Client presentation? Creative Review? Pitch? Presentation skills are as critical as the work.

November 21, 2008

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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!

4 Responses to “Client presentation? Creative Review? Pitch? Presentation skills are as critical as the work.”

  1. Adam St John said

    Thanks for giving the talk last night. For me it was like a halftime speech for wannabe ad people trying to bust through the agency hiring front lines. Made we want to become the next Don Drapper, without the emotional baggage. Thanks for the insight and inspiration. Adam

  2. SRP said

    You’re very welcome, Adam.
    I get a lot out of those talks, too.
    Best success,
    Steffan

  3. Pale Writer said

    Anytime you want to do a little Zep Bootleg swapping, let me know.

  4. SRP said

    PW-
    “How the West was Won” is an excellent, new set of live recordings that Jimmy Page produced a couple years ago. The band never sounded better. There is a film, too but Robert Plant’s bulge makes for uncomfortable viewing!
    -Steffan

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