What are we afraid of?

“The work speaks for itself.”

presentation boardroom
Credit: Shuttertstock

Why is this misconception so common? Invoked by nearly everyone in business, including engineers, developers, system architects, designers, even project managers when called upon to give a presentation anywhere outside their scrum, "the work speaks for itself" along with "it's what I say, not how I say it" can be reflexive attempts to avoid giving a presentation altogether or to simply discount expectations for success.

They may be preceded or followed by further entreaties to “Just let me code. I have a deliverable and I can’t afford to waste any time trying to explain my work, especially to people who don’t get it.” These defenses may seem egoist and elitist to others. If ultimately pressed into giving the presentation, the reluctant presenter may stand up and unleash a blizzard of acronyms, buzzwords, and techno-babble (the work speaking for itself) to demonstrate with passive aggressive vengeance that they know what they are talking about and hope that the audience will quickly lose interest, go away, and leave them alone.

Why this defensiveness? What are we afraid of?

The ability to deliver a great business presentation: to present yourself, your work, your analysis, ideas, and recommendations to groups of fellow managers and decision makers, has always been important to individual success in business. And as we continue to transition to an information and technology based economy – where STEM talent is increasingly launching transformative companies or being promoted into higher levels of management in larger organizations – the ability to present well becomes critically important to the success not only of the individual, but to a project, a team, and the company as well. It is no longer a matter of personal aptitude, preference, or comfort. It is critical to the success of the enterprise, if not to its survival.

This is a Tier 1 problem in any organization. Outside of the Scrum, rather than speaking clearly and boldly, the work itself can sometimes be mute; especially when the work is highly specialized. The language used to describe it may be arcane and difficult for the uninitiated to fathom. There are times when we do need to speak on behalf of our work. We need to give the work a clear public voice.

But not all of us are ready and capable of answering this call.

“It’s what I say that is important, not how I say it,” is a Tier 2 problem. Even when compelled to give a presentation, it is wasted time for the audience if the presenter has little self-confidence and is unable to deliver a presentation that successfully reaches them and transforms their thinking.

A growing sense of panic

The impulse so many have to avoid giving a presentation can in large part be attributed to the fact that as managers most of us have no conception of what it is we are actually doing when we stand up in front of a group to give a business presentation. Not knowing what it is we are supposed to be doing, beyond attempting to mimic other presentations we have seen, or adhere to a printed corporate template, can lead to anxiety.

Among the extensive research out there is a National Institute of Mental Health study that found over 70% of those surveyed suffering from public speaking anxiety. Fear of public speaking was identified as the most common fear (in over 60% of respondents) in University of Nebraska – Omaha research. Generalized, pervasive – even if low level - fear can lead us to rationalize a host of misconceptions.

A reliable model for how to think about a business presentation and how to deliver one, that includes theory, a framework, technique and a method approach to delivering a great presentation can help to relieve this anxiety. This seems to be especially true in the tech space. Some may have natural instincts and talent, or have been given a few tips along the way, but rarely are presentation skills & technique an integral part of formal STEM training. Documentation does not equal communication.

Overcoming presentation panic

The purpose of this blog is to begin to address the anxiety and fear (if not outright panic) associated with delivering a great business presentation and hack the general mystery and uncertainty surrounding the presentation itself. We are going to be looking at two core questions:

  1. What needs to happen in a business presentation in order to be successful?
  2. How do you make that happen?

The discoveries, observations, and techniques offered here are intended to describe a structured way of thinking about the business presentation and a systematic approach to first developing, and then standing and delivering a great performance.

This blog will draw upon battle tested experience as a senior executive in the entertainment, media, and technology industries combined with classical training and performance experience as a professional actor to introduce other executives to the Principles of Live Performance. These principles apply to any live presentation event and can be leveraged to deliver outstanding performances in a business presentation. If you are not leveraging the principles of live performance in your presentations you are not reaching your audience, transforming their thinking, and moving them to action. That is what we are called to do as managers. That is what we need to do within our organizations in order to innovate and not die.

And even though Casca says “Speak hands for me!” in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, we cannot always assume that the work will speak for itself. We need to learn how to speak on its behalf, in a clear voice, and to do so fearlessly, with distinction and conviction.

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