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“I’m going to tell you a true story, okay?” Colette is looking at her phone but you know she is listening. You are driving her to rehearsal. She has a big part in Les Miserables. She plays the grown-up version of Cosette. (Colette playing Cosette. How’s that for kismet?) Though you saw the movie a while ago you don’t really remember the story. Victor Hugo is not your thing. Being a musical and being a lead, Colette must sing and she has been practicing a lot. You’ve heard her belting out lyrics from her room, in the shower, on the trampoline in the backyard, which she pretended was a stage. You can’t tell if she’s good or merely loud but her enthusiasm is amazing. Many members from your family are coming in to see her perform. There will be hundreds of other people as well. The tickets cost money and this is a real show. Up until yesterday Colette has been psyched. Then one of her “friends” disrespected her online, insulting her skills and some other shit you’re not sure. Usually a brick, Colette was wounded by it. Your wife told you this much. And you can see it now in your daughter’s sullen demeanor. So you have a story…

“Before you were born,” you begin. “Back when I was coming up at Leo Burnett in Chicago I was preparing for a huge presentation. It was my idea. I wrote all the copy. And I had the show to go with it. I’d been practicing for weeks. What I was going to say. How I was going to say it. I had the shit down.” Colette looks up when you curse. Good. “Anyway, the night before I’m rehearsing my presentation in front of the team. And when I’m done the head account person –the guy who deals with the client- he shits all over my work. All of a sudden he doesn’t like the creative. He’s not happy with it… or me. I’m dumbfounded. Like where’d this shit come from?” Traffic on the 101 is heavy but that’s fine. It allows you to look at your daughter. “The guy says to me, in front of everybody, if you present that work tomorrow it will be Armageddon.”

“The end of the world?” Colette asks. “What did you do?” One of Colette’s most beautiful features her eyes, big and blue, and they are wide open staring at you.

You laugh. “I told him I would make some changes. That I’d do a bunch of things he wanted and not do a bunch of things he didn’t.”

“That really sucks,” your daughter says.

“It would,” you say. “Had I listened to him. “The next day I delivered my presentation just as I’d planned it. My work. My way. And I fucking killed it. When I was done the clients actually applauded.”

“Really?” She’s serious, you can tell. You have her full attention. And something more.

“Story’s not over,” you say. “The meeting ends. My campaign’s a huge hit, right? Everybody’s shaking hands, patting each other on the back. So, I walk over to the account guy who’d dissed my work the night before. He thinks I’m going to shake his hand. I look him right in the eyes, and I say, ‘Welcome to Armageddon, asshole.’ And walk away.” You change lanes swiftly, almost missing the exit.

“Wow, that’s a great story, dad,” Colette says. “It’s all true?”

“Every bit, sweetheart.” At the red light, you look at Colette full on. She is the sassy one. The middle child. The daughter that gives your wife the most trouble. You choose your words. “If people are disrespecting you or your work, you don’t have to change.” The light turns green and you move the car forward. “All you have to be is… devastating. Redemption like that, there’s no sweeter feeling.”

In the parking lot, Colette thanks you again for driving her to practice. You’re not a hugging family but you can see it in her eyes. The fierceness is back. You watch her march toward the theater. The entire world’s a stage and you’ve given an important player some badass direction.

Author’s note: This is an excerpt from a book I’m writing, my fourth. If you like it let me know. Available for freelance as well: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com

And by the way, Colette was devastating.

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Colette et Cosette

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Yesterday, as a freelancer, I presented some work at a small shop in the city. Let me first say, I loved being back in the trenches and, thrillingly, on the working side of the table. Camaraderie with a dose of healthy competition tempered by humility is a recipe my creative soul thrives upon. Indeed, I think all creative people in Adland are nourished by this activity. How could one not be? Putting what comes out of our heads up on a wall for others to see is central to what we do. It’s exciting, humbling and deeply satisfying. It’s not easy. But appreciating and respecting that process is part of maturing into a seasoned advertising professional, for the audience as well as the presenter.

So many skills are required in order to do it well.

If you are receiving the work you must be paying attention (that means phones down!) You must be patient. Let the ideas unfold before you. Try to free your mind of expectations, which taint reality. You see a morsel of copy you don’t like don’t reject the whole dish. A campaign has many courses. Perhaps there is more to redeem it. Let the presenter finish. Before commenting remember that you are dealing with humans, who, despite any evidence to the contrary, care a great deal about what you think of it and them. Note also that creatives in particular are egomaniacs with inferiority complexes. This comes from a lifetime of being praised and belittled. Speak wisely to us. Be constructive. Not destructive.

I’m delighted to report that today’s presentation was free and clear of any negative energy. Such a blessing.

Presenting work well is a gift. Whether earned through learning or divinely given or, as is usually the case, a combination of both, the ability to get up in front of people and advocate for an idea is never to be taken lightly. We must not be glib about our ideas, nor apologize for them. Speak to strengths, not weaknesses. Shortcomings will be probed, if they exist at all. At the same time, we must not be defensive about our work. This is a common sin among young creatives, almost unavoidable. Take heed. Fighting for one’s work sounds like something we’re supposed to do but it seldom works. Let the person finish his argument. Wait and see if someone else stands up for the idea. If the strategy director, or an account person, has your back it will be worth far more than your complaints. See what the creative director does or doesn’t say. He or she will address most feedback. The good ones always do. Lastly, nervousness is okay. It is not a sign of weakness. Being nervous is a sign of respect: for the material and the audience. Ask any actor about stage fright. They’ll tell you it’s not only natural but something to embrace. Heart pumping. Perspiring. Yes, it’s scary but this is when we are truly alive.

On that day I felt truly alive. While not all of my ideas (and my partners) moved forward, a couple were revered. In addition, I got to see other ideas. Though I wasn’t asked to be a creative director, I am one. Regardless of title, a good creative pays close attention to his peers. She knows viewing other people’s work is always a revelation. If you are schooled by someone have sense enough to learn from it!

If anyone who was in that room today is reading this: Thank you! It was a pleasure and a privilege. It almost always is. I can’t wait to do it again.

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“Good morning. I hope you like this presentation because I sure as hell don’t.”

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?

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Never grovel!

Alas, we are insecure. We have become conditioned to receive criticism and are in essence bracing for it.

Stop 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.

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“Like, I know I sound like a teen-aged girl but, like, I totally can’t stop…”

For years I have observed the way people talk in meetings. Even the smartest among us have certain tics and/or catch phrases we employ, often subconsciously, because we are nervous. Some are subtler than others. I sometimes think these quirks hurt a team’s performance, as if points are being deducted. In my vain attempt to wean myself of such behavior I pay extra attention to it in others.

The most obvious example is when a person overuses a word or phrase such as “like” or “basically.” We all know teen-agers who overuse the word “like.” Like, every sentence they utter begins or ends with it. Thankfully, most kids outgrow it. When adults overuse the word it’s painful. Particularly in a business meeting, where, unfortunately, it happens way too often.

There are many less broad examples. I worked with a man who always said “fundamentally” when he was speaking to a group. The more important the group the more he leaned on the word. “Fundamentally,” he would say, “the sky is blue.” Another colleague liked to sprinkle “if you will” into every presentation. “The sky, if you will, is blue.” I don’t even know what that means!

Both these men are smart. They seemingly can’t help themselves. They have mild cases of “Phraseitis.” Meetings are petri dishes for “Phraseitis.” It occurs there like colds in a child’s classroom.

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Perhaps a more virulent strain is the unmitigated use of jargon. Here the afflicted person employs words never used in polite conversation, peppering his or her speech with industry lingo and corporate axioms. Like the onerous word “scalable.” I believe they make a cream for that. My current favorite is “onboarding.” Is that like wakeboarding? Torture. Yet, I’ve been in meetings where jargon is as common as dust.

Lots of discourse online regarding these topics, I know. I even saw a Twitter contest whereby people were asked to hash tag their favorite corporate clichés for fun and prizes.

When I was in college a bunch of us played a drinking game called “Bob.” While watching reruns of the old Bob Newhart Show, everyone had to imbibe alcohol whenever a character on the show said “Bob,” which was alarmingly often. Beyond the game’s silliness, it’s based on an interesting insight: that in real life people seldom use first names during conversation.

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They say his name, you get hammered…

Imagine doing shots every time someone said “basically” or “real time” in a business meeting. We’d be drunk by noon. Dead by five.

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Hell’s clicker…

The other day we were preparing for a new client presentation and one of my colleagues suggested we abandon the PowerPoint format we were working on and go with something more organic and less formal, to “stimulate conversation” and “meeting flow.” He thought maybe just a handful of title cards. Someone suggested Prezi. This is not the first time I’ve heard such remarks. Frankly, I hear them all the time. Hating on PowerPoint is commonplace in Adland. We are in the image business and God forbid we come across as process driven or, worse yet, old fashioned.

Being a creative, you’d think I would have wholeheartedly agreed with my colleague. After all, nothing symbolizes corporation and process like rusty, old PowerPoint.

I did not.

I softly suggested that this particular client (and perhaps quite a few others) might actually prefer PPT versus something more organic, artsy or minimalistic. We deal with technology companies. Many are engineers cum marketers. They are comfortable with linear process. They appreciate eye charts. They might actually like PowerPoint. Frankly, most clients are MBA’s. They are left brain thinkers and they might want a beacon to guide them.

Either side. Either way. Used properly and with prudence PPT does the job exceedingly well. Besides, if our content is good, no one will deduct points from us for using it. I wonder if hating on PPT is based on insecurities deeper than a screen? Maybe some of us wonder if our process and methods are old fashioned and thus take it out on the presentation format.

Furthermore, I submit, choosing the new, new thing over PPT (presumably to come off as hip or modern) is a bit like chasing fool’s gold. The latest presentation tool might be attractive but it could also be a glitch-filled nightmare. I recall being trapped by a Prezi that had a mind of its own. The motion graphics took over rendering us powerless to stop it. Not good.

Finally, I also wonder if most people secretly appreciate having something to look at in front of the room. Being an audience is easy. Engaging in meaningful business conversation is not. For one thing, who’s leading the meeting? Get a few Type A’s in the room and control goes to the Alpha. Even more common is the likelihood of someone getting off point. Tangents are great at a dinner party. Less so when you have a hard stop in an hour.

In general, PowerPoint gets a bad rap. It is like a clock face. Old fashioned, sure. Yet utterly and completely functional.