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What’s the worst presentation you’ve ever given?

Chances are you didn’t have to think too long before the painful memory of a disastrous performance rose to the surface.  These things stay with us.

Mine was 17 years ago.  I had been invited to a multi-agency ‘Loop Team’ meeting – leaders from different marketing disciplines brought together to share ‘best practice’ in service of our mutual multi-national client.

I can’t remember what my presentation was about.  I have no recollection of rehearsing.  But I remember that, just before I was stepped up to the lectern, the Loop Team leader took me aside and said, “We need more energy.  Be Bonnie Langford.”

Pause and Google Bonnie Langford if you are unfamiliar with her work.  If you have never met me before, simply imagine the total, polar opposite of everything Bonnie Langford epitomises.

If Bonnie Langford skipped, I walked slowly.  If she spoke with a light trill and a girlish laugh, I was tonally similar to the speaking clock.  If she captured the audience’s hearts and minds with her vivacity, I had 30 PowerPoint slides and was damn well going to use them.

Put simply, there was a huge, gaping, insurmountable void lying between the bubbly, vivacious, teeth & eyes personality of Ms. Langford and me, age 28.

So when I heard that direction from stage left, I didn’t do what any normal person would do which was to smile, nod and then do my own thing, confident that I had rehearsed and was ready.

No, I didn’t do that.  Turned out I wasn’t a normal person.  And I’m not sure I had rehearsed.  I was an idiot people pleaser.  I did what I was told.

At this point your imagination is probably ahead of the reality.  It wasn’t so bad that I got up and did my presentation through the medium of song, with some added tap dancing for good measure.  I didn’t do a Violet Elizabeth Bott impression.  The audience wasn’t totally cringing and I didn’t totally die of shame.

However, I did latch onto the word, ‘energy’ from the brief and I took that ‘energy’ and I turned it into ‘speed’.  Rather than demonstrating energy via a dynamic and engaging performance, I bollocked through my slides at record pace. I gabbled, I barely drew breath; I raced on and on, at warp speed, my words speeding up, my oxygen running out.  And when I got to the last slide, I practically ran off stage, panting.

In the dark moments afterwards someone from the audience came up to me and said, “You couldn’t wait for that to end could you?”

So much for the content that I’d spent hours scripting and the slides that I’d spent days finessing. If his overriding impression of my presentation was – “GET ME OUT OF HERE”, then the rest of the audience probably took that away too.   If they thought of me at all, it wasn’t my key messages that resonated.  It was the memory of a manic race through 30 slides in five minutes delivered by a wide-eyed woman vibrating with stress.

The experience served a purpose – to prepare, practice and improve over the years so that now – irony – I help others avoid my fate through presentation & pitch coaching.

Here’s what I would tell my 28 year self:

  1. Know thyself. Improve your presentation style with practice and coaching but don’t try and be Tigger if you’re really Eeyore. And say what you think – you are useless to anyone if you just present other people’s ideas.
  2. Rehearse. No actor would go on stage in front of an audience and perform for the first time without having run through – out loud – what they were going to say. Yet in business this happens all the time.  If you’ve rehearsed, you are less likely to be derailed.
  3. Warm up – Physically prepare and use tongue twisters to get your mouth muscles moving so the first sound isn’t a timorous squeak.
  4. Breathe. Learn how to breathe properly so you sound measured, feel in control and look relaxed.
  5. Start strong. Nail your first (interesting, attention grabbing) line and end with a bang not a whimpering “any questions?”
  6. Polish – whilst fresh in your mind, critique yourself and think where you can improve next time.
  7. Celebrate – store in your memory all the great performances you give to increase your resilience memory bank. Every time you present, you can draw on your “sub-conscious competence”: that certainty that you will be dazzlingly brilliant. It works for all high level performances from public orators to sports stars. The more you enjoy it the more the audience will enjoy you.

Finally, you don’t have to do what you’re told.  People give unsolicited advice. You have to decide what’s helpful.  Trust your instinct.  My instinct knew that the Bonnie Langford brief was totally incongruous with whom I am, and yet I overrode it.  To less than spectacular results.

I will never be like Bonnie Langford.  I can live with that.



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Louisa Clarke

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