How to free yourself from your words to present like a rock star
When one thinks of momentous music venues, Wrexham Central Station doesn’t immediately spring to mind. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with the 500 capacity indie band haunt, it’s just not Wembley or the Royal Albert Hall. For me and my band, it was the location of one of our most memorable performances.
One evening in July 2009, my band mates and I drove a rented LDV Maxus from Wolverhampton to perform to a clan of unsuspecting, adolescent Wrexonians. We were a little-known, unsigned act playing in a new town. As such, our expectations for crowd participation were low. On that night, despite the thin layer of sweat that coated the stage floor of Wrexham Central Station, the supporting act did little to convince us the crowd was going to be any different.
As the house lights dimmed, we took to the stage and launched into our first song. Despite the low vibe left by the band before us, we attacked the crowd with the same explosive energy we did at every show. The sound was fast-paced and powerful. The performance equally so, with timed jumps and runs back and forth across the stage. The antithesis of shoegaze indie. We did it to elicit the same response from the crowd. Astonishingly, it worked.
By the time we reached the second chorus we entered into a choreographed unison of pogo-bouncing, guitar-toting, would-be rock stars. A few eager witnesses followed suit and within seconds the 500-strong flock were bouncing in time to a unknown band from Wolverhampton.
After the show the promoter burst into the dressing room. “I thought the floor was going to give way!” speechless, we waited for him to continue, “I’ve never seen a crowd that crazy before, how did you pull it off?”
We weren’t the world’s most gifted artists, nor were our songs much better than anything the other unsigned acts were peddling, but we found that if we went the distance to put on an energetic show the crowd would respond accordingly. You only get what you give, and all that.
Bouncing around and running rampant while playing a tight set doesn’t come naturally. We would practice for hours on end, playing the same ten songs, over and over. The result? Playing our instruments was automatic. We didn’t have to think about where our hands needed to be, leaving us free to put on a show.
These days, I’ve traded dive bars for boardrooms and my ‘performance’ is more likely to be a presentation to convince a client that my work is good. Despite this, I still apply the same principle of relentless practice. In the case of client presentations, I don’t want to enter the room worrying about what I need to say. Just as switching between four chords was automatic, I want my words to be automatic so that I’m free to focus on the audience and adjust the delivery of my message. Here’s how I do it:
1. Write your script
Write it out in full, just like a blog post. There’s a tendency when preparing for presentations to spend all your time designing slides around which you hang a few words and make a few notes. I spent years working this way. The excuse for not having written a script is always that there’s not enough time.
The slides are not your presentation. Your words are. Stop caring about slides and put that time into writing a script. Once you’ve written and practiced your script, then, and only then, should you go and make some pretty slides.
2. Find your safe space
Once you’ve written your script, print it out. Go to your safe space — a spare meeting room, the fire escape, the toilet — wherever you feel comfortable rehearsing your presentation at full volume. Mouthing the words silently in front of your computer is not going to cut it.
As you rehearse you’ll notice your perfectly crafted script sounds unnatural. Edit as you go, pausing to make notes and corrections. If you’ve made a lot of corrections, then retype the script. Practice again, at full volume. You’re standing up too right?
3. Hide the script
Now go over it again except this time hide your script. Yep, turn that paper over and just start talking. When you lose your way take a peek at your script and on a new piece of paper write down a key word to help jog your memory for next time. These key words will form the basis of your notes.
4. Write-up your notes
Add any extra key words and important phrases to the notes. Type them up if you prefer. These notes are what you’ll take with you to the presentation. They should be concise and big enough to read from a distance.
I used to fear that I’d look a bit amateur hour if I presented from notes. More recently, I’ve learned the opposite to be true — presenters who have notes appear prepared and look like they give a shit. Mine often look something like this:
Hopefully you won’t even need your notes, if you practice enough you might find that to be the case. However, in the solitude of your safe space, anxiety levels are pretty low. When it’s go time, you’ll be stood in front of the gatekeepers and it will feel like they are staring into your very soul. It’s at that point you’re going to be glad your notes are there to save you.
5. Practice, practice, practice
Keep practicing. If you absolutely need to show some slides, then work on the timing of that.
Find a colleague willing to endure your unpolished rehearsal. Use their time wisely. Explain to them what the point of your presentation is and how you were hoping to make the client feel. Ask them whether they think you achieve that. Listen to their feedback, fine-tune the presentation and keep practicing.
You should be aiming to run through your presentation around 10 times. If it’s 15 minutes long then that’s 2 hours 30 minutes of solid practice. Of course, this varies greatly with content but use your level of confidence as a steer.
If you’ve followed steps one through five, the words should be etched in your mind. You should certainly feel more confident than the last time you winged it. You’ll still feel anxious though — sadly in my experience that never goes away — but rather than worrying about your words you’re now free to focus on projecting your voice, making eye contact, adding the right pauses and stresses to key messages, all those additional techniques that transform you from a mumbling mess into a contract-winning rock star.
Great presentations require both compelling content and a strong delivery. This article outlines a process for practicing but if you want to learn the rest, I highly recommend doing Winning Hearts and Minds, a presentation skills course that many of the Many have done and loved.
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