The Secret to Powerful Presentation Skills? Stay Present

“Be present. I would encourage you with all my heart just to be present. Be present and open to the moment that is unfolding before you because, ultimately, your life is made up of moments. So don’t miss them by being lost in the past or anticipating the future.”
~ Actress Jessica Lange, speaking at the Sarah Lawrence College graduation ceremony.

Being lost in the past and anticipating the future is exactly what was making Suzanne so anxious.

I had helped her write her speech for the national sales meeting and she had been practicing with me for the past week. I knew she was ready. She had doubts.

“What are you worried about?” I asked.

She first answered with her concerns about the future. “My boss and all the other executives will be there, to say nothing of the 150 sales reps. What if I forget what I’m going to say?”

“What if” is a question I hear a lot. “What if I’m asked a question I can’t answer?” “What if I don’t persuade the audience?” What if I look foolish?” “What if they don’t like me?” “What if I’m nervous?”

I make my living helping people answer “what if?” questions. This is the job of all trainers, whether the training is for war or the workplace. People attend training classes to help them practice dealing with future “what if?” situations, hoping that the real world will at least approximate the training class.

Close behind Suzanne’s “what if?” questions were her “why didn’t I?” memories of what had happened in the past. She recalled the time she forgot what she was going to say and worried that this might happen again.

I also hear these questions a lot. Sometimes, as with Suzanne, I hear them before a talk has been delivered but more often afterwards. “Why didn’t I make better eye contact with the audience?” “Why didn’t I take more time to prepare?” “Why didn’t I speak louder?” “Why didn’t I think of an answer to that question?”

A better question to ask than “what if?” or “why didn’t I?” is “what’s so?” What’s so is that your hands are/were shaking. What’s so is that you forgot what you are/were going to say. What’s so is that your slides can’t/couldn’t be shown.

The answer to the question “what’s so?” is what is happening in the present moment. The quote from Jessica Lange suggests the value of this question.

Stay present. In reality, there is no past and there is no future. In reality, there is only the present. Delivering a powerful presentation requires staying present. As I told Suzanne, if you stay present, you’ll find a way to deal with whatever happens, with whatever is “what’s so?”

When you stay present, you’ll find that, when you don’t know the answer, you naturally say, “I’ll find out and get back to you.” When you can’t show your slides, you apologize and read from your notes, putting what you can on a flip chart or board. If your hands are shaking, you let them shake without telling yourself how embarrassed you are. If you lose your train of thought you say, “I forgot. Give me a moment to check my notes.”

When you stay present, “what if?” and “why didn’t I?” go away. Even the question “what’s so?” is replaced by “so what?” Whatever happens is no big deal.

Audiences don’t care if you’re “lost in the past or anticipating the future.” Their sole concern is whether you care about them and their needs.

Be passionate in the present and “what if?” or “why didn’t I?” won’t make a bit of difference.