Presentation Tips: Don’t Rely Solely On A Script

Samsung has been very successful at emulating Apple’s iPhones and iPads. What they haven’t been able to copy nearly as well are Apple’s slick and effective product presentations. In fact, Samsung’s efforts have frequently been seen as strange, awkward, even sexist. But they’ve seldom gone as spectacularly wrong as when Samsung included director Michael Bay in the rollout of new televisions at CES this week.

After getting confused about which part of the script he was reading from the teleprompter, Bay fumbled around and was unable to recover. Trying to help, his co-presenter gave him an opportunity to ad lib by asking, “Tell us what you think,” but Bay was so dependent on the prepared script that he was totally lost. “I’m sorry,” he said as he walked off stage.

Here’s how he later described what happened:

Wow! I just embarrassed myself at CES – I was about to speak for Samsung for this awesome Curved 105-inch UHD TV. I rarely lend my name to any products, but this one is just stellar. I got so excited to talk, that I skipped over the Exec VP’s intro line and then the teleprompter got lost. Then the prompter went up and down – then I walked off. I guess live shows aren’t my thing.

Unfortunately, the temptation to script live events ruins far too many presentations. Scripts get lost, notes get shuffled, unexpected events interrupt a speaker’s train of thought and they can’t get back on track. While I encourage everyone to write out their presentations as an exercise in working through their thoughts, it’s almost always a bad idea to depend on a script in order to deliver your talk. There are just too many things that can go wrong, and very few of us are good at memorizing or reading a speech in a way that will actually engage an audience.

If you’re giving a talk, it’s your job to know the material well enough that you can speak with a few notes or an outline to remind you where you’re going. And you need to be willing to improvise a little when things don’t go as planned. For example, if you’re the director of Transformers and you’re asked what you think of the giant TV you’re standing next to, say something like: “That TV is huge! Explosions, robots, and exploding robots will look great on that thing!”

Michael Bay at CES

Michael Bay Responds to his CES Meltdown

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Presentation Skills: Keep Moving Past Your Mistakes

Presenting in front of an audience makes almost everyone a little bit nervous. After more than 20 years of teaching and training I still feel anxious right before I’m supposed to start. Unfortunately, fear tends to fluster presenters and cause them to make the very mistakes they’re worried about making. They stammer, say the wrong word, skip an important idea, or forget how to use the remote control for their slides. Any of these things can feel like a disaster when people are watching you. But chances are these issues feel like a much bigger deal to you than they do to the audience. Honestly, they might not even notice.

If you’re already nervous, the worst thing you can do is draw attention to your mistakes. Take a lesson from the kid in the video above and keep moving past them instead of getting upset. Improvise a solution (like he does when his cymbal breaks just after the one minute mark in the video) or quickly correct yourself if you’ve said something factually incorrect. Salute if you think it will help! But don’t dwell on what’s gone wrong. What you want to do instead is get to the next part of your presentation that goes right. That’s what will make you look good and help accomplish your goals.

Cymbal dilemma

Presentation Planning: Be Ready For Detours

Detour

Many speakers, whether they realize it or not, plan their presentations like a lawyer’s argument. They start by laying out the background, set out the evidence that supports their position, summarize it for their audience, and suggest remedies and next steps. Building presentations this way makes can be very effective, especially when you have lots of information to deal with or you need to overcome strong objections. It’s an approach that feels logical and familiar to both speakers and to audiences raised on courtroom dramas and CSI procedurals.

Unfortunately, like so many good ideas, this one doesn’t always work out as planned. If you withhold too much from your audience for too long they may feel confused, then resentful, about being there at all. Presentations should not be mysteries, I like to remind people. You’re not Agatha Christie. Get to the point before you lose them.

And sometimes you build a long, beautiful, air-tight argument only to find that no one wants to hear it. I know I’m not the only one who has prepared for an hour-long presentation only to have the executive I’m meeting with announce that they now have only 30 minutes for me. Or 15. Or 5. Sometimes their schedule has changed. Sometimes they’re just the kind of person who always wants the bottom line. Sometimes they’re just rude. It’s hard to plan for the rude people–they’re just too unpredictable. But spending a little time learning about your audience in advance can be a great investment if they turn out to be bottom-liners. Walking into a meeting and being able to say “I know we’re scheduled for an hour, but I’m only going to take 15 minutes of your time today,” can make a great impression.

And if you are a lawyer and you’re giving a presentation as momentous as appearing in front of the Supreme Court, it’s important that you’re so well prepared that you can recover when they cut off your carefully constructed argument and ask you to take a completely different direction.

That’s what happened to both sides at this week’s hearings on California’s Proposition 8. (You can read or listen to them here.) As Paul Clement and Ted Olson each started laying out their arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts cut them off. He didn’t want to hear the background of the case; instead he wanted both sides to address whether the plaintiffs even had standing to appeal. Luckily, both of these lawyers had the skills to recover. Ted Olson was even able to get a good laugh out of it. When Roberts interrupted by saying, “Mr. Olson, I cut off your friend before he could get into the merits,” Olson quipped, “I was trying to avoid that, Your Honor.”

A sense of humor is a good tool in a potentially frustrating situation like this. Flexibility is even better.

Proposition 8 Supreme Court Arguments

Bossypants: Tina Fey’s Rules of Improvisation

I expected Tina Fey’s Bossypants to be funny, and it is.  Honestly, I don’t know when I’ve laughed out loud so often while reading a book.  What I didn’t expect  is that it would also be one of the best business books I’ve read in a long time.  Bossypants is full of great stories about what Fey has discovered about collaborating with others and how she’s learned to manage people through trial and error.  Of course the errors are the funny parts….

But what really jumped out at me were the Rules for Improvisation she lays out and how well they can be applied to so many things we do– especially how well they apply to presenting. Fey’s “Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat” include:

Agree and Say Yes, which she explains doesn’t just mean following blindly, but finding a way to keep an open mind:

Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says.  But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place.  Start with a Yes and see where that takes you.

As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no.  “No, we can’t do that.”  “No, that’s not in the budget.”  “No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.”  What kind of way is that to live?

Yes, And, which tells you to find a way to contribute:

Always make sure that you’re adding something to the discussion.  Your initiations are worthwhile.

Make Statements, which tells us to offer our own opinions and suggestions:

This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.”…. In other words: Whatever the problem, be part of the solution.  Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.  We’ve all worked with that person.  That person is a drag.

There are no mistakes, only opportunities, which doesn’t mean that things can’t go wrong, but that it’s your job to make the best of the situation you find yourself in.

If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what?  Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel.  I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike…. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents.  And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident.  I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.

“Wait a second,” you may be telling yourself.  “Presentations aren’t improvisational.  There are topics, agendas, outlines, even scripts and visual aids involved in most of our presentations. That’s hardly improv!”

True. But there also has to be an improvisational element to any presentation you deliver.  None of us are capable of anticipating everything that can happen and therefore every presenter must be capable of thinking on their feet.  It would be crazy to keep trying to give your talk without changing gears if the projector dies or a major earthquake strikes.  But it’s also misguided to keep giving the presentation you’ve planned if it’s obvious that it’s not going over well with your audience.  As the presenter you need to keep an eye on your audience so you can gauge their reactions and, well, improvise.

Presentations, like life, require some flexibility.