The best way I know how to make a presentation or difficult conversation go well is to prepare for it well. It may seem strange to lump both presentations and difficult conversations together, but both presentations and difficult conversations have much in common. Both require you to communicate your ideas and perform for a live audience.
Another way to look at this is to pretend that you are performing in a life scene. I use the term “life scene” to encompass speeches, sales appointments, interviews, customer service interactions, price negotiations, employee reviews, company meeting presentations, etc. A great actor does not perform a scene with a mediocre performance and neither should you.
About this Podcast Episode
If you have come across this article, this also a podcast episode. I’ve created two ways to digest this information, by listening to audio and by reading the article. Enjoy.
Funding my trip to Australia – a difficult conversation that shaped my future
It was Spring of 2008 and I had been preparing for a difficult conversation with my parents. I didn’t know it at the time but this conversation would determine my entire future. I was going to ask my parents for a loan of $15,000. This loan would allow me to study abroad to Australia for one semester. I prepared for the conversation and presented it to both of my parents. They said yes. Before I knew it I was in Australia, the country where I rediscovered my true self, an entrepreneur. The preparation for that difficult conversation completely follows the five points I outline here.
How to make a presentation or difficult conversation go well – PREPARE
1) Take care of your physical needs
Eat food. Drink water. Use the restroom. Cool off. Wear a jacket. Hug a friend. Get your physical needs taken care of. To some, this point seems extremely elementary. For the rest of us, we need to remind ourselves to eat food. I know for myself, when I have a difficult conversation or a big presentation coming up, I can think of everything besides food. It is during these stressful times when I need to remind myself to take care of my basic needs and eat.
It is difficult to focus on ideas and concepts when basic physical needs are not taken care of. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a model that explains this in more detail. To some extent, physical needs are at the core of every human being. When those needs are taking care of we can start thinking about more important needs. Needs that come into play when communicating with someone else.
2) Limit possible interruptions
Turn your cell phone off or put it in airplane mode. Turn off cell phone alarms. Your cell phone going off can be a huge distraction and will either draw attention away from your message or blatantly sabotage your presentation. Sometimes a cell phone going off can speak volumes of disrespect. Either way, I wouldn’t risk it. It’s better to get into the habit of turning the cell phone off.
Another part of this is knowing your environment before hand. If you can, arrive early to where you will be performing your life scene and take care of possible interruptions. Look around for anything that may detract YOU or your audience from the message you will be delivering. This could be: window glare, awful banners hanging behind you, a tiny stage, or any number of other things. Just knowing what you are up against can help you prepare better.
3) Be present
Audiences are not stupid. They know if you are there or not. The key here is to be present 100%. Movie stars, super models, and professional athletes all have one thing in common directly tied to performance. They are 100% there. They are giving whatever they do best their full attention. A professional basketball player is not thinking about what he is going to have for dinner while he is dribbling the ball up the court. A great actress is not thinking about what outfit she will be wearing to the party later while she is delivering a line. No, they are performing their talents with full immersion.
One of my favorite ways to get present is through meditation. If your mind is prone to drift into the past, future, or to daydream, with the few minutes you have before entering your life scene, meditate. The word meditation used to scare me but it’s actually not scary. I used to think that meditation meant 30 minutes to several hours of wasting time. I used to think it was completely boring. However, it doesn’t have to be that long at all. Spend one minute meditating. Get into a comfortable position sitting up straight or standing and open your hands outward or up as if you are receiving something, close your eyes, and breath deeply. Think of nothing except your breathing. Doing this will calm you down and get you centered. It will get you in the moment. Everything around you will feel serene and peaceful. All anxiety will vanish. If you don’t experience this right away you may need to build up a meditation muscle. I know I did. When you get a knack for meditation, you got it. Even just a few deep breaths focused on my breathing snaps me into a GREAT present state.
4) Know your agenda
First off, have an agenda. If you are conducting a difficult conversation or presentation and you don’t have an agenda, you are in serious trouble. Get an agenda and know it. An agenda can be as simple as a short bullet point list. For example, if you were going into a difficult conversation with your boss to ask for a raise your agenda might look like this:
- Greet boss
- Sit down
- Discuss performance
- Ask for raise and shut your mouth
- Know contingencies
- If boss gives the raise
- Thank him
- If boss doesn’t give raise
- Ask what you should be doing differently
- Ask what if he agrees with your assessment of value
- If boss gives the raise
Sometimes your contingencies can be four or five counter arguments depending on what type of difficult conversation you are having. It is entirely impossible to map out your entire difficult conversation. It is best to know where you stand on the general circumstance.
If this is for a presentation, you should outline in a similar way. Actors usually memorize scripts verbatim (word for word). Presentations can be done in this way too. Some would call the memorization part PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. Practicing your agenda is the best way I know of learning to “know your agenda.”
5) Know your audience
I’d put knowing your audience above knowing your agenda because knowing your audience shapes what you end up saying. Your message should be understandable and relevant. You want to make sure that your audience will be able to receive your message. You also want your audience to be able to do something with your message.
There was a time when I did not do a very good job at knowing my audience. Here is what happened:
In 2009, I spoke at an outdoor leadership conference in Chico. I had been working at Peak Adventures as a Facilitator on the ropes course. Basically a facilitator acts as a “guide on the side” rather than a teacher who is more like a “sage on the stage.” If you have ever seen the host of a game show, you have seen a facilitator in action. Anyway, as a facilitator, I lead several activities on the high ropes course. I assumed for this conference that everyone there was a facilitator in some capacity. In fact, my boss told me that I would be speaking to people like myself. My message, “How facilitation is a form of consulting and how you can make a career out of it.” Unfortunately, nobody knew what facilitation was. I know this because at the end of the presentation someone said, “What is facilitation?” To which I replied, “Can anyone answer that?” Then that was followed by seven seconds of silence. I bombed the presentation. Digging in and learning a little bit more about WHO my audience was would have given me a much better result.
The previous example only covers half of it – the “understandable” part. The other aspect of knowing your audience is in the “relevant” part. Can they do something with my message? This is where you need to be sensitive to your audience and connect with them on a people level. The best way I know to do this is to genuinely see them as people rather than an obstacle. Seeing them as an obstacle would be looking at your boss as an obstacle between you and your pay raise. This is NOT the way to go about a life scene.
A few questions you can ask yourself to help you see your audience as a person comes from a book I highly recommend called, Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the Box by Arbinger Institute.
- What are their hopes?
- What are their needs?
- What are their cares?
- What are their fears?
Here’s a few of my own:
- What are their concerns?
- What are they struggling with?
- What makes them happy?
- What do they value?
Just asking these questions gets yourself out of your head and can help you mold your message to your audience.
That’s my short list of five things you can do to prepare for a difficult conversation or presentation. Simply put, when you are wondering how to make a presentation or difficult conversation go well, just remember one word. Prepare. I hope you found this article helpful. If you have other actions that you would add to this list, please comment below. Thanks for reading/listening!
Would you like to better understand the type of person you may be aspiring to be? Actors use an exercise that helps them get into the head of their character. I’ve re-purposed this exercise to assist me in my own personal and professional development. Ultimately going through this exercise helps to bridge the gap between who you are now and who you are aspiring to become. I call this resource, 20 Questions to Define Your Character and Life. This resource and future visualization aids are only available to Life is a Play Newsletter Subscribers.