When I was about 25 and making my first presentation as assistant product manager at the National Sales Meeting of a major consumer goods company, I wanted to make it perfect. I was working on a small brand, had only 15 minutes to present, but I was on the agenda and I was determined to convince the sales force to devote some effort to my brand.
My colleagues must have been exasperated with my constant questions about previous presentations: What the sales guys were like; what interested them; should I use data, anecdotes, or both; how much of each; how many visuals did I need; how should I address the needs of different regions; and more.
I finalized the presentation, got it approved and started to rehearse. And rehearse. And rehearse.
Finally, the day of the presentation came. I dressed with care in a navy blue skirt suit with a blouse (it was the 80’s and there was a bow at the neck) – conservative by any standards – because even then I knew I was only the medium and I wanted the audience to pay attention to the message.
My turn came around and I got up on stage and made my presentation. I believe it was the last one of the day. It went smoothly. I hit all the key points, saw some nodding among the audience and got a big smile from my boss when it was over. I was quite pleased with myself.
Later on, one of the Regional Sales Mangers came over to talk to me. “Robin,” he said, “I’m sure that was a wonderful presentation you made, but I didn’t hear a word. I was too busy looking at your legs.”
I was devastated, horrified and mortified, in waves. I was so shocked I could not respond. What a complete and utter waste of time and effort, all because I have decent legs.
To this day, I have always made it a point to present in a pant suit (or long skirt with boots), jacket and top with full coverage. If I have any kind of interview, same outfit.
Lesson learned: Minimize the distractions so that your audience can focus on the message. Control your environment (to the extent you can) and your appearance so that it distracts as little as possible from your presentation.
A mesmerizing habit
A trusted supplier contacted me to introduce me to a company he thought might be useful to know. Because of the trust and credibility I had for this person, I quickly organized a presentation with several of my colleagues and my supervisor.
The day of the appointment arrived and in walked a well-dressed gentleman (suit and tie), who set up his presentation and began.
The problem was that this guy had an unfortunate tick. His hand constantly went to the area just below his belt buckle to the tab of his zipper to check that his fly was up. It happened with such frequency that it you couldn’t help but watch and wait for the next time. I became so distracted I began to count the number of times his hand made the trip and actually missed most of his presentation.
After ushering the guy out, I called my trusted supplier and told him about the issue, how it was an impediment to doing business, and suggested he broach the problem with his contact. Who, when he did, informed him that no one had ever mentioned it to him before.
Lesson learned: Film yourself or have someone watch you rehearse to help you become aware and address any inadvertent and/or repetitive habit you may have.
At another National Sales Meeting, performance awards were being handed out. One of the Directors was stepping back from having presented a plaque when she cartwheeled off the stage and disappeared from sight. The backdrop had hidden that the stage ended right there and there was nothing behind it. Fortunately, she was unhurt, only embarrassed.
Lesson learned: Try and get access to the room where you are presenting. Check out the surroundings, note any potential hazards (layout, wires, furniture) to avoid.
Some of the other key lessons for successful presentations include:
- Set clear goals. Know what you want to achieve with the presentation and keep this outcome clearly in mind.
- Know your audience. Understand who you are talking to and use appropriate language and relevant examples.
- Prepare. Know your stuff. Have your back-up material organized and at hand. Anticipate the questions which will be asked.
- Rehearse. Practice, practice, practice. In front of a mirror, in front of friends and family, in front of colleagues. Record/videotape your speech. Because the last thing your audience wants you to do is read your presentation.
- Control the environment. Visit or find out what you can about where you will be presenting. To the extent you can, ensure your surroundings allow your audience to focus on you.
- Visualize. Picture yourself in the actual presentation room, envision where you will be and “see” the audience so it seems familiar when you arrive.
- Pay attention to the audience. Don’t get so caught up in your performance that you fail to notice you’re losing people’s attention or that you’ve said something controversial.
- Be prepared for anything. I once worked for a company where management constantly and consistently interrupted presentations, no matter what preparation or arrangements were made. When that happens, see point number 1, and focus on what you want the outcome to be. Do what you need to in order to get there.
These lessons served me well in the many different roles I’ve held: In marketing where presentation skills are essential to securing the resources and the support of the organization; in Public Relations when interacting with reporters and acting as spokesperson in media appearances and communication is paramount; in my role leading the department tasked with training hundreds of pharmacy cosmeticians a year on products; during my responsibilities running a customer service department; during my tenure as Director of Marketing; and, right up to the present. Presentations skills has been a key area of focus and training for everyone that I have managed, because it is so important for success.
So, if you were to ask me to what do I attribute my (modest) success as a presenter? I’d say I attribute half of my success to following the points above and half to keeping my body parts covered!