Presenting: Chris Breen

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve taken the stage to mouth off in front of a room full of people. Because it may be a few years more before I do so again, I thought I’d jot down some of the things I’ve learned about presenting should my future self need to bone up on his now-rusty skills. 

Note that this is a very personal list (see the “A Chris thing” bits scattered throughout). I view presenting as a performance and everyone has a performance style that suits them. Some things that work for me may be entirely inappropriate for you. Your mileage may vary. Light fuse and stand away. Use under adult supervision.

Preparation Do’s

Unless you want to live that nightmare where you’re suddenly thrust, pants-less, on stage to perform the lead role in a play you’ve never rehearsed, you should have the following well in hand before taking the stage.

Know your audience. Who are you speaking to? Are they a friendly or hostile group (say, a group of people your company made a load of money for versus a plea to investors to give you just two more months to make good)? How much hand holding do you need to provide? Are there likely to be people in the room who know more than you do? Knowing the answers to questions like these will help you prepare.

Know the program. How long will you be speaking? Try to rehearse to that time limit, but don’t kill yourself over it. If speeding through a presentation to save two minutes is going to ruin the performance, slow down and take the time necessary to do the job well. On the other hand, coming it at 3 minutes when you’re booked to do 20 isn’t good. In all likelihood, you'll over-prepare and have too much material, so in most cases you don’t need to sweat going under.

Know your story. Perhaps a better subhead for this is “Understand that you’re telling a story.” Every presentation is a story, regardless of whether you’re regurgitating quarterly data or detailing the finer points of constructing the perfect bologna sandwich. Like a story, your presentation has a beginning, middle, and end, and within and between them, the story has a rhythm and arc. 

If you know the story you’re going to tell—and how its component pieces fit together—it will come across as a whole rather than a disparate series of things you have to say to support bullet points on a slide.

Rehearse your story—blindfolded. Of course you should rehearse your presentation as you will perform it, but you should also be able to tell your story without slides. No, you don’t have to memorize countless sets of figures if you’re the person responsible for detailing the number of thingummies Big Grommet Inc sold the previous quarter. However, should (god forbid) the power go out and you’re left with nothing but your rapidly shrinking confidence and a darkened stage, you should be able to fire up a glow stick and talk your way through the rest of the presentation—summing up a particular when a slide was vital to make a point.

A Chris thing: I take advantage of the anonymity of the road and rehearse presentations while driving. Yes, you look like an idiot to the drivers around you, but what are the chances you’ll see them again? And if an errant cousin spots you, claim that you were engaged in an animated phone call over Bluetooth.

Use natural language. I advise you to step away from these words just long enough to pull up a couple of Steve Jobs’ presentations on YouTube. Among his many forms of genius was his ability to tell a story—sometimes one that was very complicated—in a simple and natural way. No buzzwords. Very little jargon. And at a level that everyone could understand.

If your presentation is littered with the kind of terms taught to MBAs in Biztalk 101, remove them. Now. They’re hackneyed, they obscure rather than inform, and you look lazy using them.

Preparation Don’ts

Don’t memorize/extensively read your presenter notes. Written language varies profoundly from spoken language. When you recite memorized or written text, you don’t sound natural because No One Speaks That Way. (Watch any awards program where actors awkwardly read unfunny words from a teleprompter. And these people are professionals, for heaven’s sake!) Plus, if you’re nervous, you’re likely to trip over big words that don’t naturally fit your mouth.

As I mentioned earlier, of course you should know your story, but not word for five-syllable word. Certainly draft your presentation, but talk through its points rather than read them.

Performance Do’s

Get comfortable. Nervousness is every presenter’s biggest concern—such a big concern that I’ll offer a few techniques I use to help with it.

  • Know your space: If at all possible, arrive early and trod the space where you’ll be speaking. Look out at where the audience will be. Check lighting that may blind you. Look for objects you may trip over. If you’re on a panel, where will you sit? You’re more comfortable being in a place you’ve visited than hitting it cold when it’s time to present.
  • Know your gear: Are you going to be miked? Will you use a microphone attached to the podium, a handheld mic, or a lapel microphone? Knowing this will help you determine how you move around the stage (if you can at all). Will you be using a clicker or have to tap keys on a laptop? Again, this will determine how free you are to roam. If you wear spectacles, do you have the correct ones with you? (Reading or computer glasses, for example.)
  • About the roaming: I try to free myself from a podium whenever possible because I’m more relaxed that way. If you’re a die-hard podium gripper, try walking around and see if it suits you. (Warning: This can turn into pacing for some people. Keep an eye on that.)
  • Count on the kindness of strangers: It’s a truism of every performance that the audience desperately wants you to succeed. They’re rooting for you because when you appear to fail, they feel uncomfortable on your behalf. Know that from the very beginning, they’re on your side.

A Chris thing: In the last several years of my speaking days I avoided being introduced. In most cases, the audience knew who I was so it seemed like overkill, plus waiting behind the curtain while someone introduced me made me more nervous. Instead I preferred to waltz out on stage a few minutes early and start chatting with the folks in the first couple of rows, letting the audience at large know that we weren’t really starting yet. This made the presentation immediately more casual for the audience and gave me time to relax before I began.

Embrace your introversion. You say you’re an introvert? Then you’re a winner in this game. Back in the day, I hung out with a lot of terrific presenters and the vast majority of them were introverts (including your humble narrator). Introverts are most comfortable when they control their environment. And there’s no greater control than setting an agenda and having a load of people hang on your every word.

Be persuasive. Read the How to Make a Speech manual and you’ll note that there are four general types of speeches—Informative, Demonstrative, Persuasive, and Entertaining. I’ll make the case that all speeches have a strong element of persuasion in the sense that you have to quickly persuade your audience that you’re someone worth listening to—that the story you have to tell is compelling.

There are things you can do to help that along. The first is to appear confident. And there are ways to get there. As I’ve mentioned, being comfortable in your space helps. Knowing your material inside out certainly builds confidence. And truly believing in that material is a huge plus.

A Chris thing: I also believe it’s helpful to conjure up a tiny bit of disdain for your audience. This isn’t real disdain, only a game you’re playing. I came up with the technique after years of playing in bands in front of inebriated audiences. The idea is that if you believe your audience is at a disadvantage (in the case of the bar gigs, too much alcohol), you can muster up a measure of arrogance, which helps with your confidence. Unhinged as this may sound, you commonly hear performers talk of "killing" an audience—adopting an attitude where an audience is something that must be conquered.

This can completely backfire, of course, so if it fits with your presentation style, go carefully before turning loose the beast.

Use your strengths. I’m funny. No, really, I am. (Or I’m delusional and simply believe that I’m funny because people indulge me by laughing at my jokes when I present.) I use humor a lot because I believe it makes a presentation more entertaining. (See “Don’t fall in love with your own voice” below.) If you’re funny, use it. (If you’re not, don’t. There’s nothing more uncomfortable than watching someone flop when they’re trying to be funny and aren’t.) If you’re a good explainer, explain away. If you’re a boring speaker (hey, some people are) but are a PowerPoint or Keynote ninja, create a whiz-bang presentation that distracts your audience from the person presenting it.

Be more of you. Chris Rock, when asked about his performance persona, explained that no one was interested in spending time with Chris Rock, the person he was off-stage. They laid down their money to see CHRIS ROCK!!!, the manic stage stalker. While you needn't go entirely crazy when on stage, it doesn't hurt to ramp up your most endearing qualities (and your energy). Your audience may be there to learn about cheese futures, but they won't object to having those futures delivered with a little enthusiasm and zazz.

Performance Don’ts

Don’t picture your audience naked. Thinking of your audience in the nude is a common technique for gaining confidence. I wouldn’t, as I’ve actually performed for an audience of naked people (I was fully clothed, thank you) and it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Mostly you spend a lot of time averting your gaze, which throws off your rhythm.

Don’t read your bullet points. Like a lot of people, I can read. So too can those sitting in your audience. Bullet points should summarize and underscore what you have to say. Your job isn’t simply to read bullet points to those with ocular issues.

A Chris thing: On very rare occasions I will read a bullet point because it’s the best way to get a particular nugget across. In such cases I point at the screen and say something like, “And, as it clearly says on the screen, ‘A perfect bologna sandwich has mayonnaise on one piece of bread, and mustard on the other.’” In show biz this is called “breaking the fourth wall,” where you break out of character and share with the audience your recognition of your performance’s artifice.

Don’t fall in love with your own voice (A Chris thing). Years ago, after I thought I’d completely slayed an audience at a Macworld Expo presentation, a young man in military uniform gave me the best feedback I’ve ever received.

“Mr. Breen, I really enjoyed your talk. It was very entertaining. But, if you don’t mind me saying so, sir, I think you sacrificed some good information to make jokes.”

And god was he right. After depositing his body in the yellow dumpster behind Moscone, I vowed to rein in the yucks and concentrate more on delivering value to those who’d given up a part of their day to listen to me.

This is something I’ve struggled with throughout my speaking career. I enjoy presenting—a lot. And I like to make people laugh. But it’s led me to take things too far and say things I shouldn’t have.

And that’s really what performance comes down to. Discipline. The discipline to prepare properly, persuade your audience that you’re worth their time, and keep yourself enough under control to deliver the goods.