By Bill Lane
I have seen only a few a careers destroyed at senior management levels by awful presentation skills. But I have seen more careers destroyed, or set back, as a consequence of one poorly prepared, rambling, artless, and useless presentation.
Here’s how to do it—how to “Lose It” in one business presentation:
Don’t Prepare. You’ve been told you have to do a “pitch” at an analyst meeting, or a company meeting, or at the “morning meeting,” in front of your boss and colleagues. Don’t think about what your colleagues or boss might need to know—stuff that could help them—just hit the PowerPoint or dredge up some old filler from some file and crank out a bunch of self- serving word charts on everything you know. Twenty or 30 slides later and you are loaded for bear! Or “bare” actually, since you will be displaying your bare and uninteresting butt for all to see, and laugh at, later.
Don’t Rehearse. Are you kidding me? It’s boring. Make a guess at how long the pitch will take when you actually stand up and hear yourself “do it.”
Don’t take it Seriously. Start by saying whatever comes into your head as the “AV” guy is trying to figure out why the show won’t run off your laptop. (You would have had to miss the cocktail hour last night or breakfast, this morning to do a test run). You’re kind of hung over, so you laugh a lot, as all this is going on, and say some “funny” things to your audience. Act as if this is “no big deal.” They’ll be honored. Especially the people in the crowd who are compiling mental and written notes on you—which already have been filed under “lightweight.”
Take a Big Dump. Deliver a lot of boring background and analysis intended to show how smart you are, and how much work you’ve done on whatever it is you do, rather than telling them right away, why what you are about to tell them might be useful and important to them and not to you.
Telegraph: Boring. Say stuff such as, “Later on in my presentation, I’ll get into much more detail on the 15 factors we analyzed as part of Project X, but first let me give you an overview and some detailed background on how my team approached this project when we began less than two years ago.” (Telegraphed message: Do not drive or operate heavy machinery while listening to the following presentation.)
“Thow Up” a Bunch of Eye Charts. Suspect that your busy PowerPoint word charts may be unreadable to at least some or most of the people in the room, but wisely conclude that no one will bother reading them anyway. No need to “clean them up.” You can always say, “I know this is a little bit of an eye chart...Heh, heh.” They will understand. This is the way lightweight losers and journeyperson PowerPoint junkies speak to each other.
“Visualize” Everything. Make sure there is a chart on the screen for every single moment of the pitch—whether one is necessary or not. Don’t dare to simply look people in the eyes and passionately tell them something you believe is important that they know—with a blank screen behind you.
Show ’em Your Butt. Plant your backside in the audience’s face, look intently at the screen, and read whole “bullets” while embellishing them with spontaneous projectile-vomiting of data that no one cares about or will remember. They probably will try intently to NOT remember it, if that does not get in the way of their increasing resolve to hate you.
Lull the Cobras to Sleep. If you, by chance, happen to glance at the audience, note the vacant eyes, yawns, and increasingly obvious PDA use. Understand, as your presentation slogs toward mid-point, that they already have finished their routine e-mail and now are sending messages back and forth across the room to each other, confessing suicidal and homicidal thoughts. You will be able to note them smirking and smiling, ruefully, at each other across the room. But push on anyway, and continue to drive them through data that is of no use to them. After all, you spent a lot of your time on this (the data, not the presentation.) Notice your boss, fixing a gaze of intense boredom, exasperation, and contempt upon you.
Become Comically Panicky. You realize your lack of preparation and self- absorbed rambling have put you 20 minutes over your time limit, and you have 11 more charts to “cover” before you get to your closing rehash. Shift into warp-speed reading of your unreadable word charts. Ignore laughter and groans from the victims who are being PowerPoint boarded and would prefer to be in Gitmo.
Pepper Your Presentation with the Latest Jargon and Buzzwords. Say things such as “It’s a no-brainer” and the Gregorian Chant, “At the end of the day,” at least once a minute, even though the people who can influence your career and are suffering through this think that YOU are a “no brainer” and plainly wish that “the end of the day” or the end of their lives, or yours, already had occurred.
I’ve watched this for more than 30 years. It’s lazy oral dysentery, and everyone knows it. They will leave the room with a little piece of their lives wasted by you, empty handed and intensely bored. And if they ever get a chance to influence anything that influences your career, they will remember that you contributed nothing to furthering their own.
Making a business presentation is an easily acquired skill that you neglect at the risk of career retardation or even—as in cases I’ve seen—career death.
Excerpt from “Losing It” by Bill Lane (FT Books, June 2012).
A native of Brooklyn, Bill Lane served as a Green Beret officer in Vietnam from 1968-1969. After his return to the States, he was a congressional liaison officer and speechwriter at The Pentagon for seven years. Lane was later appointed manager of Executive Communications at General Electric, and spent nearly 20 years as Jack Welch’s speechwriter, retiring in 2002. He is the author of “Jacked-Up: How Jack Welch Talked GE Into Becoming The World’s Greatest Company” and “Losing It.”