Don’t Bomb Like Obama: Even The Best Speakers Need To Be Prepared

This Times recap of the 2012 election has some really interesting behind-the-scenes information about the first presidential debate and how President Obama essentially botched it by underestimating his opponent and not being well-enough prepared. At one point he even ditched his debate prep sessions in Las Vegas to tour Hoover Dam! The problem became clear to the President’s team almost immediately in Denver:

Shortly after the debate began, Mr. Obama’s aides realized they had made their own mistakes in advising Mr. Obama to avoid combative exchanges that might sacrifice the good will many Americans felt toward him. In Mr. Obama’s mock debates with Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, Mr. Kerry drew Mr. Obama into a series of intense exchanges, and Mr. Axelrod decided that they were damaging to the president.

In 90 minutes, Mr. Obama crystallized what had been gnawing concerns among many Americans about the president. He came across, as Mr. Obama’s advisers told him over the next few days, as professorial, arrogant, entitled and detached from the turmoil tearing the nation. He appeared to be disdainful not only of his opponent but also of the political process itself. Mr. Obama showed no passion for the job, and allowed Mr. Romney to explode the characterization of him as a wealthy, job-destroying venture capitalist that the Obama campaign had spent months creating.

Preparation is critical for any public speaking event, and it’s important no matter how good or comfortable you are at talking to an audience. It may be hard for us mere mortals to understand, but the failure to prepare is a common mistake of talented speakers like our president. They’re so sure of their own abilities that they don’t do the necessary work and they can bomb like Obama did in his first debate with Mr Romney.

Whatever your own skills and experience as a public speaker, don’t let this happen to you. Make sure that you know what you want to say, that you understand your audience, and that you’re setting the right tone and projecting the right image for your message.

How a Race in the Balance Went to Obama

How to Give a Great Keynote

You don’t have to be giving a keynote presentation or even be a professional speaker to benefit from the advice in this great post. My only quibble? Not being nervous about a big presentation isn’t just douchey, it’s a clear sign that you’re a sociopath.

Steps in writing presentations: Developing Visual Aids and Practicing

We’ve covered a lot of other steps in writing a presentation already. It’s only after you’ve worked on (or at least given some thought to) each of them that you should consider creating what many people mistakenly think of as their “presentations.”

Developing Visual Aids

After you’ve created a script for yourself you’re finally at the point where you can start developing slides and other materials that will act as the visual aids for your talk. You might have come up with some ideas for visuals during your brainstorming sessions or as you developed your ideas, but this is the point where we suggest you might actually fire up PowerPoint for the first time.

That certainly doesn’t mean that you have to use slides, however. Defaulting to slides that look just like those you see in every other presentation is probably the least effective thing you can do. Consider whether you can do away with slides and rely on other kinds of exhibits, a demo, or props. Can you make your interactions with your audience the focus of your whole presentation?

If you do use slides, think about how you can minimize your reliance on them. Whatever you wind up doing, make sure that your visual aids serve a purpose that supports your objective; don’t include them just because they’re expected.


Finally it’s time to rehearse your talk. Any presentation that requires you to stand up in front of an audience deserves at least a little bit of practice to make sure that you’re ready for the real thing. But that doesn’t mean that you need to commit a huge amount of time to rehearsing. You can approach it on several different levels of scale, everything from simply running through your main ideas in your head to recording a full dress rehearsal in a room with a live audience.

Not every presentation requires a lot of practice, but you don’t want to find yourself struggling in front of your “real” audience as you try to recall your own presentation. I can almost guarantee that any presentation you’ve found memorable and engaging, no matter how spontaneous it looked, involved a fair amount of rehearsal.

Avoiding Public Speaking Disasters: Prepare Your Technology and Bribe the AV Guy

The Times‘ David Pogue offers some great advice for speakers in Technology, or Lack Thereof, at the Podium. Some of his anecdotes will be hilarious and painful for anyone who does much public speaking because they’ll recognize that moment of dread when they know that things aren’t going to turn out the way they’d hoped. My most recent painful encounter with an AV guy happened when I was scheduled to give a talk at an big technology company. I was prepared with all the right dongles (Pogue is right– Macs tend to make AV people panic, so be sure to let them know you’ve brought your own ASAP) but asked my host to send someone to turn on their projector and sound equipment because I didn’t want to screw anything up.

The guy arrived quickly, but was obviously already stressed at 8:30 in the morning. He grunted, flipped a switch or two and greeted me by saying “they never should have scheduled you for this.” Luckily his attitude softened a bit when I flashed my dongle and he saw that I wasn’t a rookie who would be requiring a lot of hand-holding. Still, what a warm greeting and great way to start the day….

The key to avoiding the kind of technology disasters Pogue describes (and ingratiating yourself with the AV guy) is to be as prepared as possible. Visit the room in advance so you’ll know what you’re dealing with. Bring printed copies of your presentation as a back-up plan. And make sure you have all of the equipment you’ll need by checking in advance with the people running the facility you’ll be using. Even better, bring everything you need with you. It’s not a bad idea to arrive with your own cables, remote, even your own projector if possible. An iPhone or iPad can make a great remote control or act as a the kind of “confidence monitor” that Pogue describes. I’ve even used them as teleprompters for recording video.

Whatever you do, make sure to befriend the AV guy. If it’s a catered event offer him a doughnut or a sandwich. You need him on your side!

Delivery Tips: Yes, You Should Rehearse Your Presentations

Find time to do some rehearsal

This article from from TJ Walker asks the question “should I rehearse my presentations?” and answers with a resounding “YES!” Of course he’s right. He’s also right that it’s a great idea to record yourself rehearsing your talk and review it so you can get a better sense of how you’re doing. I especially like his advice to find the best part of your talk and do more of whatever it is that is working. Too many presenters focus exclusively on what isn’t working and find themselves paralyzed by it.  Learning what you do well and emphasizing that is a much more effective strategy.

I worry, though that he puts too much emphasis on the idea of making a video, which many would-be presenters will simply find too intimidating or time-consuming.  If you’re a politician or you’re giving a big keynote speech to a ballroom full of people it’s certainly a good idea to make and review a recording of yourself.  But many of the small presentations we do every day don’t require this sort of preparation and  we often can’t find the time to do this degree of rehearsal for those that really are important.

The truth is that any kind of preparation you can do is a good thing. Review your slides, study your notes, deliver your presentation to your cat if it helps you. Just try to find time for some sort of rehearsal.