I usually kick off my presentation skills workshops with the story of the worst presentation I ever saw. But the only thing worse than sitting through a terrible presentation is being the one at the front of the room delivering that terrible presentation.
So here is the story of the worst presentation I ever gave. How bad was it? It was so bad that my boss’s boss came up to me afterwards and said, “You’re really bad at this! You need to take a public speaking class.”
Here is what happened that day, what I learned, and how it can help you be a better presenter.
The Scene of the Crime
This was back the early ’90s when I served as press secretary for the Ohio Attorney General. It was a big office with several hundred attorneys working on 40,000-plus cases. Yeah, 40 THOUSAND. A lot of stuff to keep track of.
One day the phone rang in the office of one of our Assistant AGs. He picked it up and proceeded to answer the caller’s questions about the case he was working on.
It turns out that the caller was a newspaper reporter. The attorney said some things he should not have said and the story that appeared in the paper a couple of days later was very, very bad, and caused us a good bit of trouble.
It was a perfect example of what happens when you’re not trained to talk to the media. So a few days later at one of our management meetings, I decided to discuss the issue with the attorneys.
Why I Failed as a Speaker That Day
You already heard the ending of this story, so you know it didn’t go well. But here are the reasons I failed — five of them.
1. I Was Too Emotional to Give a Proper Presentation
My talk took the form of a rant, criticizing the offending attorney instead of being constructive about solutions. And that’s because I didn’t have enough distance from the inciting incident to discuss it with a cool head.
The lesson? If you haven’t sufficiently “processed” an issue to the point where you can look at it objectively, you shouldn’t get up and talk about it in front of a group. (At least not in a professional setting. Therapy is a whole other thing!)
2. My Message Was Unfocused
My talk was all over the place, with no clearly defined message, structure or call to action. I just got up there and talked. So I meandered and was unclear.
The lesson? Make your presentation ABOUT SOMETHING! Sounds like common sense, but I see a lot of really unfocused presentations. So have a clear goal for your talk and try to narrow your focus to three key points.
3. I Misread My Audience
These were attorneys — very logical, rational types. They wanted a simple answer to the question, “What do I do when a reporter calls me?”
I didn’t have a simple answer. I told them it depends on a lot of things — the subject matter, the media outlet, and even which of them was doing the talking.
The lesson? Know your audience. Try to anticipate their top concerns and have a clear answer for them — before they even ask the question.
4. I Used Humor Inappropriately
In the midst of what should have been a serious discussion, I cracked jokes. That undercut the importance of my message and undermined my credibility.
Humor can be a powerful tool for breaking down walls with people and humanizing yourself. But there is a time and a place for humor and this was neither the time nor the place.
If I put myself on the analyst’s couch, I imagine there were two reasons I joked around that day:
- I was uncomfortable — with my ill-formed message and with my role as an authority in that room.
- I wanted to be liked. Getting a laugh is like a drug. But as we all know, drugs are bad. Especially during a speech!
The lesson? Be careful with humor. Make sure you understand your audience’s sensitivities. Be sure it matches the tone of what you’re trying to communicate. And use humor for a constructive purpose — to break the ice or reinforce your message — instead of for a selfish one (to get laughs for the sake of laughs).
5. I Failed to Prepare Adequately
Prepare adequately? Hell, I barely prepared at all! I pretty much winged it, which should really be a capital crime in the presentation world. Believe me, nobody wants to see you wing it.
The lesson? Practice, practice, practice. Practice your message, refine your content, work on your delivery technique, get feedback from others. There really is no such thing as over-rehearsal.
A Sort Of Happy Postscript
The good news is, a couple of months after this debacle I put together a formal seminar on media relations for the office’s attorneys. And because I carefully planned and practiced, the program was a success.
On the other hand, I never did take that public speaking course. Everything I’ve learned about presenting came from subsequent decades writing hundreds of speeches for executives, watching them perform, and learning from their successes and mistakes.
And, of course, from my own experience at the podium.
But if you don’t have a couple of decades, I do recommend formal training as an option!