As a copywriter I’ve presented countless campaigns to both clients and creative directors. As a creative director, I’ve been presented to just as many times. Presenting work and having work presented to you is one of the tougher aspects of a creative professional’s job and it’s one I’ve written about often. To become good at presenting and, in turn, processing presentations is learned behavior and remains woefully underrated. No creative, however talented, ever gets to the top without at least becoming competent at both.
When it comes to making a presentation, it helps to love the rush, which I now do. At first, of course, it was terrifying. One of the many mistakes –and it is a mistake- I made during this early phase of my career was apologizing for work in advance of showing it. You all know what I’m talking about. The art director who says the imagery isn’t quite right. The copywriter who says the line isn’t there yet. The creative director who wishes he had more time. Or my favorite, when the account director says the work you’re about to see isn’t “fully baked” or that it’s “still in rough form.”
Those observing can only scream in silence.
Folks, now is not the time to hedge. You know how annoying it is when you’re mother gives you a gift and then says she’ll be happy to take it back if you don’t like it? Apologizing to bosses or clients is even worse. It puts the receiver in a mindset of doubt instead of excitement. You would never introduce someone by stating his or her flaws. Why are we so inclined to do so with our work?
Alas, we are insecure. We have become conditioned to receive criticism and are in essence bracing for it.
Half-baked or not, present your work directly and with confidence. (And I don’t mean pre-sell, for that is a sin as well.) Recognize your audience with a simple greeting and perhaps one sincere flattering remark. Above all, get to the work as soon as possible. Present your ideas with understandable enthusiasm, brevity and clarity. Say thank you. And sit your ass down. Easier said than done, I know. But this is the best tack. Trust me.
When the questions and criticisms come –and they will come- we must avoid being defensive. If we are human, our hearts are pounding. Yet, we must listen. Take notes. Pretend to take notes. But whatever you do, refrain from debate unless you are absolutely certain it is the right thing to do. If you are asked a question answer it. Better yet, let the team leader do so. Hopefully, he or she is capable. Again this is all learned behavior. And it starts the moment we open our mouths.
Next to gazing at Joan the thing I like most about Mad Men are the speeches, especially those given by Don Draper, and in particular when he’s in pitch mode. Observing Don orate in front of an expectant, hushed crowd, whether it’s Jaguar or some Podunk regional airline, is for me the zenith of this acclaimed show.
There, I wistfully think to myself, but for the Gods of Advertising go I. As a copywriter and creative director, I’ve long cherished the presentation spotlight and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Having a great idea and being its primary advocate is nothing short of a blessing. The trust. The power. The stakes. The so-damn-possible you-can-almost-taste-it glory. How can anyone resist? (Well, as it turns out many of you can. Public speaking ranks among the most feared of all human activities. Good. More opportunities for guys like me!)
Arguing for my agency and ideas is the closest I’ll ever come to a Braveheart moment. Think about it, for all the bloody mayhem in that awesome film, the only thing we really remember is Mel Gibson’s rousing speech to his troops. The same can be said for George C Scott as Patton. Or Jack: “You can’t handle the truth!” Well, hell, I want to stand for something. And I want to stand and deliver it. And so it is -kind of sort of- when I make a creative presentation. Emphasis on kind of sort of…
The adrenalin pumps. Time stops. Everything else fades from importance. In that moment, I am Atticus Finch, General Patton, Braveheart; or more likely, a poor man’s Don Draper, which, by the way, I will take any day of the week. Freedom!
Writer’s note: It is ironic AMC’s other advertising show (about this very topic: The Pitch!) has not shown us a single magnificent presentation. Frankly, far from it.
November 21, 2008
I’m speaking to the Chicago Portfolio School tonight on presentation skills. Learning how to do this well has changed my life. I’d like to share a portion of the text with you…
“The Immigrant Song” was typically how Led Zeppelin opened their concerts but, technically, it was not how they started their show. First came the anticipatory drone of all these speakers against a blackened stage -you know, to set the stage. It could last for 2 minutes. And then, Boom! The cavalry charge of guitar and drums. Since the Middle Ages, incendiary music has been used to incite warriors to battle. Remember Brave Heart?
Led Zeppelin’s choice to begin their “presentation” with a frantic call to action is a good one. It gets people up and riveted to, if not charging, the front of the stage? Wouldn’t you love to get that kind of reaction when you present? And that opening 45 seconds of drone –Awesome! It’s like a volcano rumbling before it erupts.
As presenters we must learn to embrace the palpable buzz before going “on” for it is not dangerous. Feeding off the anticipation in the room is a good thing. Let yourself get excited. What’s the downside -Looking like you’re enthusiastic? Passionate? I’d say it’s dangerous not to be psyched.
Be motivated. Don’t pretend what you are doing is not a big deal. Or that is precisely how you will come across. Most presentations are a big deal. Think about it. You’re either in front of a client, your boss or both. And chances are you’re in a competition of sorts. How on earth is that not a big deal?
Let me continue by debunking a popular myth. You know the one. We learned it as early as in the first grade, doing book reports and show and tell. It’s the one that states reading from your presentation is bad. Instead, we are always encouraged to recite our material by heart. Or risk sounding dumb, right?
Come on, memorizing stuff is not a sign of intelligence or respect. If anything, it tells your audience that you spent more time committing your thoughts to memory than actually coming up with them. Why burn valuable fuel on something so cosmetic? Unless you’re reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, why worry about such things? Use your memory for anniversaries, not speeches. Recite poems not presentations. Work from notes, yes. But don’t be insecure about referring to them.
Part of me believes presentation skills cannot be taught. A rigid automaton will always be a slave to his power point. You can no more pull the stick out of his ass than tell the clinically depressed to lighten up. For most robots, the stick is lodged in there pretty good. All the king’s horses and all the kings men will not be able to loosen up a frightened art director or quiet the nerves of a tongue-tied copywriter. Mechanical delivery cannot be fixed with oil.
However, presentation skills can be improved upon. For me, it was a matter of self-preservation. And I got my first lesson in the Chicago Public School System. Not in a classroom, mind you, but in the schoolyard. Essentially, I had to learn how to talk my way out of countless beatings. I’m not kidding. Bereft of physical prowess, I relied upon my wits. If and when a bully approached me with intent to do bodily harm, I had to talk him out of it. Easier said than done, right? But that’s exactly the point. It was easier to say something than to do something. I could face the bully. And I can face you. Look at public speaking this way and it’s a lot less mysterious. It becomes simply a matter of survival.
A lot of schools teach the ‘art’ of advertising –more of them are popping up every day. Yet, as far as I know, not one offers a course on giving presentations. Perhaps because the skill is so elusive, so hard to grasp, let alone teach. And yet, presentation skills are a critical part of every ad exec’s career path, especially for those of us in the creative department. After all, if you cannot sell yourself how can you hope to sell anything? Perhaps the real reason so many fine artists died penniless paupers was not because they were ahead of their time but because they were clueless when it came to selling their work!
Having written all this, I should add there’s nothing more fun than giving a presentation. Channeling the angst about doing well is key and I know how to do it. Next post: My list of presenting do’s and don’ts!