(Bringing this one back from 2013)
Scott Hanselman and Drew Robbins discussed how to be a good technical presenter (http://www.hanselminutes.com/default.aspx?showID=269). They covered valuable techniques for presenters to use, like making repeated eye contact with five or six people in the audience so everyone in the audience has a feeling of connection. However, they left out the most fundamental technique, one that makes more of a difference than any other in how my talks come across.
The most important preparation I can make for a presentation is to give up my desire to be seen by the audience in a way that I don’t see myself. Let me say that the other way around for emphasis. I need to be okay being seen as I see myself.
This goes counter to every bit of my childhood training, where it was a matter of life or death to be seen by others as better than I was. Or worse than I was (if you think it’s confusing for a kid to get these contradictory messages crammed down his throat, one from each parent, you would be, ahem, correct).
Here’s what I mean. At a recent geeky lunch I was seated at an alpha geek table. I followed most of the conversation and contributed my share. When something came up that I wasn’t familiar with, though, I was reluctant to ask a question. I wanted to be seen as savvy and on the ball. Questions that reveal ignorance interfered with how I wanted to be seen.
The same thing happens to me on stage. I’m standing there in front of hundreds of people and I want them to think I’m hip, cool, and with it (a picture that is immediately blown by using words like “hip”, “cool”, and “with it”, but oh well). Up comes a question that I don’t have an answer for. What do I do?
As a presenter, it’s more important to be trustworthy than expert. Some trustworthy answers are, “I don’t know,” or, “I don’t know, does anyone else here know?” or, “Here’s how I would find out.” My desire to have others see me differently than I see myself gets in the way. With decades of practice, I can usually keep the inner struggle short enough that all the audience sees is a reasonable response, but the struggle still happens every time.
This principle of presenting a true picture to others has a corollary, which is to present a true picture of myself to myself. Sometimes I pretend to be worse than I am as a defense against the responsibility of competence. Sometimes I pretend to be better than I am, even to myself. Neither is a sustainable strategy. Reality keeps providing contrary feedback. (I covered this in detail in Ease At Work).
If you’re afraid to be seen as you see yourself, there’s no magic cure. Here are some of things I do:
- Take a fresh look at the material. Would it be interesting to me if I didn’t already know it? Excitement infects.
- Remind myself that it’s okay for me to be just me.
- Remind myself that if the audience members learn something useful but think I’m an idiot, that’s better than them thinking that I’m vaguely clever but not taking away anything helpful.
Getting back to Scott and Drew’s techniques, they can all be used to more effectively present technical material. However, they only work if they build on a foundation of authenticity. Carefully manipulating patterns of eye contact to convince people you care about them when you don’t care is a complicated and futile distraction. People who matter aren’t fooled.