hard won lessons on presenting

I really enjoy speaking and facilitating and wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned over the years.

It’s always about the participants. Always. The worst, most boring, least engaging presenters make it about themselves. And no one cares. The best presenters think through every single aspect from the participants’ point of view.

 They are participants, not an audience. This may be semantics, but in my mind participants are involved in understanding and applying the material to their own lives while an audience is passive and just along for the ride. Great presenters engage everyone in the room.

 The participants don’t know what they don’t know. This was the single most freeing concept I ever learned about speaking. The participants don’t know what you intended to say so they don’t know when you skipped something. No point in getting hung up on your mistake. If it’s important, loop it back in appropriately. If not, let it go.

 “Winging it” is for complete amateurs. There is a huuuuuuge difference between knowing your material so well you are able to adjust to audience needs on the fly and making it up as you go. Very, very few presenters are able to go off the cuff and those who are able to are tapping into years of experience and material. Some people complain that preparing makes it mechanical, but if your presentation is mechanical it means you haven’t prepared enough to truly own the material. Respect your participants (and yourself) enough to prepare.

 PowerPoint is a great enhancement, but a lousy focal point. The best speakers I’ve seen have very, very little content on their slides. By only having the most important points, the slides are used to support the mood and tone and enhance and underscore the most crucial information. Anything more risks becoming a distraction and a crutch. Think of it like a tie – it needs to match the suit, it can stand out but should never be the focal point, and if you took off the tie the suit should still look great without it.

 Technology breaks. I was at a conference recently and watched as a speaker went through three laptops, two connecting cables, and several staff and volunteers before he was able to get his slides on the screen. Fortunately, he wasn’t dependent on his slides and just rolled into the presentation while the staff and volunteers got his presentation to work. Once the projector was working, he smoothly transitioned to using it. Never rely on technology more sophisticated than flipchart and markers. Use the technology, but be ready and able to give a full presentation without it.

Everything has a purpose. Every-little-thing. Everything. Don’t do that activity, don’t tell that funny story, don’t show that slide unless it directly supports your presentation. If it doesn’t have a purpose don’t do it. Ever.

Introverts can be great presenters. Never confuse introversion with shyness. Some of the best presenters I know are introverts and they use it to their advantage because they are naturally good at staying on point, keeping the focus on the participants, and never talking just to hear themselves speak. Introversion doesn’t matter and it’s not an excuse. A good presenter is a good presenter.

Mistakes are the best teachers. We all screw up, forget stuff, get it out of sequence, and say just the wrong thing. I can say I’ve learned the most about presenting and made the biggest improvements to my presentations from my errors, not my successes.

Care. This one is simple. If you don’t care, neither will your participants.

Have fun. Relax and enjoy it. Once you get past the nervousness and adrenalin dump, presenting can be great fun. And your participants will reflect your energy. If you’re enjoying it, they will too.

Your thoughts?

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3 comments

  1. Awesome list! The only thing I’d add is … be yourself. Absolutely watch and learn from the masters but don’t try to be them. Find your own voice, your own style. Be authentic and put yourself out there. Mistakes will be made .. as you said, learn from them. Participants will not connect with you if you’re not being you. Some of the best speakers I’ve heard have not necessarily been technically perfect, but their authenticity, their passion more than compensated for the technical imperfections.

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    1. Absolutely agree. The best speakers aren’t perfect, they are themselves (I LOVE the David Grohl quote, “I don’t want to be perfect, I just want to be badass.”) Jim Rohn is one of my favorite speakers and he was, speaking by the book, iffy at best. Yet, his warmth, experience, and passion shine through and make for compelling presentations. Our humanness shines though when we let it.

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  2. Agree, agree, and completely agree on every single point there Broc. Especially love your point that the participants don’t know what they don’t know. So true!

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