Reflections on presentation; looking for a coach

Photo (c)
helios89, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license

“So, who’s your mentor? Who’s on the hook for you?” asked my manager during our one-on-one session. He had been reading my posts about presentations and meetings, and he wanted to know what–or who–could help me take it to the next level. I was very good at sharing my enthusiasm and technical knowledge with others. If I could figure out how to communicate with managers and executives, I can do even more.

I told him that I still get nervous in small meetings and I still let my enthusiasm run away with me, and that I’d like to learn how to talk to different perspectives, personalities, and learning styles. I also shared how I’d been thinking about getting a presentation or speaking coach. I enjoy giving presentations and it seems I can create a lot of value with them, so it makes sense to learn how to do them really, really well. I’m particularly interested in learning how to do remote presentations and small in-person meetings well. Remote presentations and video will give me much more reach, and small in-person meetings are similar to the kind of work we do in consulting.

After our meeting, I thought about what could help me get even better at communicating in both large presentations and small meetings.

I’d been to Toastmasters in the past, and I had completed the ten-speech introductory program that earned me the Competent Communicator designation. I appreciated the structure of each meeting and the clear objectives for each speech, and the contests and international conventions were great places to see good speakers. In my weekly Toastmasters meeting with a downtown club, though, I found myself wanting more. I needed:

  • feedback that focused on deeper skills, not just delivery techniques,
  • inspiring role models who could deliver effective interactive presentations remotely as well as in person, and
  • insight on structuring longer talks or remote talks to keep people engaged and to build on interaction.

Presentation skills: content, organization, and delivery

Many public speaking courses focus on the mechanics of delivery. There’s certainly a lot of value in polishing technique: eliminating “ums” and “ahs”; learning how to use pauses, body language, and props; using rhetorical structures and dynamic voice. If you want to improve your delivery and gain confidence, Toastmasters is a good way to do it.

I’m pretty happy with the way I deliver presentations. I can improve my delivery in small-group meetings, but that’s probably a matter of practice. I’m a good presenter, regularly receiving high ratings. Although my current toolkit of delivery techniques don’t cover all situations, I do pretty well.

What would make a real difference, however, is getting _really_ good at content and organization. Based on my Toastmasters experience, I think it and other public speaking resources are great at teaching delivery, but don’t go into as much depth when it comes to content and organization.

There’s no shortcut to developing good content. I need experience, and I need to learn as much as I can from other people. I’m doing several things to increase my chances of stumbling across good content:

  • I read a ton of books and blogs, looking for insights and stories. This gives me raw material for talks and helps me draw connections between topics.
  • I ask and answer lots of questions, learning a lot in the process. This gives me a sense of what people are interested in and learning more about, and I learn about their perspectives too.
  • I constantly test ideas by posting them on my blog, volunteering to give presentations, and creating other material. This gives me feedback on what people want to learn more about and what I can teach them, helps me improve my communication skills, and grows my network (often leading to other speaking opportunities). Over time, ideas grow from mindmaps to blog posts to articles to presentations to related ideas.

Good content is good, but good content combined with good organization is memorable and effective. This is where illustrations, mnemonics, alliteration, storytelling, and other structures come in handy. If I can learn how to get really good at organizing ideas, I’ll be able to apply that skill to writing, speaking, and other things I do. Here’s what I’m doing to learn more about organizing content:

  • I practice illustrating complex ideas with photography, sketches, and diagrams. This helps me understand topics better, engage visual learners, and communicate more effectively.
  • I take apart and reassemble other presentations, reflecting on how I would’ve structured them. Example of my reconstruction
  • I mindmap, write and speak a lot. This challenges me to structure what I’m thinking and what I want to say. Once I’ve gotten things out of my head, I can refine the structure to make it better.
  • I read articles and books, check out presentations, and watch talks, keeping an eye out for how people structure their communication. (It’s quite meta.)

Stay tuned for more posts about role models, long or remote talks, and coaching!

  • I read your post – 2-1/2 times – just to make sure I understood what your are/were attempting to communicate. I’d like to offer some somewhat ironic feedback, speaking to you as a public speaking training expert:

    Change your focus – instead of all-about-you and what you’ll do and how you’ll grow and how you’ll do this or learn that, how about focusing on what THEY (“they” being your group/audience/students/meeting attendees/listeners) need and what they want?

    Your effectiveness is, in reality, less about you and more about them.

    Sure, perhaps you’ll have to do *something* to be more effective than you are currently, but the MEASURE of that needs to be what happens with them, not how you feel or estimate your progress or effectiveness.

    Understand I’m not trying to land on you here, and it’s possible that you were implying that anyway, but too many people focus on themselves and not the most important people in the room, the audience.


    • Thanks for commenting! =)

      I completely agree with you. That’s one of the reasons why the delivery-focused approach that many public speaking courses take don’t quite jive with me. I want to get better at understanding what audiences need and want, and creating and delivering resources that meet those needs and wants.

      An earnest focus on what the audience wants and needs (and what the organizers want and need too) has certainly helped me so far. I’ve written about the joys of the aha! moments and the despair of the corresponding lows. My passion for helping people figure things out gives me the confidence to stand up in front of older and more experienced crowds, and I’ve learned a lot about presentations along the way.

      There’s a lot of trial-and-error in my current approach, though. Well, not really trial-and-error, but rather continuous incremental improvement. I suspect it would be fascinating to watch and work with someone with a lot of skill. The _skill_ of understanding often-vague requirements, and the experience needed to understand people’s perspectives and help people make those connections, and all the other skills involved in organizing information and helping people act on it–that’s something that I can learn.

      So a focus on other people is essential, and that’s precisely what drives me to learn more about how to be even more effective. =)

      How do you learn? How different are you compared to when you started out? How do you keep growing?

      Looking forward to hearing from you!

  • Sacha, we’ll have a longer conversation about this some time, but presentation and blogging may be entirely different activities.

    I’m going to reach way down into philosophy, and make a distinction between teleology and phenomenology in the context of presentation and blogging.

    Presentation (in at least its “selling” forms”) is an art of convincing (or winning over) an audience to a way of thinking (which may be your view, or potentially could just be a position with which you agree or not). Thus, there’s a goal — teleology — and a structure of arguments that supports that end goal.

    If you’ve ever sat through a presentation that was a mish-mash of ideas that didn’t seem to be going anywhere, that presentation must have been missing an end.

    I see blogging much more as a way of working out ideas over time. The fact that blogs are naturally time-based is significant. It’s okay to blog something today, and later say that you were wrong and/or have changed your mind.

    This working out of ideas — sensemaking — has traditionally been done on a local scale, and the web now enables it to be done on a broader scale. (For more on business views, try Sensemaking in Organizations by Karl Weick.

    You may consider recognizing other styles for personal development.

    Teaching isn’t selling, but involves presentation. Sometimes the goal is for the audience to learn, in which case you may not tell them everything, but have each person come to his or her conclusions about the content that has been exposed.

    Facilitating dialogue as generative conversation — in the sense that Bela H. Banathy would have meant — is another skill to be developed. You seem to be doing this in your soirees.

    Generative conversation and strategic conversations are yet another distinction that become important. One place where I’ve hosted one was a research salon in Tokyo. There’s also a digest of those conversations.

  • I’m lucky to have friends who can distinguish between concepts I’ve conflated – thank you!

    For presentations – I lean strongly towards convincing people to take action, and I always think of that when I plan my presentations.

    And you’re right about blogging. I tend to use this blog as a way to think things through. Other blogs are more magazine-like and more other- and action-oriented. I may grow into that over time, but yes, I use my blog more for sensemaking than persuasion.

    Teaching certainly focuses on informing others, although I remember the undercurrent of persuasion that I put into my computer science classes. I thought of my job as not only teaching people introductory computer science (or whatever else), but helping them find a connection to it and other things they wanted to do, and I wanted to infect them with a little of my enthusiasm in the process. ;) I try to avoid thinking of teaching or presentations as purely informative, although sometimes the next action is just to discuss or think about something some more. =)

    And facilitation and conversation are yet other skills I want to learn…

    Oh, this is going to be so much fun. =D You rock!