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.