Stories, anecdotes, and diversions

by Peter Watts

Anecdotes, stories, and diversions bring a presentation to life.

When we add something personal to a presentation, it is a gift from ourselves to the audience. It paints colour into our words, sharing our passion for the subject.

The secret is to not leave the anecdote to chance. Plan it carefully. Know at what point you are going to introduce it, and most importantly, ensure you know how to link back into the presentation afterwards.

This week I have had the privilege of working in Istanbul, and the even greater privilege of having a small portion of leisure time. During that day off, I found myself walking down one of the city’s principal streets.

All the usual suspects were there. Well known designer brands sat beside Starbucks outlets. Recognition of familiar branding gave me a feeling of being somewhere I knew. Rather like the main theme of a presentation it was easy to navigate.

Numerous smaller streets sat between the western chains. I took a diversion, and headed down one.

Familiar stores were replaced by street markets. The area around me had come to life. THIS was Istanbul. Like a good story or anecdote, my diversion bought me not just the colors of Istanbul, but it’s sounds, and smells, and textures, and tastes. All the senses engaged at once in a full memory locking experience.

I so much enjoyed my diversion, that I wandered further, following the twists and turns. My initial experience so pleasant that I was encouraged to wander deeper.

When we tell a story, the audience sits forward. Interest peeks. We are encouraged to keep going.

Before long, I became aware that the streets were becoming distinctly narrower and more neglected. Time to go back. The problem was that as I traced what I thought was my route back to the street, I realized that I was going in circles. I had passed the same fabric store three times. The store keeper was starting to recognize me. Hopelessly “lost tourist” had to be scrawled all over me.

If we haven’t planned a story thoroughly, before we know it, the walls can start closing in, and we struggle to find our way back to the main theme in a way that the audience start to recognize as a “lost presenter”!

I made it back to that main thoroughfare, and resumed my walk. But I was so disoriented by this point that I started walking in the wrong direction, and five minutes later found myself back-tracking in the heat over places I had already been.

If we become lost in an anecdote, we are so relieved to rejoin our main thread that we then become lost all over again.

My detour into the backstreets of Istanbul was the most memorable part of my day, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. In just the same way, a well placed story will be the most memorable part of your presentation.

For it to be a success though, make sure that you know how far into it you want to go, and have a clear idea of how to find your way back out.

Time waits for no man, and in controlling presentation timings, neither should you!

by Peter Watts

Presenting involves a contract between audience and presenter, and clearly stated starting and ending times are a key part of that contract. Compliance with these requirements is an important indicator of the health of that contract and the respect that both sides have for each other.

Start on Time

As presenter you control the room. You are going to be that group’s leader for however long you keep the stage. As with all groups, there is an initial period of gentle testing where the group explores the behavioral boundaries around them. “How firm is the leader going to be?” “Do they stick to their promises?” “Who is in charge?”

Although frequently sub-conscious, these questions are all hanging around the room, and there is no truer way of testing out the answers than by testing the area of time! If members of the audience are late, and you wait for them, then you allow power to transfer from yourself, to them. If you stick to your guns however and start regardless, then you retain the power balance for yourself, and late-comers become merely that; late!

Courtesy

If you hold up proceedings till all the laggards have assembled then the individuals who did extend you the courtesy of an on-time arrival rapidly learn that there is no reward for being on schedule. Your priority is to those who were on time. Don’t keep them waiting for others.

Finish on time

As important as starting on time, is finishing on time. While the start time is all about the audience extending courtesy to the presenter, it is by respecting the stated finish time that the presenter repays that respect. If the presentation is to last 30 minutes, then keep it to 30 minutes! Presenters who over-run are rewarded with seat-shuffling and increasingly exaggerated watch-checking.

What about the VIP?

I started out this blog by talking about power, and how within the presentation environment you are the leader. Where does this leave VIP members of the audience and what to do if it’s the head-honcho who is the tardy one?

The subject of the power dynamic between presenters and VIP’s would take up a whole extra blog, so I will restrict this point purely to the area of time-keeping.

If you are presenting, and you know that there is an especially important person in the room who must be there to hear what you have to say, then it would be foolish to start without them. The mere fact that someone in authority is abusing that position by being late rather than setting a positive example by being on time already indicates that they have a powerful sense of ego, so it would be a mistake to deliberately attempt to deflate that ego, tempting as it might be.

There is however, a half-way house that will allow you to start on time, while still waiting for the late VIP. The technique is to start a discussion with your audience while you are waiting so that the awkward gap becomes productively filled.

  • Welcome your audience as you would normally, thanking them for attending, and briefly outlining the presentation agenda and objectives.
  • State that you are going to wait a few more moments for Mr or Ms X to arrive, and then immediately tell the audience that in order to use this time productively, you would like to go around the table and find something out from them.
  • Use the ensuing discussion time to find out something relevant to your presentation. You have full control of what this subject will be; It could be their past experience with a product or process, their key objectives for the presentation, or their opinions about key challenges and opportunities faced.
  • Select a subject area that supports the thrust of your presentation, and avoid contentious areas that might detract from your message.
  • As you facilitate the discussion, capture key points onto a flip-chart so that they then remain visible for the rest of the session.

When the late VIP does then arrive, you can welcome them cordially, gently close down the discussion, and move into the planned body of your presentation. What has happened though is that you are now starting from a position of vastly increased strength. By being late, the VIP has given you the chance to work the room and develop a rapport with their team. You now have comments and people that you can refer back to for support as you present.

Above all, you kept control of the process, and without inflaming anyone’s egos, remained in charge of the room!


Presentation structure: Handling the questions at the end

by Peter Watts

The most valuable thing that you can know when asked a question is frequently not so much the answer, but why the person is asking the question in the first place:

 

Interest

Your presentation has provided just enough information to hook the audience’s attention and now they want to know more!

 

Gratitude

The audience enjoyed your presentation, and liked the way you put forward your ideas. They are now showing polite appreciation by putting a couple of final questions to you.

 

Security

The audience has been tempted by your message, and is looking for further reassurance before they move to the next stage with you.

 

Misunderstanding

Something you said in your presentation didn’t quite make sense or has been misunderstood. The audience is therefore giving you the opportunity to clarify.

 

Vested interest

Someone in the audience has a vested interest in discrediting your message. Their hostile questioning is their attempt to do so, while at the same time betraying their hostility both to you and to their colleagues.

 

When taking questions at the end of a presentation, it’s important to keep in mind two things:

 

There are several reasons why someone might be asking you a question. It’s important to understand that reason and then handle the question accordingly.

 

There is no rule that says you are the oracle-of-all-wisdom. It is 100% acceptable to say to someone, “That is a great question and I’ll need to check with a colleague to make sure I bring you the correct answer.”

 

Here is the basic process for handling questions:

 

Maintain open body language

It is easy for us to slip into a defensive body posture when being questioned. This sets the questioner up for confrontation even when the question itself is completely innocent. Make sure you do not fold your arms or place your hands on your hips while taking a question.

 

Listen carefully

While someone is putting a question to you, concentrate on listening to their every word. Remember that there may be any one of several motivations behind the question and unless you listen carefully, it will be difficult to identify exactly what information your interrogator is seeking.

 

Check your understanding

Repeat the question back, gently re-phrasing it a little, and ask the questioner to confirm that you have correctly understood them. If you yourself did not understand any part of the question then ask them to tell you a little more before you answer. You would be surprised at how often this exercise prevents some major misunderstandings.

 

Answer honestly

If you can answer the question, then go right ahead! If however you are unsure, then be upfront about this and say that you will need to check with a colleague.

Not only does this boost the audience’s perception of your integrity as a speaker, it also creates a valuable follow-up opportunity for after your presentation!


Presentation structure: Concluding your presentation

by Peter Watts

Congratulations! You’ve navigated the majority of your presentation. You’ve delivered a clear introduction, and guided your audience through the evidence that backs up your arguments. Now it’s time to wrap-up the show with your conclusion.

The conclusion of your presentation is the section that the audience will remember the most clearly, for the simple reason that it will have been the last thing they heard. It’s also most probably the last thing you will have planned and rehearsed, and for that reason conclusions can often be surprisingly weak. Presenters can often be observed to deliver strong presentations that suddenly come to an abrupt halt! This type of conclusion is known as an “Emergency Stop”, when the presenter, realizing that they have said all they intended to say, flounders for a moment before uttering a simple “Thank you for your time”, and awkwardly leaves the stage.

As an observer it can be amusing to watch the audience at such moments. Many literally jump in their seats, exactly as if they had indeed, been passengers in a plane that has just made a bone shaking landing after an otherwise smooth flight!

Think of the stages involved in an aircraft coming in to land. First of all the passengers are instructed to put on their seat belts and prepare for landing. The crew walks the aisles checking everyone is strapped in and all lose items secured before the captain guides the plane down to a, hopefully, smooth connection with the ground. Finally, as the passengers depart, the last thing they hear  is “Thank you for choosing this airline, and we hope to see you again soon.”

If you keep this model in mind, then you will have all the stages necessary for your conclusion:

Prepare for landing

As you start your conclusion, state firmly that this is what you are doing. The conclusion is a vital part of the presentation, so make sure everyone is primed, listening, and has their seat in the upright position.

Land the plane

You want to make sure that the wheels on which your argument rest will connect firmly with the ground. To ensure those wheels are down and locked into position, re-state the key points in your argument, summing them up in the sequence that they were delivered, and linking them back to your key message.

Thank the passengers

It’s essential to thank the audience for their time, and to tell them what you hope will happen next. What is your objective for this presentation? What realistic action do you want the audience to take next? Is it to book a follow-up meeting, or visit a web-site, or to start a business review process? Whatever your goal, state it as a call-to-action as your final words.

Before the audience does depart however, it is very possible that they may have questions for you. The subject of how to handle those questions will comprise our final installment on presentation structure, next week.

Coaching yourself after a presentation

by Peter Watts

When I train presenters, I sometimes start by offering each participant a whip and a five minute break; if anyone’s in the mood they can pop outside and give themselves a good thrashing. “Go ahead, have fun!”

Of course, participants greet this suggestion as ludicrous. So why then do so many of us insist on giving ourselves the most monumental thrashing after every presentation?

I messed that up” <Thwack>

I did it all wrong” <Thwack>

It was dreadful, I did nothing right” <Thwack, Thwack, Thwack>

While it’s important post-presentation, to reflect on how we can improve our skills, many of us undertake this with a harsh, cruel judgement.

As you finish one presentation, you mentally set yourself up for the next. Reflect on what you did well, and you build confidence; internalize failure and you build a barrier against ever presenting again.

Professional coaching helps you to focus on success, followed by reflection on areas for improvement. The coach’s role is to encourage you forward by ensuring improvement points are noted while confidence is built.

Often though, professional coaching isn’t available post-presentation. No-one offers feedback except ourselves, through the filter of our own judgement, which is a severe critic; “I botched that up, I messed up this, I should have done that….”

What gets neglected is “What did I do well? What am I proud of?”

Have the discipline after each presentation to reflect on what was GREAT! Be generous to yourself and focus on what you are proud of. You made an investment of time, energy, and courage to stand up and make that presentation. Now give yourself return on investment. It’s not only fair, it’s essential!

For more ideas on how to control presentation nerves, try the following Presenters’s Blog posts:

Pace, precision, and practice

by Peter Watts

Astro frowned. “What’s a time and speed trap?”

“Usually begins with a single step,” West said. “Your first step sets off the trap. Then you have to get in and out before the trap completes its sequence. You need accuracy and speed to get through it. I imagine that as soon as one of us steps on the first stepping-stone, the sequence is set.” 

Matthew Reilly

“The Six Sacred Stones”

A team of treasure hunters face a death maze of trap-activating stepping stones. There is no turning back. All die if but one of them places a foot wrong. What’s more, it’s against the clock; take too long, and those traps activate anyway. Their leader, Jack West, observes “You need accuracy and speed to get through it”.

Standing at the edge of a presentation we have an advantage denied to West and his team – we can practice our moves before we enter. As my colleague Gareth Williams comments in his response to “Puncturing Perfectionism”, pre-presentation practice is an essential.

The secret to successful presentation rehearsal is to run through your presentation out loud, from beginning to end, pausing only to note down the things that work well, and the things that don’t!

In the real world, when something doesn’t work during a presentation delivery, you can’t stop and make repairs mid-journey. You have to keep going. The same discipline is applied to practice sessions. Note down where it was that the road became pot-holed, and then exactly as if the dry-run were a real presentation, keep going!

  • By continuing to your conclusion before making corrections you see the presentation in the big picture and solutions appear naturally

  • You ensure equal practice time is dedicated to the whole presentation and you don’t become bogged down in one section

  • By not over-focussing on one spot, you avoid your wheel digging down into the presentation mud, to leave you frustrated and struck

Run through the presentation twice; once to correct and once to validate the corrections. The more important the presentation, the more times you might want to rehearse it, but do avoid falling into the trap of perfectionism.

Confident presenters show precision and pace

and precision and pace show practice.

Keep It Brief

by Peter Watts

A quote widely associated with the actor James Dean can be taken as interesting, if unusual, advice for presenters:

James Dean

 “Die young and leave a great looking corpse!”

This translates for presenters as:

“Finish early and leave a great closing impact.”

As presenters we hope to make a message-shaped impression in the mind of an audience rather than James Dean’s Porsche-shaped impression in the side of a road, but the fundamental idea is the same; quit while you’re ahead!

I recently heard a presenter who held my attention from the moment he stood up. He showed confidence, clarity, and control over his subject. It was great public speaking; Easy to listen to, informative, and much sooner than I expected, over!

The speaker had concluded, point proved and argument summarized. The audience meanwhile would have happily listened a little longer.

This presenter had communicated his point, and then finished. Job done.

 Sometimes excellent speakers seize defeat from the jaws of victory by going on too long. They get off to a great start with the audience firmly alongside. Over time though, the audience drift away as the topic becomes sluggish with information unnecessary or even irrelevant to the purpose.

Only if you are being paid to speak for a specific time period, is quantity ever a valid measurement. It’s all about quality, and these two characteristics, quantity and quality, have an inverse relationship. The more one goes up, the more the other goes down.

 As you plan your next presentation, challenge yourself to reduce quantity by 20% and make that into an ongoing discipline. Look for things that can be taken out so your key message comes through with clarity and strength.

The way to surprise and please the audience is not only with the brilliance of your presentation. You can also delight them with it’s brevity.

 Finish early, leave an impact. Less is most definitely more.

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