I picked up the phone. The woman’s words came rushing at me as if a pause would allow her to change her mind. “My company wants me giving presentations. I hate them. I get so nervous, I get sick at the thought of them. Someone said I should try pills, but I don’t want to take pills. I’ve taken other presentation skills courses, but they didn’t help. A friend said you could. Can you?” After I managed to get her name, I probed for more information. In my line of work you have to go slow and listen carefully, because the reasons people have trouble with speaking in public can range from a lack of understanding of the skill itself, all the way to a deep-seated phobia. I assumed that she probably was not a true phobic because phobics rarely put themselves into situations that could involve confronting their fears. Still, as the last thing I ever want to do is open up a can of worms that I cannot contain, I asked what had occurred in the other courses. She answered that they hadn’t related to the types of presentations she made. “Listen!” she said. “What I really want to know is, can you help me develop a unique, strong presentation style so that when I stand up and present, people will listen?” I explained that the idea wasn’t to develop a separate style for presentations, but to enhance the way she presents herself daily. “Splitting styles is like splitting personalities,” I said. “It’s terribly disconcerting to both you and your audience. It also means that you’ve left part of yourself somewhere else.” “Oh!” she said in a voice that seemed to disappear into her thoughts. “Is that why I feel so alone when I present?” The process had begun. We had exposed the first of whatever misconceptions she had about presenting, misconceptions that inhibited her from being in control of herself, her material and her audience. We all have such misconceptions– misconceptions that not only inhibit us from being effective presenters, but also may keep us from attempting to learn how to present effectively. This book exposes the ten most common misconceptions. However, there are two others that, while I haven’t allotted them their own chapters, run through the book like recurring themes and therefore need to be highlighted here.
The first misconception is that we only “present” when we are in front of an “audience”–the definition of audience in this case being the first definition found in most dictionaries, that is, a group of spectators at a public event. This is what my caller believed. This is what is accepted by most people. Yet, the reality is that we all make presentations every day– all day. Whether we express an idea at a meeting, sell a product or service, have a discussion with our spouse over finances, ask our boss for a raise, converse with friends about politics, or try to inveigle the butcher into slicing us that special cut of meat– we are presenting. It makes no difference whether we do so to one person we know, a thousand we don't, or vice versa– a presentation is a presentation is a presentation– of our wants, needs, ideas and, most important, of our self. I do not wish to imply that the presenter is the most important part of a presentation, although it happens that if an audience accepts the presenter it may also accept the presenter’s content. However, to get back to the butcher, the quality of your food is apt to hinge not on how important your dinner’s success is to you, but on whether you can make its success matter to the butcher. As we shall see, the way to make something important to someone else is to focus on that person and his or her needs– to relate what you want to something he or she wants, and somehow to connect the two– to step outside yourself, so to speak. That’s no easy feat when how we present ourselves and our ideas is intertwined with our sense of who we are and how we see our self, that is, our persona– our self image, but, as we shall also see, it can be done.
The second misconception has to do with our attitude toward those whom we view as appearing to enjoy the opportunity to address an audience. We think of them as rare birds, people with a message, performers! Often we assume they were born with special talents. Sometimes we label them exhibitionists, egocentric personalities, “show-offs.” We may even go so far as to say that those who enjoy speaking in public must be slightly mad. The concept that we, too, might possess the same impulses that go into creating a performer either does not enter our mind, or if it does, we see these impulses as something negative, unseemly, not quite proper. Here too, as in the previous misconception, reality and perception differ. We are all latent performers.