Presentations: You Get What You Ask For

Photo by Alexander Redl 

Imagine – you’ve trained for many months to run a marathon. You’re at the start line. You spot a spectator on the sidelines with a holstered revolver. “Is that thing loaded?” You ask. “Sure is!” he responds proudly. “Can I borrow it for a sec?” you ask. “Sure thing” says he, handing you the weapon – whereupon you aim it at your right foot and pull the trigger. “Here’s your gun back” you hand it to him, writhing in pain. At this point the finish line is a pipe dream.

That’s a fittingly accurate metaphor to describe the psychological state of so many presenters. We do all the necessary preparation, but persist with the internal narrative of how poorly we speak and how we’re going to mess up on the day – and guess what? Our prediction is spot on – despite the content preparation. Being human means that we fear consequences of things going wrong to such an extent that no amount of preparation will save us if we are faced with unexpected reactions or if technology doesn’t play the game.

Perhaps the first thing that should be addressed is our attitude towards speaking to an audience. Shooting ourselves in the foot is not a recommended way to start a presentation, because a major part of our preparation is rooted in our own self-belief. The best way to handle unexpected problems on the day is to take things calmly and attend to them methodically. This is best achieved in a stable and optimistic frame of mind. 

The stages of preparing and delivering a presentation are:

  • You get the assignment or brief. Or – you decide to create and deliver a presentation. Either way, at this stage all you have is a topic.
  • You fix on a clear objective. Who is my audience and what action do I want them to take as a result of my presentation?
  • There’s something missing here…. OK. We’ll come back to this.
  • You settle on the medium of delivery and the logistics that will surround it including the time available to prepare and the duration of the presentation. This phase is critical. If you feel you don’t have enough time you need to make more time.
  • You create a basic structure first designing a strong close, then working out an intro. Thereafter you bring in your content including a well thought-out story or 2.
  • Once you have the content of the presentation in place you move to delivery – this is when rehearsal occurs, usually at least 48 hours ahead of time. If your planning is on track this should allow you time for 3 rehearsals. The first rehearsal should be a mess. If it is, well done (pat yourself on the back Jack, you’re right on track). The 2nd will be just fine. The 3rd (which should be spectacular) is for polish and timing.
Photo by Chalo Garcia 

The missing point – number 3 is about adjusting our mental attitude towards this project. With only a topic, an objective and an envisaged audience we are still at the idea phase – the perfect place for panic, self-doubt and avoidance to set in. These 3 Musketeers are well known for colluding to de-rail your project before it’s out of the starting blocks. 

Picturing your journey

So before diving into content, we require an imagination phase – where we imagine alighting the podium confidently, delivering a killer closing line, wild applause and success. We become excited about the opportunity. We decide that this is a golden opportunity to harness all our communication skills and charm. We’ll be putting together something that will captivate our audience and ensure that they do exactly as we say. We’re going to have them in the palm of our hand and we’ll be providing them with great value and a reason to act. That’s because we’re that good, and because we’ve got this all worked out.

The imagination phase is hugely important. It sets the tone for all our actions leading up to the presentation itself. It keeps us focused, energised and optimistic.

The problem is that we may feel different about ourselves, that we’re inadequate, that we’re filled with fear and that in all likelihood there is too much that could go wrong.

Self belief is not a quick fix. Sustainability needs to be built in layers just as a bricklayer constructs a wall. Like that marathon, it’s one step at a time to the finish line. But just as each brick laid brings the builder a step closer to completing his wall, each footstep brings the runner closer to the finish line. The key is the decision to build the wall, run the marathon or perhaps deliver that talk. For once completed, none can be undone.

When I completed my first marathon in the pouring rain February 2005, my more experienced running mate Henry Coetzer (8 years my senior) who ran with me every step of the way grasped me by my exhausted shoulders afterwards, looked me in the eye and, pointing to my soaked cap said. “There. Now for the first time in your life you have a marathon in your head.” He was right. Before that I only imagined what it would be like and feel like. The next time I’d have evidence to support my imagination.

Make the decision to run your race. Imagine what it would be like to complete the race. Put in the training. Do a few practice races. Stand at the start line with great optimism. And then handle what comes your way with gratitude.

The same applies to your next presentation, and the next. Put in the hard yards, follow through and persevere. Before you know it you will have built an impressive wall.

Post by Paul du Toit, CSP

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