle your power, they'll ask you to talk again soon. That's a clear indication that they've enjoyed your pseudo-authoritative rule, and that they want to experience it again. A happy, pleased audience tells you they're better off when you're talking and they're listening.
Even the question-and-answer period is autocratic. The speaker decides who to call on and who will respond. Once you stop connecting, you're not such a benevolent dictator. The audience will view you as abusive. They'll start to rebel. It will get ugly, quickly, and you may not even sense it until it is too late. They will think unkind thoughts, say unkind words afterward, and hope you never rise to power in the room again.
They'll even start to plot against you and your time-wasting efforts. A lackluster presentation or two and you'll realize you never really had any power when you stood at the podium. It's no fun when the rabble is rousing. Keep them connected and you can quell the mob into dutiful, pleasant submission. It's what the audience wants. It's what I think when I sit in an audience. I will gladly give my time and attention to a speaker who is enjoyable to listen to and who teaches me something.
The audience will judge you positively
if you add to their day.
Presentation Fear #2:The Audience Members Will
Not Listen to Me-They Have Been Burned by
This fear is about facing an audience filled with broken presentation hearts. We all have that bright and witty, yet bitter, caustic, and forlorn, friend who keeps experiencing miserable luck in romance. We're always saying that friend is, "really a sweet person down deep." Friends like this never go into a first date with giddy, joyful anticipation. Rather, they are jaded, sardonically expecting the worst. They tell you it will probably be a wretched time, and the only redeeming feature will be providing you with some laughs the next day about another jerk, another beast, or another loser. They always say they really just want romance and someone they can really talk to. Why the gloom?
The pessimism and sarcasm come from bad experiences. They've been misled, cheated on, and unceremoniously dumped, when all they've been is open, honest, accepting, and giving. They've been hurt.
That's exactly how audiences feel. They want great conference room experiences, but alas, they keep coming up professionally empty! They are quietly suspicious of every speaker who stands in front of them. They too have been hurt, misled, and burned (tear!) time and time again by speakers they'd hoped would be enriching, but instead turned out to be insincere and a waste of time. That's why they're suspicious of you, even though you're just now making your way to the mike and haven't even begun to talk.
I know that's how you and I feel when we are in the audience. "Will this be good, or lousy? Will this be a waste of my time? Oh, this won't be good, I just know it! I wish I was back in my office, doing work I really need to get done. Why did I agree to take this meeting?" Your judgments are unfair, but they come from your unfortunate experience, not unfounded insecurities.
Now the tables are turned. You know when you step to the front of the room; all those attentive and sometimes encouraging pairs of eyes mask caustic and ruthless snap-judgment mechanisms- the same kind you make. They're giving you a grade on everything you do. It's as if your critical first-quarter production or marketing presentation in the conference room is some type of freakish corporate Miss America pageant. Audiences never reward just a good effort or hard work. You have to win them over every time. They're ready to mentally record with a searing red marker your performance score in all kinds of categories and competitions from the moment you open your mouth until the moment you take your seat.
You know this all too well. You know the audience members can and will be mean and unforgiving, all the while politely clapping and facetiously chuckling at the lame humor coming from the speaker. You know about the forced smiles hiding clinched lips whispering the evaluation, "This guy is a moron." You know this because sometimes that smile and those unkind words have come from you. That's right. I'm alleging you've been a mean-spirited and unforgiving member yourself. I know I have been and I will continue to be. I argue that everyone, who's not a parent or child of the speaker, becomes grumpy at warp speed after just ten minutes of a lousy presentation.
This is all good! It's frightening, perhaps, but good. Realizing the audience is suspicious is the first step to winning and rewarding their confidence. Help them to trust again (another tear, this time of joy), and they'll clap enthusiastically and mean it. They'll be telling others at coffee the next day how professionally "hot" you are. Connect with the audience and you break the chain of presentation distrust and heartache.
Realization #2: The audience will forget
they've been burned as soon as you give
them a good experience.
Presentation Fear #3:The Audience Will Tune Me Out
If you make a connection with the audience, they will not tune you out. If you make good on the investment they're making in you, they will stick with you. It's the law (I just made up) of presentation macroeconomics: Audiences keep investing when they keep getting a return.
Like that guy in the gym says, the one who's spotting you on the bench press and yelling encouragement as your face turns beet red on the twelfth rep when you really were done at eleven: "It's all you, man, I mean, I'm not doin' nuthin'! Come on, man, one more. It's all you." Your relationship with the audience, your connection and disconnection, is all about you, nothing else. It is, as the guy yells, "all you, man!" Your presentation success depends on you alone, and you alone can succeed, every time. But first you have to stop worrying about all the overblown concerns regarding short attention spans.
Please, avoid that trap of convincing yourself that audience members are incapable of listening to important ideas (your important ideas, gall dernit) because of the ubiquity of highspeed Internet, DirecTV, the iPod, Total Request Live, and Xbox. When you believe that, you sound pitiful and old, longing for the days of the three network stations and one independent you got from the antenna on the roof, long before all this digital-highway crap. You know, back when people could really listen. Back when people would really talk about ideas. Say that, and I believe you're fooling yourself into thinking you don't have control of your presentation. You have all the control.
You can be great, and the proliferation of DSL lines and wireless Internet connections cannot stop you!
I get cranky when I hear cocktail chatter alleging our collective attention spans are getting shorter every year. I'm not a sociologist, audiologist, neurologist, or anything that requires an understanding of even simple physiology or a state certification. Consequently, I'm not basing my massive skepticism on any research I've done or facts I've studied. I see plenty of nonresearch- based evidence around me every day that convinces me digital media is not to blame for the fact that "we just don't pay attention to anything anymore." I say we all pay attention to things we find rewarding. Believing otherwise is a cop-out.
Blaming technology for shorter attention spans is like the guy who's convinced his girlfriend won't accept his marriage proposal because she is "afraid of commitment." She's not "afraid of commitment." She is, however, "afraid of commitment" to him. We still pay attention to what's important, no matter how many channels are on the cable box or satellite dish. All of us pay attention to things longer than a Real World swish pan from one arguing college kid to another if we feel it a good investment of our time.
I've never seen parents at a dance recital zoning out, reading a book, or chatting on a cell phone when their five-year-old daughter is performing her first pirouette onstage. I've never heard a parent seated in the splintery bleachers at the ball field say, "Oh wow, my son Chris is in the on-deck circle. I'll just keep reading today's Wall Street Journal. Besides, Chris will be up again in a few innings."
I say our attention spans are not shorter. Don't worry that the audience is too media/message overwhelmed to listen to you. Every single one of us will pay attention, for long periods of time, when we believe there's something worth paying attention to. If your kid is onstage, you are mesmerized. If a musical performance connects with you, you're disappointed when the lights come up. Titanic was longer than Gigli and Dude, Where's My Car? put together, and that didn't stop a record number of patrons from seeing it over and over again.
It you're good at the microphone, the audience will pay attention, regardless of how many digital, print, broadcast, and billboard messages have bombarded them that day. If you're lousy, they may dismiss you and you won't even know it. And they'll be good at hiding their feelings. Oh sure, they may be looking right at you. Maybe they're even making eye contact. But they're not paying attention. It's a facetious exercise. The audience may be smiling and nodding, but zoning out, going somewhere else.
Where on earth can they be heading off to? Now that you've disconnected with them, they're going anywhere their minds can take them to get away from you: their picks in the upcoming fantasy football draft, bargains in the shoe department at the semiannual sale at Nordstrom, calorie math (if they work out this afternoon will that make up for that fourth Margarita last night?), that pesky dog leg on the par-five seventeenth hole, what's for lunch, what's for dinner, what's going on with Paris Hilton? They'll think of anything to tune you out.
Your fear of them tuning you out is real. Use that as motivation to create a brisk, fun-to-listen-to, and meaningful presentation, which will provide them with a great return on the investment of their time. You can blame MTV for a lot of unfortunate things (the rise of Duran Duran in the '80s, Hanson in the '90s, and those irritating boy bands), but not for the audience's losing interest in your idea. You control that yourself.
Realization #3: The audience will not
tune you out if you make it impossible
for them to do so.
Presentation Fear #4:The Audience Will Not Like Me, Because I Will Make Mistakes
This is a fear that is just not realistic. You'll make mistakes. Guess what? I say the audience won't care and probably won't remember. Your slight miscues never matter to the audience a fraction of how much they matter to you. But I understand this anxiety. They're expecting greatness but are conditioned for mediocrity. You worry that if you deliver anything short of a superior presentation, they will tune you out and then blast you at the coffee machine later in the day. There are no ties in this game. Either you win them over, or you lose.
"Great," say the fretting speakers, "I just have to be perfect every minute, every time." I disagree. Audiences don't expect perfection and they won't give you credit for it. So, please try to forget about it. I say audiences are both sympathetic and forgiving. They pride themselves on being very magnanimous and understanding. So much so, they enjoy seeing a misstep from the speaker. They just don't want it to last too long, to be completely inappropriate, or to be gross.
So go ahead, get something stuck in your throat for a second or two. Start to cough. Lose your place for a moment. Say "billion" when you meant "million." But stay cool, don't draw attention to it, and move on. When you find your place after shuffling through the order of your notes for a second or two, the members of the audience give themselves a silent and selfcongratulatory mental pat on the back, "Well, I was pulling for her. I knew she'd be okay." Audiences love an underdog, as long as the underdog becomes a winner quickly. They'll turn away in horror from any train wreck at the podium. So don't scream, "I'm so stuuuuupid. That's million, not billion, moron! Ach, I'm so lame, so clueless, such a loser." This type of self-flagellation makes everyone uncomfortable, so rein it in.
The audience doesn't want or expect perfect. It's never a good goal for a speaker. You can easily dump the fear of having to be perfect. It's not realistic and it is not important.
Realization #4: The audience accepts
mistakes and will not hold them against you.
Presentation Fear #5:The Audience Will Dismiss
My Ideas, and Me
This is a tough one that I can't dismiss. The fear of being tagged a lightweight is the heaviest of the fears. It's reasonable, and just like the other fears, very real. Adults don't usually belittle each other with the harsh stereotypes of their adolescent years: "loser," "geek," "dumb jock," "brainiac." Adults use much more refined put-downs that are just as devastating: "lightweight," "lacking in bandwidth," "empty suit," "off-point," "unprepared," or the worst comment: "irrelevant."
The fear of being dismissed means that you've accepted the previous fears and have even overcome them. Great! It means that you're worried the audience will judge your performance and your ideas on their own merit, ignoring their past prejudices. Your focus now is on your work, your thoughts, your vision, your analysis, your intellect, and your drive.
This is the best fear for you as you prepare for your next talk. It's the fear of not being taken seriously. It's the fear the audience will accuse you of "not knowing what you're talking about." There is no worse professional criticism, and it's something to be frightened about. It will also push you to build your presentation in such a way that the audience will respect your ideas and your thoughts, even if they'll never agree with them. That's a big win for every presentation.
The first step to becoming relevant is to make sure you're making a connection with the audience for every idea with which you take up their time. If the audience is still in the room with you, understanding and then considering your thoughts, they're not dismissing them. They may not agree with your ideas, but they will listen and they will give you your due. That's a victory for your professional standing, even more so when you conquer this significant fear.
Realization #5: When you build a connection
with the audience for every idea,
the audience will respect you.
You're not freaking out "for no good reason." Your reasons are sound. So, now, I ask you to stop freaking out. You are normal and you can and will get over it.
The result is that something remarkable will happen to your deep, dark, constricting fears. But don't get too hopeful. They won't go away. They can't and shouldn't. But their paralyzing sharpness and impact will fade. You'll still hear those fears, whispering in the background. Only now, you've got a pillow over your ears. You know about the fears, and they won't bother you.
Action items for your next presentation:
1. Understand that the audience will judge you because you're taking up their valuable time. You must figure out how to make good on their investment in you.
2. Understand that the audience is jaded and has been burned by other speakers. Vow to help them "learn to love again!" (Sniffle, tear.)
3. Understand you've got a battle to gain the focus of the minds behind every set of eyes in front of you. Know it's a battle you can and will win.
4. Realize perfection is not the goal. Nobody cares. A few stumbles don't matter, nor will they be remembered. A good or a bad presentation is never influenced by a few missteps.
5. Face the fact you will be judged on the strength of the presentation of your ideas. Present your ideas in a way that will be compelling, and you will be respected. Not always agreed with, but always taken seriously.
Excerpted from Presentation S.O.S. , by Mark Wiskup . Copyright (c) 2005 by Mark Wiskup . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top