This post is inspired by a recent request from Russ Unger for contribution to Designing the Conversation: Facilitation for Experiences, his upcoming book with Brad Nunnally and Dan Willis. It started with a simple request: Please share how you practice for a performance, a presentation, a workshop, a sales call/pitch, an interview—whatever it is that you can share with people so that they can learn from a variety of different approaches from a bunch of really smart people.
I can’t guarantee that this qualifies as a tactic of that last category, but I can offer insight to my approach. As with all tactics and the personalities they support, YMMV.
Experience as preparation
For me, preparation is less about practicing and more about priming. In every encounter, I stand on years of experience with tough clients and incisive critiques. That’s the thing: there’s no need to be intimidated by a podium or pricey pitch, because you never really go in cold. In every experience, you can draw on the variety of clients, industries, personalities, budgets, cultures, and tough questions you’ve gathered in your past. It’s that experience that likely gives you the right to be there in the first place.
The experience that accompanies me into every tough conversation, pitch, or presentation is both precious and painful. I draw on more than a decade of clients and audiences in more than a dozen industries. Pitches to mechanical engineering companies, online trading brokerages, global shoe brands, the world’s most elite universities, pioneers of reality television… and among them I can recount wins and losses. I may have said the wrong thing, missed visual cues, or pushed a concept when I should have pulled back. But when I take the stage, it is evidence of the fact that I survived those experiences—and likely took something from them.
So that sensibility lets me focus on the specific needs of the performance. Before a pitch, presentation, or big talk at a conference, I like to “prime” myself with the data, statistics, and details I need to have top of mind. When I presented “Creation, Curation, and the Ethics of Content Strategy” at Web 2.0 and at SXSW, I needed to be able to cite specific works by Degas, Danger Mouse, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Those works and their dates of creation weren’t the end point though; they were just details in the story.
Whether I’m sharing work with a potential client or a case study with an eager audience, I enjoy story telling. That format gives color to theory and offers concrete details that humanize the topic and draw me closer to the audience, whether they sit opposite me in a board room or a hundred feet away in an auditorium. To offer that story, I map out the key points of my presentation: big themes, the story arc, conflict, and climax. I don’t focus on practicing exactly what I’ll say because I worry rehearsed phrases will sound canned or formal. Formality isn’t my goal; connection is my goal. I also don’t waste time memorizing endless, ever-changing statistics; I’m there to offer actionable insight, not replace Wikipedia. So instead of putting that all in my head, I put it on paper. I prime my notes with the details. I often take the stage with a single sheet of paper on which I’ve marked phonetic pronunciations of tough terminology, key dates, and long names. It’s simple, in the big scrawl of a Sharpie. If I’m citing a study, I’ll note down the journal in which it was published and when. If I’m sharing the results of a campaign, I’ll jot down the company’s year-over-year growth. I want hard numbers, not just superlatives. That’s what my audience wants too—because that’s the stuff that makes for great Tweets and compelling stories back in their own companies.
Armed with those details and enthusiasm to engage my audience, I’m ready to tell them good stories around which we can engage and motivate action. That’s my goal, and whether I’m speaking with a potential client or eager audience, that’s hopefully their goal as well.
Is that your approach, or do you appreciate more focused practicing? Share in the comments below or offer your ideas for the book through Russ, Dan, and Brad’s form.