How presenters think themselves into trouble


Presenters usually fall into two groups.

One group doesn’t think enough.

The other thinks too much or, I should say, thinks too much about the wrong things.

And the more they think, the more they screw their heads up and drain energy from what they should think about. Like when the voice in their head says, “You’ve got to be an orator, an extrovert – sophisticated, eloquent, polished, and, oh yes, intellectual."

I know that voice. When I first started presenting it forced its way into my head – before, during and after every presentation.

What presenters should think about

What’s in the prospects’ heads? How can I get in their heads with them? Do they get what I’m saying? Am I addressing their needs? Am I making a human connection? Am I separating myself from my competition, or just making the same mistakes everybody else does?

Old rules and failure

Presentations create pressure. Then outmoded presentation rules take over presenters’ minds just when they need to focus on how to connect with their audiences.

The voice says you better not stammer; you’ll come off like a fool. Better not forget anything and have to go back; you’ll look disorganized.

Two of the best presenters I ever knew stammered.

I saw them doing competitive pitches, and they won. They won because they knew their audiences and what they needed to hear. And, funny thing, the stammer worked for them. It felt like they were excited about what they were trying to say, and maybe their minds were running ahead of their ability to speak. It kept the audiences’ attention.

Bob Newhart, one of our best comedians, stammered. Some said he did it on purpose to build up to his punch line. Whatever the reason, it worked.

And yes, you can go back.

If you forget something important, go back. Just be honest and direct. You could say something like, “And I don’t want to forget this point because you said earlier … .” This way, you get to make a strong point you would otherwise lose. And it shows you care and that you’re human.

Old rules versus winning presentations

Now, this was pure luck: when I ran an advertising agency we were showing samples of our work to a client prospect. They smiled and nodded, yes, at every thing we did. It seemed like a love fest. But, for some crazy reason, I said, “Are we showing you what you need to see to win your account?”

They said, “No.” They also stopped smiling.

They also said, “The work you do for your clients is creative, but it’s too much in your face. We’re a healthcare company; we need an agency that can do something more subtle.”

Who knew?

They never said anything like this in the meetings before the presentation. But we were in our office, so we asked for a short break, scrambled and gathered different creative samples, presented them and won the business. After that, I always stopped presentations to ask how we were doing.

Hardly anybody does that. Too bad because it works.

When people make a presentation to a group, things usually get formal and stiff, and somebody long ago must have made a rule: you must not ask the group how it’s going. You must stay on script. Be confident. You present; they receive.

I should know

When I started presenting I listened to that dumb voice in my head and made all the mistakes I’ve described in this blog. And I failed every time. It was so embarrassing I scheduled presentations to clients in northern rural Massachusetts in order to practice. I figured if I bombed, which I did, I’d never have to see them again.

It worked. I never saw them again. 

As a presentation consultant

My partner, Leesa Lawson, and I have now conducted new business workshops for over 120 companies worldwide. From the beginning, we noticed something we never expected. Before we started the workshops we always asked to see what they were currently doing. We were shocked, but the presentations were basically the same all over the world. Pittsburgh or London or Singapore — it was all the same. And what made them the same also made them irrelevant. Presenters talked themselves into things that made no sense, including a rigid obedience to old rules that made it impossible to make a human connection.

I call them old rules, but they were lousy even when they were new rules, and they’re downright dangerous today.

Now our prospects have more information buzzing around in their heads than ever in the history of the world. And, we have electronic presentations that allow us to put more words on the screen than anybody can absorb, and complicated visuals to confuse and bore people. We can even turn the lights down or off and wreck any possible human connection with our audience.

We need a better way to cut through all the stuff that's buzzing around in peoples' heads and make a connection with them.

So dump those old rules. Focus on your prospect and forget about you. You’ll do fine. You can be quiet, maybe even shy. You can be you whoever you are. Focus on your prospect; make a human connection and win.

Think about that.


Coming next: Why we don't need the creative director from "Mad Men."