Please join me in a short walk, alongside a character which goes by the nick name of Tricky (there you have it, a neutral one!).
Tricky is a very successful manager in the company. Having had great achievements, Tricky has quickly climbed the corporate ladder and in a few years has made it to the management team. By consequence, Tricky is being invited to represent the company and speak on various occasions.
All reasons to refuse being exhausted, Tricky actually says „yes” to some of those invitations.
Public presentations come in last position on Tricky’s preferences list, and for some very good reasons. First, the job Tricky is being paid to do is not public speaking. Second, she feels ashamed by her low level of competency in this activity, compared to the very high competency in her core activity (the reason she is being asked to speak). Third, he finds it frustrating and exhausting, mainly because he lacks both a method and approach. The fourth reason is she knows she does not prepare enough because core business overwrites her agenda and given that she speaks about her own activity she knows, thus does not see the value in preparing too much. The fifth is that he is stuck in a high-status-low-competency situation: if he asks for development of this competency (presenting) he implicitly admits not being fit for his role (no can do!) or deliberately exposes himself to evaluation and feedback (as part of any development activity), again a big no-can-do especially considering that presentation skills training is an activity where more than two people present and give feedback. Sixth, she knows that most of the feedback she receives from her team, most event organizers and most audiences is a formal pat on the back going like „it was OK!”, „you managed nicely the topic”, „they liked you” etc.
Follow me, please, on a tiny stroll on a lateral path in this walk.
For short presentations and if we paid for it, we, as an audience, will not give negative feedback to Tricky (unless he does something really disappointing) for some very good reasons: we don’t like to be part of something which is not nice (and we, as audience, make a big part of the presentation’s success), we don’t like to see others fail because we know it’s only a matter of time before we’ll be up there presenting, we are not asked for individual feedback and we are not given a mechanism to provide feedback to the speaker (time, access, input method etc.).
The organiser is very reluctant to tell presenters what they did not do right because it’s not their job to train the speakers, they have an interest in maintaining a good relationship with the speaker and telling her what to change in her presentation is not a first choice of action in this sense. Saying “it was OK” is much safer. They also know that, most of the speakers, when prompted to change something will naturally resist the proposal, thus starting a debate out of which the organiser will quickly want out thus will quickly give up any recommendations and consequently all feedback will be distorted.
Tricky’s colleagues have the hardest time. If they are in lower jobs, they will be highly reluctant in telling one of their managers what to change because there is that year-end-review and bonus coming up. If they are peers or higher levels, if they say anything about changing xyz, they will be hit with „I told you not to have me speak „, or „next time have someone else present”, or „may I remind you that my job is not presenting but….”. Either way, it will take a lot of energy for his colleagues to deliver any change message what so ever.
So, back on the main alley for our walk, here we have Tricky, a good performer in his job but a low performer in public speaking. He is sitting in front of an audience, presenting the company’s most recent achievement in talent recruitment and retention, looking most of the time at the projected image and not at the audience, speaking in a low voice which only 50% of the audience can hear, with a visual support which is hindering the presentation instead of supporting it… And you know the rest of the unfortunate details because most of us have been in Tricky’s situation or part of his audience.
This is where our and Tricky’s walk hits a dead end.
What could Tricky do?
For starters, Tricky could decide to go about presentation skills exactly how she went about her „technical skills” (core job related), meaning actually decide to do something about them, train and practice (over and over and over). Take it serious and make it a serious objective.
Then, he could stop thinking presenting is not part of the job. It is! It is a major part of a managers’ job!!!
Later, he could sign up for training. Oh, I forgot about the high-statute-low-skill issue. OK, get a mentor, a coach, whatever you like to call it and train in individual sessions.
She could use precise questions when asking for feedback, like: how was my voice, how did I manage the visual aids, how did I relate to the audience, what point did I make, what point did I fail to make, how have I managed the questions, how clear was my call for action (if any) etc.
Did I mention practice a lot? I’ll mention it again: practice a lot, before all presentations (no excuses!) with people who know how to offer feedback and how to present.
And there, we found our way out of the dead end!
By the way, where is Tricky?
Special note: Many thanks to Geanina S. for the illustration!