My heart is beating so fast it feels like it’s going to burst out of my shirt.
What? My mouth is so dry! And I can’t swallow!
I’ve done this a million times before but it doesn’t matter. I still get nervous every single time I give a presentation.
I start my presentation.
Thirty seconds later, my nerves are gone. My heart is beating slowly again. Saliva has returned to my mouth.
All the hard work has paid off. The hours of preparation for this thirty-minute presentation are all worth it.
I’m in flow.
Did you know that most people would rather die than give a presentation in front of an audience?
Yet, succeeding in business requires us to be able to successfully present our ideas to an audience.
Are you saying you would rather die than succeed in business?
Good. I thought so.
The steps to mastering presentations are straightforward. Anyone can do it.
I say that from experience because while I’m now a good presenter, I was nothing close to that earlier in my career.
My Story: If I can become a good presenter, anyone can become a good presenter
I developed a fairly strong (and unpredictable) stutter when I was in my late 20’s. The stutter first happened at a company sales conference.
I had to give the same talk eight times in one day, and I found that I couldn’t get my words out. I was a mess about ten minutes into each presentation. Audience members were laughing at me.
It was humiliating. I had to find a way fix the stutter.
I tried everything I could think of over the next several years:
- Maybe caffeine would work? Maybe if I timed it right.
- What about alcohol? That worked somewhat, but I didn’t want to be a drunk.
- How about exercise? Going for a run before presenting sometimes worked.
- What about sex? Well, it couldn’t hurt to try…
- Therapy? Nope, that wasn’t the answer either.
I was so determined to get rid of my stutter that I even went to a speech therapist. Of course, the stutter didn’t manifest itself in front of the speech therapist! The speech therapist said I was fine, but I knew better.
I decided the one thing I could control (even if I could never get rid of my stutter) was my preparation. I developed a preparation technique that I use to this day. (More on that in a moment.)
My presentations markedly improved. I still stuttered, but it was manageable.
Years went by.
One of the partners at the VC firm where I was an Entrepreneur in Residence espoused the virtues of a high protein, low carbohydrate diet. This new diet was the exact opposite of my high complex carbohydrate diet.
I decided to try the new high protein diet.
I wasn’t expecting it, but my stutter immediately went away!
I shook my head in disbelief. I had created my own problem because of my diet. However, the benefit of the pain I went through is my presentation skills are much better because of stuttering.
Your Preparation is the Key
Arguably the best presenter of the modern business era was Steve Jobs. Jobs always came off as a natural showman.
However, there were weeks of preparation that went into every presentation Jobs gave. The presentations were rehearsed and rehearsed, again and again, until they were perfect.
I’m not suggesting you will become the next Steve Jobs. However, we can all learn the lesson of preparation from Steve Jobs.
Here’s my preparation technique:
A. Make Your Slides Visually Appealing.
This will obviously vary depending upon your audience. However, the basic rule is to make it as easy as possible for your audience to understand your message.
I might rearrange my slides five or six times before getting them just right.
B. Record Yourself.
Make a simple recording of yourself, and then replay it. Look for areas of your talk that aren’t smooth, and areas where you are stumbling over words.
Then correct these points, and repeat, again and again. You might run through a talk five or six times before presenting for real (this is what typically happens with my talks).
C. Time Yourself.
You have a 30-minute time slot, a 10-minute time slot, or whatever. You need to respect the audience and their time. You want to get your points across succinctly, and you want to leave time for questions and answers.
You might want your 30-minute talk to take 20 minutes without questions – you get the idea. Nothing is worse than some annoying speaker, droning on and on.
D. Bullet Point Notes.
Word-for-word written speeches can be problematic, especially if you are nervous. I think they are too confining.
I prefer talking extemporaneously. Yet, we all need to stay on-point. The solution is simply writing on a sheet of paper all your key talking points.
E. Rehearse In Front Of A Friendly Audience.
Rehearse in front of close friend or significant other (I like presenting to my wife when I feel ready). This is the final run-through.
It’s always different when you present in front of people – even the one who loves you and supports you the most. You want that final bit of reassurance, and you want critical feedback.
Presentation Skills Matter in Just About Every Profession
It doesn't matter what you do, you need to be a good presenter. As a CEO or small business owner you have to be a good presenter.
Excellent presentation skills aren’t just for salespeople.
You're going to be presenting just about every day to some audience. Whether you are recruiting your next executive, preparing for your next board of directors meeting, or getting ready to visit customers, you need to be able to present.
To Script or Not to Script
The company I worked at in the 1990’s, Maxim Integrated Products, used to have quarterly offsite meetings for senior management. The size of this group grew to over one hundred people by the late 1990’s.
It could be quite intimidating to speak in front of this group for the first time.
A well-respected manager gave her first presentation to the group, and she used a script. Her hands were shaking and her voice quivered because of her nerves.
The five minutes she was on stage seemed to go on forever.
You could feel her pain and sense her relief when the talk was completed.
I thought to myself, “I wished she used bullet point notes instead of a script”. The reason being that reading a word-for-word script is really hard when you’re nervous.
Think about it. You miss one word and you completely lose your place. Plus, the audience knows you have lost your place.
My advice is gauging your nerves before scripting a talk. Tape your practice sessions with and without a script to get a feel for what works for you.
Research Your Audience
I’ll give you another story from my Maxim days.
One of Maxim’s Vice President’s was a brilliant technologist. He used to love explaining in exquisite detail each new technological advance.
This is great in an engineering review. However, he was talking over the heads of much of his audience in the framework of a quarterly offsite meeting.
You need to understand the level of your audience:
- What words do they use?
- What level of technical sophistication do they have?
- How familiar are they with what you are doing?
- Are they used to graphics or do they prefer more bullet points on slides?
Craft your presentation with the knowledge of your audience in mind.
Immediately Grab Your Audience’s Attention
Think about good presentations you have seen. How much time did you give the presenter before you lost interest?
Probably not more than the snap of your fingers.
That’s the basic test of your material: Do you instantly grab your audience’s attention?
Instantly get to the point. Don’t wait until you are five slides into your presentation. Tell them instantly what’s exciting about what you are going to say.
Then give the details behind why it’s exciting.
Then bring all your points together at the end. It’s a simple framework:
- Tell the audience what you are going to say. Immediately hook your audience.
- Say it. Give the audience appropriate details beyond the hook.
- Say it again. Sum it all up.
Be brutal on yourself when you are self-critquing because you will not be effective otherwise.
You're Up on Stage. How Do You Deal With Your Nerves?
Here some tips I use:
A. Remind yourself that everyone gets nervous.
Most of us are not natural presenters. It’s normal to be nervous. It’s okay. And...
B. Smile when you feel yourself getting nervous.
I just say to myself, “Oh, I’m nervous. That’s normal.” Then, I know that in thirty seconds or so my nerves will go away. And...
C. Start with a smile to the audience.
The audience comes on your side when you smile. People naturally want you to succeed when you smile.
This Is A Lot Of Work. And You Just Don’t Have The Time.
You’re right, this is a lot of work. I think most of us just have never realized that putting a lot of work into presentations is what’s required to do a great job.
Here's the good news:
- Now you know what you need to become an excellent presenter.
- You will become more efficient the more you practice your art.
But You're Shy
I get it. I’m shy too.
Many of the best presenters and public speakers considered themselves shy:
- Abraham Lincoln. 16th President of the United States.
- Tom Hanks. Famous actor.
- Craig McCraw. Billionaire telecommunications and wireless entrepreneur.
- Katherine Graham. Former publisher of the Washington Post.
But You're So Bad There’s No Hope
James Altucher is one of my favorite writers. (You can check him out at www.jamesaltucher.com.) He’s brilliant, funny, and vulnerable all at the same time. He has a great rule called the 1% rule.
Simply focus on getting 1% better every day. We all can get one percent better each day, can’t we?
Let’s translate that into presentations. Your goal for your next presentation is just making it a little better than your last presentation.
Maybe that means less “uhs” and “umms”. Maybe that means your slides are a little bit easier to follow. Maybe that means you finish on time.
Just focus on making the next presentation a little better than the last one. You will find over time that you will become much better over time.
Hopefully Our Children Have It Better
Avery is now in the eighth grade. She has regularly been presenting in front of audiences since kindergarten.
Every student is required to participate in a class play.
Plus, there are the requisite school plays.
The good news is Avery will be an accomplished presenter (if she isn’t already) by the time she enters the work force.
It’s really important to be good in math and science. However, you also need to be able to present your thoughts in front of an audience.
Hopefully, your kids are getting a similar education to my daughter’s education.
And it’s not too late for us to learn the art of presenting either.
Your Ideas Need To Be Heard
In closing you have important ideas that need to effectively be communicated to your audience. It doesn’t matter whether that audience is ten co-workers or an audience of thousands.
Improving your presentation skills allows your audience to retain your message. Most importantly, improving your presentation skills gives you the best chance of having a successful and fullfilling career.
Do You Want To Grow Your Business? Maybe I Can Help.