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Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes, and Win Them Over

Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes, and Win Them Over

by Karen Hough

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Karen Hough doesn’t want you to be “perfect.” People fear public speaking because they worry about having to conform to all sorts of handed-down rules that tie them up in knots and put their audiences to sleep. It’s authenticity and passion that win people over, she says, not “polish.” But you can’t be authentic if


Karen Hough doesn’t want you to be “perfect.” People fear public speaking because they worry about having to conform to all sorts of handed-down rules that tie them up in knots and put their audiences to sleep. It’s authenticity and passion that win people over, she says, not “polish.” But you can’t be authentic if you’re following guidelines that drain the life and personality out of your presentation.

Hough debunks over a dozen myths about presenting to make it more fun and natural for everyone. She explains how practicing in front of a mirror makes you worse, why you should never end with questions, and much more. She includes true stories of people who not only were able to become great presenters by being “bad” but actually came to enjoy it! Like them, by following Karen Hough’s wise and witty advice, you’ll be able to tear up the old rules and embrace and develop your own style. You’ll be freed to be a living, breathing, occasionally clumsy human being whose enthusiasm is powerful and infectious.

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Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
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Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2014 Karen Hough and ImprovEdge LLC
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62656-047-5



Start Breaking the Rules Before You Even Hit the Stage

There's just too much going on in presentations: information to remember, slides crammed with data, your pulse racing, and all those rotten rules to follow. Focus, people, focus! You need to peel away the excess stuff that gets in the way of efficient, authentic presenting.

Let's put on our geek hats and consider why this matters. Neuroscience is uncovering more and more information about the importance of focus. David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz have done insanely cool research into how our brains connect to our leadership abilities and to our everyday human behavior. As we dump behaviors that stand in our way (i.e., break old rules) and replace them with new ways to focus our thoughts and energy, we are actually rewiring our brains. Being ourselves becomes easier and easier if we focus on it.

Over time, paying enough attention to any specific brain connection keeps the relevant circuitry open and dynamically alive. These circuits can then eventually become not just chemical links but stable, physical changes in the brain's structure ... the brain changes as a function of where an individual puts his or her attention. The power is in the focus.

So instead of focusing on what you're doing wrong (which the rules of presenting just love to do), focus on your strengths and being yourself. Get this: if you focus on new behaviors, you can change your brain to embrace patterns that make you a better, more authentic speaker. Rock and Schwartz call it "attention density," and it applies to many areas of human behavior, as well as mood and learning skills. Put simply, if you start presenting in new ways, your brain will open up circuits to support your confidence and capabilities. If that doesn't make you feel like you have a bionic brain, I don't know what will.

Passion and focus may seem like surprising ideas with which to begin talking about presentations. Most discussions start with the rules. But trust me: it's all part of the business of getting down to business. If you can let your passion out of the stable to run free, you can certainly try a few new techniques to replace the old rules.

There's impact and influence in knowing just what you want to share and doing it at just the right time. And that means you can use techniques that feel right for you. Whenever a technique gets in the way of you being authentic, it's time to break the rules.

So let's do it. Let's break fourteen of those archaic rules and instead present in a way that feels good, fun, and really bad.

Break This Rule

#1: Your purpose is to give a good presentation

"Good" is to a presentation like "fine" is to a compliment. Your purpose is to make something happen!

Rule to Break #1 is mired in technicality. There you stand, waiting for your chance to speak to the committee, and all you're worried about is "giving a good presentation." What does that mean? It means you're obsessed with all the wrong things: your slides show every number in existence, you say everything in order, you stand up straight behind the podium, you never cross the beam of the projector, and you don't pass out. You're drowning in worry because the only thing rolling around in your head is, "Give a good presentation. Give a good presentation. Don't mess up, and give a good presentation!"

It's time to have a heart-to-heart with yourself about why you're standing there. What purpose does this presentation serve? Having a searingly clear purpose will filter out all the silt from your presentation. Think of purpose as the destination—the outcome of your presentation. What do you want to have happen? What great change will come from you taking the time to talk to these people? Consider Todd from the Internet and cable company. The purpose of his new presentation was to convince his company's leadership to cut out the wasteful portion of the health and wellness program and keep the good parts. He wanted to make something happen.

Your purpose is the "so what" for your audience and your driving goal. Here are some examples:

› You want to convince the committee to increase your budget by 10 percent next year.

› You want to entertain the youth club so that they enter the state go-cart competition.

› You want to inspire college students to vote for the first time.

› You want to anger your community council so that they enact laws to protect the environment.

› You want to motivate a client to dump its old vendor and buy your products instead.

Purpose has to be tied to an outcome—what do you want your audience to do as a result of your work? You make something happen because your passionate presentation had a purpose.

Purpose is critical because it colors all your decisions about the presentation. With a purpose, you can suddenly make clear decisions about content and flow. If you really want kids to enter the state go-cart competition, don't tell them about seven different kinds of toys they could build and just hope that they decide to make go-carts. You focus on go-carts and tell stories about other kids who have won!

If you want your budget to be increased by 10 percent, don't review all department budgets, the corporate marketing plan, and the company picnic. Talk about your success and map out how you would use the additional funds to benefit your company. Suddenly, slides, comments, and quotations that don't support your purpose are easily trashed.

One of the most obvious signs of a purposeless presentation is a tsunami of information. When you're drowning your audience in data, it's because you're not sure where you're going. You just hope that all the information will move the audience in the right direction.

I worked with the chief strategy officer of a national insurer and her direct team—a small group of about eight people who were incredibly intelligent, data-driven, and numbers-oriented. The team was also in a very delicate position. They needed to influence decisions but didn't necessarily have the power to tell people what to do, and that included the CEO!

The team's presentations made my brain feel like it was on novocaine. Numbers, numbers, everywhere, and not a purpose in sight. One participant was trying to influence the company's leaders to invest in car-safety technology. But you'd never know that. He saw his role as that of the informer. He threw tons of data at the audience and hoped enough stuck to move them in his direction. We in the audience were busy reading slides covered with data. Whenever we did have a chance to listen, he overwhelmed us with his racer-fast delivery of acronyms and scientific projections. I eventually removed the fire hose from my mouth and asked him, "What are you trying to accomplish?"

Once he focused and agreed to hone in on one purpose, everything changed. He clearly stated his purpose, used only the data that directly supported investment in car-safety technology, and talked about the benefits of that one idea. He cut out confusing information and moved toward a single outcome. That, in turn, allowed him to communicate a powerful, simple message. Most importantly, he influenced listeners without seeming to do so.

It was like in The Wizard of Oz, when the black-and-white screen gives way to Technicolor.

This concept also applies to one-on-one meetings or conversations around a table. We've all been in way too many purposeless meetings and conversations. Think about how much more productive, clear, and short those meetings would be if they had a purpose. For example, "We're going to discuss only digital marketing and decide on the first step today." Whenever someone starts to careen into on-site advertising, they're wrangled back to the purpose. "Let's decide where to go on vacation with the current budget." Whenever topics such as what you'd do with more money or what to pack comes up—screech! Put on the brakes and bring it all back.

So, keep it simple. It's best to walk in with one strong purpose, accomplish that, and move on to another purpose at another time. I've seen presenters try to accomplish two, three, or four purposes at once, and you can guess what happens. Nothing. The audience walks out not knowing what to do.

And every now and then, your purpose can be very selfish and a little secret—no one else has to know what it is. There's nothing wrong with choosing a purpose such as impressing the boss so that she gives you a promotion or making your children laugh so that they think cleaning up is fun and you can do less of it. All your audience will know is that you gave a very compelling presentation and they're coming around quickly to your suggestions.

Purpose is the ace in the hole. It gives you focus, drive, and clarity.

Break This Rule

#2: Give informational presentations

That's about as exciting as watching grass grow. Take action!

You've got a destination—your purpose. Now, how are you going to get there? You need a vehicle, and that's your action. Action is the way you go about accomplishing your purpose. In other words, how you get there. Purpose = What. Action = How.

Action is probably the single most critical reason that presentations even occur. Remember when I said that if you're just going to hand over a bunch of data, why not send out an email or a memo? You're there in person for a reason, because your passion, purpose, and energy are going to affect people. Action is how you will make them feel. It is an emotional connection to the audience that moves them—and drives your purpose. By choosing an action, you're going to make people feel something, consider new ideas, maybe even get mad. You will be:

› motivating

› convincing

› entertaining

› angering

› invigorating

› teaching

› inspiring

Your action is the driving force that gives power to your presentation. Remember my examples of a purpose in the previous chapter? Let's look at them again, now with the action words in italic:

› You want to convince the committee to increase your budget by 10 percent next year.

› You want to entertain the youth club so that they enter the state go-cart competition.

› You want to inspire college students to vote for the first time.

› You want to anger your community council so that they enact laws to protect the environment.

› You want to motivate a client to dump its old vendor and buy your products instead.

Much like purpose, action helps you—the presenter—to focus. You know what you want to make happen, so you focus your delivery. You're there to entertain the youth club. So don't present boring information about the number of boards the kids need, the width of the boards, and the length of the nails. Talk about the wind in their hair as their go-carts race along at top speed. Talk about meeting other kids at the state competition and the cool prizes. Tell funny stories about your first awful, lopsided go-cart and how proud you were when you learned to do it right.

Do you think it's an accident that every college-student organization has pizza at its meetings? Students are always hungry—you feed them, and they see you as a friend. Then you whip up their natural desire to be part of something exciting. You use stories about how one vote can win an election, making their voice heard, being part of real change. All those steps lead to inspiring them to vote for the first time. And better yet, tell them you'll drive them to the polls, and the deal is done.

Or if you're there to motivate your client to switch to your products, be sure they're aware of your competitor's falling stock price and the fact that the other guys source their devices from a foreign country. Give your client compelling reasons why you're a better bet so that they're motivated to go through the difficult process of dropping a vendor and starting with a new one.

Purpose and action are rooted in the theater. Great actors, improvisers, and speakers drive their work with action and purpose. When you see a great performance on the screen, one that moves you, makes you laugh or cry, it's because an actor has chosen a purpose and an action for his character. Hamlet's single purpose was to find out who killed his father, the king. His actions were to threaten, confuse, and outsmart the other characters until he found the murderer.

I had a wonderful early career in improv, stage, and film. I eventually left that life and went to work in technology—network engineering—in New York City. What a switch! Even though I was working hard and cramming at night, I often had no idea what the heck I was talking about. So I had a purpose and an action for every meeting and presentation. I may still have been learning the fine points, but I absolutely understood the big picture of what I was after: a signed contract, a raise, or a partnership program. I thought about the people I was trying to influence, then I used data to convince them. Or funny stories to entertain them. Or falling stock prices to scare the doo-doo out of them.

But there's one very sticky issue with action. This is the baddest piece of my bad advice. Remove "inform" from your list of acceptable actions. Notice it's not on the list at the start? If you use it, cross it out permanently. Inform is a cop-out. It is the default action for 95 percent of presentations, and it's one of the weakest choices you can make. Think about it—most presentations are approached with an attitude like, "I'll give them all the information, and then I've done my job. If they do nothing, it's not my fault. I'm just there to inform." Gee thanks, milquetoast.

In the worst case, the action of informing removes responsibility from the presenter for having a greater purpose for being there. It drains energy and diffuses focus. And that's when extraneous data and unrelated points start to find their way in. Computers, machines, and spreadsheets inform. Humans interpret and find deeper meaning in numbers and information.

I challenge you to always choose a more powerful option than inform. Even a standard update can teach, motivate, or convince an audience.

I have a real-life example from my work with a regional sports media provider. One woman in my group, Susan, belligerently insisted that it was impossible for her quarterly updates to do anything other than inform. Updates are just that—information. So why should she care about doing anything else but laying out the info as quickly as possible and being done with it?

I asked her about the audience: she gave her presentation to an assistant to the CEO, and that assistant would then brief the CEO. So I nudged her. What might be the worst outcome of that process? She admitted that the assistant could develop all sorts of unbecoming perceptions. For example, she might presume that Susan wasn't very committed, that the department was barely meeting its goals for the year, or that their ideas or attitude didn't align with the company's goals—which would then result in an unfavorable report to the CEO. A report like that could mean budget cuts, uncomplimentary reviews, or even firings. It turned out that this assistant had a great deal more influence than Susan had really considered.

What about the best-case scenario? Susan shared that the best outcome would be for the assistant to return surprised and excited about the department's great work and voice her approval to the CEO. That could result in more funding for the department, positive performance reviews, and promotions. By focusing on the potential impact of this "standard" presentation, Susan realized how much influence she could have.

Susan changed her entire approach. For the next quarterly update, she and her team agreed on a purpose: having such good reviews from the assistant that they would be awarded a budget increase at the end of the year. Their action was to inspire her to comment positively to the CEO and support their recommendations for more funds. With that focus, the team's members gave the best update they had ever made. They integrated success stories, creatively shared their ideas, and used bright posters in a sunny room rather than PowerPoint slides in a dark room. For the first time, the assistant asked questions, laughed, and commented on the information. With each successive update, Susan and her team drove home their purpose in more and more creative ways to engage and inspire the assistant. And—you guessed it. At the end of the year, Susan and her team got a budget increase for the next year.

Susan connected to the information in a personal way. That filled her with the passion to have a clear purpose and action. By combining those elements, she and her team enjoyed an incredible outcome.

Action is the vehicle that gets you to your destination, the purpose. Choose a strong action, and you'll add fuel to your next presentation!

Break This Rule

#3: Practice in front of a mirror

Mirrors are just a one-person show. Practice often, out loud, and on your feet!

Practicing in front of a mirror sounds like great advice. We don't know what we look like, and it's not always possible to videotape our practice, so why not? This rule is one of those that everybody knows is "right."


Excerpted from BE THE BEST BAD PRESENTER EVER by KAREN HOUGH. Copyright © 2014 Karen Hough and ImprovEdge LLC. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Karen Hough is CEO of ImprovEdge, which creates training using improvisation to teach business skills. She is an Amazon bestselling author, keynote speaker, contributor to the Huffington Post, and winner of the Stevie International Award for Most Innovative Company of the Year.

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