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Mastering the Art of Bad Presentation Part I: Bad Timing and a Hungry Crowd

Updated: May 15, 2018

How to mess things up with poise and confidence.

As presenters, some days are better than others. Sometimes you're in the zone and steal the show; everything proceeds as planned. Your audience is with you the entire time. They laugh at your jokes, smile at your wit, and nod in agreement to the points you have made. Other times, things just don't go your way, and it all goes to pit. Murphy's law. Mistakes happen. Full stop. How we handle ourselves can mean all the difference in saving our presentations (and our dignity).

A number of years ago while working for the bank, I attended a day-long conference in Princeton, New Jersey, to see presentations given by very high level analysts and fund managers. One speaker in particular, suffered a very tough day where almost nothing would go right. The story begins as he was scheduled to speak for about forty five minutes right before lunch. Upon his arrival (almost thirty minutes after he was due to begin because his flight from London was delayed), an already impatient crowd was forced to stop playing games on their smartphones to listen to him speak. The subtle grumbling of the audience fell to a soft murmur, as the Power Point presentation came onto the screen once the lights dimmed down. Introductions were made and the presentation began. There it was for all to see; on the bottom right of the very first slide: "page number 1 of 79 total pages". You could feel the blank emotion immediately wash over the room, as several of us began to do the math in our heads: how long was this going to "take" before we were finished? And, how much could he possibly cover in his remaining fifteen minutes? Normally, the situation, from the presenters point of view, should have seemed dire and hopeless. A worse case scenario for any executive with two hundred and fifty sets of mid-managerial eyes upon him, coming in late, and the only one standing between them and a well catered lunch. What actually ensued was both memorable and priceless, and probably remains as one of the cornerstones for my own style of presentation. Believe it or not, he was actually good! Highly entertaining, and well worth the wait.

He opened his dialogue by using a method employed by very successful leaders: he began by thanking all of us for waiting for him. This act, by itself, had many of us nodding our heads in agreement, because he sought our approval. We didn't even noticed that he never apologized for being late. He simply thanked us, and started to speak about his topic. In addition to building strong empathy at the beginning, the speaker broke from his normal presentation, and began to improvise by leveling with us. He knew he did not have enough time to complete his task, and he was aware that he was holding us up from having a good meal. In response, he adjusted his topics and speech accordingly: by eliminating slides, unnecessary diagrams, and dialogues. At several points, he even said, "This slide is boring...let's skip it." Each time receiving a larger and larger laugh from all of us. Suddenly, we didn't feel so bad about being a few minutes late for lunch or having to listen to him speak about some boring topic. His ability to push the focus onto us and shift our attention into a frank discussion, became just that: a dialogue between us as his audience, and himself. All in all, it turned out to be a fast twenty minutes; and even though we ran over time, it was worth the wait because his presentation style was professional and relaxed, filled with humor that was intelligent, relative, and charismatic.

In relationship management, you are taught that removing negative and apologetic words helps to reinforce positive affirmation towards closing the deal. It's also one of the reasons that you are taught in business school to move along without saying you're sorry after making a mistake in your presentation. Simply put, it removes the focus from you and places it onto the goof; which erodes the relationship between the presenter and the audience. Further, being able to "level with the audience" helps create intimacy and understanding between you and whomever you are presenting to. It also helps to alleviate more of the tension from unforeseen elements such as being late or running over time; and it can turn the tide for an entire presentation, while captivating the audience.

In my opinion, two of the hallmarks for outstanding leadership and presentation ability are making adjustments on the fly when nothing goes right, and being able to garner empathy focused upon your audience. This requires a great deal of time and skill to hone, but once perfected, can become the tipping point of making you into a wonderful presenter. So, you may ask, what makes the difference between a good and great presenter? How memorable of a performance they make, and how long their message impacts your ability to remember them. More on this, next time.

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