Grow Your Presentation Skills

Roses devouring our three-story house.

I have a crazy garden. And when I say crazy, I mean crazy. Sometimes, especially during the summer when everything has been growing too fast to keep up with, I go out to look at the garden and all I can see is my own mental illness. There are too many plants crammed into too little space, potted roses that have been waiting years to earn a spot in the ground, paths so overgrown that I have to use a machete to clear them. It’s overwhelming.

This is still a blog about presentation skills. Don’t worry, we’ll get there.

When we have people over I do my best to tidy up so it’s possible to walk through without getting tripped, scratched or ensnared by cobwebs. It’s still pretty obvious that this garden is the creation of someone who has lost touch with reality–a plant hoarder–but everyone is too nice to mention that. Instead they express their amazement that we’ve been able to do so much with the space of our city lot, pick out a couple of individual plants to ask questions about. And they almost invariably comment that I must have a really green thumb.

I don’t believe there is such a thing. When I was in high school the FFA kids had some secret ceremony where they all dyed their hands green, but that’s not the same. People talk about gardening as if it’s a quality programmed into your genes like a nice singing voice or a full head of hair that you won’t lose in middle age. Sometimes they use this as an excuse for their own failings. They want us to believe that their houses are stuffed with the ghosts of Boston ferns because they just weren’t born with the talent to keep plants alive, not because they never bothered to water them.

In my experience gardening has nothing to do with talent. Whether you’re trying to maintain one kitchen-windowsill orchid or a manic garden like mine, the main thing is that you just have to be interested in it enough to keep it going. You have to learn what your plants need in order to be happy and you have to make the time and effort to provide it for them. Different plants have very different requirements and if you don’t bother to learn what those are you have almost no chance for success. Do you have a cactus? An African violet? A sequoia? It matters.

I also talk to a lot of people who think that public speaking is a gift that people either have or they don’t. Nonsense. Sure, some people seem a lot more comfortable in front of an audience than others, but this is mostly because of their experience, not because they were born that way. Anyone can improve their public speaking skills if they care enough to invest their time in creating better presentations.

Audiences are a lot like gardens. Yes, I am going to torture this metaphor by comparing audience member to plants. If you’re going to stand any chance of getting them to do what you want them to (which is the only reason to have a presentation in the first place), you need to take the time to learn what they want and figure out how to give it to them. Do they need to be convinced? Consoled? Entertained? Give them the wrong thing and you’re as sure to fail as you would be if you planted a cactus in a bog.

Just keep at it and you’ll get better. Sure, you’ll probably make a couple of mistakes as you learn, but that happens with everything new that you try. What people don’t see in my garden are the failures. I’ve moved around plants that weren’t working where I’d put them, killed hundreds of others outright. But no one sees that once I’ve learned from my mistakes and the evidence has been cleaned up.

I’m definitely not a “natural” when it comes to public speaking. I used to dread it. I’ve taught lots of bad classes and given lots of bad presentations. But then I found myself in a situation where I had to teach every day, and I got better. At this point I think I’m a pretty good presenter, but only because I’ve worked so hard at it and put a huge amount of time  into my talks.

When you’ve become a great public speaker no one needs to know about your early attempts. Try recording your presentations so you can look at them later and make adjustments. Just don’t post the videos to YouTube.

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