Presentationship: Owning The “Yes”

A fear worse than death. That’s how most of us view public speaking. And countless volumes have been written on how to get over this fear. I was there too: like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News, I prayed for a fire alarm that (unlike in the movie) never sounded.

But, like many of us, I pushed myself through that fear — enough to start asking the bigger questions. Not so much “why do we fear it?” but “why is it so important?” Because there is always a “YES” on the critical path to success: from your management, from your Board or other governing body, from the public, from your investors. And I’ve found that the best way to “YES” is presentationship.

Presentationship? Is that even a word?”

Think about other words that end in “-ship”: ownership, stewardship, craftsmanship. Those words represent the static made active, someone who is not just “being” but taking responsibility for an outcome through his or her actions. Presentationship is the same path. In presentationship, the presenter owns the outcome of his or her presentation and takes responsibility for getting the audience there. Because that presentation is not just the last box to be checked before you can take action: it is the distillation of all the work and worry that makes that action possible in the first place.

And that’s what leaders do. Distilling (but not simplifying) your message, which is a fundamental leadership skill, at whatever level. Effective presenting is a fundamental tool for a leader, at whatever level. Presentationship is a defining leadership trait, especially in today’s media-saturated world.

Enough hyperbole; let’s get to specifics. Presentationship can be distilled down into six rules.

Rule 1: Empathy. Start in your audience’s comfort zone.

Start with empathy. Empathy, simply put, is the ability to understand the perspective, experiences, or motivations of another individual. Don’t assume that you know what they know and don’t know or what they want to know: figure it out. Own your communication with your audience: their understanding is your responsibility, not theirs. You are the steward of their understanding and that takes work, your work.

That means starting with your audience’s reality, not yours. That reality is what they know broadly but also what they’ve decided before, be it policy, precedent, or preference. A presentation that includes an early statement of “consistent with the strategic plan …” is much more likely to succeed. In other words, make sure to tell them why they care. Then expand from there, adding air to the balloon without popping it, so to speak. Carry this through the presentation: “tell them, tell them, and tell them” as a wise boss of mine says. Analogize, repeat, rephrase.

You are creating a partnership with your audience: start (and finish) the walk together.

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Rule 2: Context. The more complex the picture, the simpler the frame. And the more vital the framing.

More often than not, presentations involve inviting non-experts (your audience) into the world of your expertise. You know your business inside and out; they don’t. You know exactly how your topic fits in that business strategically and operationally; they may not. You are fluent in the language of your business; they probably aren’t. So frame it for them, again starting from their reality. You are a tour guide in an enticing but very foreign land: your guests are looking every which way, not sure what to focus on or how it all fits together. Tell them, drawing a frame around your subject. Tell them where you’re going to end up — your conclusion — so that they can listen with that in mind.

Framing, simply and understandably, is particularly important when the subject matter and/or the context is complex. Put another way, as the chance of your audience losing its way increases, your guidance — the frame you create — becomes that much more important. They are counting on you.

Rule 3: Narrative. Painting the picture.

But framing is not enough: it’s up to narrative — your narrative — to paint the picture. Too often, we build the frame and then simply dump data into it, assuming that our audience will themselves paint the picture that we want them to see. And too often, we are wrong: non-expert audiences will simply tune out. At best, they will be unconvinced by your conclusions and say “NO;” at worst, convinced that they are being “sold” — and that “NO” becomes a credibility-destroying “NEVER.” Even expert audiences, consciously or not, expect you to have a narrative, if only to prove that you know what you’re talking about.

“Isn’t that just storytelling?” “Storytelling” is not a pejorative term; it’s essential. Human beings are hardwired for it and feel uncomfortable in its absence. We are so hardwired that, in the absence of a narrative, we’ll each invent one. It’s how we make sense of complex things; it’s how your audience moves from where they are to where you need them to be.

If it’s worth saying, it has a narrative. You may not have found it yet but it’s there. Find it.

Rule 4: Distillation. You know your subject better than anyone in the room; this is not the venue to prove that.

Einstein was correct: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” We are tempted, especially early in our careers or in front of a new audience, to try to impress with volume. In truth, nothing erodes your credibility more. Half your audience will disengage and all will lose confidence in your message. In other words, trying to baffle with bull leads to “NO.” Your credibility is a function of your framing, your ability to distill the detail without oversimplifying, a consistent and appropriate level of detail, and your response to their questions. That’s the path to “YES.” In other words, your presentationship.

Your materials should follow the same rule. To borrow from de Saint-Exupery, “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” That takes judgement, confidence, and (perhaps surprisingly) empathy. Think through your narrative from your audiences’ perspective — their reality — and ask yourself what you would need in their role to make an informed decision about your topic. And that role is important: are they electrical engineers or the City Council? Neither is wrong, but neither reacts well to the approach that works for the other. Don’t hide the ball, ever. But when in doubt, talk it out with someone you trust, ideally someone who has a similar level of knowledge — a similar reality — as your audience.

In this connection, beware the Four Horsemen of the Failed Presentation: jargon, acronyms, dependent clauses, and caveats. Everything you say may be unimpeachably complete and correct, but if they can’t follow you … you guessed it. “NO.”

Rule 5: Summation. Conclude early and often. Do the work for your audience.

An audience is always working to better understand the presenter, and the empathetic presenter knows this. And remember that their understanding is your responsibility, not theirs. This is true for the content of the presentation but especially as the context supports the presenter’s conclusion. You’ve done the framing, including the conclusion, at the beginning of the presentation. Now bring your frame along with you: like a pop song, necessary detail, chorus, necessary detail, chorus, and so on to the big finish.

You are Winston Churchill at full rhetorical steam: “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time — a tremendous whack.” That’s a “YES.” Failing that, you’ve lost them along the way: “NO.”

Rule 6: Embrace the questions.

“And now, I welcome your questions.” Often it seems like you’ve hit your stride on your presentation and reached the (triumphant, I hope) conclusion… and the tables turn. Suddenly you’re facing the unknown: what will they ask? How will they ask it? I’ve distilled everything down for my presentation but now what?

Deep breath. First and foremost, remember that your presentation was designed to provide the information necessary for your audience to say “YES.” So the hard part is done. That said, questions are tough, no doubt about it, but this is your time to really shine. Embracing questions is palpable to your audience and turbocharges your credibility. By way of contrast, your indifference (or worse, recoil) is also palpable and destroys credibility. This is also an opportunity to understand your audience even better. Questions almost always show interest more than doubt. Answers to questions always benefit the whole audience, not just the person asking the question. Helpfully, the rules for questions are exactly the same.

That’s presentationship. Did I just hear a “YES”?