What’s in a live presentation?

Row of businesspeople with question marks signs in front of their facesWe work with a lot of clients who make the final cut. They make it to that last stage, where a live presentation is required before new business makes its decision to award a contract. Generally, our clients want to structure such presentations around their qualifications. They focus on their experience, expertise, and knowledge base. They want to make a fact-based impression on their hard-headed audience.


Don’t bother with that. If the panel was not already impressed with your experience, expertise, and knowledge base, you wouldn’t be there.

No one invites you to make a live presentation to walk them through things they’ve already learned from your proposal. They invite you to see whether you’d be good to work with.

Is the chemistry there? Are you on the same wavelength? Will there be mutual understanding? Can you trust each other? Would you want to work with that team for the next several years?

Face-to-face is where you leave the hard facts behind and talk about yourself—your history, your philosophy, and your values. What star do you steer by? What stories bear this out? How good are you on your feet, responding to questions? What are you like, really?

Don’t squander your time making a data-based case that’s already been made. Move on to what counts now.  Tell them what they need to hear, not what you want to tell them.

Yes, hard data got you into the room. Hard data point the way to the truth. But hard data alone won’t sell them on you, for we often make our actual decisions on emotional factors, not logical ones. People follow their hearts and then cite the evidence that leads them where they want to go. Use the precious time you have in front of an audience to show yourself in your true light. That’s why you’re really up there—to show them that you’re the team they most want to work with.

A toast!

side view of champagne glass in male hand isolated on white backgroundWhat if you have to give a toast at a company gathering this month? How do you do it right?

One of our partners remembers a toast delivered by her CEO back in the day. He talked about all the success his agency had had during the past year, but finished every sentence with, “ . . . but that isn’t good enough.”

He thought he was encouraging people to hit a higher bar in the coming year. But when people’s best (and largely successful) efforts are dismissed, they do not feel warm or encouraged. His toast had the opposite effect. There’s nothing like making everyone feel inadequate.

Don’t do that.

Instead, remember that sentiment is the thing. Don’t try humor; humor is overrated. Instead, do kindness. In the beginning, the middle, and the end.

No notes.

But what if I don’t know what to say? 

Of course you know what to say.  You know these people professionally better than anyone else.  Just look at them and tell them how you feel about their work.

What about making a point?

No one is looking for a point.  They’re looking to be touched.  Get your audience to like themselves (and you) more than they did before you started speaking.

To do this right, pretend you are talking to someone in a bar.  What would you say to that person about your people at work?  Figure that out (mostly leave out anything negative) and there’s your toast.

Follow this technique:

  1. Stand up.
  2. Hold your glass chest high. Keep it there during the entire toast. Arm fatigue serves as a great, natural toast timer.
  3. Remain still, in one place, until you’ve finished talking. Then raise your glass and drink.
  4. Prepare to hear that you did a great job. Because you did.
Apologizing like you mean it

smiling careless bearded businessman refusing accusation, acting like an hypocrite, coward or irresponsible for corporate faults, isolated, white backgroundThere have been a lot of revelations lately (most of them out of Hollywood), and they’ve led to a number of apologies on the part of the offenders. You’ve probably heard most of them. Do you believe any of them?

Here’s the problem: people are not always sure whether you’re apologizing because you’re sorry for the act or because you’ve been caught. One clue is in how you apologize.

In 2009, David Letterman, a married man, broke the news that he’d had an affair with a member of his staff, a matter over which someone had tried to blackmail him. He said, “When something happens like that, if you hurt a person and it’s your responsibility, you try to fix it. And at that point, there’s only two things that can happen: either you’re going to make some progress and get it fixed, or you’re going to fall short and perhaps not get it fixed. So let me tell you, folks, I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

This struck most listeners as a sincere and realistic statement. It did not include a denial, a claim of memory loss, or an attempted diversion. It did not seem studied or self-serving, just regretful and honest. There are not very many today who think about this transgression when they think about Letterman.

Some more recent apologetic statements begin well (“These stories are true”) but then run aground on the rocks of self-aggrandizement. When an apology is about the experience of the one who is apologizing, people tend to get exasperated.

Here’s a tip: it’s not about you. Don’t make it about you.

When Paula Deen infamously made three ineffective apologies in a row about racist language she once used, she failed because she seemed to be struggling to say that it wasn’t really an offense, or shouldn’t have been taken as one, and that the experience had really taken a toll on her. “I’m sorry if anyone was offended,” she seemed to be saying. Not, “I’m sorry I did that.”

A good apology needs to be swift, be sincere, and include an element of repentance. It needs to be real. If you’re apologizing  for the sake of appearance, crafting words calculated to ward off attack, people will probably see that. But if you’re apologizing because you mean it, that’s what will come across.

Left or right?

Indy ChamberWe don’t often get questions that stump us, but we got one today at the Indy Chamber of Commerce. It came from an engineer. After we finished our program on improving business presentations, he asked:  “On a PowerPoint slide that includes graphics and text, which side do the graphics go on—left or right?”

We found ourselves blinking. I generally place my text on the left and graphics on the right, but I’ve never thought why. I promised to go find the tribal wisdom on this subject.

I did not find much, but those who have looked at the question give this answer: it depends.

If your graphic acts as a descriptive summary (not just a filler image) then give it the place of honor on the top/left, where most people in the West begin their scan. But if your graphic is illustrative (like a metaphor) then place it at the right/bottom.

Substantively important things go left, where people look first. Clarification and emphasis go right, where people look last.

Of course, you’re free just to show the graphic and let the words come out of your mouth. And that may be the best of both worlds.

What we saw that wasn’t so great

Our last post covered the Rise of the Rest pitch competition on Oct. 12, which included some great, well-rehearsed pitches. But some could have been better.

  • Several presenters weren’t sure how the clicker worked and so stumbled and bumbled their way through their slide decks, advancing when they did not want to advance and going back a slide or two when that was not desired.
  • Several presenters also had WAY too much info on their slides. Putting three screens from your website into one projected image befuddles the audience. What am I looking at? What should I look at first? What’s the most important stuff? How am I supposed to read type that is that small?
  • Several had weak endings to their presentations and did not even include an ask. Audiences remember the first thing you say and the last thing. When $100,000 is on the line, make sure the judges remember how much good that money can do if they award it to you.
  • During the Q & A, one presenter kept her hands behind her back. Keep your hands visible–it increases trust.
  • One presenter ran out of time. When you rehearse, you have to allow time for audience reaction. Pause during your run-throughs when you expect your listeners to chuckle, gasp, be stunned, whatever; otherwise, on The Day, you will run long.
  • When the emcee introduces you as, “And now, here’s Jane Smith from the XYZ Company,” do not start by saying, “Hi, my name is Jane Smith and I’m from the XYZ Company.” Your  audience heard it the first time. Don’t waste precious seconds by repeating something they already know. Use an attention-getting opening instead. For example, “Look at the person on your left and the one on your right. Statistically speaking, one of the three of you will get cancer sometime in your lifetime.”
Pitching for a chance

Rise of the restTen entrepreneurs, 10 pitches, $100,000 for the best one.  And there were some good ones.

Rise of the Rest with Steve Case is a nationwide effort to encourage entrepreneurs in startup “ecosystems”—emerging markets where high-growth companies can start and scale.  On Oct. 12, Indianapolis was in the spotlight. When You Leave The Room joined some 300 spectators to watch the contestants perform.

Here’s what we saw that was great:

  • Some well-rehearsed speakers who presented smoothly and convincingly
  • Proof positive that “it takes a whole lot of practice to sound spontaneous”
  • Some very simple graphics that made it easy for the audience to understand the concepts
  • One very effective use of an emotional appeal
  • Expert uses of humor to convey messages and build rapport with the audience
  • A video included in one presentation – which actually included audio that could be heard. Hooray!
  • Easy completions within the four-minute time limit by nine out of the ten presenters

Next post: what we heard and saw that was not so great.

Phoning it in

woman speaker consulting cell phoneHow handy. You have a phone, much more compact than a piece of paper, and much smarter. With this, you can scroll through page after page of notes as you talk, never having to shuffle through cards or paper and never getting anything out of order.

But there’s a big problem with that technique: the audience will hate it. They came to hear you speak, not to watch you read. You squint, you scroll, and you let everyone know how poorly you prepared. Whenever you focus your attention on anything but your audience, you lose a measure of their respect. When they see you looking down at a smart phone, it’s even worse.

Though only about 10 years old, smart phone technology is notorious for cutting its users off from reality. We harshly criticize drivers who consult a phone while behind the wheel. We disparage people who take a phone call during a dinner date. We demand everyone silence their phones in class or when viewing a play. We have been conditioned to despise the sight of anyone gazing at a phone when they are supposed to be looking at us.

I recently saw a speaker do that very thing, using a smart phone as reference for his talk. It was off-putting and did not help his talk in the least.

This is not to say that you can’t prepare a script. As a speaker, you should plan, make your case, plot your stories, and craft language that appeals to the senses. But once you have done that, you should practice it until you no longer need the script.

When you deliver a talk, have nothing on hand other than your talking points, written on 3 x 5 cards that can be drawn discretely from your pocket, briefly glanced at, and put aside as you do what you came to do: make eye contact and speak to those you came to persuade.

Becoming a better public speaker

Mature businessman using a microphone to talk to his colleagues with focus on the businessman

Don’t think you’re a very strong public speaker? You’ve got lots of company. In a recent Logitech survey of 1,500 office professionals, nearly 64% said they were not strong public speakers, even though they believed their salary would increase if they were.

About 66% of those surveyed think that no one with poor presentation skills could ever be an executive at their company; yet more than half have walked away from a chance to present because they felt they were not good enough.

They avoid public speaking. They avoid it even though they believe they’d benefit if they got better.

Some believe that good public speakers are born that way, so what’s the point of trying? But that’s a lame rationalization. It may be true that some bring more talent to the table than others, but not one of us starts out strong. We get that way with coaching and practice.

Public speaking is a skill like any other. Like learning a foreign language, it seems daunting at first. Then you learn the rudiments and see there are rules. You learn to follow the rules and identify exceptions to those rules. Your vocabulary grows. And, with practice, you put it all together.

So it is with public speaking. The primary rules are these:

  1. Know your subject
  2. Believe what you’re saying
  3. Know how to present

The first two are on you; a speaking coach will be glad to help you with the third.

Overcoming “um”

Um3Most of the time, you don’t even know you’re doing it. You’re in front of an audience and you’re concerned with the next thing you’re going to say. That’s when you shovel in a filler word. You say “um” or “uh” or “so” or some other filler, just as we do in casual conversation. But when you’re speaking to an audience, filler words detract from your talk—they’re uninformative, repetitive, and, before long, irritating.

Psychologists say that we use fillers because we don’t like awkward silences. At some level we’re trying to reassure listeners that we’re sailing toward the next idea and will be there in just a moment.

Practiced speakers don’t do this. They know their subject so well that they step nimbly from idea to idea without hesitation. But even a practiced speaker can get caught on the shoals of “um” if she sails into unknown waters. If you go off subject, you lose your confidence and resort to filler words that betray the fact you’re groping your way along.

How do you get rid of the fillers? It’s not easy. Speaking coaches say this is one of the hardest bad habits to eradicate. But there are techniques that lead you in the right direction:

  • Record yourself. You’ll hear yourself using “um” and other fillers just as the audience does–not as you do, when your mind is elsewhere. This will make you aware of the habit and conscious of the need to overcome it.
  • You may know your subject cold, but have you rehearsed how you will express it? The need to use a filler word feels greatest when you’re grasping for a thought. Don’t grasp. Know what you’re going to say and you’ll feel less pressure to resort to a filler.
  • Inhale when you’ve finished a point. You can’t say “um” when you’re inhaling. Then go directly to your transition: “Now we should move on to . . . .” or “A third point has to do with . . .”
  • Just say nothing. Silence is your ally. It impresses the audience with the importance of what you’ve just said. As one successful speaking coach observed, when you stop talking, they start listening.
  • Make eye contact. You’re less likely to resort to a filler if you’re looking someone in the eye.

As with any speaking technique, practice makes you better. Go to war against the “um,” and don’t give up. Chances are that you will be victorious.

“I’m sorry, but . . . .”

Businessman and woman standing so shadows look like she's giving him a giftDo you always find yourself apologizing? Even when some would say you’ve done little or nothing to apologize for?

Studies suggest that if you answered “yes,” you’re probably female. That may be a stereotype, but it’s apparently one grounded in reality. Women do indeed apologize more often than men.

But wait. It goes deeper. A 2010 study published in Psychological Science 1) suggests this pattern has nothing to do with egos (i.e., men refuse to apologize because it makes them look like losers; women apologize because they’re not assertive).  Both women and men apologize when they feel an apology is warranted. It’s just that men seem to have a higher threshold of what constitutes offensive behavior.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Research conducted by Carol Kinsey Goman 2) about communication in the workplace noted a consistent strength in female communication: the ability to read body language and pick up nonverbal cues. Males, she found, are less sensitive to audience reactions. Thus, it may be that women perceive more offenses because they are more focused on the experiences of other people. They are also more likely to use tentative speech forms—qualifiers, hedges, and fillers—when speaking (e.g, “kind of” or “sorry to bother you”) because they are more sensitive to the possible effect of their words.

Males, on the other hand, may have a higher threshold for social pain. They are less likely to apologize because they are less likely to perceive that an offense has been committed. When they use a tentative form it is more likely meant to take the edge off a direct statement (“Perhaps if you turn to page 2 of your text you will see what I mean”).

The point of this is not to admonish either women or men to change their ways—just to be aware of this key difference in communication. When women apologize they are not necessarily being self-effacing, just displaying the empathy they may feel is warranted. When men seem overly blunt and direct it’s not necessarily that they’re trying to be overbearing, just that they see no reason to be less than direct and to-the-point.

As you prepare to address any audience, it’s worthwhile to learn whether it will be exclusively male, exclusively female, or some proportion of the two. That can have a bearing on how you present your information. It can also have a bearing on how well you understand your next workplace interaction with a member of another gender.


1) Schumann, K., & Ross, M. (2010). Why Women Apologize More Than Men: Gender Differences in Thresholds for Perceiving Offensive BehaviorPsychological Science, 21(11).

2) Goman, Carol Kinsey (2016). Is your Communication Style Dictated by Your Gender? Forbes online:


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