What? Me? Present?

This article is a cross-post with the Interactive Digital Media @ Centennial College blog.

As many of you know, I am a Professor in a couple of post-graduate programs at Centennial College (Interactive Digital Media and Children’s Entertainment) and I also frequently guest lecture in the undergraduate Broadcast + Film program.  When I’m not teaching, one of the many things I enjoy doing out in industry as a professional is speak at industry events.

All of this is pretty amusing if you knew how introverted I was and how much I hate hearing myself talk.  But I do it because I love sharing what I know with others to help them grow and learn.  That passion, so far, seems to override my nature of sitting quietly in a corner.

The “screen-based” industries (interactive digital media, games, television, web series, film) are full of introverted professionals, especially as the industries trend more and more to digital technology.  Developers, interactive/game designers, video editors, writers, sound designers, animators – all professionals whose days consist mainly of sitting by themselves at a computer with headphones on or in a dark and sound-proof room.  Of course, to assume everyone in any of these professions is introverted would be a gross misunderstanding, as is assuming that they are anti-social due to the introversion (if you don’t believe me, hang out with a developer’s team on a lunch break or sit in a writer’s room – your head will spin!)

While I know many students I teach are introverts, I still require them to do in-class presentations.  They are never too thrilled with that.  Even though it’s a small group of their peers, they still groan at the thought of public speaking.

I require this because I care.  The post-graduate programs I teach in were created with the intent to develop leaders – Producers, Creative Directors, Technical Directors, Entrepreneurs, Showrunners – and it is difficult to lead if you can’t speak to a team.  It is also difficult to sell your idea to someone if you can’t passionately share your vision (think pitching a game concept to a publisher, creative designs to a marketing agency, or a television series concept to a broadcast executive).  And while introverts are often fantastic at crafting a thoughtful, passionate, written presentation – sometimes nothing beats some face-to-face time, even with another introvert.

This is why I assign in-class presentations.  And I explain this to them.  And once explained the students do try really hard to get the most out of the experience.

However, once out of the classroom, it can be difficult for emerging professionals to find their footing in industry.  This month I received an email from an alumnus from the IDM program:

I just wanted to ask you if you have any advice for becoming a better public speaker. My job really does demand me to be client facing. I think back to all our classroom time that we spent discussing the elevator pitch and so on and so forth.

Do you know what could be helpful to get me to explore doing this well?

Being an introvert myself, this email has taken me two weeks to digest before responding to, and the response has taken the form of this blog post because I feel the feedback is important for not only emerging professionals, but to those who find themselves in newly minted leadership positions and find themselves intimidated when addressing a room.

Here you have it, Tips for Public Speaking, one introvert to another:

1) Make sure you believe in what you are presenting.

When you believe in what you are presenting, your passion and excitement shine through.

When you believe in what you are presenting, you naturally ensure what you are presenting is meaningful to your audience.

If you don’t believe in what you are presenting, ask yourself why? Is there a detail you feel you missed? Are you concerned you aren’t covering what your client/audience is expecting or needs? Put yourself in your client’s shoes.  Ask yourself, if I was them, what are the concerns I would have about this proposal? Think honestly and critically.  Taking this time to consider their needs and opinions will help you strengthen your resolve and make for a stronger presentation.

2) Worry less about being perfect and focus on communicating the important message.

Being a quiet kid who used to rarely speak up, my parents encouraged me through various speech competitions in elementary school.  Unfortunately, I was always so focused on writing an informative piece that was “right” that I kept losing any sort of emotion or passion in the delivery.  In the end, I’d done a good speech, but in my opinion, it wasn’t as inspiring or engaging as what I would hear others present.  Other presenters would get gasps and laughter or have the audience be at the edge of their seats wanting to know what was next.  In my mind, that was the sign of a good delivery.

Not sure if I should be publicly admitting to this, but 20 years later, I just don’t script what I’m going to say.  Whether it be for class lecture, for an industry presentation, or a client pitch.

Yes, I go in prepared.  Yes, I have notes.  Yes, sometimes even a Powerpoint of key takeaways is designed.  But that’s it.  The focus is on the important message: points that my audience needs to hear, with a few supporting notes.  I find that as long as I believe in what I’m presenting, I’m more relaxed.

As a speaker (whether on a stage or in a boardroom), when you relax your personality has an opportunity to shine through.  You become more genuine. You become more human.  The words flow.  The confidence exudes.

3) Listen to others.

You can prepare all you want.  But sometimes, the client wants to dominate the meeting.  If you have over prepared, their behavior can really throw you off.  This approach suddenly makes a scripted presentation moot.

When this happens, simply let the client voice their opinion without interruption.  Let them share what is on their mind.  Remember, because you already put yourself in their shoes, much of what they are saying you hopefully already have an answer for.  This way, you aren’t too thrown off that they’ve taken over the pace and the agenda, causing you to rearrange your pitch because you only have key messaging points to discuss (instead of having a formal script).

So listen.  When a client takes the floor like this, it can be for any number of reasons from a change of priorities within their team, to they had a horrible day that morning with the kids and traffic and are exceptionally wound up.  Answer their questions as they arise, and as they settle, you can go back to your presentation, acknowledging points already discussed, and ensure you find ways to incorporate their points. For example:

“You mentioned at the start of the meeting that deployment was a concern, that you want time to properly go through your internal approvals – as you will see in our schedule, we have buffered with 2 week approval cycles for you to regroup with your team at every key decision point.”

You already knew this was a difficult client, and so you already planned for the delay, and then you look like a superstar in the meeting for showing you have responded to their needs (even though you didn’t really respond, you had previously predicted their needs).

4) We all make mistakes.

Those of you who see me in class – I’m not perfect.  I lose my train of thought.  Often because I encourage others to speak up (remember, I don’t like hearing the sound of my own voice drone on), we go way off track of the planned presentation.  Because we are a bit more relaxed in class, I can say, ok, I need a breath, I lost my place, and most of the time the class is understanding.

Thankfully, only once have I done an industry presentation where I was caught off guard with a question and had no idea how to handle it.  So I babbled.  All I’m going to say, it was a prestigious audience and I was in the company of some high profile people on stage, and I did a jargony blah-blah. And in my head I’m telling myself “shut up, shut up – you sound ridiculous!”.  Thankfully what we were discussing on stage was new to the majority of the audience, and when leaving the stage that babbly moment was the part many people thought I sounded the smartest.  My colleagues in the audience who knew me well, on the other hand, pointed it out very quickly, “You were great except that part where you babbled nonsensically”. Sigh.

All I can say when it happens to you:  Deep breath, and back it up. Try again. Roll with it. If you sounded too ridiculous, laugh at yourself and deflect.  Keep positive and get back to your core message.

The trick is not to focus on avoiding mistakes, but being good at recovery and getting the pitch/presentation back on track.  If you dwell, you’re sunk.  Clients get that you are human and if you were doing a good job up until that point, they will want to see you get the rebound.

We can’t always be perfect.

5) Practice helps makes perfect.

I’ve been doing client support work for my entire career, industry presentations for 6 years, teaching/lecturing for 5 years, lead/managed a team for 3 years, and have been managing clients and their project partners for 2 years.  That’s a lot of practice.  And yet, every time I go into class or an industry presentation or even a client pitch, I get butterflies, even if what I’m presenting I totally believe in and know the messaging inside and out.

If you are an emerging professional or a newly crowned manager/leader/entrepreneur, don’t be hard on yourself.  Some people just “get” how to do this, but most of us have to work at it.

After a pitch or presentation, take some time to decompress and evaluate.  Be careful to not use that time to pick at yourself, but think about what parts you rocked, and what parts were more “meh”.  Those “meh” parts, were they the legal and formalities stuff (which may not be your thing and next time invite someone else on your team to join you to cover that part OR have them explain the material a little more as preparation for the next meeting)?  Or the stuff you put your heart and soul into (maybe next time you’d look at the client priorities a little differently)? Think about the questions the client asked.  Tuck those away for the next presentation.

Learn from it.

And do it again.


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