Don’t Let Bad Presentation Skills Destroy Your Career
Editor’s Note: This was the feature article in this month’s TechCom Manager newsletter, reprinted here with permission. Click the previous link to subscribe to the newsletter.
by Kerri Barber
For years we have complained about having to sit through boring meetings full of inept presenters with their nicely prepared slide presentations, where meaningful information is buried in copious amounts of text. We’ve rolled our eyes, entertained ourselves with Meeting Bingo, and even took bets on who would fall asleep during staff meetings. We were not really listening anyway. How could we when the presenter made it nearly impossible to do so? For all our angst, we have often been just as guilty as those horrible presenters we are so loathe to endure.
Any repentant presenters can find thousands of good resources to help improve their skills and help them craft award-winning slides. Still, the problem persists and is even becoming ubiquitous in every company and across every industry. Why do we continue to torture ourselves and others? The problem may be simpler than you think. The two deadliest communication killers for presenters are Fear and Apathy.
Fear Cripples Careers
Fear can cause a person to do some very strange things, like unintentionally waste an audience’s precious time and attention. Almost everyone is fearful of public speaking to some degree, and the allure of a tool that helps alleviate the burden is just too powerful for some. PowerPoint achieves a dubious objective for the fearful presenter by becoming a digital crutch.
Seth Godin, author of the article “Really Bad PowerPoint” and the companion book, “A Big Red Fez,” believes that slide presentations should never be used as a teleprompter. So you can ask yourself: “Did your audience really have to come all this way to a meeting to listen to you read the slides? Why not just send them over?” Indeed, that would be a far more humane way to treat an audience seeking your valuable information.
If fear is motivating your intentions, then address the problem immediately. Realize that you are being asked to speak because you are an expert and what you have to say adds value. If you are a manager presenting at a staff meeting or a subject matter expert presenting quarterly earnings to the board of directors, your objective is clear: be concise and be credible. Simply reading your slides does lasting harm to your reputation. Even worse, you can make your audience angry and resentful. That damaging effect far outweighs the effort it takes to address a fear of public speaking.
If the dreaded “Reply All” email disaster is a train wreck for your career, then consider bad presentation skills a malignant cancer. Your reputation becomes eroded and colleagues will eventually harbor animosity toward you that perhaps even they can’t define, but it will be there. If you are a manager, the problem is far more damaging to your leadership capabilities, and the respect from your subordinates will suffer.
Fortunately, there is hope if you are ready to admit you have a problem. In almost every city there are valuable resources available to help people with mild to severe phobias related to public speaking. There are social groups like Toast Masters that help people overcome their fear while honing their presentation skills in a nonjudgmental environment, If you prefer a more personalized approach, seek a coach who specializes in this area and ask for a consultation. If your fear is so significant or even paralyzing, you may need a qualified, patient counselor who can help you regain your confidence and control.
Fear of public speaking need not limit your leadership abilities and career prospects. This is an area you can correct, allowing you to shine not only as a presenter, but also as an expert with a high perceived value in your organization.
An Indifference to Apathy
It’s already well past quitting time and you’ve spent nearly your entire day in meetings and you’re preparing to spend most of your evening reviewing financial data. The last thing you need to worry about is the presentation you are giving tomorrow. A hectic schedule and increasing demands are enough to make anyone significantly apathetic to their own presentation materials and really, who has the time? You do, if you want it.
There are very few people who relish the idea of doing something boring, unpleasant, and sometimes even painful. These people are called Saints. Chances are, most of us don’t fit in that category. Instead of doing something you find to be a chore, do something fun and enjoyable. Do the impossible and change your world — one presentation at a time.
The best presentations are those that are well thought out, compelling, and have as few lines of text as possible — perhaps even no text at all. That’s right. NO TEXT! The idea is to have your audience sitting comfortably and totally focused on you and what you have to say. Why distract them with text and illegible charts? Instead, use your slides to help tell your story and really sell your idea in a creative way. This is sounding better already, isn’t it?
Seth Godin provides this example in his article to help illustrate the point, “Talking about pollution in Houston? Instead of giving me four bullet points of EPA data, why not show me a photo of a bunch of dead birds, some smog and even a diseased lung? Amazingly, it’s more fun than doing it the old way. But it’s effective communication.”
Imagine you are the director for a short film and you are using your slides to help set the tone. Use PowerPoint’s notes section to provide your talking points while your audience receives the emotional charge of the unexpected from the imagery you present. You provide the commentary to support your message while the slides aid in the meaning. You are already the expert on your subject matter and the audience is relying on you –- not your slides — to communicate the pertinent information. It’s a perfect combination of imagery and expertise that will save you time and add far more impact than you could have ever achieved doing things the same old way.
Presentation guru, Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, agrees and writes in his blog, Five Rules for Better Presentations, “I often think the presenter would be more compelling if he would ditch the presentation software and just speak. Because of this, I’ve even thought of outlawing presentation software in our company.” Can you imagine what your company would be like without PowerPoint? Would a ban on such tools cripple you or liberate you? Why wait when you can take charge now while freeing up much of your time in the process?
Becoming a great presenter is achievable for anyone with the desire to change the way they relate to others. Honing this skill can open doors for innumerable opportunities and help instill a sense of confidence that can affect many other areas of your life. Why sit back wallowing in fear and apathy when you have the power to change who you are and the things you look at every day? The saying goes, “Dance like no one is watching”, so speak like everyone wants to listen. The reality is, they really do if you will only let them.
About the Author
Kerri Barber is the VP of Marketing Communications for WriteData Services, LLC and an award-winning Public Relations/Corporate Communications professional and published author. Her diverse background includes expertise in corporate media, corporate citizenship, and development of brand recognition strategies. Her work has helped thousands around the globe in over 130 countries do business faster and with confidence. She specializes in leadership development and communicating for diverse audiences, as well as electronic communication delivery spanning the digital spectrum.
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