And then . . . your mind wanders for a brief moment.
It was just a moment. But it was enough to sabotage you.
Your thoughts grind to a halt and you can’t remember what to say. Words fail you.
You have lost the proverbial “train of thought” and you’re on the cusp of a presentation meltdown.
What do You do?
Blank-Mind attacks all of us at one point or another during our business presentation career.
In fact, it happens so often that it might do us some good to think ahead to how we should react to this common presentation malady.
Too often, it leads to a presentation meltdown. But it doesn’t have to.
Presenters have developed trade tricks to help us past the rough spots. Here is one stopgap solution to get you over the speedbump of lost train of thought.
When you lose your train of thought, don’t panic or you’ll spiral quickly into a presentation meltdown.
Instead, your first reaction should be a calm academic assessment of the situation – you know what’s happened, and you already know what your first action will be. You’ve prepared for this.
Dodge Presentation Meltdown with This
Flood the room with silence.
Look slightly upward and raise your right hand to your chin, holding your hand in a semi-fist with chin perched and resting on your index finger and thumb – perhaps with your index finger curled comfortably around your chin. You know the posture.
Put your left hand on your hip. Furrow your brow as if deep in thought, which you are.
Now, while looking steadily at the floor or slightly upward at the ceiling, walk slowly in a diagonal approximately four, maybe five steps and stop, feet shoulder-width apart.
Now, assume your basic ready position and look up at your audience.
Your Bought Time
You have just purchased a good 10 seconds to regain your composure, to regain your thought pattern. Time enough to cobble together your next few sentences.
But if this brief respite was not enough to reset yourself, then shift to the default statement.
What do I mean “default statement?”
This is a rescue phrase that you craft beforehand to get you back into your speaking groove. It consists of something like this: “Let me recapitulate our three points – liberté, égalité, fraternité.”
Other phrases might be: “Now is probably a good time to look again at our main themes . . .” or “We can see again that the issue boils down to the three crucial points that I began with . . .”
And then, you simply begin ticking off your three or four main points of your presentation. In doing so, you trigger thought processes that put you back onto the correct path.
Think of this method as levering a derailed train back onto the track.
If you have prepared as you should, Blank-Mind should be no more than a small bump in the road for you, a minor nuisance with minimal damage. If you panic, however, it can balloon into something monstrous.
Remember the rescue techniques: Chin-scratch and Default Statement.
You can control the damage by utilizing the Chin-scratch, which buys you time to reassert yourself. Failing that, the Default Statement can bail you out by taking you back over familiar material you’ve just covered.
If none of the above works, however, you can still stop yourself from going into total presentation meltdown by using the two rescue words I preach to all my students . . .
For sake of descriptive simplicity, let’s call these two groups “Natural Born” and “Ain’t it easy!”
“Natural Born” and “Ain’t it Easy” represent two extreme views of what it takes to become an especially powerful and superior business presenter.
Neither view is remotely accurate, and none of their adherents want to enter the Business Presentation Power Zone – the province of powerful, capable presenters.
And neither group is enlightened in these matters. Members of both groups are frustrating and irritating in their own ways and completely self-serving. Here is why . . .
We often look for folks to excuse us from what, deep down, we know we ought to do, or what we can do. And if we look hard enough, we find what we search for, and excuses are extremely easy to find. Let’s look at these two excuses that hold us back from fulfilling our potential as especially powerful presenters.
The First View
The first view would have us believe that great speakers are born with some arcane and unfathomable gift, combining talent and natural stage facility. That Bill Clinton sprang from the womb declaiming that he feels our pain. That Ronald Reagan was born orating on lower capital gains taxes.
That Oprah Winfrey began her talk show career in kindergarten and demonstrated business presentation power from age five.
If the first view holds that great speakers are born with a gift, then quite logically this view leaves the rest of us to strive with middling presentation skills.
It’s an excuse for us not to persevere. Why bother to try? Why not, instead, hire some of these natural born speaker types to do the heavy presentation lifting?
The rest of us can skate along and pretend that we’re not actually lazy . . . or frightened . . . or disinterested . . . or unambitious.
The Second View
The second view is the opposite of the first. This “Ain’t it Easy” perspective would have us believe that delivering effective presentations is a snap. So easy, in fact, that one of my colleagues assured me confidently and with not a little hubris that he could teach his undergraduates “everything they need to know about presenting in 30 minutes.”
He also assured me that “all that other stuff you talk about is B.S.”
Has the presentation landscape changed so much that what was once thought a fine skill is now mass-produced in 30-minute quickie sessions?
In the 1800s, public speaking was refined to an almost-art; “elocution” was the new science/art, and departments of elocution and public speaking flourished in universities throughout the land. In Philadelphia, on Walnut Street in fact, the National School for Elocution and Oratory became a Mecca for would-be stars of the pulpit, the stage, the bar, and the political wars in the 1890s.
On into the first decades of next century, public speech was regarded with respect and a high-skill to be mastered with much study and practice.
The fact is that despite however much we might wish otherwise, today’s PowerPoint high-tech software multi-media offerings cannot change the fundamental truth. The truth is that it is still you who must deliver the presentation.
So no . . . you cannot learn “everything you need to know about presenting in 30 minutes” unless you want to ply presenting as a member of the lowest common denominator of mundane slide-readers who populate every business and law firm from New York to Nashville, from Boston to Baton Rouge, from Savannah to San Diego.
Ask yourself . . . if learning to deliver top-notch presentations with business presentation power is so doggoned easy, then why are 9 out of 10 presentations such awful forgettable bore-fests?
The Third View – The Business Presentation Power Zone
There is a third group, and it is destined to remain small.
This group is privy to the truth. Once you learn this truth about presenting, you can never go back to viewing presentations the same way. You are destined for the Business Presentation Power Zone.
Consider this pop culture analogy from the 1999 film The Matrix.
In The Matrix, humans live in a world that is not what it seems. In fact, everything they believe about the world is false. Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburn) offers to reveal the truth to Neo (Keanu Reeves) about his existence. Morpheus offers Neo a Blue Pill and a Red Pill.
The Blue Pill returns him to his old state of ignorance. The Red Pill reveals the secret, and once he learns it, Neo cannot return to his old life.
The process of presentation discovery is much like the red-pill/blue-pill choice that Morpheus offers to the young computer hacker Neo . . .
You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Likewise, you can stop reading this article this instant – the blue pill – and return to the righteous and relaxing world of “Natural Born” or “Ain’t it easy!” Both viewpoints allow the average presenter to remain mired in mediocrity with an excuse that sounds plausible.
One perspective means you don’t try at all, other means you offer token effort as befits a low-level pedestrian task. So, if you decide to take the Blue Pill, close this site and go your own way. Bon voyage! I wish you a hearty good-luck and Godspeed, and perhaps you will be happier for your choice.
But if you are one of the few who thinks for a moment . . . “Hmm. What if the Professor is right?”
Then . . . Take the Red Pill
Then you can read on to the next brief paragraph – the red pill – and be forever shorn of the excuse for mediocrity.
For the truth is in the Business Presentation Power Zone, and once there, you will never be satisfied with your old presentation life again. You cannot go back.
That’s the paradox, the Curse of Freedom.
It’s completely within your power to seize the fruits of great presenting. It’s your choice.
You can launch an auspicious presentation career right now, right this minute. Or you can dismiss this site as yet another fraudulent claim to revealing secrets to you, only to have it exposed as another method that requires you to actually do something.
Choose the Red Pill.
Step boldy into the Power Zone.
The Power Zone is the province of the privileged few who understand the truth that anyone can become a great presenter, with the right kind of hard work and the willingness to become a great presenter. To join this third group requires you to take on a new state of mind. If you already carry this view, that’s superb.
If you don’t . . . you can decide now to adopt it or forever be relegated to the other two groups – believing you’re not good enough, or believing you are good enough when you’re actually not.
Business Presentation Power is Yours for the Taking
Public presentations – great presentations – require study and practice and preparation and technique. A deep philosophical, academic, and professional history undergirds public speaking. This history informs the very best presenters and their work.
You dismiss it only to your great loss.
No, you need not become a scholar of public speaking. In fact, few people have that deep an interest in the subject and even fewer can claim that kind of knowledge today. But what you can and should do is this: Open your mind and heart to the possibilities of found treasure.
You actually can become a capable presenter.
You can become a great presenter.
When you enter the Power Zone, you are both cursed and blessed with knowledge. This knowledge represents two sides of the same coin.
You are cursed with the knowledge that the only limitation you have is you. You are blessed with the knowledge that you can become a good – even great – speaker. An especially powerful presenter.
You have no other real excuse. It’s totally up to you.
I truly don’t mean to be a pain to my long-suffering students, but one exercise that probably elicits more scorn than it deserves is called “Especially Powerful.”
It consists of everyone rising to a standing position and striking a confident stance with feet shoulder-width apart and arms outstretched to either side, palms turned upward.
This is a critical and powerful pose.
Then visalize a slight tilt of the head up and, in unison and in the best tradition of the deep-voiced Darth Vader, everyone repeats after me . . . “I feel especially powerful today!”
“I feel especially powerful today!”
I’m not satisfied until the room reverberates with the appropriate tone and volume, indicating a robust and vibrant embrace of the exercise and what we’re trying to accomplish.
Which is . . . what?
Why do I engage in what, to some, might appear gimmicky or cute?
First, I don’t do cute. Second, the exercise accomplishes several superb physiological goals that improve a range of characteristics associated with business presenting. Voice . . . stance . . . posture . . . confidence . . . poise.
In short, much of what we call body language.
We hear in some circles that nonverbal communication – your body language – comprises more than 50 percent of your message. Some studies contend that it comprises more than 70 percent.
For no other reason than this, we should be concerned with the messages we transmit with our posture, our expressions, our gestures. Yes, body language is critical to conveying your message.But it is essential for another equally important reason.
It’s a reason not generally well-known or understood, and it constitutes a secret that I’ve utilized with my presentation students for years to invest them with confidence and new-found presentation power. Its core idea stretches back well more than a century, to one of the world’s first theories of emotion: James-Lange Theory.
William James and the Danish physiologist Carl G. Lange developed the theory independently of each other in the 1880s.
Here’s a taste of the real thing from Mr. James himself:
“My theory … is that the bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion. Common sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect … and that the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble …
Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colorless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we should not actually feel afraid or angry.”
We generally believe that our emotions affect our body language, and we ourselves have experienced the effects of stage fright. Emotions influence the way you stand, the way you appear to your audience. They influence what you say and how you say it.
So if we feel stage fright and lack of confidence, our body language telegraphs that. Moreover, once we become conscious of the effects of our fears, they worsen, and we get caught in a downward spiral of cause-and-effect.
But what if we could reverse that cause-and-effect? What if we could, say, strike a confident pose and suddenly find ourselves infused with confidence? Impossible, eh?
But James-Lange Theory suggests that very thing, that you can reverse the process.
Turn Negative Energy into Positive
You can use your gestures, movement, posture, and expression to influence your emotions. You can consciously affect body language associated with the emotion you want to experience – namely, confidence – and so gain confidence.
This means that we should lay the groundwork for our emotions to reflect our body language and our posture. Consciously strike a bearing that reflects the confident and powerful speaker you want to be.This may sound too easy and leave you asking “what’s the catch?” No, there’s no catch.
And now that recent research has scientifically confirmed the dynamic I just described, the secret is out. Several theories later and after many attempts to debunk James-Lange Theory, the most recent research at Harvard University and the Kellogg School of Business would seem to give Mr. James and Mr. Lange the proverbial last laugh.
A 2010 Harvard study substantiated James-Lange Theory and found that power posing substantially increases confidence in people who assume them while interacting with others. The Kellogg study early this year yielded the same findings.
In short, the way you stand or sit either increases or decreases your confidence. The study’s conclusion is unambiguous and speaks directly to us.
Our results show that posing in high-power displays (as opposed to low-power displays) causes physiological, psychological, and behavioral changes consistent with the literature on the effects of power on power holders — elevation of the dominance hormone testosterone, reduction of the stress hormone cortisol, and increases in behaviorally demonstrated risk tolerance and feelings of power.
This finding holds tremendous significance for you if you want to imbue your presentations with power.
In our 21st Century vernacular, this means you should stand the way you want to feel. Posing with power – “I feel especially powerful today!” – improves your entire presentation delivery tremendously and in ways you’ve likely not imagined.
Power Posing can flood your system with testosterone and can suppress stress-related cortisol, so you actually do invest yourself with confidence and relieve the acute anxiety that presentations sometimes generate.
The lesson here is to affect the posture of confidence. Square your shoulders. Fix a determined look on your face. Speak loudly and distinctly. Extend your arms to either side and take up lots of space.
Seize the emotional energy flow and make it work for you.
We should strive to infuse our presentations with energy by using positive power words, but instead we sabotage ourselves in our presentations more often than we imagine.
Negative self-talk is one of the chief culprits.
“I hate presentations,” is the negative phrase I hear most frequently, and it undermines everything we strive for in business school presenting. How can we construct any positive presentation experience on such a porous, spongy foundation?
We tell ourselves repeatedly that we’ll fail.
We envision failure, humiliation, embarassment, and complete meltdown.
Envision Success Instead
All of this negative self-talk can translate into bodily reactions of nervousness, trembling, faltering voice, shaking knees, sweating, and flushing.
Moreover, our sour and weak attitude ensures that we aren’t the greatest source of strength to our teammates if we happen to be delivering a group presentation.
The negative spiral down guarantees that things get worse before they get better . . . if at all.
There is, in fact, no greater guarantee of failure. How could anyone succeed at anything with this type of visualization?
Leaving aside the specific techniques for a later time and the psychological underpinnings of it that go back more than a century, let’s say here and now that we must at the very least rid ourselves of the negative self-talk so that we may have any chance of succeeding at business presenting.
Think Like an Athlete – Use Power Words
The world’s elite athletes train the mind as well as the body, and visualization of successful outcomes is one of the techniques they use to prepare for competition. I work often with sports psychologists and mental toughness coaches who train athletes in visualization techniques, and all of are one opinion that the mind-body connection – healthy or unhealthy – impacts performance tremendously.
So why do we talk ourselves down into the morass of defeat?
Quite possibly, it’s the widespread ignorance of how to deliver a powerful presentation, and this ignorance means incredible uncertainty of performance. Ignorance, uncertainty, and pressure to perform breed fear.
In my experience, it’s this fear of the unknown that drives up anxiety. So the key to reducing that anxiety is uncertainty reduction – thorough preparation and control of the variables within our power.
Preparation is the second of the Three Ps of Speaking Technique – Principles, Preparation, Practice. Can we foresee everything that might go wrong? No, of course not, and we don’t even want to . . . instead, we plan everything that will go right, and we focus on that.
Envision Your Triumph
No one can win by constantly visualizing failure.
Envision this, instead – you deliver a tight, first-rate presentation that hits all the right notes, weaves a story that grips your audience, that keeps the audience rapt, and ends in a major ovation and a satisfying feeling of a job well-done.
You lace your presentation with power words to inspire both you and your audience: confidence . . . capability . . . thought . . . vision . . . future . . . focus . . . competence . . . strong . . . ability . . . know-how . . . victory . . . success.
When we take the stage, we put our minds on what we intend, and we charge forward boldly and confidently, executing our presentation with masterful aplomb and professionalism. With this kind of psychological commitment, we squeeze out the doubts and anxiety, wring them dry from our psychic fabric.
The right kind of preparation allows us to deal capably with the handful of unknowns that might wiggle in to nettle us.
Coca-Cola’s 1929 slogan was “The Pause that Refreshes,” and we can incorporate the presentation pause to powerful effect in our business presentations.
Pauses can, indeed, be refreshing, and a judicious pause can refresh your presentation.
In fact, the prudent presentation pause for reflection, for the audience to digest your message, for dramatic effect to emphasize what comes next . . . all add depth and richness to your show and communicate to audience members that they have gathered to hear something special.
So, make friends with silence so that you feel comfortable in its presence.
Power of the Presentation Pause
The correct pauses imbue your talk with incredible power. With proper timing and coupled with other techniques, the pause can evoke strong emotions in your audience.
A pause can project and communicate as much or more than mere words. The pause is part of your nonverbal repertoire and a superbly useful tool.
The comfortable pause communicates your competence and confidence. It telegraphs deep and serious thought. Pause Power is underutilized today, but has served as arrow-in-quiver of the finest presenters over centuries.
Presentation Master Grenville Kleiser put it this way in 1912: “Paradoxical tho it may seem, there is an eloquence and a power in silence which every speaker should seek to cultivate.”
When you use the presentation pause judiciously, you emphasize the point that comes immediately after the pause. You give the audience time to digest what you just said. And you generate anticipation for what you are about to say.
So save the pause for the moments just prior to each of your main points.
How do you pause? When do you pause?
Silence is Your Friend
A truly effective pause can be coupled with a motionless stance, particularly if you have been pacing or moving about or gesturing vigorously. Couple the pause with a sudden stop, going motionless. Look at your audience intently. Seize their complete attention.
You can see that you should not waste your pause on a minor point of your talk. In point of fact, you should time your pauses to emphasize the single MIP and its handful of supporting points.
Voice coach Patsy Rodenburg says: “A pause is effective and very powerful if it is active and in the moment with your intentions and head and heart. . . . a pause filled with breath and attention to what you are saying to your audience will give you and your audience a bridge of transitional energy from one idea to another.”
Finally, and surely not least, the pause can rescue you when you begin to spiral out of control or lose your train of thought. Remember that silence is your friend.
Need a life-preserver? Need time to regain your composure? Try this . . .
Pause. Look slightly down. Scratch your chin. Furrow your brow. Take four steps to the right or left.
You just bought 7-8 precious seconds to collect your thoughts.
In our battle to fight through the white noise of life to communicate with others, we often ignore the most powerful of weapons at our disposal – Presentation Passion.
Passion, emotion, earnestness, brio, energy.
Sure, we pay occasional homage to emotion and to “passion.”
But more often than not, it’s only lip service.
You don’t really believe this stuff, do you? Or maybe your fear of others’ judgments pushes out thoughts of investing your talks with something interesting.
We save our presentation passion for other activities. For our sports teams and our politics and, perhaps, religion. We separate our “real” selves from our work and from our “formal” exposition in front of an audience.
Maybe we construct a barrier for the audience, to prevent an audience from seeing our vulnerabilities. Perhaps we affect an air of nonchalance as a defensive mechanism.
Nonchalance is the Enemy
Regardless of the reason, by not investing ourselves in our presentation and in our narrative, we render ourselves less persuasive. If we purge our presentation passion, we are less effective, perhaps even ineffective.
Emotion is a source of speaker power. You can seize it. You can use it to great effect.
And you can learn to do this more easily than you imagine.
James Albert Winans was a Presenting Master early in the 20th century, and he offered this beautifully crafted description of passion’s power. Brilliant discovered words from 1915:
A speaker should feel what he says, not only to be sincere, but also to be effective. It is one of the oldest of truisms that if we wish to make others feel, we ourselves must feel. . . . We know we do not respond with enthusiasm to an advocate who lacks enthusiasm. And quite apart from response, we do not like speakers who do not seem to care. We like the man who means what he says.
Do you mean what you say? Do you even care? Or do you sleepwalk through your assignments? Reading from a note card, reading from the slides behind you, oblivious to why you are up there?
Now, one purpose of this counsel is not simply for you to display powerful emotions in service to a cause. You are not simply “being emotional” for its own sake. You want to evoke emotions in your audience. You want them to think, yes, but you also want them feel.
You want to establish a visceral connection with your audience.
Don’t Purge Presentation Passion
Sometimes it may seem as if you must purge all emotion from your presentations, especially your business presentations.
It’s as if you are instructed to behave like a robot under the guise of looking “professional” or “business-like.”
We can find that we respond too readily to these negative cues. We think that if A is “good,” then twice as much of A is twice as good. And three times as much of A is even better.
And without presentation passion, our business presentations suffer.
The Indifferent Presenter?
So, let’s accept right now that emotion and professionalism are not exclusive of each other. Conversely, shun indifference.
The opposite of earnestness is indifference. An indifferent man cares no more for one thing than for another. All things to him are the same; he does not care whether men around him are better or worse. . . . There are other opposites to earnestness besides indifference. Doubt of any kind, uncertainty as to the thought or to the truth, a lack of conviction, all these tend to destroy earnestness.
You know the indifferent man or woman, delivering a presentation that obviously means nothing to him or her. Perhaps you’ve done this. Haven’t we all at one time or another?
Unknowing of emotion, believing that we cannot show we care?
Do you just go through the motions? I understand why you might cop this attitude. Layer upon layer of negative incentives weigh down the college student. Adding to your burden is the peer pressure of blasé. It’s perceived as “uncool” to appear to care about anything, to actually do your best. Certainly to do your best on schoolwork of any kind.
Understand from this moment that this is wrong. No, it is not a matter of opinion . . . it is not a “gray area.” It is incontrovertibly wrong.
If you don’t care, no one else will. And if you don’t care, you will lose to the presenter who does care.
Lose the job you want to someone else.
Lose the contract you want to someone else.
Lose the promotion you want to someone else.
Lose the influence you want to someone else.
It’s Time to Win with Presentation Passion
Does this seem too “over the top” for you? Of course it does!
That’s because you’ve likely been conditioned to look askance at the kinds of rich, lusty pronouncements that embrace emotion rather than scorn it.
And that is a major part of the B-School Presentation Problem.
When was the last time a business professor criticized you for showing too much emotion in your presentation?
Have you ever heard anyone criticized for it? For giving a presentation with too much feeling? Or for being too interesting?
For actually making you care? For actually being memorable for more than a few moments?
Now, think for a moment of the incredible power that might be yours if you embrace emotion and presentation passion when no one else does.
The wonder and delight of this is that it is entirely within your grasp to do so.
Likely as not, your presentation passion has been buried under a ton of necessity, the debris we call the business of life.
If you find that your passion is buried, then this is the time to rescue it as one of the most potent factors in delivering your most powerful presentations.
Once you explore your own visceral feelings, your passion, it becomes that much easier to invoke passion in your presentations. To actually feel passion for the subjects of your shows.
Can you generate passion? Of course you can.
Will it be “artificial” passion? Of course not.
Passion is passion is passion.
Unless you have passion for a subject and demonstrate that passion, you will always be at a disadvantage with respect to those who do.
If you’re in competition with several other teams pitching a product or service to a company for millions of dollars – and there is no noteworthy difference in the quality or price of the service – then how does the potential customer decide?
If he sees a real passion for the work in one team, if he feels the energy of a team driven to success and truly excited about the offering, don’t you think he’ll be inclined to the team that stirs his emotions?
The team that makes him see possibilities?
The team that helps him visualize a glorious future?
The team that shares his own love and passion for his product or service and sees in you a shared passion for achieving something special in partnership?
Reread the previous paragraph, because it encapsulates so much of what is absent in presentations today, and so much of what is needed.
Passion has served as a crucial element in verbal communication for centuries. Two of my favorite quotations on its power follow:
“True emotional freedom is the only door by which you may enter the hearts of your hearers.”
Brees and Kelley, 1931
“Earnestness is the secret of success in any department of life. It is only the earnest man who wins his cause.”
S.S. Curry, 1895
Recognize in yourself the capacity for passion. Recognize that you have the wherewithal to embrace even the most staid material, the “dullest” project.
Remember always that it is you who make it better.
You who invest it with excitement.
You are the alchemist.
It’s your job to make it interesting
Many times you hear an “interesting” presentation about an “interesting” topic. It is well-done, and it engaged you.
And you wonder why you never seem to get the “interesting” projects.
Have you ever admitted to yourself that you might be the missing ingredient?
That perhaps it is your task to invest a project with interest and zest? That what makes a project “interesting” is not the topic . . . but rather the interaction between material and presenter.
Ultimately, it is your task to transform a “case” or business situation into an interesting and cogent presentation.
It is your task to find the key elements of strategic significance and then to dramatize those elements in such a way that the audience is moved in powerful and significant ways.
Yes, you can do this. And you don’t need an “interesting” case to do it.
For your presentation, do you ever throw together a half-dozen makeshift Powerpoint slides cut-and-pasted from a written report, with dozens of bullet points peppered throughout?
Guilty as charged?
Most of us are at one point or another.
And the results can be heinous.
Bad PowerPoint Slides Destroy Your Show
The results are slides that confuse the audience rather than reinforce your major points delivered in awful, mind-numbing presentations.
You pay a price for serving up what designer Nancy Duarte calls “bad slides.”
Nancy says in her book Slideology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations:
“Making bad slides is easy, and it will negatively impact your career. Invest in your slides, but invest in your own visual skills as well. The alternative is to inadvertently commit career suicide.”
Absent specific instruction, you might believe that it’s acceptable to simply cut and paste graphics from a written report directly onto a slide.
Why not? Who says this is a bad idea? After all, the professor wants to see certain material on the screen, doesn’t he? Well, I’m giving it to him. ’nuff said.
This is awful for the reason that the PowerPoint slide presentation sometimes doubles for a written document, and this is an incredibly stupid mistake.
One . . . or the Other
Your PowerPoint can serve admirably one or the other purpose . . . but not both.
The presentation – or show – is an entirely different form of communication than the written document that is meant to be reviewed later.
Never let one serve in place of the other.
Prepare two separate documents if necessary, one to serve as your detailed written document.
The other serves as the basis for your show.
When you commit the error of letting a written document serve as your public presentation, here’s what usually happens:
You project a parade of abominably cluttered PowerPoint slides onto the screen while you talk about them. Usually prefacing what you say with the words “As you can see . . . .” [this is called As You Can See Syndrome, or AYCSS]
The results are quite often poor, if not downright ugly and embarassing for all concerned.
But the insidious part is that no one tells you the results are disastrous. And they do not tell you what makes your creation an abomination.
So let’s discuss the types of issues you face in assembling your show.
No Magic Pills
Start by recognizing that no slide show can substitute for a lack of ideas, a lack of preparation, and lack of a story to tell.
PowerPoint cannot rescue you with its colors, sound, and animation. This is akin to Hollywood filmmakers who spend millions of dollars on dazzling special effects and neglect the story. They bomb miserably.
On the other hand, you can craft a winning film with a superb story and drama, but with minimal special effects: See the classic Henry Fonda film 12 Angry Men.
You cannot craft a winning film with no story or a bad story populated with people you don’t care about.
Forget the notion that PowerPoint slides are somehow the backbone of your show. They have no special properties. They can merely enhance your show . . . and they can most assuredly help destroy it.
Presenting coach Aileen Pincus makes this point in her 2008 book Presenting:
“Slides are not a magic pill; they won’t organize a disorganized presentation; they won’t give a point to a presentation that doesn’t really have one; and they never make a convincing presentation on their own.”
So is there a reasonably easy way to get around this busy-slide pathology?
Of course, and this leads us to one solution to the problem of overburdened slides. Remember three words when you prepare your slides, and you can eliminate 90 percent of your PowerPoint pathologies
Orient . . . Eliminate . . . Emphasize
First, orient your audience to the overall financial context.
If you take information from a balance sheet or want to display company profit growth for a period of years, then display the sheet in its entirety to orient the audience.
Tell the audience they view a balance sheet.
Walk to the screen and point to the information categories. Say “Here we have this number” . . . “Here we have this category.”
Second, eliminate everything on the screen that you do not talk about. If you do not refer to it, it should not appear on your slide. Strip the visual down to the basic numbers and categories you use to make your point.
Third, emphasize the important points by increasing the size, coloring them, or bolding the numbers.
You can illustrate the meaning of the numbers by utilizing a chart or graph.
When you orient, eliminate, and emphasize, you polish your meaning to a high sheen, and you are on your way to an especially powerful presentation. You dump distractors that leech the strength and from your presentation.
Let’s move from the realm of what you do and say in front of your business presentation audience to the realm of how you appear to your audience.
Likewise, let’s immediately dismiss the notion that “it doesn’t matter what I look like – it’s the message that counts.”
In a word . . . no.
Forfeit Personal Competitive Advantage
This is so wrong-headed and juvenile that you can turn this to immediate advantage by adopting the exact opposite perspective right now.
I’d wager that most folks your age won’t, particularly those stuck in liberal arts, for better or worse.
Much more dramatic to strike a pose and deliver a mythic blow for “individuality” than to conform to society’s diktats, eh?
Well, let those folks strike their blows while you spiff yourself up for your presentations, both in public and in private job interviews, and gain a superior personal competitive advantage.
Here is the bottom line.
Your appearance matters a great deal, like it or not, and it is up to us to dress and groom appropriate to the occasion and appropriate to our personal brand and the message we want to send.
“Slob cool” may fly in college – and I stress may – but it garners only contempt outside the friendly confines of the local student activities center and fraternity house.
Is that “fair?”
Sure, it’s fair . . . Slob Fails
It certainly is fair!
You may simply not like it.
It may clang upon your youthful sensibilities.
You’re on display in front of a group of buyers. They want to know if your message is credible.
Your appearance conveys important cues to your audience. It conveys one of two chief messages, with very little room to maneuver between them.
First, your appearance telegraphs to your audience that you are: Sharp, focused, detailed, careful, bold, competent, prudent, innovative, loyal, energetic . . .
or . . .
Your appearance telegraphs to your audience that you are: Slow, sloppy, careless, inefficient, incompetent, weak, mercenary, stupid.
Moreover, you may never know when you are actually auditioning for your next job. That presentation you decided to “wing” with half-baked preparation and delivered in a wrinkled suit might have held in the audience a human resource professional recommended to you by a friend.
But you blew the deal.
Without even knowing it.
Think. How many powerful people mentally cross you off their list because of your haphazard, careless appearance?
How many opportunities pass you by? How many great connections do you forfeit?
Granted, it’s up to your discretion to dress in the first wrinkled shirt you pull from the laundry basket, but recognize that you may be paying a price without even knowing it.
Your appearance on the stage contributes or detracts from your message.
So, as a general rule, you should dress one half-step above the audience to convey a seriousness of purpose.
For instance, if the audience is dressed in business casual (sports coat and tie), you dress in a suit. Simple.
Personal appearance overlaps into the area of personal branding, which is beyond the scope of this space, but two books I recommend to aid you in your quest for appearance enhancement are You, Inc. and The Brand Called You.
Both of these books are worth the purchase price and are filled with the right kind of advice to propel you into delivering Powerful Presentations enhanced by a superb professional appearance.
We mistakenly contrive our message in our terms, saying what we want to say and what we think our audience needs to hear in language that gives us comfort. Then we blame the audience if they don’t “get it.”
Too many speakers across the spectrum of abilities never consider the needs of their audience or why they have gathered to hear the message.
Often, a presenter may simply offer an off-the-shelf solution message that isn’t even remotely tailored to the needs of the folks gathered to hear it.
The Curse of Hubris
Paradoxically, this occurs quite often when men and women of power and accomplishment address large groups of employees or conference attendees.
Infused with the power and, too often, arrogance and hubris that comes with great success, they believe this success translates into powerful presenting.
They don’t prepare.
They offer standard tropes.
They rattle off cliches, and pull out shopworn blandishments.
And they receive ovations, because those assembled believe that, well, this fellow is successful, so he must know what he’s doing.
What he says, whatever it was, becomes gospel.
But what we actually witness from presenters of this type is actually a form of contempt, because they are unprepared to present. Presenters from 16 to 60 offer this up too often.
The lack of preparation by any speaker communicates a kind contempt for the audience and the time of people gathered to listen.
For instance, last year a successful young entrepreneur spoke to our assembled students about his own accomplishments in crafting a business plan for his unique idea and then pitching that idea to venture capitalists. His idea was tremendously successful and, as I understood him, he sold it for millions.
Looking Shabby . . . and Unprepared
Now, he stood in front of our students wearing a ragged outfit of jeans and flannel shirt and sipping coffee from a styrofoam cup. He was ill-prepared to speak and offered-up toss-off lines.
His sage advice to our budding entrepreneurs for their own presentations?
“Make really good slides.”
That was it.
Just a few moments’ thought makes clear how pedestrian this is. What does it truly mean? You need a millionaire entrepreneur to tell you this?
“Really good slides” means nothing and promises even less.
I guarantee that
this youngster did not appear in his own presentations wearing his “cool slob” outfit.
Likely as not, it was a great idea sharply defined, practiced many times, and presented knowledgeably by well-dressed entrepreneurs that won the day.
But for us, that day, he was completely unprepared to present.
And this is the lesson that our young presenters should internalize, not toss-offs from a character just dropping by.
So many of the dull and emotionless automatons we listen to could be powerful communicators if they shed their hard defensive carapaces and accepted that there is much to be learned.
And there is much to be gained by respecting the audience enough to speak to them as fellow hopeful human beings in their own language of desires, ambition, fears, and anticipation.
Conversely, we all can learn from the people we meet and the speakers we listen to, even the bad ones.
In business school, you will espy classmates who demonstrate this pathology of unpreparedness.
It’s called “winging it.”
Many students tend to approach presentations with either fear or faux nonchalance.
Or real nonchalance.
It’s a form of defensiveness.
This results in “winging it,” where contrived spontaneity and a world-weary attitude carries the day. No preparation, no practice, no self-respect . . . just embarrassment.
Almost a defiant contempt for the assignment and the audience.
And this kind of presentation abomination leaves the easy-out that the student “didn’t really try.”
It is obvious to everyone watching that you are “winging it.” Why would you waste our time this way, unprepared to present? Why would you waste your own? You have as much chance of achieving success “winging it” as a penguin has of flying.
Winging it leads to a crash landing of obvious failure, and whether you care or not is a measure of character.
The chief lesson to digest here is to always respect your audience and strive to give them your heart.
Do these two things, and you will always gain a measure of success.
We’re all familiar with the droning voice of a speaker who rarely varies pitch, tone, or pace and who inflicts on us the boring presentation.
In like fashion, you can be visually monotonous.
Visual monotony – either of repetitive constant movement or of no movement whatsoever.
We know well the “rocker” and the “swayer.”
We know Mr. “busy-hands” and the “Foxtrotter,” who quicksteps in a tight little dance. Perhaps you have seen the occasional great Stoneface, but he is a rarity today.
The Right Movement
Movement can enhance or cripple your presentation.
And the right kind of movement can solve the boring presentation quite handily.
But don’t begin agitated hopping about the stage willy-nilly. Recognize that you should incorporate movement into your presentation for quite specific reasons. Your movements should contribute to your presentation by reinforcing your message.
At the risk over over-alliterating, mesh your movements with your message.
Remember that every single thing you do onstage derives its power by its contrast with every other thing you do. If you move all the time, like a pacing jungle cat, it becomes the equivalent of white noise. Your movements then contribute no meaning whatever to your presentation.
In fact, your movements become a distraction. They leech energy and attention from your message. It’s a form of visual monotony.
The Kiss of Sleep – Your Boring Presentation
Likewise, if you remain stationary 100 percent of the time, the result is again visual monotony. You lull your audience into inattention, especially if you combine verbal and visual monotony in a single presentation – The Kiss of Sleep . . . for your audience.
You inflict . . . the boring presentation.
Those in theater know this principle well.
In his very fine Tips for Actors, Jon Jory intones that: “Your best tool to avoid this dangerous state is variety. Three lines of loud need soft. Three lines of quick need slow. A big dose of movement needs still. Or change your tactics.”
So, think of movement as one more tool in your repertoire to evoke feeling from your audience. With it, you can convey a powerful and persuasive message.
The secret is not Movement alone . . . the secret is keen, decisive, proper, and exquisitely timed Movement.
A debilitating pathology of bad presentation technique afflicts many presenters.
It starts innocently enough . . .
You click the remote and a new slide appears.
You cast a wistful look back at the screen. You pause.
And then you reach for the easy phrase.
That’s when AYCS Syndrome can strike even the best of us, cutting us down in our presentation prime.
“As you can see.”
The phrase “As you can see” is so pervasive, so endemic to the modern business presentation that there must be a school somewhere that trains people to utter this reflexive phrase-hiccup.
Is there an AYCSS Academy? Probably!
The bain of AYCSS is that it is usually accompanied by a vague gesture at a screen upon which is displayed some of the most unreadable nonsense constructed for a slide – usually a financial spreadsheet or array of baffling numbers. Probably cut-and-pasted from a written report and not adjusted at all for visual presentation.
And the audience most assuredly cannot see. In fact, there might be a law of inverse proportion that governs this syndrome – the less the audience can actually “see,” the more often the audience is told that it can see.
And that’s why we reach for the phrase.
Because we can’t “see,” either.
We look back at an abstruse slide and realize that it 1) makes no sense, 2) never will make any sense, 3) is so complicated that we should have used four slides to make the point or should have deleted it, and 4) has no chance of contributing at all to our show. At that point, AYCS Syndrome attacks.
Numb and Dumb Your Audience with AYCSS
Finance students seem particularly enamored of AYCSS.
In fact, some rogue finance professors doubtless inculcate this in students.
Financial analysis of the firm is essential, of course. There are only few occasions when financial data do not make their way into a presentation.
Financial data are where you discover the firm’s profitability, stability, health, and potential.
But the results of your financial analysis invariably constitute the ugliest section of a presentation.
Something about a spreadsheet mesmerizes students and faculty alike. A spreadsheet splayed across the screen gives the impression of heft and gravitas. It seems important, substantial.
Too often, you display an Excel spreadsheet on the screen that is unedited from your written report. You cut-and-paste it into your presentation. You splash the spreadsheet onto the screen, then talk from that spreadsheet without orienting your audience to the slide.
This is the incredibly bad presentation technique displayed by finance students, in particular, that is accompanied by the dreaded words: “As you can see.”
You, the presenter, stare back at the screen, at the phalanx of numbers.
Perhaps you grip the podium with one hand and you airily wave your other hand at the screen with the words . . . “As you can see—”
And then you call out what seem to be random numbers. Random? Yes, to your audience, the numbers seem random because you have not oriented the audience to your material.
You have not provided the context needed for understanding. No one knows what you’re talking about. Your classmates watch with glazed eyes. Perhaps one or two people nod.
Your professor sits sphinx-like.
And no one has a clue. You get through it, finally, and you’re relieved. And you hope that you were vague enough that no one can even think about asking a question.
AYCS Syndrome is the tacit agreement between audience and presenter that neither of us really knows or cares what’s on the slide. And we promise each other that there won’t be any further investigation into whatever this abominable slide holds.
It can’t be good. Not for the audience, not for presenter.
All of this sounds heinous, I know. And probably too familiar for comfort. But you can beat bad presentation techniques with a few simple changes that we’ll discuss in days to come.
Class had ended, and I was giving final feedback for a group that had just presented their business case . . . and which incorporated not nearly enough business drama.
Not a bad business presentation by any means.
But individual students needed work. I like to give advice that young people can carry with them beyond the classroom and on into the workaday world. And so I held forth on their presentations with advice.
Not just advice, mind you, but nuggets that can confer personal competitive advantage for a lifetime.
As I briefed the presenters, a professor came into the classroom and stood by, listening in. He’s a colleague of mine. Smart man. He has my respect for his knowledge of finance.
A curious fellow, too.
He took in my feedback as I advised students to eliminate a verbal gaffe called the “rising line.” I was demonstrating this awful turn of voice.
The Verbal Up-tic or “uptalk” as it is sometimes called, is a verbal pathology that afflicts at least 50 percent of young presenters. This tic transforms simple statements of fact into questions. The Brits call this the “Moronic Interrogative.”
You can probably guess that it is not a compliment. By eliminating this awful verbal tic, you take a giant step toward presenting excellence.
My students packed up and left, and my colleague stepped up beside me.
“Well! All this drama! It looks and sounds like drama class.”
By now, I’m accustomed to the raised eyebrow of colleagues who look askance at some of the techniques I advocate. It goes with the territory.
There is, after all, a kind of lock-step sameness in the faculty view of business presentations. Deviations from the barebones structure are not appreciated. Nor are they recognized for the value they add.
“Hmmm. I guess you could say that, Roger . . . there’s a big helping of business drama here. It’s much like putting on a show. It’s why I call my presentations ‘shows’ and my students my ‘show-people.’”
Because this, in essence, is what visual and verbal communication is all about and how it differs drastically from written work.
It’s no accident that I use the word “show.” This is what we do when we give a business presentation . . . when we present. We don’t deliver a presentation. We present. The presentation is not something behind you on a screen. The presentation is not on a whiteboard or butcher paper.
It’s not on a flip chart.
The presentation is you.
And a large part of you is how you express yourself – your presence, your expression. We are best when we incorporate business drama into our presentations, and this is the catalyst that provides the grist for our expression and enthusiasm.
By drama, I do not mean the phony excitement and angst of “relationships” gone wrong, the anxiety of the “drama queen” or the pomposity of “King Drama.”
I mean the “dramatic situation.”
Life. Variety. Intensity. Color.
You have drama inherent in any situation where there is conflict or the potential for conflict. And we in business, engaged as we are in competing to provide goods and services to our customers, are blessed with dramatic situations. Corporate stories are some of the most dramatic.
Business cases are chock full of business drama – conflict, suspense, turning points, great decisions, stories that rivet our attention. You simply must learn to recognize business drama and bring it out.
It does not mean exaggerated behavior during your presentation, as noted by one of my favorite Speaking Masters of all time, Grenville Kleiser:
This is not a recommendation of paroxysms of feeling, wild gesticulation, tearing and combing of the hair with the fingers, violent pacing up and down the platform, and other manifestations of old-style oratory, happily now obsolete, but rather to suggest a power which, when properly used, will give life, variety, intensity, and color to the spoken message.
Life. Variety. Intensity. Color. Conflict. Action. You strive for these.
This theatrical aspect of presenting can surely be overdone. But given the staid status of business presenting, the danger of this in today’s business presentations is nil.
You can harness dramatic techniques to your business presenting style, and a number of books delve into this. One of the finest books available on the subject is Ken Howard’s Act Natural. I strongly urge its purchase if you are serious about taking your presenting power to a whole new level.
The speaking secret of expression is an advantage that should be yours and not just restricted as a privilege for those toiling in the theater or in film.
Remember that you have incredible power at your disposal in the form of expression that makes use of business drama.
A curl of the lip.
A raise of one eyebrow.
Sincere furrows in the forehead.
Speaking Master Joseph Mosher gave us one key secret to expression in 1928, and we would be wise to recognize his observation of the importance of the mouth and eyes.
[T]here is no one element of gesture which furnishes as unmistakable and effective an indication of the speaker’s thought and feeling as does the expression of the mouth and eyes. The firm-set mouth and flashing eye speak more clearly than a torrent of words; the smile is as good as, or better than, a sentence in indicating good humor; the sneering lip, the upraised brow, or the scowl need no verbal commentary.
The secret power of expression and business drama is yours for the taking. You need only seize it.
Too often, you find yourself rambling or roaming in a presentation, rather than putting focus on your audience.
This is a symptom of an chaotic presentation, and it can have any of several causes.
Among other things, this results from not establishing a tightly focused subject and not linking it to a tightly focused conception of your audience.
Without tight focus in your subject, you cannot help the audience to visualize your topic or its main points with concrete details. Without details in your message, you eventually lose the attention of the audience.
So how do you include meaningful details in your presentation, the right details?
The Devil’s in the Details
By reversing the process and visualizing the audience in detail.
This is akin to the branding process in the marketing world. Your brand must stand for something in the customer’s mind. And, conversely, you must be able to visualize the customer in your own mind.
If you can’t visualize the kind of person who desperately wants to hear your message, then you haven’t focused your talk enough. Go back and retool your message – sharpen and hone it.
Think of the various consumers of products and services such as Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Whole Foods Market, Mercedes Benz, Pabst Blue Ribbon. Can you actually visualize the customers for these products, picture them in your mind in great detail?
Likewise, can you clearly visualize the consumers for Greenpeace, the National Rifle Association, a Classic 70s Rock radio station? Sure you can – you immediately imagine the archetype of the customer base for each of these. These firms put focus on their audiences.
Do you focus on your audience in the same relentless manner?
Now, in the same way, can you visualize the consumers of Chevrolet? Tide? Folgers? United Way? The American Red Cross?
Of course you can’t, because these brands have lost focus. The message is too broad.
Put Relentless Focus on Your Audience
The lesson here is to focus your message on a tightly circumscribed audience type. Who is in your audience, and what do they want from you?
Prepare your talk with your audience at the forefront. Visualize a specific person in your audience, and write to that person. Make that person the hero. Talk directly to that person.
The upshot is a tightly focused message. A message with key details that interest an audience that you have correctly analyzed and visualized. You speak directly to audience needs in a way that they clearly understand and that motivates them.
Craft your message in this way, focus on your audience, and you’ll be on-target every time.
What’s a powerful gesture, and why do we worry about it at all?
It’s nothing more than an add-on, right?
Something perhaps nice to have, but unessential to the point of our presentation.
The fact is that you cannot separate sincerity from your appearance.
You can’t disaggregate movement from your inflection, from your volume, from your nuance.
And you cannot separate your words from gesture.
So let’s add the power of gesture to our words to achieve superior messaging.
What’s a Gesture?
A wave of the hand.
A snap of the finger.
A stride across the stage with arms outstretched to either side.
A scratch of the chin.
An accusatory finger.
A balled fist at the proper moment.
These are all gestures that can either enhance or destroy your presentation. Yes, destroy.
Professional presentation coaches understand that most of the information transmitted in a show is visual. This is a result of the presence of the speaker.
An audio recording of a talk is not nearly as powerful as an actual live presentation.
Executive coach Lynda Paulson is spot-on when she notes the power of gestures to persuade an audience . . . or to alienate an audience, because “at least 85 percent of what we communicate in speaking is non-verbal. It’s what people see in our eyes, in our movements and in our actions.”
Gestures provide energy, and accent.
They add power, emphasis, and meaning to our words.
Throughout the history of public speaking, the finest communicators have known the importance of the proper gesture at the proper time. Entire books, in fact, have been written about gesture and the power it can bestow, but most of this knowledge resides in the recesses of libraries waiting to be rediscovered. See, for example, Edward Amherst Ott’s classic 1902 book How to Gesture.
Gesture is too important to leave to chance. Certainly too important to dismiss with the airy “move around when you talk.”
Let’s understand exactly what it means.
In 1928, Joseph Mosher defined gesture in a way that guides us even today: “Gesture may be broadly defined as visible expression, that is, any posture or movement of the head, face, body, limbs or hands, which aids the speaker in conveying his message by appealing to the eye.”
Gesture in your presentation should be natural.
Powerful gesture It should flow from the meaning of your words and the meaning you wish to convey with your words. We never gesture without reason or a point to make. Typically, the emotion and energy in a talk leads us to gesture. Without emotion, gesture is mechanical.
You have many arrows in the quiver of gesture from which to choose, and they can imbue your presentation with power. And on rare occasion, can imbue your presentation with majesty of epic proportions. Yes, I said “majesty of epic proportions.”
For if you do not begin to think in grand, expansive terms about yourself and your career, you will remain mired in the mud.
Stuck at the bottom.
Proper gesture increases your talk’s power and lends emphasis to your words.
In fact, gesture is essential to take your presentation to a superior level, a level far above the mundane.
You limit yourself if you do not gesture effectively as you present.
As with every craft, there is a correct way to gesture . . . and a wrong way. Without a clear notion of how gesture can enhance our presentations, we are left with aimless ejaculations that can distract and leech away the power of our message and the audience’s confidence in our competence.
Accordingly, here are a few of the more common examples of bad gesturing involving just your fingers. These are so common that I cannot but believe that someone, somewhere is training folks in these oddities, and it’s the equivalent of self-sabotage.
Control Those Fingers!
Under no circumstances engage in “finger play.”
This is a habit many people develop unconsciously as they try to discover what to do with their hands. You know you should do something with your appendages, but no one has told you what.
So you develop these unconscious motions. Many different activities come under the heading of “finger play.”
Tugging at your fingers. I suspect that we all carry a “finger-tugging” gene embedded deep in our DNA that is suppressed only with difficulty.
Bending your fingers back in odd manner. This is a ubiquitous movement, universally practiced. It consists of grasping the fingers and bending them back, as if counting something, and then holding them there for a spell. It’s almost a finger-tug, but more pronounced.
Waving your hands around with floppy wrist movement. This is not only distracting, but the wobbly wrist action creates a perception of weakness and uncertainty.
Simply by eliminating these commonplace pathologies from your own presenting, you strengthen by subtraction.
The Powerful Gesture
Why would you want to “gesture?”
Aren’t your words enough?
You add gestures to add force to your points. To demonstrate honesty, decisiveness, humility, boldness, even fear. A motion toward the door, a shrug, a lifted eyebrow – what words can equal these gestures?
While its range is limited, gesture can carry powerful meaning.
It should carry powerful meaning; this form of nonverbal language predates spoken language. Said James Winans in 1915:
Gesture, within its limitations, is an unmistakable language, and is understood by men of all races and tongues. Gesture is our most instinctive language; at least it goes back to the beginning of all communication when the race, still lacking articulate speech, could express only through the tones of inarticulate sounds and through movements.
Imagine the powerful communication you attain when, at the proper moment, your voice, your gestures, your movement, and your expressions combine.
You attain a powerful communication moment when your voice, your gestures, your movement, and your expressions combine and align with the message and your visual aids to wash over your audience, suffusing them with emotion and energy. All of this combines for especially powerful personal competitive advantage.
Be spare with your gestures and be direct. Make them count.
Look for more detailed analysis on the gestures available to you in this space in coming weeks so that you can add personal competitive advantage to your presentation now.
At times, even the finest presenters get themselves in trouble, and having this rescue device near to hand can salvage a speech that is careening off-course, that is flirting with disaster.
Your Life Preserver to Conclude a Presentation
Occasionally we must be reminded of this quite simple device that can serve us well near the end of our talk.
When your talk is winding down and you feel yourself suddenly spent . . .
When you begin to spiral out of control and cannot remember your train of thought . . .
When your pulse quickens and your mind goes blank . . .
Grasp for two words.
“In conclusion . . .”
That’s it. Just two words.
Conclude a Presentation with Pith and Power
These two words have rescued thousands of presenters before you, and they’ll rescue you as well.
These two words work a magic on your psyche that is almost inexplicable in terms that a logical, reasonable person would believe. As soon as you speak them, the path to the end of your talk becomes clear.
Speak them, and suddenly you know what to say and do.
Here is what you do. Confidently tack on another phrase . . .
“In conclusion, we can see that . . .”
“In conclusion, our recommendation makes sense for reasons just given . . .”
“In conclusion, this means that . . .”
See how it works? You see how incredibly easy it is to get out of the sticky wicket of a talk spiraling down out of control?
“In conclusion” leads you out of the wilderness and back onto your prepared path. It leads you to restate your thesis in concise manner and then . . .
Your voice is obviously a key to a fabulous business presentation . . . or a disastrous one.
Voice is one of the seven dimensions along which we measure the Power Presenter, and a strong, clear, confident voice is one of the seven secrets of powerful presenting. Paradoxically, we take our voices for granted. And because we do, this nonchalant attitude can undermine us and destroy all of our hard work.
But you can become quite a good speaker, a presenter whose voice exudes confidence and is welcomed by the ear.
“If nature has not endowed you with a good speaking voice, you can do much toward acquiring one. The organs of speech can be trained, like any other part of the body, by assiduous attention and practice.”
You can do many things to improve your voice – your articulation, your power and range, your force and tone. If you decide that you want to move to an advanced level of presentations and are drawn to improve your voice’s quality through study and practice, many books and videos and recordings are published each year to help you along.
Much of the best writing on voice improvement was produced in the years when public speaking was considered an art – between 1840 and 1940 – and the advice contained therein are about as universal and timeless as it gets. The reality is that the human voice is the same now as it was 100 years ago and responds to the proven techniques developed over centuries.
Ready for Change
It’s time to recognize that your voice is not a sacred artifact, nor is it some precious extension of your very being. It is an instrument with which you communicate. You can sharpen your communication skills by improving your voice. Simply thinking of your voice in this way will improve its quality. Working to improve it with the exercise described in this chapter will improve its quality dramatically.
Let’s consider here just two things you can do to improve your voice. Nothing extreme at all. And actually quite fun, if you approach it the right way. We have two goals.
First, we want to rid your voice of the chronic crack and rasp. That crack and rasp is a symptom of meekness – no confidence. Do you have this crack and rasp? If not, congratulations and let’s move along. But if you do . . . “In addition to relaxing the throat muscles, the speaker should make a special effort to vocalize every particle of breath passing over the vocal cords. There should be no wheezy leakage of air.” Push air across your vocal chords and complete your sentences. Don’t trail off at the end of every sentence with a crackling sound.
Second, we want to deepen your voice. Why? Like it or not, deeper voices are perceived as more credible. A Stanford University study, one among many, gives the nod to deeper voices:
Our studies show that directions from a female voice are perceived as less accurate than those from a male voice, even when the voices are reading the exact same directions. Deepness helps, too. It implies size, height and authority. Deeper voices are more credible.
Now, should things be this way? Is it “fair” that deeper voices have some kind of advantage? It’s no less fair than that some people are taller than others or larger or faster or rate perfect scores on the SAT. It’s neither fair, nor unfair. It’s simply the reality we’re dealt. If you want to devote your life fighting for “voice equality,” you have my support. If, on the other hand, you want to deepen your voice a bit so that you gain personal competitive advantage, then let us analyze what the deep-voice reality means to us.
It means that a deeper voice is more desirable for presenting, regardless of who presents, male or female. Now, the very fact that you are armed with that information empowers you. And when you decide to act on it, it adds to your personal competitive advantage.
Many simple and effective exercises exist to deepen and enrich your voice. And a simple awareness of your own voice-cracking should be enough to remedy that issue. A personal coach can help, or even a trusted confidante as concerned with voice as much as you. Listen to each other, coach each other, and work together to achieve an improved voice.
No, your voice is not a sacred artifact. Voice is the second secret – the second dimension along which speakers are assessed.
It is an instrument with which you communicate. You can sharpen your communication skills by improving your voice. Simply thinking of your voice in this way improves its quality. Working to improve it improve its quality dramatically.
 Grenville Kleiser, “How to Speak Well,” in Radio Broadcasting (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1935) , 42-43.
 George Rowland Collins, Platform Speaking (New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1923), 33.
 Suter, J. K. (2003). Der Eindruck vom Ausdruck–Einfluss paraverbaler Kommunikation auf die Wahrnehmung von Nachrichtensprechenden [The impression of expression–the influence of paraverbal communication on the perception of newsreaders]. Unpublished master’s thesis. University of Bern, Switzerland.
 Anne Eisenberg, “Mars and Venus, On the Net : Gender Stereotypes Prevail,” (The New York Times, 2000), http://www-personal.umich.edu/~rfrost/courses/SI110/readings/Cyberculture/Eisenberg.pdf
Your ready position is the default stance you assume when giving your talk, when not emphasizing with movement and gesture.
Have you thought about how you’ll stand while you give your talk? I refer to the time when you’re not moving about the stage to emphasize this or that point. This ready position is your anchor, your life preserver in a storm. Your safe harbor.
When you stride to the stage, move to the command position in front of the lectern and facing the crowd. Now, plant yourself as you would a paving stone in a garden. Plant yourself firmly, as a stone, with feet shoulder-width apart, weight evenly distributed, shoulders squared. Plant yourself as a deeply rooted Redwood.
Powerful. Confident. In command.
Do not slouch or put more weight on one foot than on the other. Point your toes slightly outward. Neither slump, nor stiffen. Shoulders back, head up, expectant.
Do not allow your head to settle down betwixt your collar bones. This compresses your neck like a concertina. It cramps your voice box and cuts the flow of air that you need to speak. At this point, let your hands hang loosely at your sides . . . (in a moment, we’ll give you something to do with your hands).
Walking and pointing and looking and eye-contact? Forget it for now.
Forget it all for now.
First, you must seize control of yourself.
You must control all of those little tics and habits and nervous gestures that leech the strength from your presentation. The tics and habits that telegraph your nervousness and lack of confidence.
What tics and habits, you say? Every young presenter has at least some of them and the ready position can help remedy the following pathologies.
Do Not cross your leg in front of you while you balance on the other. This “standing cross” is more prevalent, for some reason, among female presenters than among males. Some males have this habit as well. This is a particularly debilitating movement from both the standpoint of the audience and for you. It projects instability. And it makes you feel unstable.
Do Not cock your hip to one side – this is called a “hip-shot.” Again, this action undermines your foundation. This hip-shot posture degrades your presentation in multiple ways. It shouts nonchalance. It denotes disinterest and impatience. It cries out to the audience a breezy bar demeanor that is completely at odds with the spoken message you want to convey.
Do Not engage in little choppy steps. This side-to-side dance is common. It telegraphs nervousness.
Do Not slump your shoulders. Few things project lack of confidence like rounded shoulders. Slumping shoulders can be a reflexive response to nervousness that leads to a “closed body position.”
Again. Stand in one place, your feet comfortably shoulder-width apart, toes slightly pointed outward. Arms at your sides.
Your Foundation – Power Posing
Your goal at this point is to maintain a solid physical foundation. To project an image of confidence to the audience and to imbue yourself with confidence in point of fact. You begin to do this with your stance – solid and confident.
Now here is the most important guidance I can provide you for your Foundation “Ready” position.
Stand as described, and place your left hand in your pants pocket, out of the way. This position should be your default position. Putting the hand in your pocket gets it out of the way and keeps you out of trouble. Moreover, it projects confidence. And, no, it is not “unprofessional.” This position carries a multitude of positives and no negatives. You never go wrong with this position.
It imbues you with confidence and keeps you copacetic. To your audience, it projects competence, confidence, reassurance, and sobriety: “Here is someone who knows his/her stuff.”
This is your Ready Position.
Everything else you do flows from this position. Practice your two-minute talk from this position and do not move.
Stop and think. When you are ready to make a point that is crucial to your thesis . . . When you are ready to shift subjects or major ideas . . . then—
Then, step to the left while addressing the people on the left flank. Talk to them. Then, step to the right and address those on your right. Hold open your hands, palms up. Walk toward your audience a step or two. Look them in the eyes. Speak to individuals.
Then, step back to the center and retake your ready position.
Let your movements emphasize your points. When you gesture to a portion of the audience, step toward them in a kind of supplication.
And always always, always go back to the ready postion. I have seen dozens of young speakers transformed into capable, confident speakers by virtue of this alone. How is that possible? By removing the doubt associated with “How will I stand.” This powerful and stable stance imbues you with confidence, your first step toward building positive energy within yourself.
The Ready Position — it’s your safe harbor in a sea of presentation uncertainty.
Let me preface by assuring you that I do not expect you to stay rooted in one spot throughout your talk. But the risk of sounding clichéd, let us state forthrightly that it is impossible to build any lasting structure on a soft foundation.
This foundation grows out of the notion of what we can call “power posing.”
Let’s build your foundation now and learn more about the principle of power posing.
How do you stand when you converse in a group at a party or a reception?
What is your “bearing?” How do you stand before a crowd when you speak
Have you ever consciously thought about it?
How you stand, how you carry yourself, communicates to others.
It transmits a great deal about us with respect to our inner thoughts, self-image, and self-awareness.
Whether we like this is not the point.
The point is that we are constantly signaling others nonverbally.
You send a message – you send a message to those around you, and those around us take their cues based on universal perception of the messages received.
What is Your Message?
What is true in small groups is also true as you lecture or present in front of groups of four or 400. Whether you actually speak or not, your body language is always transmitting.
If so, just what is the message you unconsciously send people?
Have you even thought about it? Have you thought about the silent and constant messages your posture radiates?
Seize control of your communication this instant.
You have no reason not to.
And there are many quite good reasons why you should.
Recognize that much of the audience impression of you is forming as you approach the lectern.
They form this impression immediately, before you shuffle your papers or clear your throat or squint into the bright lights.
They form their impression from your walk, from your posture, from your clothing, from your grooming, from the slightest inflections of your face, and from your eye movement.
This has always been true; speaking Master Grenville Kleiser said in 1912 that, “The body, the hand, the face, the eye, the mouth, all should respond to the speaker’s inner thought and feeling.”
Do you stand with shoulders rounded in a defeatist posture?
Do you transmit defeat, boredom, ennui?
Do you shift from side-to-side or do you unconsciously sway back-and-forth?
Do you cross and uncross your legs without knowing, balancing precariously upon one foot, your free leg wrapped in front of the other, projecting an odd, wobbly, and about-to-tumble-down image?
Your posture affects those who watch you and it affects you as well. Those effects can be positive or negative.
Posture, of course, is part of nonverbal communication, and it serves this role well.
The audience takes silent cues from you, and your posture is one of those subtle cues that affect an audience’s mood and receptivity.
But posture and bearing are not simply superficial nonverbal communication to your audience.
There is another effect, and it can be insidious and can undermine your goals . . . or it can be an incredibly powerful ally to your mission.
It is this: Your body language transmits your depression, guilty, fear, lack of confidence to the audience. It also enhances and reinforces those feelings within you. Most often, if we fear the act of public speaking, the internal flow of energy from our emotional state to our physical state is negative.
Negative energy courses freely into our limbs and infuses us with stiffness, dread, immobility and a destructive self-consciousness. We shift involuntarily into damage-limitation mode.
It cripples us.
Your emotions affect your body language. They influence the way you stand, the way you appear to your audience. They influence what you say and how you say it.
Reverse the Process
But . . .
You can reverse the process.
You can use your gestures, movement, posture, and expression to influence your emotions.
You can turn it around quite handily and seize control of the dynamic. Instead of your body language and posture reflecting your emotions, reverse the flow.
Let your emotions reflect your body language and your posture. Consciously strike a bearing that reflects the confident and powerful speaker you want to be.
A venerable psychological theory contends this very thing, that our emotions evolve from our physiology. It’s called James-Lange Theory, developed by William James and the Danish physiologist Carl G. Lange.
Speaking Master James Albert Winans noted the phenomenon in 1915:
Count ten before venting your anger, and its occasion seems ridiculous. Whistling to keep up courage is no mere figure of speech. On the other hand, sit all day in a moping posture, sigh, and reply to everything with a dismal voice, and your melancholy lingers. . . . [I]f we wish to conquer undesirable emotional tendencies in ourselves, we must assiduously, and in the first instance cold-bloodedly, go through the outward movements of those contrary dispositions which we prefer to cultivate.
Much more recently, a Harvard study substantiated James-Lange Theory and found that power posing substantially increases confidence in people who assume them while interacting with others.
In short, the way you stand or sit either increases or decreases your confidence.
The study’s conclusion is unambiguous. It speaks directly to us.
Harvard researchers Dana R. Carney, Amy J.C. Cuddy and Andy J. Yap say in the September 2010 issue of Psychological Science that:
[P]osing in high-power displays (as opposed to low-power displays) causes physiological, psychological, and behavioral changes consistent with the literature on the effects of power on power holders — elevation of the dominance hormone testosterone, reduction of the stress hormone cortisol, and increases in behaviorally demonstrated risk tolerance and feelings of power.
In other words, stand powerfully and you increase your power and presence. You actually feel more powerful. This finding holds tremendous significance for you if you want to imbue your presentations with power.
In our 21st Century vernacular, this means you should stand the way you want to feel.
Assume the posture of confidence.
Consciously affect a positive, confident bearing. Square your shoulders. Affix a determined look on your face. Speak loudly and distinctly.
In short, let your actions influence your emotions.
Seize control of the emotional energy flow and make it work for you.
So what is a confident posture? Let’s begin with a firm foundation.
This is Your Foundation
For any structure to endure, we must build on strength.
And I mean this both in the metaphorical and in the literal sense with regard to business presentations.
You must not only project strength and stability, you must feel strength and stability. The two are inseparable, and a moment’s thought reveals to you why.
To appear unstable and fearful before an audience, a confident man must take a conscious effort to strike such a pose. Likewise, it would take a conscious effort for a man, who has planted himself firmly in the prescribed confident posture, to feel nervous, uncertain, or unsure of himself.
That is, if he affected the confident pose and maintained it relentlessly against all of the body’s involuntary urges to crumple and shift, to equivocate and sway.
Think as well of the confident woman.
How does the confident woman’s demeanor different from that of the confident man?
Virtually not at all.
The point and the goal is to establish a foundation that exudes strength, competence, and confidence.
Essential to this goal is that you know the difference between open body language and closed body language. It’s the difference between power posing and powerless posing.
This strong personal foundation is your ready position, your standard posture for your presentation.
It serves as the foundation for everything else to follow.