I was in San Diego for a conference a while back, standing in line at Kono’s, and trying to decide which yummy breakfast I wanted to enjoy on the bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean when I overheard a conversation by two people in line behind me.
Man: “Are you nervous about your presentation today? It’s kind of a big deal for you.”
Woman: “No, not really. I haven’t really practiced, so I’m going to wing it. Everything is on the slides and I can read them. I’ll be ok.”
It was all I could do to stay focused on the menu and my task at hand; in my mind I took her by the shoulders, shook her gently and said, “Noooooooooooooo! Don’t wing it. And definitely don’t read the slides! Go back home NOW and practice!”
The truth is I probably would have been more surprised if she’d said, “I practiced last night, I know everything by heart and I am ready to give them the presentation of their lives.” Aside from the TED circuit, in real life mediocrity seems to be the current standard - and goal - when it comes to presenting. So sad.
It was on the speech and debate team during high school where I learned that presentations are in fact performances and that the most successful presentations - the ones that audiences enjoy the most and result in a ‘win’ for the presenter - come not from presenters who wing it, but from those who have invested hours in practicing every little detail of their presentation. It is a habit I continue to practice. Rehearsal is a priority and I never take the stage or the front of the room without investing significant amounts of time in familiarizing myself with the presentation content and flow. The stakes are too high.
It amazes me today how many people are ok with winging it during a presentation, and it tells me a couple of things:
1) The presenter hasn’t considered - or maybe doesn’t care about - the time the audience is investing in the presentation and the cost associated with that investment.
If there are 30 people in your audience and your presentation lasts for an hour, the collective investment in your presentation (not counting travel time) is 30 hours. Multiply that by the hourly equivalent wage for each of the audience members and you’ll realize a substantial investment sits in front of you. It is your duty to prove to your audience that their investment of time has been worth it, and knowing your material inside and out is the easiest way to do that. It says, “I know you have many other ways to spend your time and I am honored you have chosen to spend your time with me. I have done my best to prepare for you so you won’t feel that your time has been wasted.” Respect.
2) They don’t know that an amazing presentation is an opportunity to make great things happen.
Requests for additional presentations, scoring that important meeting or contact, a new client, an interview on the news, a spread in the local paper, being known as an authority in your field, increasing visibility for you, your organization, and your cause. The list goes on and on. A well executed presentation has the ability to do all of these things - both for the presenter and the organization that the presenter represents. The power and payoff of an amazing presentation is something most people don’t even consider, but definitely should.
3) They don’t know that poor presentations are not just lost opportunities to make great things happen - they can be damaging to your cause, your credibility, and your core mission.
And the flip side is that a poorly executed presentation can damage all of those things you’ve worked so hard to build. Think about it. A presentation is a little bit like an abbreviated internship where the audience gets some real information not only about the way you work, but about the wisdom of the organization that hired you.
So from this brief exposure we can tell a lot about an individual and the organization who has hired them (guilt by association, right?). Do we want to work with these people? Or be thankful our paths haven’t crossed until now and don’t need to again?
If you’re like me (and I know first hand that most of you are) you take a lot of pride in your work and strive to do the best job possible. You’d never walk into an important meeting unprepared. You’d never fail to give your boss something they requested. You always make sure other groups have the information they need from you to move their work forward.
Then why don’t we apply the same standards to our presentations??? Why do we think it’s ok to be horribly subpar in this one aspect of our work when we strive so hard to excel in all of the other areas? Maybe it’s because we haven’t considered any of the benefits a really, really amazing presentation can have and how, in a matter of minutes a great presentation can take your work to a place it could never go without it.
That, my friends, is the best reason to never, ever wing it.