“One of the things I’ve been able to get my colleagues to agree to at work is a ‘dressed rehearsal day’ on the eve of any major meeting or conference we organize. Last year was the first year we implemented it, and it was eye opening (and a bit of a disaster) on the first go – a lot of ‘death by PPT’ and too little time to fix it. We’ve continued this dressed rehearsal habit over the course of the past year. Last week, in preparation for a major presentation in India, the dressed rehearsal went well and the 2-day meeting was phenomenal – engaging, interactive, well-rehearsed delivery.
When it comes to your high achieving students who take the time to form good presenting habits – let them know that once the grades have faded away, the true measure of success will be on the feedback they get when presenting in front of their boss or clients or other people who may reward them not with grades but rather riches and fame (or at least good job evaluations and increased opporutnities for high profile roles).”
Thanks for reading and for your AMAZING feedback, Brian! I will pass along your wise advice to my students.
Hearing someone say “I’m just going to wing it” sends me into a state of panic. Students who don’t prepare or practice for their presentation do not do well; there has never been “wing it” situation gone right.
Surprisingly, even in the high-stakes business world, few presenters truly invest the time they should to 1) preparing for their content/message, 2) designing effective, audience-centered slides, and 3) practicing their delivery/putting all three “legs” of the presentation ecosystem together. As Nancy Duarte explains in her book Slide:ology, an essential element of preparation includes feedback and constructive criticism. But how much time do we actually spend preparing? And why should we prepare when everyone else around us doesn’t prepare?
My students deliver presentations almost every single month that they attend school. That means they come to my class with a slew of bad habits that take time and effort to correct.
First, since their other instructors aren’t presentation experts, the bar is often set very low for these students. The students can “wing it” and make an “A” because the instructors haven’t studied, taught, lived, and breathed public speaking and presentation. Usually, if the content is there, and if all of the content is written out on the slides, the instructor feels the student did his or her job. Sadly, this perpetuates mediocre, selfish presenting as opposed to audience-centered presenting that will resonate.
Also, since the students who spend hours and hours on preparation earn the same grades as the students who “wing it,” my hard-working students become frustrated that their efforts don’t actually pay off in other classes. If a student is being graded on how well he or she can write a script out on a slideshow, turn around, and read those slides, why present in an effective way? If a boring, standard, death-by-PowerPoint earns an “A,” why bother presenting any other way?
Third, the students see terrible presentations every single day at school. Most students complain that their teachers bore them to tears using death-by-bulletpoint slides and the standard, sterile lecture format. Why should the students work hard to develop strong presentations when their own teachers don’t prepare themselves?
These are questions I am faced with each time I get a new batch of Professional Communication and Presentation students. And, ultimately, the students are faced with a choice. They can a) completely transform the way they communicate and speak to an audience or they can b) continue being mediocre.
Most people opt for mediocrity. Andrew Dlugan examines the public speaking bell curve in “Average Speakers Suck. Don’t Be Average.” Dlugan explains that, while it’s okay to be “average” on the bell curve of height or of golf-playing ability, if you are an average speaker, you suck.
So, yes, most speakers suck. Most presentations suck. Most people revel in their mediocrity and have no problem with their average-ness. Dlugan writes, “Why is the average speaker so bad? Like golf, most people in the world never receive any formal communications training, and they never pursue any informal training either. We all pay the price. Think of the last 50 presentations you have attended. How many kept you interested throughout? Ten? Five? Fewer than five?” (Source).
I explain to my students that if they want to, they can give into mediocrity. Being mediocre is so easy! After all, anyone can present an average speech. However, my students can also decide NOT to be mediocre. They can decide to work to become strong, powerful, effective presenters, and the first step to delivering a message that resonates is to focus on preparation.
How do you resist the constant tug of presentation mediocrity?
Students ask me this question quite often. The answer depends on how high the stakes are, doesn’t it? For me, the stakes are always high. Whether I’m developing a presentation for class, a workshop for fellow faculty, or a video for my volunteer organization, I spend a lot of time and effort preparing.
Let’s break down the presentation I most recently presented in a high-stakes environment. I presented a Faculty Development workshop in November called “The Introduction the Presentation Revolution.” I’ve spend about three years reading, studying, and learning the content of the presentation. If I haven’t put in a thousand hours on my content (my message) yet, I’m getting close. It took me two months to develop the slideshow, the visual presentation. I worked a little bit every day from August to November. For the entire month of November, I rehearsed and practiced my delivery. This may seem extreme because I am a perfectionist. Nancy Duarte’s more reasonable suggestion is putting in 36-90 hours of preparation time for a one-hour presentation (Source).
You don’t have time to prepare? Well, your audience doesn’t want you to waste their time. Time is valuable. Consider an audience of 25 people. Let’s say those people spend one hour listening to you speak. Including you, that’s 1560 minutes of life you and your audience will never, ever get back. Is it worth their while? Are you putting in 1560 minutes of preparation to ensure your audience’s 1560 minutes are worthwhile?
Keep in mind that there is a difference between preparation and practice. Preparation is about content. Practice is about delivery. Ethos3′s Scott Schwertly says we should practice at least 8 times (Source). I believe you must figure out the exact times for yourself, but these general figures from Nancy Duarte and Ethos3 go a long way to let you know how much time and effort the professionals put into their presentations.
Let’s get real. No one wants to work hard. Everyone wants the easy way out. The only people who will be strong presenters are the ones who go the extra mile because they know that’s what their audience needs, wants, and deserves.
Today during class, we dissected Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech with the help of Clarence Jones’ NPR interview. In the interview, Jones, one of Dr. King’s speechwriters, explains that during King’s “Dream” speech, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouts out for MLK to “tell them about the dream, Martin!” The course of the speech completely changes, and Dr. King pushes back his pre-written speech notes and gives the “I Have a Dream” portion of the speech extemporaneously from the top of his head.
What happens when you see that your audience isn’t connecting to your presentation? Would you be prepared enough to completely change the direction of your speech? Our tenth delivery lesson reminds us of the importance of being able to change the play.
Garr Reynolds wrote, “Calling an audible: The art of changing the play.” Reynolds reminds us, “Good presenters are like good quarterbacks: they are good at reading the situation live and making adjustments on the spot” (Source). But how can we make sure we can do this in a live, nerve-wracking presentation environment? And how can we best “read” our audience to determine if we need to make last-minute play changes?
The three tools to help you with changing the play include preparation, audience analysis, and pre-presentation mingling.
Preparation means knowing your speech content so well that you can focus on more important things when you are presenting: your delivery and your connection with your audience. Nancy Duarte suggests that a great presentation requires 36-90 hours of prep time. How long does it take you to feel truly prepared to give a speech? For me, it’s closer to 90 than 36 hours…
Preparation is an essential first step, but so is audience analysis. Some people (including some public speaking instructors I’ve worked with) believe that audience analysis is “easy” or “obvious.” That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Even seasoned presenters should take the time to analyze their audience.
Nancy Duarte created an exceptional tool for audience analysis: The Audience Needs Map. I believe this is an essential part of preparation that should be completed before you begin working on content. After all, how do you know what type of message to create if you haven’t taken the time to find out what your audience needs from that message?
Audience analysis is key on the day of the presentation, too. Before you speak, pre-presentation mingling (PPM) is important. Get a feel for your audience members’ personalities, needs, and wants. This allows you to determine their chronemics and see if you need to make any last-minute adjustments to speech content. If the crowd is filled with no-nonsense, super serious folk, your humor may fall flat with them. If the crowd is wired and buzzing, you may have to work to calm them down to focus on your message.
For example, on the first day of every new class, I greet each student with a warm smile, a “good morning,” and a handshake along with name introductions. This is essential PPM before the first day of a public speaking class because students are nervous. Trust me: no one goes into a public speaking class feeling confident and excited! PPM goes a long way to help ease the audience’s tension and make them feel a little better about the scary public speaking journey they’re about to take with me.
Preparation, audience analysis, and PPM blend together to help you change the play when your audience needs it most. Garr Reynolds compares the presenter to a quarterback and explains, “The QB uses ‘the facts’ before him to make adjustments, but sometimes the decision to ‘call an audible’ is based on a ‘gut feel’ for the situation. Some of the greatest plays ever have resulted from the QB calling an audible and changing the play” (Source). Consider MLK’s power play: he changed the entire course of his “Dream” speech based upon one audience member’s shouted request. Imagine what the “Dream” speech would have been like without King’s quick decision to speak from the heart. As presenters, we must learn how to read our audience more effectively so we can best connect with them in every single speech we deliver.
Have you ever “changed the play” in the middle of a presentation? How did you know your original speech content wasn’t going to work? What did you decide to do instead?