Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever

Break the Rules, Make Mistakes, and Win Them Over

Karen Hough (Author)

Publication date: 05/13/2014

Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever
Shows how ripping up the traditional presentation dos and don'ts will make you a better, more relaxed, and more effective presenter.

* Takes on over a dozen pieces of "good" presentation advice and reveals why they actually make you worse

* Features stories of people who not only were able to become great presenters by being "bad" but actually came to enjoy it

If you're like most people, the phrase "You'll be giving a presentation" is on a par with "It looks like that molar will have to come out." Well, let's be honest: you'd prefer the surgery, wouldn't you?

One reason most people regard public speaking as a nightmare is that they have to be "perfect." They drive themselves crazy trying to conform to all sorts of handed-down rules that tie them up in knots and put their audiences to sleep. But Karen Hough knows that by throwing out those rules, relaxing, being yourself, and even making "mistakes," you'll connect with your audience much more effectively than the guy with the impeccable PowerPoint presentation.

Hough has used her unique approach to take the anxiety out of one of the greatest fears in business. It's authenticity and passion that win people over, she says, not polish. It's why people trust vlogs more than commercials and user reviews more than ads. But you can't be authentic if you're following constraining rules that drain the life and personality out of your presentation.

Hough debunks over a dozen myths about presenting to make it more fun and natural for everybody. She explains why mirrors are evil, why you should never end with questions, what the real purpose of any presentation should be, and much more. You'll discover how to embrace and develop your own style and communicate your message in a way that's all "wrong" according to the experts and that your audiences will find compellingly right.

If presentations really didn't matter, we'd all just send memos. There are a million ways to share information out there, but the more we digitize, the more we long for human connection. By following Karen Hough's wise and witty advice, you'll avoid being forced to become one more robot behind a podium and be freed to be a living, breathing, occasionally clumsy real person whose passion is powerful and infectious.

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Shows how ripping up the traditional presentation dos and don'ts will make you a better, more relaxed, and more effective presenter.

* Takes on over a dozen pieces of "good" presentation advice and reveals why they actually make you worse

* Features stories of people who not only were able to become great presenters by being "bad" but actually came to enjoy it

If you're like most people, the phrase "You'll be giving a presentation" is on a par with "It looks like that molar will have to come out." Well, let's be honest: you'd prefer the surgery, wouldn't you?

One reason most people regard public speaking as a nightmare is that they have to be "perfect." They drive themselves crazy trying to conform to all sorts of handed-down rules that tie them up in knots and put their audiences to sleep. But Karen Hough knows that by throwing out those rules, relaxing, being yourself, and even making "mistakes," you'll connect with your audience much more effectively than the guy with the impeccable PowerPoint presentation.

Hough has used her unique approach to take the anxiety out of one of the greatest fears in business. It's authenticity and passion that win people over, she says, not polish. It's why people trust vlogs more than commercials and user reviews more than ads. But you can't be authentic if you're following constraining rules that drain the life and personality out of your presentation.

Hough debunks over a dozen myths about presenting to make it more fun and natural for everybody. She explains why mirrors are evil, why you should never end with questions, what the real purpose of any presentation should be, and much more. You'll discover how to embrace and develop your own style and communicate your message in a way that's all "wrong" according to the experts and that your audiences will find compellingly right.

If presentations really didn't matter, we'd all just send memos. There are a million ways to share information out there, but the more we digitize, the more we long for human connection. By following Karen Hough's wise and witty advice, you'll avoid being forced to become one more robot behind a podium and be freed to be a living, breathing, occasionally clumsy real person whose passion is powerful and infectious.

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Meet the Author

Visit Author Page - Karen Hough

Karen Hough is the Amazon #1 bestselling author of The Improvisation Edge: Secrets to Building Trust and Radical Collaboration at Work. Her book also made the Top 25 Business Books on 800-CEOREAD. Karen is the founder and CEO of ImprovEdge, which creates corporate training using improvisation. ImprovEdge won the silver International Stevie Award for Most Innovative Company of the Year 2012 and has received the Athena PowerLink Award for outstanding woman-owned business. She is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post.

Karen’s first life was as a professional improviser and actor. She trained with Chicago’s Second City, performed in more than one hundred theatrical productions, and was featured in radio, TV, and film. She lived a second life as a successful executive in IT for network engineering start-ups. She finally became an entrepreneur. ImprovEdge has a presence in six cities nationwide and a client list that includes ESPN, JPMorgan, OhioHealth, Turner Broadcasting, Coach, and Nationwide Insurance, to name a few. Karen is a graduate of Yale University and La Sorbonne, Paris IV. She serves on several boards and is deeply committed to volunteer activities. Karen lives with her husband and three children in Ohio.

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Table of Contents


So Who Said You're a "Bad" Presenter?



Start Breaking the Rules Before You Even Hit the Stage

Break These Rules

#1: Your purpose is to give a good presentation

#2: Give informational presentations

#3: Practice in front of a mirror

#4: Picture the audience in their underwear



So Be Your Baddest You

Break These Rules

#5: Open with your introduction and close with questions

#6: You either have confidence or you don't

#7: What you say is most important

#8 and #9: Scan the back wall to simulate eye contact, and stand behind the podium

#10: Explain each topic

#11: Have all your bullets on PowerPoint slides



Staying Bad, No Matter What Happens

Break These Rules

#12: If something goes wrong, act like nothing happened

#13: Ignore your nerves, and they will go away

#14: Control your emotions at all times

Now Get Out There!




About the Author

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Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever



Start Breaking the Rules Before
You Even Hit the Stage

There’s just too much going on in presentations: information to remember, slides crammed with data, your pulse racing, and all those rotten rules to follow. Focus, people, focus! You need to peel away the excess stuff that gets in the way of efficient, authentic presenting.

Let’s put on our geek hats and consider why this matters. Neuroscience is uncovering more and more information about the importance of focus. David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz have done insanely cool research into how our brains connect to our leadership abilities and to our everyday human behavior. As we dump behaviors that stand in our way (i.e., break old rules) and replace them with new ways to focus our thoughts and energy, we are actually rewiring our brains. Being ourselves becomes easier and easier if we focus on it.

Over time, paying enough attention to any specific brain connection keeps the relevant circuitry open and dynamically alive. These circuits can then eventually become not just chemical links but stable, physical changes in the brain’s structure… the brain changes as a function of where an individual puts his or her attention. The power is in the focus.1

So instead of focusing on what you’re doing wrong (which the rules of presenting just love to do), focus on your strengths and being yourself. Get this: if you focus on new behaviors, you can change your brain to embrace patterns that make you a better, more authentic speaker. Rock and Schwartz call it “attention density,” and it applies to many areas of human behavior, as well as mood and learning skills. Put simply, if you start presenting in new ways, your brain will open up circuits to support your confidence and capabilities. If that doesn’t make you feel like you have a bionic brain, I don’t know what will.

In Appreciative Inquiry, we find that the
things which you focus upon, grow.

— David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney

Passion and focus may seem like surprising ideas with which to begin talking about presentations. Most discussions start with the rules. But trust me: it’s all part of the business of getting down to business. If you can let your passion out of the stable to run free, you can certainly try a few new techniques to replace the old rules.

There’s impact and influence in knowing just what you want to share and doing it at just the right time. And that means you can use techniques that feel right for you. Whenever a technique gets in the way of you being authentic, it’s time to break the rules.

So let’s do it. Let’s break fourteen of those archaic rules and instead present in a way that feels good, fun, and really bad.

Break This Rule

#1: Your purpose is to give a good presentation


“Good” is to a presentation like “fine” is to a compliment. Your purpose is to make something happen!

Rule to Break #1 is mired in technicality. There you stand, waiting for your chance to speak to the committee, and all you’re worried about is “giving a good presentation.” What does that mean? It means you’re obsessed with all the wrong things: your slides show every number in existence, you say everything in order, you stand up straight behind the podium, you never cross the beam of the projector, and you don’t pass out. You’re drowning in worry because the only thing rolling around in your head is, “Give a good presentation. Give a good presentation. Don’t mess up, and give a good presentation!”

It’s time to have a heart-to-heart with yourself about why you’re standing there. What purpose does this presentation serve? Having a searingly clear purpose will filter out all the silt from your presentation. Think of purpose as the destination — the outcome of your presentation. What do you want to have happen? What great change will come from you taking the time to talk to these people? Consider Todd from the Internet and cable company. The purpose of his new presentation was to convince his company’s leadership to cut out the wasteful portion of the health and wellness program and keep the good parts. He wanted to make something happen.

Your purpose is the “so what” for your audience and your driving goal. Here are some examples:

› You want to convince the committee to increase your budget by 10 percent next year.

› You want to entertain the youth club so that they enter the state go-cart competition.

› You want to inspire college students to vote for the first time.

› You want to anger your community council so that they enact laws to protect the environment.

› You want to motivate a client to dump its old vendor and buy your products instead.

Purpose has to be tied to an outcome — what do you want your audience to do as a result of your work? You make something happen because your passionate presentation had a purpose.

Purpose is critical because it colors all your decisions about the presentation. With a purpose, you can suddenly make clear decisions about content and flow. If you really want kids to enter the state go-cart competition, don’t tell them about seven different kinds of toys they could build and just hope that they decide to make go-carts. You focus on go-carts and tell stories about other kids who have won!

If you want your budget to be increased by 10 percent, don’t review all department budgets, the corporate marketing plan, and the company picnic. Talk about your success and map out how you would use the additional funds to benefit your company. Suddenly, slides, comments, and quotations that don’t support your purpose are easily trashed.

One of the most obvious signs of a purposeless presentation is a tsunami of information. When you’re drowning your audience in data, it’s because you’re not sure where you’re going. You just hope that all the information will move the audience in the right direction.

I worked with the chief strategy officer of a national insurer and her direct team — a small group of about eight people who were incredibly intelligent, data-driven, and numbers-oriented. The team was also in a very delicate position. They needed to influence decisions but didn’t necessarily have the power to tell people what to do, and that included the CEO!

The team’s presentations made my brain feel like it was on novocaine. Numbers, numbers, everywhere, and not a purpose in sight. One participant was trying to influence the company’s leaders to invest in car-safety technology. But you’d never know that. He saw his role as that of the informer. He threw tons of data at the audience and hoped enough stuck to move them in his direction. We in the audience were busy reading slides covered with data. Whenever we did have a chance to listen, he overwhelmed us with his racer-fast delivery of acronyms and scientific projections. I eventually removed the fire hose from my mouth and asked him, “What are you trying to accomplish?”

Once he focused and agreed to hone in on one purpose, everything changed. He clearly stated his purpose, used only the data that directly supported investment in car-safety technology, and talked about the benefits of that one idea. He cut out confusing information and moved toward a single outcome. That, in turn, allowed him to communicate a powerful, simple message. Most importantly, he influenced listeners without seeming to do so.

It was like in The Wizard of Oz, when the black-and-white screen gives way to Technicolor.

This concept also applies to one-on-one meetings or conversations around a table. We’ve all been in way too many purposeless meetings and conversations. Think about how much more productive, clear, and short those meetings would be if they had a purpose. For example, “We’re going to discuss only digital marketing and decide on the first step today.” Whenever someone starts to careen into on-site advertising, they’re wrangled back to the purpose. “Let’s decide where to go on vacation with the current budget.” Whenever topics such as what you’d do with more money or what to pack comes up — screech! Put on the brakes and bring it all back.

So, keep it simple. It’s best to walk in with one strong purpose, accomplish that, and move on to another purpose at another time. I’ve seen presenters try to accomplish two, three, or four purposes at once, and you can guess what happens. Nothing. The audience walks out not knowing what to do.

And every now and then, your purpose can be very selfish and a little secret — no one else has to know what it is. There’s nothing wrong with choosing a purpose such as impressing the boss so that she gives you a promotion or making your children laugh so that they think cleaning up is fun and you can do less of it. All your audience will know is that you gave a very compelling presentation and they’re coming around quickly to your suggestions.

Purpose is the ace in the hole. It gives you focus, drive, and clarity.

Break This Rule

#2: Give informational presentations


That’s about as exciting as watching grass grow. Take action!

You’ve got a destination — your purpose. Now, how are you going to get there? You need a vehicle, and that’s your action. Action is the way you go about accomplishing your purpose. In other words, how you get there. Purpose = What. Action = How.

Action is probably the single most critical reason that presentations even occur. Remember when I said that if you’re just going to hand over a bunch of data, why not send out an email or a memo? You’re there in person for a reason, because your passion, purpose, and energy are going to affect people. Action is how you will make them feel. It is an emotional connection to the audience that moves them — and drives your purpose. By choosing an action, you’re going to make people feel something, consider new ideas, maybe even get mad. You will be:

› motivating

› convincing

› entertaining

› angering

› invigorating

› teaching

› inspiring

Your action is the driving force that gives power to your presentation. Remember my examples of a purpose in the previous chapter? Let’s look at them again, now with the action words in italic:

› You want to convince the committee to increase your budget by 10 percent next year.

› You want to entertain the youth club so that they enter the state go-cart competition.

› You want to inspire college students to vote for the first time.

› You want to anger your community council so that they enact laws to protect the environment.

› You want to motivate a client to dump its old vendor and buy your products instead.

Much like purpose, action helps you — the presenter — to focus. You know what you want to make happen, so you focus your delivery. You’re there to entertain the youth club. So don’t present boring information about the number of boards the kids need, the width of the boards, and the length of the nails. Talk about the wind in their hair as their go-carts race along at top speed. Talk about meeting other kids at the state competition and the cool prizes. Tell funny stories about your first awful, lopsided go-cart and how proud you were when you learned to do it right.

Do you think it’s an accident that every college-student organization has pizza at its meetings? Students are always hungry — you feed them, and they see you as a friend. Then you whip up their natural desire to be part of something exciting. You use stories about how one vote can win an election, making their voice heard, being part of real change. All those steps lead to inspiring them to vote for the first time. And better yet, tell them you’ll drive them to the polls, and the deal is done.

Or if you’re there to motivate your client to switch to your products, be sure they’re aware of your competitor’s falling stock price and the fact that the other guys source their devices from a foreign country. Give your client compelling reasons why you’re a better bet so that they’re motivated to go through the difficult process of dropping a vendor and starting with a new one.

Purpose and action are rooted in the theater. Great actors, improvisers, and speakers drive their work with action and purpose. When you see a great performance on the screen, one that moves you, makes you laugh or cry, it’s because an actor has chosen a purpose and an action for his character. Hamlet’s single purpose was to find out who killed his father, the king. His actions were to threaten, confuse, and outsmart the other characters until he found the murderer.

I had a wonderful early career in improv, stage, and film. I eventually left that life and went to work in technology — network engineering — in New York City. What a switch! Even though I was working hard and cramming at night, I often had no idea what the heck I was talking about. So I had a purpose and an action for every meeting and presentation. I may still have been learning the fine points, but I absolutely understood the big picture of what I was after: a signed contract, a raise, or a partnership program. I thought about the people I was trying to influence, then I used data to convince them. Or funny stories to entertain them. Or falling stock prices to scare the doodoo out of them.

But there’s one very sticky issue with action. This is the baddest piece of my bad advice. Remove “inform” from your list of acceptable actions. Notice it’s not on the list at the start? If you use it, cross it out permanently. Inform is a cop-out. It is the default action for 95 percent of presentations, and it’s one of the weakest choices you can make. Think about it — most presentations are approached with an attitude like, “I’ll give them all the information, and then I’ve done my job. If they do nothing, it’s not my fault. I’m just there to inform.” Gee thanks, milquetoast.

In the worst case, the action of informing removes responsibility from the presenter for having a greater purpose for being there. It drains energy and diffuses focus. And that’s when extraneous data and unrelated points start to find their way in. Computers, machines, and spreadsheets inform. Humans interpret and find deeper meaning in numbers and information.

I challenge you to always choose a more powerful option than inform. Even a standard update can teach, motivate, or convince an audience.

I have a real-life example from my work with a regional sports media provider. One woman in my group, Susan, belligerently insisted that it was impossible for her quarterly updates to do anything other than inform. Updates are just that — information. So why should she care about doing anything else but laying out the info as quickly as possible and being done with it?

I asked her about the audience: she gave her presentation to an assistant to the CEO, and that assistant would then brief the CEO. So I nudged her. What might be the worst outcome of that process? She admitted that the assistant could develop all sorts of unbecoming perceptions. For example, she might presume that Susan wasn’t very committed, that the department was barely meeting its goals for the year, or that their ideas or attitude didn’t align with the company’s goals — which would then result in an unfavorable report to the CEO. A report like that could mean budget cuts, uncomplimentary reviews, or even firings. It turned out that this assistant had a great deal more influence than Susan had really considered.

What about the best-case scenario? Susan shared that the best outcome would be for the assistant to return surprised and excited about the department’s great work and voice her approval to the CEO. That could result in more funding for the department, positive performance reviews, and promotions. By focusing on the potential impact of this “standard” presentation, Susan realized how much influence she could have.

Susan changed her entire approach. For the next quarterly update, she and her team agreed on a purpose: having such good reviews from the assistant that they would be awarded a budget increase at the end of the year. Their action was to inspire her to comment positively to the CEO and support their recommendations for more funds. With that focus, the team’s members gave the best update they had ever made. They integrated success stories, creatively shared their ideas, and used bright posters in a sunny room rather than PowerPoint slides in a dark room. For the first time, the assistant asked questions, laughed, and commented on the information. With each successive update, Susan and her team drove home their purpose in more and more creative ways to engage and inspire the assistant. And — you guessed it. At the end of the year, Susan and her team got a budget increase for the next year.

Susan connected to the information in a personal way. That filled her with the passion to have a clear purpose and action. By combining those elements, she and her team enjoyed an incredible outcome.

Action is the vehicle that gets you to your destination, the purpose. Choose a strong action, and you’ll add fuel to your next presentation!

Break This Rule

#3: Practice in front of a mirror


Mirrors are just a one-person show. Practice often, out loud, and on your feet!

Practicing in front of a mirror sounds like great advice. We don’t know what we look like, and it’s not always possible to videotape our practice, so why not? This rule is one of those that everybody knows is “right.”

To give yourself the best possible chance of
playing to your potential, you must prepare
for every eventuality. That means practice.

— Seve Ballesteros

I’ve heard or read this tip countless times, and here’s what happens when you practice in front of a mirror: You get used to performing for an “audience” that’s about twelve inches away. You become obsessed with how you hold your face, the arc of your arm, and that part of your body you don’t like. You think about yourself and how you look. You worry about tics you didn’t notice before, or conversely, you really enjoy smiling back at that good-looking person in the mirror. In short, you practice watching yourself.

You’re supposed to be practicing watching the audience! You won’t be watching yourself when you present, but your body, voice, and energy will all be used to a mirror, which gives no feedback, reaction, or energy and makes you focus on yourself. Nothing will make you self-conscious and inwardly focused more quickly than practicing in front of a mirror.

There’s a Greek legend about a hunter named Narcissus, who was renowned for his beauty. He was quite proud, so Nemesis decided to act. Nemesis was the goddess of retribution against those who succumbed to hubris, or overarching pride. She lured Narcissus to a pool where he saw his reflection. He fell in love with his own beauty and eventually wasted away and died, staring at his own reflection. Psychology has an illness named for the hunter — narcissism.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines narcissism as “egoism, egocentrism,” and synonyms include self-absorption and self-centeredness. Of course, most people aren’t remotely narcissists, but a mirror can make anyone worry too much about themselves. Too much self-reflection removes your focus from the audience. You just keep coming back to the reflection, rather than to reality. If we’re centered on ourselves, instead of on our audiences, we’ll kill a good presentation.

To feel the difference between a mirror and an open room, put your hand up in front of your face as though it’s a mirror. Notice how it’s several inches away, blocks your view of anything else, and makes the area around you feel small. When you practice in that “space,” you keep your energy close and don’t project your voice. Now stand at the front of an open room and look around. You can see all the way to the back wall. You realize that your energy and voice need to project to the front, sides, and rear of the room. You begin to notice details about the room and how you feel standing at the front.

This is the best way to practice presentations — in an open room, your hotel room, or a conference room. Get used to how your body feels and your voice sounds. Stumble through, mess up — so what. It’s practice. And do it with an audience if you can swing it. Your best friend, spouse, or colleague will give you better feedback than any mirror ever will. You’ll feel what it’s like to have another person react to you, and you’ll understand how energy and eye contact affect them.

Sure, practicing in front of a mirror, maybe once, might help you become aware of how you look. That’s not an awful thing, but you’ve got to step away and feel the excitement and fear of facing a room. You may not look perfect, and that’s just fine.

The whole world’s a stage and most of
us are desperately unrehearsed.

— Seán O’Casey

Real, on-your-feet preparation — there’s no substitute. I had a man come up to me after a workshop laughing ruefully. “I was hoping your workshop would give me an out. I was looking for the magic pill; how I can be fabulous without practice. You just verified that there are no shortcuts.”

Sorry, kids. Even when you’re breaking all the rules, you’ve got to practice your badness! And I promise it’s worth it. There’s a staggering trend I’ve been tracking. My study isn’t scientific, and I’ve not formally recorded the numbers, but at workshop after workshop, the people in the most senior positions are always the most prepared. They set aside time to organize, practice speeches out loud, or simply work through the purpose for their next meeting. This makes it pretty obvious how they got to that top job, doesn’t it? These people tell me stories about their solid preparation habits even when they weren’t at a senior level. People who are less experienced or lower in the org chart rush around making sure we know how busy they are — and wing it, wing it, wing it. Yep, the people who most need to prepare are the least likely to do so.

I mean, come on. Do you really think Olympic athletes wing it?

Author Malcolm Gladwell studied people at the top of their fields. He found that it wasn’t innate talent or intelligence that sent people to the top of their professions. It was practice and experience. He contends that it takes about ten thousand hours of real-time practice to catapult someone to the highest level of capabilities — whether as a computer programmer, concert pianist, athlete, or member of a rock ’n’ roll band. The people who put in the time, work, and practice are the ones who excel. The Beatles, for example, played marathon eight-hour sets at strip clubs in advance of their celebrity. They had performed more than twelve hundred times before their first burst of fame in 1964.

That magic number — ten thousand hours — continues to pop up as the differentiator between people who work hard and do well, and those who work really, really hard and do incredibly well.2 Or in our case, are super bad.

So, what about natural talent? Believe it or not, there’s more danger here for those who are naturally comfortable presenters, and less for those who are nervous and uncertain. People who know they need practice might at least feel guilty when they don’t prepare. But I have a special warning for those who often receive praise and feel they can pull off a pretty good presentation without preparation. Your advantage is that you have tricks and natural grace that allow you to wing it. Your disadvantage is that you believe that’s all you need. And the more you get used to winging it, the less time you’ll devote to improvement. That’s a mistake. Tony Schwartz, who has aggregated studies on this topic, says this:

If you’re not actively working to get better at what you do, there’s a good chance you’re getting worse, no matter what the quality of your initial training — in some cases, diminished performance is simply the result of a failure to keep up with the advances in a given field. But it’s also because most of us tend to become fixed in our habits and practices, even when they’re suboptimal.3

I once had a member of my ensemble who was magnetic and smart but never prepared until the day of an event. Under pressure, it was clear that he hadn’t looked up any new material and had not prepared very much. He could always come off as good and charming, but pretty soon I knew his entire bag of tricks and was onto his style. He lacked depth. I knew I’d never be able to send him to a client more than twice — they too would grow weary of his same old delivery. Buh-bye.

What we’re talking about here is a plateau. When you reach a certain level of competence, your body and mind realize that it’s good enough to get by on. And let’s be honest — society rewards a certain level of competence and often doesn’t expect more. The author Joshua Foer calls this concept the “OK Plateau.” You’re okay at something, you’re competent, but despite months, even years, of practice, you do not improve. Foer’s examples include typing — once we are able to type at a certain acceptable speed, we might remain at that speed for the rest of our lives despite hours of time spent typing.4 We can discover why with a deeper look at practice.

It’s not necessarily the hours and hours you spend typing that allow you to improve. Truly improving requires conscious effort: trying more difficult techniques, pushing to increase your speed, and being willing to fail. The researchers K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer studied this phenomenon and called it “deliberate practice.” Practice and experience are absolutely necessary to becoming a better typist, a better athlete, a better presenter. The more you do, the more situations and surprises you encounter, the better you become. However, only those who continually stretch, experiment, and fail will move toward expertise.5

The Beatles were great by 1964 because of the inordinate amount of performing hours they had put in. But the second key here is that they had to keep getting better and playing new material. They had to cover hundreds of songs by dozens of bands and keep writing original songs. Otherwise, audiences would become bored with their set, and the club owners wouldn’t hire them anymore. In the process of rehearsing, performing, and learning more complicated music, you can bet that The Beatles failed more times than they would ever admit. Every failure prodded them toward true expertise.6

If I don’t practice the way I should, then I
won’t play the way that I know I can.

— Ivan Lendl

Most people don’t know that improvisers are the most over-rehearsed people in the performance industry. Surprised? You may think improvisers are just quick on their feet and throw it all together. But the truth is that improv troupes rehearse more than twice as much as casts for Shakespeare plays. They have to — there’s no script, and no two performances are alike. Improv is an art form that happens in the moment without a script, props, or a plan, so improvisers spend exorbitant amounts of time practicing every possible scenario on stage. That’s why, when you see a great improv show, it looks effortless. The key is that during practice, the troupe is always trying to surprise each other — coming up with the weirdest, most difficult audience suggestions imaginable. (And believe me, even the broadest imagination sometimes falls short of what an audience member will shout out.)

You know where I’m going with this. You’ve got to practice. Out loud, often, and on your feet. If you’re one of the lucky people who has natural ability, understand that you’re the most likely to become stagnant. If you’re terrified, nervous, and inexperienced, you have nowhere to go but up. Practice will make an astonishing difference in your ability to be effective, influential, and wow your audience. Most of the problems I first see when people present can usually be ironed out with two or three runthroughs. Do any of these sound familiar?

Running long or out of time — Reading through your speech silently or whispering it to yourself will never approximate the true amount of time it will take to say it out loud and on your feet. And the more you practice, the more you will become aware of time. We often ask people to prepare a three-minute presentation, and they have no idea that their time is up when they’ve barely completed their intro. As you practice, your body will actually be able to feel how much time has passed because you’ll become accustomed to how long it takes to get through certain amounts of material.

Stumbling over your words — If you don’t say them out loud, you won’t realize that the brilliant phrases you’ve written or imagined are impossible to say. Lyricists know that even if they believe their words will fit a song perfectly, they never really know until someone tries to sing it.

Going up or going blank — “Going up” is a theater term for when an actor forgets a major part of the script and skips ahead. That’s always a scramble because then the other actors have to figure out a way to justify what’s happening! “Going blank” is, of course, entirely forgetting what you’re supposed to say. One of the most common reasons for going blank is that you’ve never given your body, voice, and mind the experience of standing in front of an open room, sea of faces, or group of chairs. You get messed up by the acoustics of the room, the distraction of the people in it, or simply the sensation of trying to hold yourself in a standing position.

Improvisation works only after an enormous
amount of thought and practice.

— Rafael Viñoly

So do it! Start practicing and get used to stumble-throughs. People often want to bail out when their first run-through is rough. But that’s the point. It should be ragged, difficult, and full of mistakes. Then you figure out what to change. The next time is a little better, and the next even better. Why would you want to submit your audience, and that critical speech, to your first unpleasant dry run? In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott makes a wonderful point about writing that applies here. She notes that all good writers write terrible first drafts.7 So, if a rotten first draft, or an awful first run-through, is part of the process, why not embrace it?

Many of us deal with a lot of fear when we’re faced with presenting to a crowd. That’s natural. Practice will help manage that fear. I’m not going to promise that it will ever go away completely, but it’s a part of you, and the more you get back on that horse, the better rider you’ll become.

Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good.
It’s the thing you do that makes you good.

— Malcolm Gladwell

My favorite piece of bad advice is that you present in every low-risk venue you can scare up. It’s better to experiment in a place where you don’t have so much at stake. Groups everywhere would love to hear you speak: your local youth club on baking a holiday cake, your place of worship on managing finances, your book club on meeting an author. There are tons of places where you can try out a new hook or practice moving around the stage. That way, you’ll have places to fail, get up, try again, and figure out what works for you. Then when it is time to give a critical speech to a committee at work, you’ll be confident and ready.

And heck yeah, I know you’re busy! And I know you really want to skip this part because you only present once per quarter. But if you start baking practice into your schedule, even a little bit, you’ll be a badder you. Book time on your calendar, leave your home or office, or promise your friends cookies if they’ll watch you for thirty minutes. Whatever it takes. When the presentation is down pat, you can handle all the little unexpected things that might come up and just be yourself — rather than going blank because you didn’t practice. This is about doing.

Break This Rule

#4: Picture the audience in their underwear


Stupid visuals distance you. Connect with your audience. Who really wants to visualize Bob from accounting in his underwear?

How many sitcoms have spoofed this rule? The goofy main character has to speak to an audience, or the high schooler has to address her classmates. So some wise mentor suggests, in order to control the student’s nerves, that she should picture the audience in their underwear. The theory is that this visualization lowers the intimidation factor of the scary audience, tickles the presenter, and makes her relax.


I’ve tried it, and I’ve even had test subjects try it. It’s distracting, makes you go blank, and leaches energy away from your passion and funnels it to a stupid technique. And there’s always someone in the first row whom I really don’t want to visualize in underwear. Ick.

The Presentation Rulebook is just full of dumb tips like this one. Sure, you might be scared of the audience, but let them remain fully clothed in your mind for a while. You are there for your audience, so respect them. Visuals that make you giggly or embarrassed separate you from the audience. And connecting to your audience, in a way that allows you to be yourself, is a key step to winning them over.

And here’s a really big deal secret: the audience wants you to do well. Audiences are not by nature mean and intimidating. No one shows up hoping to see a presentation tank: “Gee, I hope this guy is really boring and bad. What a great use of my time.”

What’s more, audience members naturally empathize. If you’re visibly nervous, if your technology blows up, or if you can’t answer a tough question, the people around you will wish they could help. Audiences are your friends, and they’re just dying for you to be brilliant. They’re actually pulling for you. Think of them as a quiet cheering section next time you stand up.

The cheering section idea extends to friends and strangers. It’s counterintuitive, but you will always be more nervous presenting to ten friends than to one hundred strangers. You’d think that a group of friends would put you at ease, but a familiar audience can actually make you as comfortable as a snowman in a tanning bed. You expect more of yourself in front of friends. Friends know us well, and we figure they’ll be harsh critics who notice every weakness. Don’t stress out; the same empathy applies here. Your colleagues want you to do well just as much as strangers do. They would love to be pleasantly surprised or maybe even blown away by how awesomely bad you are.


Okay, purpose and action are critical, but would you even be in the room if it weren’t for the audience? We present because people want or need to hear us talk. If you can figure out who the heck they are and what they want, you can rock your purpose and action:

› Who? — Youngsters, seniors, executives, circus clowns?

› Why? — Forced to attend by a boss, excited to learn, a potential stalker?

› What do they want? — Action steps, new ideas, your phone number?

› When? — 2 p.m. after-lunch slump, after-cocktail-hour tipsy, or when everyone’s been stuck in a place for two hours and really needs the bathroom?

› How to reach them? — Funny stories because it’s a group of high school kids, smart research because it’s a group of analysts, or touching stories because it’s a charity lunch.

Understanding the audience members’ expectations, their frame of mind, and their physical state can only help you be deliciously bad. As a matter of fact, your choice of purpose and action should be directly driven by the audience.

I just watched a college administrator present to a group of third graders who were receiving honors for their performance on a standardized test. It was painful. She wrote the speech to encourage them to continue to excel academically, but she completely forgot she was talking to third-grade kids. She stood behind a podium and read from a piece of paper strung with long words and sentences about “accessing their online toolbox to better challenge and ascertain their particular strengths in order to reach academic goals that would lead to a more rigorous high school career leading to meaningful college choices.” Can’t you just see the squirmy ocean of kid despair in that auditorium? I wanted to cry for my mommy.

And here’s the disconnect: I saw her interact one-on-one with the kids beforehand. She was a completely different person. She was friendly, got down on her knees so that she could speak with them eye to eye, and made them giggle. Unfortunately, she had also subscribed to College Administrators Are Crushingly Boring Presenters magazine.

What could she have done differently? If you want to encourage young brainiacs to continue to excel, put yourself in their shoes. Common issues for gifted kids include feeling alone, bored, or misunderstood. She might have celebrated what a full auditorium it was and told them that they were surrounded by other smart kids who could be their friends. She might have sat on the lip of the stage so that she could be closer to their level and show a more relaxed, accessible side of herself, rather than appear as a disembodied head over the podium. And if you want to challenge a gifted kid, ask for their ideas. She could have let them come up with ideas about what activities they could do to keep getting smarter. I bet every little hand would have shot up.

Instant connection and credibility. That’s what you get if an audience sees that you’ve thought about and understand them. They’ll trust you — and every bridge you build to your audience also gets your mind off yourself. And the sweat trickling down your back. Stay focused on the audience, and your nervousness will lessen. (More about this later when we break Rule #13.)

So what’s one of the worst outcomes of not taking your audience into account? Offending them. And then being shown up. I went to a women’s networking event once to see a local speaker. Apparently, he was a sales whiz and was going to talk about sales techniques for entrepreneurs and salespeople. He decided to open with an example of a bad sales experience he had had. So he slammed a local retail department store. His story went like this: “I waited in that bargain basement tapping my foot, while the gray-haired old lady behind the counter finished her Harlequin romance and finally decided to ring me up.” Who was in his audience? The sales manager and floor team from that very store. One glance at the attendee list at the registration table would have cleared that up. Not to mention that he literally sneered when he told the story. Do you think any woman appreciates a man referring to “gray-haired old ladies” and “Harlequin romances” like they’re ubiquitous, unavoidable attributes of the female gender? He lost us at “hello.”

When he finished his speech and called for questions, the sales manager asked if she could come up and use the mike. He had no idea who she was until she got close enough for her name tag to come into focus. She made a gracious comment about even great people having challenging days, apologized that his sales experience wasn’t excellent, and offered him a hefty discount on his next purchase. She then reminded us all that her store strove for excellent customer service. She was so crisp, and so terribly bad in her delivery, that he could only stare, sputter, and eventually mumble a “thank you.”

I’m guilty of forgetting my audience, too. I messed this up early in my career. I once conducted a workshop that was peppered with personal stories and theater examples. I had done zippo on my upfront audience prep and considered my stories fascinating. During a break, the organizer gave me a takedown like a WWF champion. “This is a group of high-performing accountants. We do not care about your career or your personal examples.” Ouuuuuuuch. I completely deserved it. Their culture and expectations were very specific, and if I had done even a little web research and conducted a few phone calls, I would have known that. One personal story, in the right place, might have been fine. But without showing that I understood their industry, I tanked my credibility. I changed my approach pronto. I have always been so grateful for this organizer’s no-nonsense feedback. It was a gift.

Let me give you another excellent example. Among the participants in the workshops with the energy producer I work with was Ed. At the beginning of the day, Ed gave a standard presentation on company financials. He was the only corporate finance guy in a room full of frontline workers. And I’m not kidding when I tell you he was the only person with a white collar. Everyone’s eyes glazed over after about thirty seconds. They just couldn’t connect to the presentation. Ed knew it, we all knew it.

Participants always have to redo their presentations to incorporate their learning. What I didn’t expect was how this man would transform his delivery based on the audience. He rewired his whole approach. He told stories about how the performance of the frontline workers directly affected the company’s profits. Then he showed pictures and talked about what happened when profit was good: the company bought better equipment, offered better employee benefits, and added jobs. Let me tell you, the audience was sitting up in their seats and leaning forward. No one had ever made them feel so clearly connected to the company’s finances. It bordered on genius. Ed made a roomful of friends and believers that day.

Now, speaking selfishly, audience attention can also set you apart. I held a conference call with a committee that organized events for their company’s leadership. After I asked all my questions about the audience and what the committee wanted, there was a weird silence. I thought my phone had dropped the call. Then the chair said, “You’re the only speaker who’s ever asked about us. The others just showed up with their canned stuff. You can do two of our next meetings.” Whew. What an improvement from my earlier experience.

You raise the bar when you focus on your audience.


Okay, we’ve kept the audience clothed and done our darnedest to understand them. Now we’ve got to read their reactions to our speech. People freak out about this one. “I don’t know how to read an audience!” Yes, you do. If you’re standing in front of a crowd, if you’re being yourself and talking about something that matters to you, you’ll be able to look around and figure out if you’re connecting with them. If the audience is making eye contact with you, nodding a bit, leaning forward, those are good indications that they’re listening.

It’s not the reading that scares people. It’s the responding. Don’t confuse reading an audience with responding to it. Almost any human with a pulse knows if they’re tanking. Your audience will be squirmy and look away, and people’s body language will slump and lose energy. The question is can you change in midstream? Are you willing to step outside your plan to reengage them? That’s what reading an audience is about. Changing to serve their needs, not yours.

Imagine that you’re standing in front of an audience and notice they’re fidgeting. How many of us begin to think “Oh, they must not like me, I must have said something wrong”? You start to shut down, turn your focus inward, and begin to cater to your own needs. You might cut the presentation short or skip a few stories because you think the audience isn’t interested. It makes you want to run rather than lean in. Instead, this is when you need to shift your behavior to reconnect with the audience. You could ask for a quick survey of hands: “How many of you have heard about this research before?” Or you might solicit contributions from the audience: “Now that we’ve covered the technique, could someone from accounting share an example of this method?” Maybe you could let them make a decision as a group: “I have two more models to cover and a case study. Which do you want to hear first?”

You’re not there to impress your audience with how remarkable you are; you’re there to communicate with them. Concentrate on the positive. Become more “audience involved” and less “me involved.” Self-consciousness results from too much attention to yourself, which puts others — your audience — in the background and you at the front.

This is called consciousness vs. self-consciousness. Actors learn early on to focus on their scene partner (“What are they feeling? What are they saying?”) in order to be authentic and in the moment. The second an actor retreats into his mind (“How do I look in my costume? I’m going to really play this emotion big to impress that agent in the front row”), he retreats from the scene, which in turn, distances the audience. When you become self-conscious, you lose confidence. But when you focus outside yourself, you reduce the distractions of inner voices and are less self-conscious. You can remain present and powerful. Cool side effects of concentrating on the audience include less nervousness and more fun.

Let’s give our audiences a break, too. There are always a kajillion different things that could be affecting your audience on any given day. One of my ensemble members, Zoe, tells a great story about reacting too personally. She was facilitating a workshop and noticed one man in the back who never laughed, seemed bored, and didn’t contribute. Zoe became more and more worried about her delivery. She took the man’s yawning and glances at his watch and phone personally and began to blame herself mentally for what appeared to be his lack of engagement. She had destructive thoughts like “I must not be engaging enough. He probably knows all this material and is bored. This process isn’t working and he doesn’t like me!”

During a small-group exercise, she approached him. “I noticed you’re kind of quiet. Is everything okay — can I change something to help you engage?” The young man looked surprised and then a bit embarrassed. “Don’t change a thing! This is great! I’m sorry, I have a newborn baby at home, and I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in a couple of weeks.” That explanation allowed Zoe to relax, and the young man felt he was understood. He could stay as focused as possible, but he felt no pressure to participate on an intense level. Zoe tells this story as an example of how we can internalize the behavior or body language of an audience member that we don’t understand. We personalize someone’s behavior rather than becoming curious about it — without realizing that people are influenced by plenty of factors out of our control. The upshot is that she correctly read his body language — he was tired and a bit disengaged. But that didn’t mean she was at fault. Zoe tells this story because the situation taught her that while self-awareness is useful, self-consciousness gets in the way of effective presenting. If every indicator you see makes you become reflective to the point of self-consciousness, you’re worrying too much. Instead, be curious and open to indicators about the impact you’re having as a presenter, and learn with every experience. That’s self-awareness. It is a subtle but powerful difference.

You can never assume you know what someone may be thinking. Different people process information and react very differently. A good base standard for engagement is eye contact. A completely quiet audience is fine, as long as they are making eye contact every now and then. They may not be looking at you all the time, as some people need to look down or away to listen fully. Nods and movements that show engagement are also good indicators. These mean people are listening, considering, and staying engaged. You also have auditory cues: laughter, gasps, scoffs of disbelief, or uh-huhs of agreement let you know you’re affecting the audience.

Sometimes reading your audience also involves being a bit of a chameleon. Before jumping into a presentation, it’s great if you can move around the room, watch your audience, or even speak with some of them in advance. That way you can tweak your energy or your delivery to appeal to the audience. No doubt you’ve heard of the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” That’s okay until you come up against someone who doesn’t have your preferences. A better standard is the Platinum Rule: “Treat others the way that they would like to be treated.” This means communicating in a way that best appeals to the other person, not to you. (I do get the irony of referencing a rule in a book about breaking them.)

A perfect example is a meeting with a boss. I’ve talked to so many people who don’t understand why they’re not building a good relationship with their boss. It’s usually because of style — you may be very extroverted and want to chat a lot about family to connect with others. Your boss, on the other hand, may be a very data-driven, get-to-the-point thinker. She’s waiting for you to shut up and get to the numbers, but you keep chatting in the hope that she’ll relax and open up. Yikes! This is a clear difference in personality. Building a good relationship in this instance probably has a lot to do with observing and listening. What action makes the other person feel comfortable?

So let’s translate that idea to an audience. We have to build a relationship with audiences larger than one. Reading the audience plus the Platinum Rule might look like this: If you’re coming on very loud and strong in a small, quiet room, the audience may feel overwhelmed. They might sit back, look down, or turn their bodies to the side. Watch for clues that you need to ease into your presentation to pull them out of their shell slowly. Or maybe they’ve been watching boring slides for an hour and are slumped in their chairs. That’s an indication to turn up the heat and wake them up.

Reading an audience involves a lot of attention, some intuition, and practice. You’ll become better and better at assessing and managing your audience the more you present. So be patient, present as often as you can, and keep the focus outward.


Think about the absolutely worst room you’ve ever been in for a presentation. What made it stink? A hot, cramped space; an uncomfortable chair; and you were way in the back and couldn’t see the screen, plus there was no microphone, so you couldn’t really hear what was going on, and it may have, literally, stunk. I’ve been in more smelly, dirty, windowless rooms crammed with unnecessary junk than I can count. That environment made it almost impossible for me to concentrate on the presenter.

So what do you do if you have to present in a rotten room? Everything you possibly can.

You have the right to take complete responsibility for the environment. Whether it’s a meeting room, a dining room, or a coliseum, it’s your stage! We don’t realize how much clutter, dirtiness, or unneeded paraphernalia can derail our focus. You may be tempted to say, “Well, Facilities was supposed to set up the room differently. Oh, well.” Don’t do it! I have rallied help more times than I can count to improve the environment and comfort of my audience. I’ve moved more tables and chairs, cleaned up more trash, adjusted more lighting, and wound more power cords in my life than a roadie for Lady Gaga. If no break is scheduled right before my speech, I work with the organizers to schedule one. If the room is dark, I turn up the lights and open curtains. A bright room is an awake room. I’ve changed thermostats, called for fans, and opened or closed windows and doors. You can, too.

I was once right in the middle of a speech in El Paso, Texas, for the Young Presidents Organization, when I realized that I was getting really hot. I could see one man near the front with sweat actually dripping from his brow. I noticed for the first time that the facility staff had closed every window and door for my speech. When I asked if anyone else was uncomfortable, the whole audience concurred, whistling and waving their programs. We couldn’t find any staff (isn’t it amazing how they always disappear just when you need ’em?), so I enlisted a few gentlemen to help me prop open doors and windows. Fresh, cool air blew in — ahhhh! No one minded the interruption — we were all just happy to be cool again.

I always get to my venue early, and some of the things I check out include:

› How big is the room? How many people will be in it?

› Are the seats set so that everyone can see?

› Where will I stand? How will I move around so that everyone can see me and I them?

› Cords! Where are they, can we get them taped down, and how do I keep my big Bozo feet from tripping over them?

› Where are the light switches?

› What’s the noise level in the space? Will we be able to hear external sounds?

› And, most important, who can help me? Can I rally strong people to help me rearrange chairs? Is this a union facility? Do I need to make requests in advance?

Let me tell you, I’m a demanding woman about the environment. And I’m not about to apologize because it completely affects an audience’s enjoyment of a fabulously bad presentation. You’ll probably be nicer.

Here are two examples I can just never get over. I really look forward to being in an audience or being an attendee of a meeting, especially if there’s going to be a professional presenter or facilitator. I figure I can relax and just be a participant.

I had a “professional” facilitator who was the most solid example of mediocre in history. She did not greet us and show us to our seats at the first meeting. We had to search through the table tents, and only half the names were turned out (as they should have been, so that fellow meeting participants could read them), while half remained turned toward the attendee. She never fixed that, although people commented on how confusing it was. Her flip charts were small, low, and unreadable. I mentioned that her markers were worn out and we couldn’t see the lettering. She laughed and said, “Oh this room always has the worst markers!” As I walked away, all I could think about was the office supply store in the downstairs lobby where a three dollar purchase could have solved the issue. The food servers left nowhere for us to bus our dirty dishes. Twenty-five people were politely trying to clear the work area, and the situation was not rectified in the three days of our meeting.

When I entered the room on the second day, it was in disarray. Trash was all over the tables, notes were scattered about, and chairs were rolled everywhere. As a participant, I expected to enter a room fresh and ready to begin again. The facilitator sat at her table sipping coffee and reading the newspaper.

Ugh. I know. Stop now before you burst a vein, lady.

As a presenter, a member of a meeting, or a facilitator, you have a right to spe

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“Best book that I have read that looks beyond the superficial rules associated with presenting and gets at the heart of what it takes to effectively communicate with your audience.”
—Jerry Stritzke, CEO, REI

“This book shows you how to connect with any audience, large or small, and motivate them to take action on your ideas.”
—Brian Tracy, author of Eat That Frog!

“Whether you're in front of huge crowds or just presenting an update at a table, these tips and techniques are immediately usable.”
—Matthew Jauchius, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, Nationwide

Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever is my second favorite book on public speaking!”
—Malcolm Kushner, author of Public Speaking for Dummies

“Public speaking is the #1 fear of almost everyone. People are more afraid of speaking to a group than they are of snakes, spiders, or even burglars. But fear no more! Karen Hough's new book shows you how to feel your fear and do it anyway. Learn how to fumble, stumble, or even forget your lines—but still deliver a killer presentation!” 
—BJ Gallagher, coauthor of A Peacock in the Land of Penguins

“Karen's book just makes me want to get out there and do it. Be yourself and damn the torpedoes! How refreshing.”
—Rick Gilbert, author of Speaking Up

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