Monday, October 5, 2009

Can a Poor Presenter be a Great Leader?

Question #1: Can someone be a great presenter and not be a great leader?

There are plenty of people that make a good living giving presentations on all kinds of topics. They usually are experts in their subject matter, have a lot of passion for their topic, have a compelling story to tell, and have honed their presentation skills to a very high level.
While some presenters are attempting to inspire others, not all are. Some are just sharing information or entertaining. So we’d have to say yes, you can be a great presenter and not be a great leader.

Question #2: Can someone be a great leader and not be a great presenter?

It depends on how you define leadership. Most would agree that one of the characteristics of a great leader is the ability to inspire others to change. I suppose in some leadership roles, this can be accomplished one person at a time, without ever having to give a presentation. However, for most leaders, at some point, they are going to have to give that department presentation, halftime pep talk, inspirational talk to the troops, or presentation to the big dogs. It’s those make-or-break moments on stage when leaders have the opportunity to influence the greatest number of people to change.

So if a leader gets stage fright, and doesn’t shine during these opportunities, or worse, avoids them altogether, than I’d say it’s going to be an up hill climb to ever become a truly great leader. You can’t just throw up your hands and say “it’s just not me”. Consider it a requirement for the job.

The good news is, presentation skills are not something anyone is born with. It’s a very “learnable” leadership competency.

The bad news is, it’s going to take a lot of work. The leaders that are good at it are good at it because they recognize the importance of it and work damn hard at it.

Here are two references to support these points. In the latest edition of Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger’s “FYI, For Your Improvement”, presentation skills were found to be “moderately” difficult to develop. Way easier than learning strategic agility, building effective teams, and confronting direct reports, but harder than planning, informing, and perseverance.

Goeff Colvin’s recent bestseller, “Talent is Overrated”, describes how the best athletes, performers, and leaders get really good at anything. It has nothing to do with inborn talent. They’re great at what they do because they use “deliberate practice”. In other words, they work hard – a lot - at the things that really matter and get feedback.

So, leaders: are you ready to make the commitment to improve your presentation skills – and in doing so, become a better leader? Here are some recommendations for getting started:

1. Swallow your pride and get some help.
A lot of the more senior, and experienced leaders I work with see presentation skills as remedial. There’s some truth to that perception. Again, according to Lominger’s research, most executives already rate pretty high in presentation skills, and most mid-managers and individual contributors are rated medium. So if you know you’re not, you’re behind most of your peers. It’s hard to acknowledge you need some help and to take that first step in seeking it out.
Fortunately, there are a lot of resources out there. There are books – “Leading Out Loud”, by Terry Pearce, is one of my favorites. There are public courses that you can find in just about any major city. For those shy executives with big egos, a personal coach is a good option.

2. Practice, practice, and practice some more.
You can’t get really good at something if you only do it 3-4 times a year. Make sure any course you take has at least 50% practice built into it. Most communities have a local Toastmasters chapter, and while these meetings can sometimes feel like an AA meeting, you’ll get plenty of opportunity to practice in a safe environment. Start small – brief presentations to your own team – then work your way up to larger and more unfamiliar audiences. When you’re ready, try volunteering to give a presentation at en external conference. You’ll get to talk about something you’re an expert on, and if you screw up, while it may be embarrassing, at least chances are you’ll never have to meet anyone in that audience again.
Never, ever, give a presentation without preparation and practice. Even the best don’t wing it – that’s why they’re so good. One exception: Martin Luther King actually didn’t write his “I have a dream” speech ahead of time – he was winging it. But he already had LOTS of practice.

3. Get feedback.
Practice by itself won’t work unless you get feedback. In most presentation skills courses or with individual coaching, you’ll get to see yourself on video. You’ll usually be able to immediately spot opportunities for improvement. The trainer, coach, or other students will also tell you what you did well and where you need to improve, in case you were too busy noticing how big your butt looked.
Use written evaluations for any presentation you give, and always have a trusted friend in the audience that is willing to help you debrief your presentation.

4. Master the techniques
In addition to knowing their subject and being insanely passionate about it, the best presenters have mastered the following techniques:

- The use of stories. Great presenters recognize the important of connecting with their audience on an emotional level. They know when and how to use a compelling story to make a point or to influence.

- The use of media. The bar just keeps getting higher and higher when it comes to the creative use of PowerPoint, pictures, audio, and video. Do yourself a favor and make a friend who can help you bring your content and stories to life through the creative use of media.

- Audience engagement. We retain 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, and 70% of what we discuss with others. Build opportunities into your presentation to form pairs or small groups to discuss the content.

- Handling questions. First of all, always save time for questions. I’ve seen too many presenters give a great presentation, and then fall down during the Q&A. Every question is another leadership opportunity to convince and inspire others to take action. Always make sure you repeat or paraphrase the question, check to see if there’s a question behind the question, answer it directly and authentically, and then check to see if you’ve answered it. If you don’t know the answer, say so, and make a commitment to get the answer and follow-up. It’s even better if you can anticipate the tough questions, and build them into your presentation, instead of avoiding or glossing over them.

5. Learn and borrow from the best.
There are opportunities to learn how to give great presentations every day, if we’re consciously looking for them. There are examples of great presentations in movies, television, YouTube, conferences, meetings, church, and politics. Keep a notebook – jot down ideas on how the best open their presentations, tell stories, use media, engage their audience, and handle questions. Build these proven and effective techniques into your own presentation skills toolbox.


Jennifer said...


Intriguing topic...

Here's what I notice about your suggestions- they are the mechanics of how to build skills as an effective presenter. Good pointers, all of them. I would also add that the true "secret sauce" to leadership is heart-- no fancy media presentation will ever replace true authenticity with an audience.

Perhaps you wrote this blog with an assumption that the presenter has the requisite authenticity, but it bears saying (or writing it) out loud.

Dan McCarthy said...

Jennifer –

Thanks. I agree 100% with you. I was trying to motivate leaders to want to improve in this area and provide direction on how to learn, and less on the techniques. Although when I read it again through that lens, I can see how it would come across that way.
You are so right; it starts with authenticity and heart. Otherwise, the rest is nothing but window dressing. That’s why I love Terry Pearce’s “Leading Out Loud” so much – that’s exactly what he writes about and teaches leaders how to do.

Janna Rust said...

Presentation skills cannot be overlooked in a leader's toolkit because people are usually quick to judge competence by outward appearance. If we can speak well, we stand out in a crowd!

Toastmasters is great for practicing the skills...both formally and extemporaneously. I was a member for a few years and even enjoyed it, "AA" likeness and all. :)

dbooth said...

Terry Pearce certainly provides a guide to correct thinking about leadership, and authenticity is at the core of all great leaders. My partner and I at Eloqui published a book last week called Own the Room that delivers presentation skills based on performance technique, cognitive science and impression management. We agree with you that persuasion, influence and being able to inspire others is absolutely trainable.

Maria Galca said...

Hi Dan,

Actually I was just thinking that your points would all go for leadership as well (provided you read just the headlines).
I believe that you can be a great leader and not a good presenter, because great leaders are also humble - in fact, some are that humble that they don't dare to get out to speak! And yes, you can be a brilliant presenter, but so full of ego that you're a lousy leader.

Great blog by the way! I'm here on my first visit but I'm gonna become a regular.

Patrick D, Kelley said...

These are great suggestions for folks who are looking to improve their presentation skills. Communication skills are so important, and if you cannot communicate, in my view, you cannot truly lead effectively. I think this is something even the best leaders can work on, and even those with great presentation skills may want to consider some of your suggestions, as it never hurts to keep those skills polished. I think Jennifer’s point about the importance of heart is also an excellent one—without that quality, your whole presentation is going to fall flat. I wonder though, can people really learn heart? I would guess not, at least not without a lot of difficulty. Although I think that, if you lack heart, you probably are not going to be a great leader anyway—for example how can you inspire others without heart, so presentation skills may be a moot point anyway for those lacking this quality.

Unknown said...

Hey Dan,

You touch on something here that can be so easy to overlook as an important tool to have. It can be easy to feel that with a ton of subject matter knowledge and heart on a topic, that presenting on the topic should be a breeze. I have seen really good ideas fall flat on their face because the presenter failed to provide the information in a way that got the audience engaged and excited. Thanks for the hints and suggestions on how to self-check if our presentation skills need to be brushed up on, and how to improve them.


Dan McCarthy said...

Janna -
Thanks. I really do like Toastmasters too.

dbooth -

Maria -

Patrick -
Maybe not "heart", but you can learn influence, inspiration, presence, and to some extent, authenticity.

Nicole -

Tom Glover said...

Hi Dan,

These are great tips for leaders to pay attention to. I was intrigued by your lead questions. They made me think.

I completely agree with your assessment of the first question. We have whole industries of people (here I'm thinking specifically of actors and broadcast news readers) who presenter well but in most cases we no nothing about their leadership abilities.

I also agree with your assessment of the second question and I started to really wonder if someone could be a great leader and not be a great presenter. I decided that, as you said, it depends on how you define leadership. Using the characteristic that you site,"the ability to inspire others to change", I wonder if someone who is an incredible writer, leading others through the written word while being a poor presenter could be considered a great leader?

Jeff Taylor said...


I have to admit than when I first read through the post I thought, "No...presentation skills are not a pre-requisite to leadership." After reflecting for a bit, I believe that while it may not be required, it certainly helps. There are a number of great leaders that, frankly, have terrible presentation skills. Just look at our political leaders...John McCain certainly comes to mind. He had huge hurdle to overcome, however, because of the outstanding skills of his competitor, President Obama.

I also wanted to touch on the fact that the times we live in have certainly changed how we perceive leaders. Kennedy was in a tight race with Nixon leading up to their televised debate. Kennedy's composure, confidence, and ability to clearly articulate his message (versus the opposite from Nixon) completely changed how campaigns are run. Remember, it wasn't too long ago that our great thought leaders presented their ideas in print, not on a podium.

My question, then, is social media once again changing how our leaders present their ideas? Is print back in vogue? Can our leaders now engage in conversations instead of presentations? Perhaps our future leaders will need to be conversationalists instead of great presenters. Thoughts?

Dan McCarthy said...

Tom, Jeff -
Both you have asked a similar and interesting question... can someone be a great leader through writing? A great writer can certainly inspire, motivate, and possibly change the world. So with the definition I used, you’re right.
I guess I was thinking more of someone in a formal leadership position, responsible for a team or organization, i.e., a manager. In this context, while it’s difficult to imagine someone being effective without f2f presence, who knows what the world of tomorrow will bring us.
Thanks for making us re-consider the premise.

Tom Bailey said...

Hey Dan, nice article. Some comments below:

Communication can take many forms: presentation to a group, individual consultation, written form (we have so many opportunities today for written communication), phone or web presentation, through actions or lack thereof…….I am sure I missed a few.

First amongst leadership attributes is ethics followed closely by the ability to clearly communicate. Without the ability to clearly communicate one’s agenda how can one lead ethically or otherwise? Communication, lest we forget, is a two-way street. Without a formal or informal method to garner and acknowledge feedback the leader insulates her/him self from assessing the clarity of the message. A simple thank you acknowledgement is a very valuable tool in fomenting future feedback

Everyone should augment their ability to communicate and this article provides valuable tools for the presenter, both the skilled and those who would rather hide behind a wall.

Tom Bailey

Matthew Dent said...

Great post Dan! I especially like how you rephrased each question to get you looking at it from a different angle. This is a great post on improving you communication skills let alone your presentation skills. If you can’t successfully convey your point, you have failed to communicate. As a leader you are always on stage and presentation skills are a necessity to succeed.

Dan McCarthy said...

Tom -
I agree! Thanks.

Matthew -
Thanks, glad you liked it.

kmirac1es said...

I have to say that what I know from my leadership training and practice is that great leaders show up with heart, soul and trasparency. They are open and vulnerable. IF a great leader shows up in their presentation with all of those characteristics, I want to believe that they would capture their audience. Even if a leader is shy, they should let their audience know. Doing so will communicate huge truths about leadership-- like how to show up and do the job whether it's 'easy' or not. I believe that letting people know where you're coming from is as powerful as a finely honed presentation. After all, great leadership is about being of service.

Carla Bobka said...

RE: face to face meetings, couldn't agree more on taking the time to develop rapport. It is irreplaceable.
Also, in situations where you anticipate a level of contention, always start the conversation on a point of agreement. There is SOMETHING that you both have an agreeable view on-start talking about that. Then move to less steady ground.

Unknown said...

dan, couldn't agree more. in addition to the tools you mentioned - books, personal coaches, etc. - toastmasters is a fantastic way to improve communication skills - public speaking and otherwise. thanks.

valh20man said...

As a professional designer of presentations, I can't agree more that the key ingredients are passion, knowledge and lots of practice.

We work with professional presentation skills trainers and they see measurable results no matter where their attendees start in their skill set. It's all about practice, and more practice. Like they say, it's the "Sport of Speaking" (Speaking for