(8m reading time)
A presentation, speech, or talk has one ultimate goal: to transmit a message from speaker to audience. So far we’ve discussed how to prepare for, memorize, and safeguard the content of a presentation. However, many presenters wrongly assume that their message lives solely in their words and their slides. Miss the big picture and you could lose your audience before you even open your mouth.
Of course the words you say and the visuals you show create the foundation of the message that gets heard by your audience. However, your audience also “hears” your appearance, equipment, and pre/post-talk behavior loud and clear. Anything the audience can observe associated with you or your presentation (your clothes, your odor, your technology, your demeanor–anything!) can influence their judgment of your credibility to either diminish or enhance the impact of your talk.
Don’t believe me? Years ago an insurance rep came to my workplace to explain a new insurance benefit offered by my employer. He arrived dressed in a sensible brown suit and a light blue button-down shirt–the perfect outfit to convey stability and trustworthiness. Several minutes into his presentation he removed his jacket. This move revealed two unexpected and interesting attributes of his shirt:
- a grid of deep creases which suggested the shirt had only recently been removed from its packaging and had never been ironed, and
- damp sweat-marks the size of dinner plates radiating from his underarms.
Suffice to say the sad state of this shirt distracted me for the rest of the insurance rep’s talk. Worse, my efforts to suppress a smirk kept me from really listening to what he said. His competence got undermined by a shirt that said: Hey, I’m terrified to be here! and I don’t normally wear nice clothes! Several of my peers shared with me after the presentation that they walked away feeling unsettled, and they weren’t interested in the insurance product. I believe the dissonance between the speaker’s words about trust/financial stability and the his suddenly-shabby appearance threw people off.
The moral of the story is don’t leave the details to chance. Your IT, logistics, and overall look can either serve you or harm you. The good news is that all you have to do is set aside some time the day before your presentation to take control of these small but crucial details.
Master Your IT
I know you want to start your relationship with your audience on the right foot. So you want to avoid becoming that guy who spends the first several minutes of his audience’s valuable time transferring files, searching for cables, or engaging in other shenanigans just to get his slides to load. You’d also rather not be the person who accidentally shows irrelevant information, runs out of batteries, or forgets critical documents. This means you should take a line from the Scout motto and Be Prepared!
Files. Let’s say your presentation lives in a Microsoft PowerPoint file, and a collection of presenter notes, hidden slides, and other creative bric-a-brac hang out in there, too. Do you want your audience to see that stuff? If someone just opens your file on the big screen (instead of running it in “Slide Show mode”), all that junk gets displayed. Let’s head this issue off at the pass.
You can either set up your file to automatically open in Show Mode or you can manually clean it up. I prefer the clean-up, as I’d rather not have my half-formed ideas come along for the ride at all. Luckily this process is really fast:
- Navigate to your presentation file and make a copy of it.
- Add the suffix “with notes” to the copy’s file name.
- Delete all of your notes, unneeded slides, etc. from your original presentation file.
Now you have two versions of your presentation, the “clean” one and the “with notes” one.
I believe you must absolutely have a “clean” version of your presentation if you need to turn your file over to someone else. Having your notes, hidden slides, or speaking cues inadvertently displayed during your talk is at best confusing for your audience and at worst embarrassing for you.
File storage. Now that you have a clean presentation file, help it make the journey to your audience safely. Even if you bring your laptop, copy your presentation to a flash drive, SD card, or other easily portable media. (I prefer things with USB connections, as USB ports are pretty much guaranteed to exist on any machine today.) You can also go with cloud storage if you’re confident your destination machine will connect to the internet. Take this little piece of hardware with you when you go to your talk. Should you need to load your file on the client’s/presentation venue’s computer, you’ll be ready.
Cards. Next, print and organize any cue cards you may use. I prefer these to the digital “presenter notes” available in programs like PowerPoint. Notes trapped on a screen keep you stuck hovering close to your monitor, and they require a setup that gives you a podium and access to a screen for your-eyes-only. I’ve found this to be a rare amenity. However, cue cards are small, can go with you wherever you may wander on the stage, and tend not to draw attention to themselves.
Transport. Finally, pack up a briefcase with the essentials. This is easy to procrastinate about, but I really believe you should do this the day before your talk. On the day of your talk other things will be on your mind. Make a list of items you’ll need to support your presentation. This will likely include:
- A laptop computer and charging cable.
- A wireless mouse. Your choice whether to go big or small.
- A folio containing notepad and pen.
- A bottle of water.
- Your portable hardware with your “clean” presentation file on it.
- Cue cards, if you’re using them.
- Handouts for your attendees.
- Your resume or other credentials/qualifications, if relevant.
Put this list somewhere very visible, and as items enter your briefcase tick them off. Make sure you check this list before leaving the house to go to your talk.
Lock In Your Logistics
Making a good impression isn’t complicated. Show respect for your audience and make sure you’re not the guy running in late, missing pieces, or acting distracted.
Time. Confirm your arrival time with your presentation venue. If you’re “scheduled for” 10:00am, for example, find out exactly what action should happen at time. Is 10:00am when you’re arriving onsite, or is 10:00am when you’re starting your talk? Get clear on this now and plan your route and departure time–it’s awful to arrive late and find yourself setting up and trying to get settled in front of an impatiently waiting audience.
Answers. Do you remember the anticipated Q&A you figured out earlier? Print your responses and sneak them into your folio. At the end of your presentation it will look perfectly reasonable for you to pick up a notebook to take down questions as you commence Q&A with the audience, and having a crib sheet in there can help. Unless you want to memorize all of your anticipated Q&A along with your talk. If you do–kudos! You’re a stronger person than I.
Accessories. If you carry a purse, pack it with a few important essentials. If you don’t carry a purse, set aside some space in your briefcase for the support materials you need to look and feel your best in front of your audience. Make a list of items you’ll need to remain comfortable and pulled-together before, during, and after your presentation. This may include:
- Your cell phone.
- A headset/headphones (especially if you’ve got a recording of your talk you want to listen to on the way to your venue).
- A sufficient number of business cards in a good-quality business card case.
- A “mini-mergency” kit. Yes, they make these for both genders! My kit has saved me from hosiery runs, hangnails, stains, food caught in my teeth, garlic breath, snagged hems, and more. I always carry mine for the cozy feeling of safety it gives me.
- An extra pair of hosiery, if applicable.
- Throat lozenges in a not-horribly-medicine-smelling flavor. You never know if your voice is going to suddenly get scratchy.
With the right tools in tow almost nothing can throw you off your game!
Craft Your Look
As previously discussed, a significant part of your message to your audience comes from how you look. Snag this easy win and don’t end up like Mr. Sweaty & Creased. Show up looking smart if you want to be taken seriously.
Groom. First off, take care of any personal grooming you may have fallen behind on. This may include a good shave, washing your hair, touching up your roots, tidying your eyebrows and other facial hair, and trimming or filing your nails. Then plan your hairstyle and make-up (if applicable) and set aside any equipment you’ll need for either.
Dress. Select and hang up your presentation outfit on a valet hook or over a door–anywhere so long as it’s not in the closet but still safe from damage. Run a lint roller over each item, and iron/starch as necessary. Then try on your outfit and make sure everything fits properly, looks clean, and shows no wrinkles or damage.
Take a step back and look at your ensemble in a mirror. Move around. Use your hands as you might in your talk. Ask yourself: how can this outfit (a) get wrecked while on my body or (b) make me uncomfortable?
Some common issues to consider:
- Underarm sweat soak-through caused by anxiety or heat (Hello spotlights!)
- Inter-button gape due to the combination of curves and needing to gesture.
- Articles riding up or falling down as you move. Remember, you’ll likely need to sit down, stand up, reach for things, and walk.
- Foot pain caused by standing for long periods in dress shoes.
- Unexpected moisture in places other than your underarms.
Write down those potential wardrobe malfunctions you’ve identified. For each, make a quick plan of attack. For example:
- Underarm soak-through: Stick a pair of underarm shields (ladies’ pantyliners also do the job) in the armpits of your shirt. Try on your shirt with shields in place to make sure no weird lumps or bumps appear.
- Inter-button gape: Grab some fashion tape to use when you get dressed.
- Article movement: Try out garters, pins, and a few different tucking methods. However, if you find yourself fighting a lot of movement in your outfit I’d suggest rethinking your selection. Choosing a physically stable outfit is better than jury-rigging multiple unruly garments.
- Foot pain: Grab a pair of hose, good-quality socks, or orthotic shoe inserts. Try them on to make sure they’re clean, free of runs and stains, and fit properly with your shoe choice.
- A note on hosiery: If your nails tend to snag your hose while you pull them on, take heart! Apply lotion to your heels and legs and don a pair of thin cotton gloves before getting started. The lotion helps the hose glide more easily and the gloves protect the hosiery from being stabbed or snagged by your nails.
- Other moisture: You know your body best, so I won’t make specific recommendations here. Just have a look in your medicine cabinet and under your bathroom sink. Anything in there look like it may be helpful during your talk?
I know it sounds a little crazy to do so much undercover work, but this preparation pays you back in spades with the confidence provided and distractions/embarrassments avoided. I have given talks while wearing no less than five different “secret” items–things the average person would never wear day-to-day. And that’s the thing–as a speaker you’re not having an average person’s day, you’re having a performer’s day! Consider yourself lucky that you don’t have to put on an itchy costume and greasepaint like the folks on Broadway.
Take care of your IT, your logistics, and your look the day before your presentation, and you’re set up for smooth sailing on the day-of. However, a plan is only as good as its execution. Stay tuned for the final segment in this series–where I’ll talk you through a few simple techniques to make sure everything comes together on presentation day.