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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Presentation Paradox

Stage fright is one of the most common fears experienced by people. A fear that is mostly fueled by your own striving for perfection. Now there’s, of course, nothing wrong with striving for a superb presentation that will convince, motivate, inform, or inspire your audience, as long as you realize you can’t control everything all the time. As longs as you realize that your striving for perfection could turn into a self-imposed straight jacket, leaving you little room for flexibly responding to whatever occurs, whether it be an unexpected power outage, unanticipated responses from your audience, or any other unforeseen situation.

You might be selling a new business concept, managing a change project, leading a steering meeting on a high-profile project, or presenting the company’s facts and figures. Whatever the specifics of your presentation or your audience, there is likely to be tension between wanting to appear totally in control and on top of things and wanting to appear natural, personable, and connected to your audience.

Uncertainty is still being called the monster in any business and any endeavor, not just when referring to the financial market or consumer confidence. But varying levels of uncertainty are a fact of life no matter where you are and what you do. Obviously, the advice of a well-prepared and practiced presentation still stands, as it always has. It increases predictability and rules out much unnecessary uncertainty, but here is where the paradox comes into play: You want to do all you can to perform at your very best, but in order to do so, you also have to show yourself human, vulnerable, and fallible. When the unexpected happens you are generally best off to let go of the original plan, sheet, or statement and respond from the heart, right there and then, connecting and moving with that which appears. That is not to say that you throw your presentation out the window and disregard your preparation. It merely implies that you are capable and willing to side step as much as is needed to keep the connection, credibility, and the atmosphere moving in the right direction, and thereby to keep working towards your objectives of informing, convincing, inspiring, or motivating.  

For most topics and audiences, the more you dare to show yourself, the more you will touch people and leave a lasting impression. Presenting from your heart, whether it concerns facts and figures or not, makes your presentation warm and personable. Presenting from the heart and with passion, as opposed to presenting as a perfect robot, makes your presentation feel more familiar, close to home, and trustworthy. To accomplish this type of presenting, I advise you to:

o   Speak from the heart and use language that is geared towards your specific audience. Stand with and in front of your audience, not above them.

o   Use slides the way they were meant: as a supportive tool rather than the one and only focus of your presentation.

o   Remember that your relationship with your audience is more important than a perfect presentation, if that were feasible at all. People rather feel true contact than being overloaded with facts and knowledge and seeing someone perform who resembles a machine more than a human being.

o   Be true, truthful, and congruent, which instills confidence and respect. Your credibility increases if you dare to show yourself in full, including possible mistakes and limitations.

o   Use humor to deal with small and bigger glitches. It releases some of your possible tension and is welcomed by most people.

o   Realize that nothing beats real emotions and true life stories. Research has repeatedly shown that emotions are very powerful in helping people retain information and in convincing them.

o   Strengthen certain presentation skills and simultaneously stay close enough to your natural style so as to remain personable and authentic - the last paradox I’d like to bring to your attention. Just as is the case with physical exercise, stretching is fine, forcing is not – it’s counter-productive and causes damage. If something is not you, then don’t force or fake it. Some of my best presentation performances where the ones where I was true to myself and where I shared my beliefs and passion. Which presentations do you recall as leaving a lasting impression? 

And to top it all off, much is in your mind. “If you think you will deliver a poor presentation the odds are you will.” is a statement by Arnold Sanow that I agree with. It reminds me of Henry Ford’s famous statement: “Whether you believe you can, or you can’t, either way you’re right” which emphasizes the power of beliefs. Your beliefs and your thinking greatly influence your choices and the results you create. For an interesting article on presenting by Sanow, certified speaking professional, trainer, facilitator, and coach, see: http://www.leadersbeacon.com/12-most-common-mistakes-presenters-make/

As so many things in life, presenting has paradoxical aspects that invite you to walk a fine line, use common sense, and be real.

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