My Worst Presentation Experience

There was a recent Twitter thread, which I can no longer find, asking presenters for their worst experiences on stage. I have one that is pretty awful, but too long for Twitter, even with 280 characters per post.

Several years ago, my company put on two events back-to-back. The first two and a half days were about business intelligence (BI), while the second day and a half covered enterprise information management (EIM) and master data management (MDM). Personally, I never understood why the two events were separate. The topics are linked too tightly. Luckily, we’ve since restructured the event into one cohesive offering.

One side effect of having two events is that sometimes you gave the same presentation twice. That’s what happened to me on the transition day: I gave one pitch in the morning to a business intelligence audience, then had to give it 90 minutes later to the EIM crowd. Only it wasn’t a crowd. See, once people registered for the EIM portion, they were free to attend BI sessions. As a consequence, I only had about seven people in my second session.

The small audience wasn’t a problem. The problem is how the audience shrank from seven to six.

Apparently an attendee from the previous session was having a health scare and she couldn’t be moved out of the room, and the EMTs took some time to arrive. Fortunately, they arrived about 10 minutes into my presentation, when they proceeded to take her vitals, give her oxygen and strap her onto a gurney. With about 5 minutes to go in my pitch, they wheeled her out to a waiting ambulance.

The entire time, my rapidly shrinking audience was trying to listen to me babble on about data lakes when everyone was distracted by the medical emergency in the back of the room. Needless to say, my scores for that session weren’t great.

Mastering Presentation Rehearsal

When I started my gig as an industry analyst, I was comfortable with the writing and client interaction parts of the job. The last part, getting on stage and talking for 30-45 minutes, was completely foreign to me. I had to learn how to create and deliver compelling stories to international audiences, often with different expectations. Making things worse, sometimes I’m required give presentations that I didn’t create.

Books on developing presentation skills and creating content often talk about the importance of practicing and rehearsing your presentations. But they rarely talk about how and what to practice. After a few years of experience presenting to diverse audiences, here’s what I’ve learned about presentation rehearsal.

Rehearse your content in sections

When I first started, I would rehearse my presentations from start to finish – or at least that was the intent. I’d start with my intro and move quickly into the first few slides. Then I’d get distracted by something, usually minor, on an early slide. Or I’d stumble over a story and keep working on it. The end result was that I didn’t spend as much, if any, time practicing the content in the middle and end.

Divide your rehearsal sessions into blocks to rehearse specific content. You might have an three core topics you want to discuss in your pitch. Schedule time rehearse each section independent of the other sections. This gives you a chance to work on isolated parts and refine them, without being distracted by the whole.

Nail the open and close

The opening was never much of a problem for me. I’d rehearse my opening probably 80-100 times (see above about rehearsing in sections). Then I’d bleed out during the close. Put additional emphasis on your opening and closing sections and schedule that rehearsal time separately.

Practice content transitions

Another trap I fell into was practicing just the talk track for the slide content, not how I would get to the next element or slide. How you arrive at a slide, whether it’s a data-centric transition or story-led transition, practice the transitions from one slide to another. Once I started rehearsing transitions, my delivery was much more fluid and my scores went up. My on-stage anxiety also dropped.

Rehearse on your feet and seated

You must rehearse your content while standing since that’s how you’ll deliver it – out loud and walking around a stage. You can’t just walk through the content in your head. That doesn’t create the necessary muscle memory for a successful delivery. You can also rehearse in front of people, but that’s often not an option for me.

This last tip will seem counterintuitive, but rehearsing my content out loud while seated allows me to focus on just the content. When I rehearse while seated, I focus on keeping my hands and body still and solely on delivering the content. For me, this translates into less random movement on stage. Instead, movements are more planned and (hopefully) more impactful to the audience.

Suggested reading

  • Richard Butterfield’s Power of Persuasion – I’ve had an opportunity to work with Mr. Butterfield on my presentation style and effectiveness. If you can take one of his workshops, I highly recommend it. If you can’t, his book is one of the best I’ve read on communication and presentation skills.
  • Confessions of a Public Speaker – Scott Berkun’s book was one of the first I read when I realized a significant portion of my job would be delivering presentations. Scott offers practical advice on both the mechanics of public speaking and storytelling.