How to Polish Your Presentations

If you want to communicate effectively before an audience, here's what you need to do: Practice, practice, practice

Failing to rehearse for your next presentation could lead to disaster -- losing an account, an opportunity, or your job. I've seen it happen.

I remember working with the vice-president of a private company who had to give a major presentation to investors. The chief executive confided to me that he was afraid that turning the vice-president loose on the investors could be a damaging decision. Frankly, at the start of our first session, I began to feel the CEO was right. The executive stumbled through the entire presentation, not knowing how to get going, where to look, or when to end. Another person in the organization told me that hundreds of employees were losing confidence in this VP.

We had to work fast to save his reputation, his job, and his company's future. Fortunately, it was an easy fix. Once he rehearsed his opening hook, knew exactly which point he needed to drive home with each slide, and sufficiently committed the bulk of the material to memory, the vice-president came off as a fine communicator.

In fact, one of the most gratifying points in my coaching career occurred when I returned to that company for a follow-up. A secretary rushed up to me to say that she now considered this vice-president a "real leader," whereas before our coaching sessions, she had her doubts about him. In this case, preparing and rehearsing literally saved a company and a career.

Master Your Material

Knocking presentations out of the ballpark requires that you're comfortable with the pitch. Rehearsal is the key. Glancing at notes two minutes before your presentation won't cut it. Rehearsing means walking through your presentation exactly as you would when you deliver it -- out loud.

There's a story about former Vice-President Al Gore, who prepared for a debate with Jack Kemp by asking that the temperature in the practice room match the temperature in the debate hall the next day. Now, you don't have to take rehearsal to that extreme, but it reinforces the fact that great communicators leave nothing to chance.

Cisco Systems (CSCO) CEO John Chambers certainly doesn't. His preparation is relentless. The night before a presentation, he reviews the slides and text. On the day of the presentation, he walks up on stage before the door opens, reviews the setup of the chairs, and asks to see the lighting. Then he leaves the stage to see the lighting from the audience's perspective, taking note of where the lights are in every section of the hall to ensure that he never walks outside of the lighted area!

Chambers wants the audience to see him and he wants to know how he looks when he's walking down aisle A or B. He clicks through every slide to see how the presentation flows. That's serious rehearsal.

Get Caught on Tape

Rehearsing with video should be an important part of your preparation. Video cameras are inexpensive and will make up for their cost many times over in the success you enjoy as a presenter. When I begin to work with clients, most have rarely, if ever, seen their presentations on video. But when they do, it's an eye-opener. Watching yourself is an easy way to get rid of visual or audible distractions, such as irritating gestures, bad posture, or annoying habits like using too many "ums" and "ahs" when you talk.

Videotape your presentation and watch it. Use an external, clip-on microphone instead of the microphone built into the camera. Your voice will sound louder, clearer, and more resonant, which will help to pick up on vocal weaknesses. If possible, find objective friends or colleagues who will give you honest feedback. When you watch the video, ask yourself:

• Does this person engage me? Do I want to hear more? Is he convincing? Genuine? Passionate?

• How's your energy level? You might feel as though you're enthusiastic about the topic, but the video doesn't lie -- it will show whether you look like you've just rolled out of bed on a Sunday morning, or if you're truly engaged, enthusiastic, and electrifying!

• Do you get to the point quickly, or do you tend to meander from thought to thought? Is your message clear or convoluted?

• What does your body language say? Do you exude strong, confident, and commanding body language? Are your arms crossed instead of open? Do you fidget, rock, or have other distracting body mannerisms? If so, the videotape will help you identify and eliminate bad habits.

• Do you use comfortable, animated, and natural hand gestures, or do you look stiff and wooden?

• Are there nonsense or filler words that you repeat all the time while you're thinking? For example, one client of mine would say "O.K.?" after virtually every sentence. He easily caught himself using the word on video and immediately ended the annoying habit.

• How do you look? Is your wardrobe disheveled or crisp? Do the colors you wear compliment your skin tone, or do you look washed out? Do you look a little better than the people in your audience?

I once had the opportunity to meet a CEO comic. Yes, you heard right. David Moore is chairman of a New York venture-capital firm. He's also a stand-up comic on Broadway. "Good stand-up is 50% material and 50% presentation," Moore told me. He believes that business information should be presented like a good play: well written, concise, interesting, and engaging.

Moore recommends that "performers" practice -- and then practice some more -- in front of a mirror or colleague. Treat important presentations as the act of a lifetime by rehearsing your message, content, and delivery. You'll stand a far greater chance of winning over your audience.

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