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There’s Always a First Time

Intended Audience for this Post: Beginning presenters, trainers or people who were recently asked by a boss (or colleague) to get up in front of people to present something important and need some help organizing their thoughts

Getting in front of people and presenting is something that makes a lot of people nervous.  In 2001, a Gallup poll found that public speaking is the #2 fear among Americans (fear of snakes topped that particular list).  There are plenty of other polls, anecdotes and comedy routines that put the fear of being in front of others even higher on the list.

Top presenters make getting up in front of an audience look easy and polished, but presenting is very much like any other aspect of life: there’s always a first time, and very few people excel the first time they do anything.  In his best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests it takes 10,000 hours of practice time before reaching exceptional-level performance.  And before anyone can reach that 10,000th hour of practice, they’ll need to complete that first (generally uncomfortable) hour.

In his first pass attempt at the University of Michigan, Tom Brady threw a brilliant pass that went for a touchdown.  Unfortunately for Brady and his Michigan Wolverines, that touchdown was scored by the opposing defense when they intercepted the pass and returned it for a touchdown.  His first pass in professional football nearly met the same fate (but it fell incomplete).  In his first game as a professional, Tom Brady completed one pass for six yards.  Brady has gone on to four Super Bowls (winning three of them and being named Most Valuable Player in two of them).  There’s been a lot of practice between Brady’s first collegiate pass and now.

That same Brady-esque drive to practice, prepare, get in front of people and to keep going in spite of whatever initial foibles or difficulties get in the way is required for anyone wishing to succeed as a presenter. 

So then what goes into the preparation?  Is it as easy as simply picturing the audience naked? No – this is kind of a creepy suggestion that really isn’t helpful.  Should you just write out your presentation on note cards or type it, print it out, and read it?  No – your audience can probably read, so you could save everyone plenty of time by simply emailing them the text of your presentation.

Following are several steps to take in preparing for that first presentation:

  1. Define who your audience is and what’s in it for them to attend and participate in your presentation.
  2. Define the intended outcome of your presentation – what should participants know or be able to do better once you’re finished with your presentation?
  3. Define for yourself what would make this a successful presentation for yourself and for your audience.
  4. Once you’ve defined all of the above (and only after you’ve defined those items), put together an outline of the key points you wish to make and how you wish to make those points (hint: if you want to be able to tell if your audience is “getting it” don’t rely solely on lecture, figure out how to involve them)
  5. Be sure to make a list of the materials you’ll need for your presentation (it’s a bummer to realize you forgot to bring flipchart markers and tape when you’re 30 seconds into your actual presentation!)
  6. Before taking the stage, find some time to practice actually giving your presentation (in an empty conference room, walking down the sidewalk as you’re walking your dog, in the shower, etc.)

These aren’t the only steps to ensuring your presentation will be successful, but they’re some of the most important items to keep in mind as you get started.  Click here to access a lesson plan format that can help you in getting started in organizing your thoughts.

While there’s always a first time, the hope is that preparation and practice will ensure there will also be a second time.  And a third time.  I’m not suggesting you eschew all other personal and professional responsibilities in order to get ready for your upcoming 60-minute presentation.  But I am suggesting that some preparation and practice can go a long way.

Several years ago, I was eager to play a bigger part in my church’s community and I signed up to be a lector during Saturday evening services.  One evening I was struggling through a reading and somehow I proclaimed that there were “flaming brassieres” (I should have proclaimed there were flaming braziers).  I was never asked to read during Saturday evening services again.  Perhaps a little pre-service preparation would have saved me (and the church officials) a lot of embarrassment and grief; perhaps I’d still be doing Saturday evening readings in that church.

The final point I’d like to make in this entry is that it’s not enough to prepare and present and deliver.  If you’re looking to continue to be recognized as a talented presenter, facilitator or teacher, it will be crucial to reflect on and assess your performance, learn from it and make improvements in your style and ability. 

Next week’s post will explore the lessons that can be drawn from the way professional athletes routinely and continuously review and improve their performance.  Next week’s post will also include information and resources to assist you in that reflection and post-presentation review process.

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