My first ever presentation was a train wreck.
Let me tell you what happened.
Years ago, I worked for an extremely dysfunctional organization. The atmosphere in my department was toxic. People were burned-out and unhappy with the working conditions of the office, interpersonal politics were insane, and projects were stalled. Nothing was getting done fast. It was a “professional” war zone. As hard as they might have tried, the management couldn’t get things moving in the right direction.
I was relatively new and had no ax to grind with any members of the department. Although it wasn’t comfortable, I could go about my day without getting involved in any politics or getting into screaming matches. Being quite new, and not being a member of any particular group, I could observe what was going on objectively. I could see what was happening around me and I could clearly identify the root cause of some of the problems. I took notes and kept my head down.
Things were so bad that, over a few weeks, my notes had substantial information that could be put to good use. As I reviewed them, I could see recurring themes and problems, which could be resolved with a few tweaks here and there. The closer I looked at my notes, the clearer the solution became. I sat down, and I drafted out a plan. A plan to improve the work environment. A plan which would neutralize the bad apples, make the office a better place to work, increase efficiency, and make our department more profitable. If I could fix these problems, even a little, it would surely be good for my career, so I worked hard on my plan.
It took about two weeks of observation and late nights, but I had my plan! I was exhausted, but it was ready. Just a tweak here and a tiny adjustment there, and the cogs would be spinning smoothly in the department again. The plan was good to go, but I had a problem. If I wanted to get my plan implemented, I would need to present the details to the management to get their buy-in. Without them on my side, my plan was going nowhere.
So, I recommitted myself to the long hours, and I hit PowerPoint hard. I doubled down on the long nights, putting together my charts and bullet points, aligning my images and text. I practiced my lines in front of the mirror, while walking the dog, and on the train. After another week of late nights, skipped meals, and pots of coffee, I had a gleaming slide deck, a practiced speech, and a whole lot of butterflies in my stomach. I was nervous but ready. I had a solid plan, and that’s all that mattered.
The day came. The management team filed into meeting room 6 and waited. I was about to take the stage, but the nerves got the better of me. Something was holding me back. I looked out into the audience and saw managers whispering to each and shifting uncomfortably on the hard chairs. I only had one chance to get this right. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and walked out onto the small platform. I stood in front of them shaking. Slides behind me, laser pointer in one hand, cue cards in the other. I froze! What was I meant to say? I’d practiced and practiced and practiced, but no words would come. My legs started to shake, and I could feel the blood rush to my face.
More uncomfortable shifting from the managers. I stared at them. They stared back at me. Waiting for this to be over. One manager kindly asked me if I needed some water, another very deliberately checked his watch as if to say, “You’re wasting my time, buddy.” My mind was racing. Madly trying to reach back and remember some of my practice. Oh, why couldn’t I remember? It seemed the more I tried to remember, the further away the memories became.
I glanced down at the cards in my hand. Seeing the keywords made things even more confusing, more blockades of my memories. One gentleman stood up as if to leave. I had to do something! This idea was going to save my department! Then I remembered… My slides! This was my only chance. I flicked on the slides, turned around, and began reading the bullet points from slide 1 to the managers.
By the second slide, the tension in the room had started to lift, and I was getting into the swing of things. Some memories were coming back, which made speaking about my bullet points a little easier. The process of reading a bullet point and elaborating went on for some time.
It was around slide number 6 that I realized that the room was dead silent. I took my eyes off my slides and checked the audience behind me. No one was paying attention! They were checking their messages, writing, one manager was even reading a magazine. I spun back around and read through the remainder of the slides and bullet points as quickly as I could.
Five minutes later I handed over the stage to the audience for questions. Nothing. Silence. No questions. “Come on!” I thought. “Ask me some questions. This is an amazing plan. A fantastic idea that will make this a better workplace for everyone, increase efficiency, and make us more money.”
Blank stares mixed with silence. My eyes pleaded with the audience for what felt like minutes.
Finally, at the back of the room, someone raised their hand. My heart lifted, and I extended my hand in his direction. “Yes sir, you have a question?”
“Can we go now please?”
And there you have it. My first presentation. A nightmare.
Since then I do things differently. I have discovered what works, and what definitely does not work, when delivering a presentation.
In my new book Master Public Speaking, I will share my secrets with you.
Are you ready? Okay! Onward and upward!
This is an extract from my new book Master Public Speaking. Order from Amazon using the links below: