When I began my work life, I never anticipated that I would have to deliver presentations. In fact, I originally chose banking as a career partly because I thought it would enable me to comfortably indulge my introverted personality. I could crunch numbers all day without having to talk to too many people, and I definitely would never have to confront my greatest fear: having to stand and deliver a presentation to a room full of people.
Fortunately for me, my father, who came of age during WW2, was a great admirer of Winston Churchill and had always stressed the value of being able to speak. So, even though I was terrified at the prospect (or maybe because of it), I accepted a friend’s invitation to attend a Toastmasters meeting. What I learned there literally changed my life. I learned that fear could be overcome, and in fact could improve performance. I learned that speaking to many was as safe as speaking to one, and most of all I learned to enjoy the feeling of having an audience’s full attention, and the thought that my words could influence their thinking and even their behavior in some way.
Since I would come to work late on Friday mornings as a result of Toastmasters attendance, word got around that I could speak to groups, and I gradually got asked to do more and more presentations, both internally and to customers and the community. These opportunities in turn increased my visibility within the bank, to the point that it was perhaps a bit unfair that some of my peers who had the same banking skills and performance suffered by comparison.
Presenting and public speaking were never part of my job description, but the skill that I developed for personal reasons turned out to have a huge influence on my career trajectory. How did it help me, and what general lessons can be drawn from my own experience?
You are always presenting
Being an effective presenter is so valuable because in effect you’re always presenting, whether you know it or not. Do you ever speak up and offer an answer or opinion in a meeting? Do you have to answer a question in a job interview? You’re presenting, whether you know it or not. The audience may be smaller, and your style may be more casual, but you’re still presenting. You still have to hold a listener’s attention, express your ideas clearly, and you certainly want to be credible.
It’s like weight training for communications
Why do athletes train with weights? After all, there’s no sport I know of where you have to go out and bench-press an opponent. Yet most athletes benefit from weight training, even though only competitive weightlifters actually repeat the exact moves they use in the gym. The reason is that the concentrated work of weightlifting builds up strength that carries over into real-life moves. The concentrated work of presentations does the same thing for communications. The discipline of structuring your arguments, marshaling your evidence, choosing stories, analogies and visuals to make it more compelling, and anticipating questions helps in everyday communication.
Toastmasters has a great exercise called Table Topics, in which you’re given a topic or a question and have to speak extemporaneously for two minutes on it. I use a variation of this in my presentations training, and I prove to my skeptical students that they can quickly learn how to put together and deliver a coherent and compelling presentation on the fly—because of skills they have learned in presentations training. When they can do that for totally unexpected topics, imagine the confidence that provides for their ability to do it with topics they know well!
What “muscle groups” can you build up through presentations training?
Listener focus. Presentations teach you to think ahead about your audience so that you can tailor your communication to their needs. You learn that the best way to get what you want is to show the audience how they can get what they want. You get into their heads so that you can figure out the best way to make them understand, believe and act.
Thinking and organization. So much of effective communication is clearer thinking, and presentations force you to structure your thinking and arrange your ideas for clarity and understanding. They teach you how to figure out what’s important to your communication goal and strip out the rest. The discipline of planning your presentation also helps you identify—and close—gaps in your thinking, so that you learn not to damage your credibility with poorly thought-out proposals.
Confidence. The confidence boost you get from knowing that you can overcome your nerves (or, if you’re introverted, come out of your shell) carries over into individual conversations. As the song says, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
Thinking on your feet. Confidence also comes from knowing that you can respond intelligently to unexpected questions and challenges. Mathematics alone dictates that you will get more practice by speaking wholesale rather than retail. Plus, unless you’re totally clueless, presenting forces you to be keenly aware of and adapt to listeners’ reactions.
How do you join this gym?
Opportunities for working on your presentations muscle groups are everywhere. You can teach a course internally, or volunteer to speak to outside groups. If your company offers training, sign up for it and take it more than once. If not, read books on presentations (I happen to have a favorite). Join a local Toastmasters club; use this link to find one nearby, regardless of where in the world you live.
The important thing is to just go out and do it. If you’re finding excuses to put it off, that’s all the more reason you need it. I have to admit that I procrastinated at first. I had kept finding excuses when my friend invited me to TM meetings, until one day he challenged me: “If you don’t go this Friday, you’ll never go.”
When you have solid professional presentations training, you learn how to discipline your thinking to separate the essential from the irrelevant, and how to express it in a way that will capture your listeners’ attention and move them to action. It develops habits of mind and abilities that will take you a long way, regardless of your job description.