Sometimes a lifetime of achievement can be decisively affected by your performance during several crucial minutes.
Twenty-one people spoke at the Democratic National Convention in Boston on July 27, 2004, including such well-known names as Edward Kennedy and Jesse Jackson. One speaker was a virtually unknown candidate for the Senate in Illinois, and his performance that night radically changed the trajectory of his career. Barack Obama seized his moment to stand out above the crowd and used it as a springboard to the most powerful job in the world.
We can’t all be President, but we all have leadership moments during our careers—moments that can propel us to greater heights if we take advantage of them. Every time you make a presentation to an audience of high-level decision makers, whether it’s a sales presentation to an important prospect, or trying to sell a proposal to your own senior management, you are auditioning for a leadership role. In his book Jacked Up, Bill Lane, Jack Welch’s speechwriter at GE, shares numerous stories of executives who stepped on the fast track by catching Welch’s eye because of a presentation they gave, and a few others who virtually disappeared for the same reason!
When I look back at my own career, I can truthfully say that just a few hours out of 30 years have had a hugely disproportional impact on any success I have achieved. One was a speech to the officers of the bank where I worked, and another was a presentation to decision makers in Auckland, New Zealand.
Top level presentations are high stakes indeed. That’s why I am so passionate about not leaving it to chance. There’s a lot of work involved in getting it just right, but I’m going to try to make it Awesomely Simple and share three powerful guidelines for success that I’ve learned from personal experience and from watching hundreds of presentations. They are: be clear about your message, be yourself, and prepare.
First, be absolutely clear about what you want to say. I recommend getting your presentation down to a 30 second elevator pitch before you try to write the whole thing. As a Roman philosopher said, “Find the message and the words will follow.” If you can do this, you will help yourself and your audience. Research has shown that three days after a ten-minute presentation, the listener only remembers 10% of what you said. Which 10% will they remember? Why leave it to chance?
High level decision makers value their time and they also respect conviction and confidence—what they don’t like is someone who rambles and is not willing to take responsibility for the decision they want made. They also have a lot competing for their attention; mushy messages are quickly forgotten.
In any persuasive presentation (and what other kind is there, really?), you can get your message down to 30 seconds by filling in the blanks of the following sentence:
“You should do ______because _____.”
That’s it—very simple, but not necessarily easy. I usually start with the second blank line first, because that puts me into the audience’s world and helps me see things from their point of view: their needs, problems, and opportunities.
Second, be yourself. I’ve seen people who are dynamic and articulate in front of one or two people morph either into stuttering idiots or pompous windbags because they forget that they are still having a conversation with people. Your audience comes to hear you speak for a reason, so they can gauge the person behind the idea. They want to look into your eyes and get a sense of who you are and why they should believe you. If that were not the case, they could just read your slide presentation and save you the trip. Don’t be afraid to inject your personality into the talk with interesting—but relevant—stories and examples, and plain English.
Speaking of slides, never forget that you are the most important visual aid in the room. You should spend far more time on your ideas and how you come across than on picking the right font or the cool animations. You should be able to give your presentation even if the projector blows up just before you open your mouth.
Finally, prepare, prepare, and then prepare some more. You owe it to your audience and to yourself to be at your best. It’s tough to find the time out of your day job, to prepare and to practice, so it’s tempting to cut corners. A very few people can “wing it” and pull off a great presentation, but they are very rare and usually have years of experience behind them. It’s hard to find a better presenter in business today than Steve Jobs, and he spends weeks preparing for each of his big speeches. Winston Churchill used to joke that he spent hours preparing his impromptu speeches.
Prepare by knowing your topic as thoroughly as possible. There’s a fable of the hedgehog and the fox in which the hedgehog does one thing very well, and the fox can do a lot of things adequately. Most speakers prepare like hedgehogs by knowing their material in depth, but for high-level audiences, you also have to be a bit of a fox. Know the strategic reasons for your proposal, know how it affects all the stakeholders, and make sure you spend time thinking of alternatives. That’s how leaders think, and that’s how you want to come across.
Be clear, be yourself, and be prepared. When your leadership moment comes, will you be ready?
P.S. This article first appeared May 20, 2010 on John Spence’s blog: http://blog.johnspence.com/