Practice

7 Deadly Sins of Presentation Preparation

Have you ever found yourself sitting in the center seat of a packed auditorium—hemmed in on both sides by people and laptops—listening to a keynote speaker who is supposed to be imparting knowledge and wisdom, but instead is droning on and on? You want to run, but you can’t. So you endure what seems like torture.

You probably think this only happens in large university lecture halls, right? Not so. I’ve seen it at trade shows, association meetings, speaker forums, customer meetings, and yes, even at TED talks. One can only wonder what these speakers were thinking. How could they come to an event of such high caliber and not be prepared?

The funny thing is, if you ask them, they might tell you they spent a lot of time preparing, perhaps even over-preparing. Because the truth is that you can prepare and still not do well if you prepare incorrectly. In other words, not all preparation is the same.

Here is a list of the seven “sins” of poor presentations—all of which focus on the mistakes made when speakers prepare for their presentation incorrectly. Avoid committing these errors and you can give a stellar speech every time.

  1. Not having the right intention: In public speaking, as in every other worthwhile pursuit in life, intention is everything. If you don’t have a clear goal and objective for your speech, your audience will know it and become lost and confused … and most likely so will you. So set your intention, state the purpose of your presentation, and tell your audience what you hope your presentation will achieve for them.
  2. Not preparing your content before you prepare your PowerPoint™: Many people are in the habit of creating their slides before they create their full content, as if the PowerPoint slides are the end game instead of a useful, though limited, outline. They never take the next step to fully develop their message. That’s like building a house with a napkin drawing instead of a blueprint, and we all know how risky that can be. Take the time to fully develop your message first, and then create powerful visuals to accompany it.
  3. Not realizing that your content has two parts—message and structure: This is the tricky part for some presenters. Creating an interesting story line and developing an exciting topic complete with great examples, metaphors, and data comes naturally to some, but then taking the next step and forging that great content into a simple, easy-to-follow beginning, middle, and end structure is overlooked. Too much content without enough structure can leave the audience overwhelmed and perplexed.
  4. Not practicing your delivery ahead of time: Most people know better than to wing it in front of a large, high-stakes crowd, but there are plenty out there who think they have enough experience to stand up and speak with very little rehearsal. Every audience is unique and deserves your time and preparation. The best speakers practice out loud at least three times before every presentation they give.
  5. Not showing physical excitement and passion: Passion is an overused word when it comes to public speaking, but that’s because it is such a necessary component of a successful speech. You may feel plenty of real passion for your subject, but if you don’t practice showing it you will not be able to convince your audience that you mean it. Showing how you feel about your subject is just as important as knowing the details of what you are talking about.
  6. Not letting your voice be free: The human voice has the capacity to excite, stimulate, persuade, and inspire. Let your voice ring free of inhibitions by speaking with power, raising your pitch, using inflection, and exploiting dramatic pauses. The audience loves the music of the human voice, so make sure to let yours sing out and work for you.
  7. Not showing confidence and energy: There is the old adage that if you happen to be charismatically challenged you should “fake it until you make it.” That means even if you’re not “comfortable” performing with more vocal strength and physical action you must still do it. The audience depends on you to be lively and energetic during your presentation. They will forgive you if you try and fail, but they won’t forgive you if you don’t try at all. The more you practice, the easier this becomes. So take a chance at success and Come Alive!

When you prepare your presentation, be the saint and not the sinner! Use your knowledge of good presentation skills and prepare the correct way so that even those audience members stuck in the center of the crowd will stand up and cheer for you.

Please let me know what other preparation “sins” you would add to this list!

Let Your Public Speaking Skills Age Like Fine Wine

Imagine having the opportunity to write a speech about a topic you know and love and deliver it nine times in the course of a day to a rapt audience, gaining new supporters and perfecting your delivery each time. That’s precisely the opportunity afforded to my client David Amadia, VP of Sales for Ridge Vineyards, when he attended the Vancouver International Wine Festival last month and participated in their “Meet Your Match” event. “Meet Your Match” is the wine education version of speed dating. Small groups of wine enthusiasts spent six minutes with each wine producer to taste their wine, hear their story, and ask questions. In those six minutes, David tutored the wine tasters on the various qualities of “fine” wine—it comes from a great vineyard, reflects the patch of ground where it is grown, is age-able and will improve over time, stimulates the mind and the palette, and has many complex levels and flavors. He introduced newcomers to Ridge’s exceptional single vineyard wines and updated fans on the latest spring releases.

He also told snippets of the fascinating history of Ridge Vineyards—a story that can’t be fully told in a few minutes but that included the following highlights:

The history of Ridge Vineyards began in 1885 when Osea Perrone, an Italian doctor, bought 180 acres of land near the top of Monte Bello Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains because it reminded him of the terraced slopes and cool climate of his homeland in Italy. Perrone built the Monte Bello Winery and produced the first vintage under that name in 1892. This unique cellar, built into the mountainside on three levels, is Ridge’s production facility today.

The winery closed during Prohibition, reopened with repeal, but closed definitively in the early 1940s. New Ridge partners formed in 1950 when three Stanford Research Institute engineers bought the property as a weekend retreat and made a quarter-barrel of “estate” cabernet. That Monte Bello Cabernet was among California’s finest wines of the era. Working only on weekends, they made wines of regional character and unprecedented intensity.

In 1968 Paul Draper joined the partnership after he realized that if three engineers working on weekends could make world class wine, it had to be the rich land that was responsible for their success and not the winemakers themselves. Under Draper’s guidance, the old Perrone winery was restored and the consistent quality and international reputation of Ridge Wines established.

That history is lot of ground to cover in a few short minutes. Add in information about the various wines being tasted and random questions from the audience and you can see how tight, focused, and polished David’s presentations had to be.

David was proud to introduce Ridge and its highly regarded estate wines, and he was delighted to meet new customers. But he also savored the unique opportunity to consciously practice his public speaking skills over and over in a relaxed venue as he gained experience, skill, and control with each new group.

So take a lesson from David Amadia. While you may never have a chance to do this sort of speed dating version of public speaking, you can find ways to practice—whether formally or informally—in front of small groups every day. Whether at the water cooler or at the dinner table, the more you tell your stories, interact with others, answer questions, and practice your delivery, the more you’ll find that your speaking skills are a lot like fine wine—they get better with time.

Use the Power of Practice to Build Your Speaking Skills

The psychologist and philosopher William James famously wrote: “99% of our activity is purely automatic; all of our life is nothing but a mass of habits.”After reading the book The Power of Habitby Charles Duhigg (which I first wrote about here), it is clear that habits define virtually every aspect of our lives, from how much we eat, save, or spend to how we work, communicate, and interact with others. One interesting example in Duhigg’s book focuses on Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. As a child, Phelps was high strung and intense, so his mother got him involved in swimming as a way to manage his tension and anxiety. That’s when Phelps met his coach, Bob Bowman, whose main goal was to help Phelps’ stay calm and relaxed. Bowman also wanted his student to develop automatic willpower so Phelps could become competitive and the strongest mental swimmer in the pool.

One of the tools Bowman used was something he called “watching the video tape.” There was no physical video; he was referring instead to the practice of visualization. Every morning and night, Phelps was to relax his body and visualize his practice in the pool. He was instructed to imagine every aspect of his routine in his head and to see every detail clearly.

During the 2008 Olympics, Phelps continued this habit of visualization, just as he had every day since he was 10. It’s a good thing he did. During the 200 meter butterfly, his strongest event, his goggles filled with water. He couldn’t see anything. But he went on automatic mode and visualized the race even though he was unable to see the wall, the other swimmers, or the swim lanes. And he won another gold medal and set a world record. When he was asked afterwards how he was able to win the race under those conditions, he said it was because of his power of visualization. He didn’t need to physically see anything; he could see it all in his mind.

Public speakers can learn a lot from this powerful example.

To be truly great at presenting, you have to develop automatic willpower to prepare for every eventuality. You have to prepare your content and then take the time to practice and rehearse your delivery even when you think you don’t have the time to practice or don’t want to practice. Like Phelps, you must create practice routines (or habits) that lead to success.

I recommend all types of practice routines, including:

  • Visualizing yourself giving the perfect presentation.
  • Practicing sections of your speech to yourself when you’re doing the dishes, walking the dog, etc.
  • Doing formal practice sessions in front of others. During these practice sessions, ask people to comment on specific things you want to improve, such as vocal skills, gestures, eye contact, etc.
  • Utilizing small, everyday interactions to practice key skills. For example, during water cooler chat, practice your gestures. At dinner, practice your storytelling skills.

When you practice in a variety of venues and ways, the key skills you want to improve will become more natural and a part of who you are. Ultimately, you have to build your habits, or your habits will build you. Which habits are you trying to eliminate or improve? Let me know in the comments section below.

My Parakeet: A Lesson for Perfect Practice

They say “practice makes perfect.” And in fact, repeating an action over and over again is the single biggest factor in acquiring skill. It means spending hours in pursuit of perfection, putting in the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell speaks about in his book, The Outliers.

 our-parakeet-in-front-of-the-blue-hydrangea

 

The only way to improve your competence at something as important as public speaking is to practice. But here’s the real secret: it isn’t enough to simply practice. The wisdom is to practice the right skills in the right way so that what you learn is truly of value. Doing so requires increasing your awareness and acquiring greater knowledge of what those critical skills are.

 

When I was growing up we had a little bird named Tweetie. As a budding “trainer and coach” I spent the greater part of one summer helping Tweetie improve his communication skills. I invested my entire allowance in an LP record and instruction book called, “Teaching Your Parakeet to Talk,” and so began the process of building skill and competence in my very first “client.”

 

Tweetie, like most birds, learned best in the morning. That’s when his mind was fresh and ready to receive new information. I used our early morning training sessions to play the record for Tweetie and then followed up with cheerful conversations using the new words he was learning. After weeks of practice it finally happened. One morning he looked me in the eye and clearly said, “Pretty bird!” He soon learned to say, “Hi Cutie,” “Sweetie Pie,” and “Bye Bye, Kid.” I was seeing firsthand the power of repetition.

 

We were on Lesson 5 and working on his first long sentence when sadly the record got scratched. The new sentence sounded like this: “Hello, baby. Want a kiss, sss, sss, sss, sss, sss?” Undeterred, I kept playing the record for Tweetie, and sure enough after hours of hearing the scratched phrase, he got it! He mimicked the sound of the “scratch” as clearly as he said the words.

 

So take a lesson from Tweetie and make sure that if you’re going to invest your valuable time to improve your presentation skills, that you are practicing the right skills in the right way. It will take time to learn the “best practices” used by top speakers. You might have to read a few books, attend a training program or work with a professional to learn what skills are most important to master. But when you practice the right skills over and over—the repetition will pay off. And I promise, you won’t end up sounding like a broken record.