Few creatives are skilled at presenting work. Here’s how I got better. (Part II)

April 24, 2014

“Employing Steff’s system improved my presentations…and my life!”

I learned how to present creative ideas (mine and those belonging to others) by watching the best of the best and modeling my game accordingly. At Leo Burnett, we typically competed (if that’s the right word) with other teams within our creative group, during internal meetings and even in front of clients. As for agency recommendations, if a client preferred another idea or disliked the hero, the tables would turn. This happened all the time. Still does. I learned that sometimes, as in a horse race, it’s almost better not to be the frontrunner. In any event, every presentation was a golden opportunity. They still are.

Every presentation is also a trial by fire but some fires burn hotter than others. Therefore, when you have an internal meeting, this is when you audition your presentation. This is when you consider your narrative. Am I aligning my pitch with the strategy deck? Are my pieces in the right order? You can get away with mistakes, especially if you acknowledge them. Own your presentation and learn how to course correct.

Don’t ramrod through your blunders. Tell your work family that you value their criticism and are hell bent on being solid for the client. Easier said than done. But it’s good advice.

In either case, observe other presenters as much as their work. Consider their performances with the eyes of a client. Take notes. The night before a presentation I often wrote down what I thought I should say. I obsessed over it. Being prepared, my confidence grew rapidly.

When my turn came to face a client, I held up my notes and told them this meeting was too important for me to wing it, that the creative was too good for risking an adlibbed, tangential preamble. By making fun of myself I could brag about the work. I owned my nerves instead of trying to hide them. There are few bigger fails than when the nervous feign otherwise. It is like trying not to look stoned when you so unquestionably are. You fool nobody and project discomfort to your audience. Tell folks you are nervous because you care. It’s the truth. And it’s a gateway to excellent technique.

You have visual aids that have been slaved over. Make them the hero. Not you. Show and tell the work. This is your priority. Over time you can begin to incorporate your personality. Chances are, this will happen organically. But never go about it the other way around. Eventually, when you’re a creative director, certain new demands will be put upon you. Until then, bide your time, aiming for sincerity and competence. Confidence will follow. It almost always does.

Practice humility like this until you become comfortable on your feet, enough to show some swagger. Even now, I am perfectly fine working from notes. Eye contact is overrated. Chemistry in a meeting is different than on a date. Your sex appeal is secondary. You can be a nerd here and win. How the hell do you think I succeeded?


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