One of the biggest ways that people let themselves down when giving a presentation is so simple that I actually find it difficult to say out loud: they don’t really know what they are going to say.
People come up to me having made a presentation or given a speech, asking: “How did I do?” The sheepish way in which they often ask betrays the fact that they already know the answer, which is invariably: “You didn’t really know what you were going to say, did you?” At which point they protest about how busy they have been, how they only got a chance to look through it on the train etc. I don’t usually need to follow through, but if I did the blunt version would be: “So how can you expect to be any good?”
Part of the problem these days is that we are all exposed to a fair of stand up comedy and the best performers are very good at giving the impression they are simply chatting with the audience and making much of it up as they go along. I urge those I am coaching that this is simply not the case. “Go and see any comedian for a second, third or fourth night,” I tell them, “and you will find it remarkably similar, right down to apparent mistakes and interruptions. If they adlib, they do so because they have a solid structure for their act; they know that if they step out of that structure and it doesn’t work, they can get back into it very quickly. Indeed, having that safety net there frees them to exploit an opportunity for an adlib should it arise.”
Recently, however, I saw an absolute masterclass in the principle of appearing to make it all up on the spot, when Alan Davies came to try out new material at a little pub close to where I live. He was so convincing with his casual, chatty approach that even I started to think that perhaps he might be an exception to the rule that I so strongly espouse.
When I got home I started thinking more objectively about what I had just seen. Davies spent the first ten minutes talking hilariously about the pub and the neighbourhood. Surely that can’t have been planned? On reflection I am pretty sure it was, for two admirable reasons. First he would have thought: Where am I going tonight? A: Peckham. Right, I can use some of my ‘South of the River’ material. That will juxtapose nicely with all my usual jokes about the pretentious coffee bars in my neck of the woods. Next, what sort of pub is it? A: ‘London’s first co-operatively owned pub’. So it’s probably a bit ‘rough and ready’, if not actually run down. Great, I can use my old material about Health & Safety inspectors and gangsters in the car parks. How can I make that topical? A: Quip about this being what Brexit is all about – getting back to proper old fashioned pubs.
We all loved it because it was very funny, but also – and here comes the second reason it was so good – it was all about us. He engaged us and got us to like him immediately by focusing on our favourite subject, which is always the same for any audience: ourselves.
As I always say, the priority for anyone with a message to communicate – be they a business presenter or a comedian - is to think first and foremost about your audience – who they are, what they know, what they are thinking. Only then should you start polishing your message in the light of all that information.
As for truly knowing what you are going to say, Derren Brown’s early advice to magicians included this little gem: The key to achieving good spontaneity is very good scripting. It’s not about killing spontaneity, it’s about setting the framework as best as it can be, to allow you to have the confidence to move into other areas.