What would you do if you walked in front of a large audience for an important presentation, and as you stood before them you realized that you had forgotten to wear your pants?
For some of us, this is a variation on a recurring dream. Presentations are nerve-racking, and as the stakes increase, so too does your heart rate as your collar tightens. Have you ever stood in front of a group of people and heard – felt – your heart beating in your eardrums? I have, and it’s not pleasant.
The way many of us deflect the audience’s attention from us is with a metaphorical version of pants, often referred to as a slide presentation or it’s program-specific moniker: the “powerpoint”. I have written about how to improve your kung-fu powerpoint skills in previous posts, such as here or here.
What if, however, you had invested tremendous time and effort creating a powerpoint deck that you found out at the last second you couldn’t use? I want to tell you something: some of my best presentations were supposed to have slides that, for one reason or another, weren’t available to me. These presentations generally went well, and I learned a few things in the process. First, two stories……
First Story: I flew to the east coast to deliver a presentation to a huge insurance company. This was many years ago, and I had a new laptop and was wearing a suit and a tie (actually, it turned out that the pants to my suit had come back from the dry cleaner with the pants on a separate hanger, something that eluded me during the packing process, so that morning I realized I did not – in fact- have any pants to wear, so I ran to a store, bought a new suit, waited in the dressing room while they tailored the pants, jumped into it, ripped the tags off as I drove to the insurance company, which is where this parenthetical aside meets the rest of the story). I got in front of a ridiculously large audience for a sales call – I’m guessing over 40 people in a small auditorium – and that’s when I learned a new computing term, and that term is “boot sector control virus”. The definition of this term is “your new laptop will not turn on and you have no slides”. At some point, it becomes too uncomfortable to goof around with an IT guy and a laptop in front of 40 people, and I had to dismiss the IT guy (and the laptop) and use nothing but my voice. I learned something that day.
Second Story: I was once with a small company that got acquired by a huge behemoth, and was asked to present to a few hundred sales reps during their national sales meeting. My slides had to go through several rounds of vetting before they were deemed acceptable. I found it to be a bureaucratic nightmare. When I got in front of the sales team, who had been sitting through several presentations before mine…well, let’s just say they look stunned and wiped out. As I took the stage, I said “you know, I had to go through a lot of work to get my slide deck vetted by management, but how about we skip it?”. The change in body posture was immediate. Slumped people sat up. Glazed eyes refocused. I had the house lights turned up, I sat on a stool they had on stage and I simply talked to them. The results were great, and it taught me to have the confidence, in certain situations, to read the audience and not be afraid to ditch the deck. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way:
I find that audiences expect a powerpoint, and when you walk in and don’t deliver one, you’ve immediately done something unexpected. In a powerpoint-drenched world where audiences slip into a catatonic stupor as soon as they hear the hum of the projector, consider anything that is “unexpected” a win.
Know your material. Audiences are relaxed and more likely to be absorbent when they sense the presenter a) knows his/her stuff, and b)isn’t panicking. Visual stimulus is for audiences – not presenters. You should be able to deliver a presentation without looking at any of the detail.
Show some guts. Ditch the deck. Are you interested in more background on delivering great presentations? I recommend this podcast, where Michael Hyatt and his co-host, Michelle Cushatt, talk about presentations.
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