Presentation Tips from an Introvert

A recent post on Susan Cain’s introvert-focused Quiet Revolution page triggered some thoughts in me. It made me remember a couple episodes in my past where I’ve been in a public speaking situation and made something special happen. I certainly didn’t start being able to do that. I started my career as an engineer then got a job training people how to use engineering software. I don’t think I knew what I’d signed up for initially. It took quite a while to overcome nerves which built up from the moment I drove to the airport through the first day of class. I’m in my 40’s now and have been in enough dynamic situations that I know what I’m capable of coming through with. Let’s go back to those two memories though, because the successes have some lessons to pull from them.

The first was at an event my company was hosting for partners to tell them about our strategy. I mostly inherited my content from a previous event. It wasn’t the traditional endless stream of product slides you’d use for that. Rather, it was a “Zen” style which was primarily images with maybe a couple words and a lot of slides. I was to lead off this meeting for about ten minutes then pass it off to some colleagues for their sections. Then it was going to come back to me to do a late section. All in all, it was about a two hour meeting in an auditorium attended by 70 people including two layers of my management. The person in the article above mentioned the fear of anything going wrong – a bad microphone, the wrong slides… anything. As soon as I started the meeting and gave the welcome slide, the laptop and projector crashed hard. Murphy had come to play. Because I had a mental image of the slides and had practiced, I knew I’d be able to get through my content. However, the projector was an ongoing problem. Other sections simply had to have it.

I kept going back to my talk track and checking with my peripheral vision on my friends who were working on the setup. I’d see a boot-up screen and know that I had to add a few minutes. Then I’d notice display settings and know I’d need more. All while the screen was black and those 70 people were supposed to be looking at evocative images to help tie together what I was saying. That actually gave me more freedom to relax and say what I wanted to. When everything was fixed after about twenty minutes (it felt longer), I got a loud round of applause as I passed the ball to the next presenter. It went so well that when I came back on to close out the meeting, I deliberately pushed the button to black out the screen then feigned total dejection. The crowd laughed when I un-blanked it and my management didn’t actually have heart attacks. Practice may or may not make perfect, but knowing your stuff does give confidence when disaster hits.

The other time I thought of was an internal meeting. I was part of giving sales training to a large salesforce in a three-city roadshow. Each setting in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco had about 100 people in it and was being run by the vice president over the entire group. These were all people I worked with or might work with in the future. Plus, it was highly politicized and had an astounding amount of oversight. The Friday before the first session, which was New York, I went through a dry-run via WebEx. I was presenting to a room full of people who’d given a lot of input and kept packing my content with more and more slides. Somehow I’d managed to assimilate them together in a way I could flip through, but it was 70+ slides for an hour presentation. Knowing that most slides take a minute or more to go through, this was something of a crazy request. Doing a dry-run to a speakerphone and computer screen without seeing the reactions of management was a bit difficult too. It got strong reviews somehow and I was good. Or so I thought.

I had a meeting to go to in northern New York the day before the meeting. As I came out of the it, I got a call from the manager who was in charge of my section. I had to “Zen” my deck and replace tens of detailed product-centric slides with the sparse content from style I described above. On the train. Then go to the office do more dry runs live. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting asked to do an impossible task a certain way then being told that you’ve done a great job but need to redo the whole thing. The only blessing was the short runway giving me a lot more leeway than I had before. Enough that I while I was told to use golf as an analogy for sales, and I don’t golf, I could get away with imagery from Happy Gilmore and Caddyshack. That was a triumph in itself.

In short: I was finally able to own the presentation. There was one point where I was driving home who to sell to and flipped back and forth between a a picture of orange juice and an IT department. The juice symbolized our business buyer and my flipping back and forth between the two contrasted who we needed to talk to. It went so well that some people in the audience thought I’d staged multiple copies of the slides and rehearsed them.

Who's got the juice? You've got the juice!
Who’s got the juice? You’ve got the juice!
In the end, we’ve got a couple key lessons. Number one is that there’s no substitute for preparation and knowing your material. When the nightmare technology problem happens, you’ve got nothing to fall back on other than your mind and mouth. A whiteboard or paper are great depending on what you’re doing. If those are set and you know your story then you can make it. The other lesson is that having a comfortable format can’t be underrated. I know that the audience would have absorbed nothing from the rapid-fire auctioneer version of that New York presentation. Speaking for impact means less material which is refined and sticks. It’s easier to keep track of than a bunch of bulleted text for you and the audience. Did they know who they were supposed to call on to sell? If the projector died, would I have been able to tell them? You bet: It’s the folks with the juice.

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