How to Deliver an Authentic and Meaningful Presentation

We all have to deliver presentations throughout our careers. Whether it’s an All Company meeting, a presentation to our team, a strategy overview to the board, or an external keynote presentation at a conference, we have to face our fears, put in the work, and deliver something that is authentic to us and meaningful to our audience.   

So, how do we do that? 

I’ve been speaking in various forums throughout my career. Every panel, fireside chat, live interview, and now podcast (!) is still challenging, even after twenty-five years of practice. But as with a lot of things I do, I keep speaking because I learn and grow every time I do it. And, based on the feedback I’ve gotten, people learn a few things as well.

It’s been awhile since I’ve delivered a keynote. So, when I recently dusted off my presentation playbook for a keynote at the #ExLearn2019 conference, it was both invigorating and daunting.

Here are three things I learned from preparing and delivering that keynote: 

1. Practice Vs. Powerpoint

In December 2018, Sharon Boller, owner of Bottom Line Performance (recently acquired by Tier 1 Performance) and the conference’s sponsor, asked me to do the keynote, which would be given in September 2019. I had nine months to prepare—no problem. And, as these things usually go, I started really preparing in July. 

I heeded the advice of two speech coaches, Seth Gannon with Speech Labs and Susannah Baldwin, who emphasize the importance of devoting more time to practicing the keynote than to the content itself. 

I admit, I probably spent too much time on the content, but I did give myself more time to practice—really practice, say-it-out-loud kind of practice, in front of the bathroom mirror and in front of people—than I had for any prior keynote. It was uncomfortable, annoying, and tiring, but elucidating. In several instances, I spotted weak transitions I was able to fix to improve the flow, and I grew much more comfortable sharing my message.

I often say that the best frameworks, models, and PowerPoint slides are still no match for us. Perhaps the greatest benefit of practicing my keynote again and again was discovering the full extent of this statement. We are the most powerful and versatile ‘tool’ we have. It’s not the PowerPoint people connect with; it’s the unique perspectives we bring to a presentation, how we speak, what we emphasize, the pace of our words, and the tone we use that can help fortify our connection with the audience. Repeat practice allowed me to develop a closer relationship with the words I spoke and how I spoke them so that I could make certain I was emphasizing what I wanted the audience to connect with most. In stepping into the words again and again at home, I found that on stage I was more present, less nervous, more confident that I was connecting with the audience, and far less reliant on a bunch of slides to deliver my message.

Learning Challenge: For your next presentation, nail your content quickly, and focus more time practicing the delivery. Where can you slow down your pace to make key points? Which words do you need to emphasize through tone? Where can you share a perspective that is unique to your own experience and fortifies connection with the audience?

2. Stories Vs. Concepts

Stories inspire us. They grip us. They connect us. Yet, so often, we don’t share them in presentations, relying on concepts and technical ideas alone. Why? Because they are difficult to come up with and even more challenging to tell. When we do tell those rich and meaningful stories, we might feel naked, but we also might feel enlivened. And so does our audience (the enlivened part, not the naked part). When we both share and hear stories, we feel connected to each other in a deeper way.

So, in this keynote, I tried to share more stories:

  • The story about how my dad instilled in me a love of travel and, though I didn’t realize it at the time, a love of systems. 
  • The story about my first trip to NYC and buying my first pair of red leather boots (and the last pair!). 
  • The story about how I realized that work is our best learning lab for developing ourselves, personally and professionally.

Learning is less about taking in new information than it is about connecting with people who help put that information in context and suggest new ways of understanding it. Stories help us make those connections and set the context.

Learning Challenge: Identify one or two stories that exemplify some things you have learned throughout your career. Share with a friend. Ask him/her which details he/she remembered most.

3. Portfolio vs. Project

We have collected more learning experiences and stories than we realize throughout our careers. Making a habit of reflecting on them and writing them down will serve you well the next time you are asked to present. Develop a practice of recording your experiences. What were your key takeaways? How did it impact your passions? Are there any taglines—any memorable, succinct distillations of the experience—you can draw from?

No presentation is created from scratch, even if you think it is. It is a culmination of your experiences and wisdom to date. Leveraging those experiences will be much easier for you if you develop a practice of logging them as they happen. The result is your personal portfolio of experiences, stories, and learnings that, I assure you, will make writing any speech or presentation so much easier. And it will provide a much more powerful context from which to approach it, as opposed to thinking about a speech or presentation as a one-off project.

Learning Challenge: Develop a practice of routinely writing down your experiences and their takeaways. What are their taglines? What are you passionate about? Come up with three taglines and keep adding to those.

It goes without saying that with any great endeavor that stretches you out of your comfort zone, as presenting does for me, you need to leverage your own systems and resources. Draw from your portfolio of experiences for content, test ideas with your friends, grab lunch with colleagues to pick their brains, practice speaking the talk out loud in front of family members.

And be sure to thank everyone who gives you their time, feedback, and support, and return the favor when you can support them. The result is a virtuous cycle of support and ongoing learning with your network—a fact that will only help you be better prepared and more comfortable when you are called to stretch beyond your comfort zone.

We all have unique messages and experiences to share. I can’t wait to hear yours.

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