The views and opinions expressed are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.
Presentations Gone Bad
As I look at my leaders’ (and my own) developmental needs, the ability to speak and persuade is an area ripe for improvement. I am leading our organizational internal version of Toastmasters (we call it Bagelmasters) and was thinking of some of my worst moments. Why do we fear presentations more than death? These real-world examples from the last couple of years explain why.
Our new CEO had just started. My team members were experts at ensuring that our monthly governance meeting was effective and conducted without a hitch. The pressure was higher this time, given the change of command and the CEO’s first exposure to our operations.
Before heading to the meeting, I placed a small wrapped Christmas gift from my staff into my man bag. I did not notice the gift’s decorative ribbon, which was generously adorned with glitter. I sat to the right of the CEO and pulled out my laptop.
A minute before the meeting began, staff discreetly asked what was on my face. My deputy came to me and tried to wipe the glitter off of my cheeks and forehead. My oily skin did not want to give up its treasure. With no time left, everyone took their seats and it was show time. The meeting went well, but I had never been so self-conscious.
When the meeting ended, the CMO pulled me aside and said, “Marx, I appreciate your style, but the glitter is over the top.”
One of my pet peeves is being late, so I am careful to set the example when it comes to timeliness. If there is a quorum, I will start meetings no matter who is missing.
When I was late to the IT Steering Committee meeting that I co-chair, I walked in as discreetly as possible. Even though it was obvious I was late, I tried to maintain a low profile and pretended to be invisible. As I sat next to the chairperson, I softly pulled out my laptop and slouched in my seat.
I quickly realized that the room was completely silent, not even a sneeze. I slowly looked up and the entire room was frozen (think mannequin). I started to break into a sweat until they all broke form and started laughing. They turned my propensity for doing practical jokes on unsuspecting victims and punked me big time. My face turned red and we all had long-needed belly laughs. I love our culture, which allows leaders to feel comfortable playing jokes on one another. And I was never late again.
When you serve with the same people who take care of you physically, awkward situations are unavoidable. Our top 20 or so executives gathered in preparation of a special board meeting. As I surveyed the room, I counted the number of clinicians around the table, hoping we had a healthy balance of clinicians and administration.
On a level deeper, I began to realize that not only did I have business relationships with all the doctors, but physical ones as well.There was my triathlon teammate doc who spontaneously had me drop my drawers in his office when I expressed concern that my Ironman might be in jeopardy because of a hernia. Turned out to be a groin muscle pull. My primary doc was there – and trust me, he has seen and felt me in places nobody else has. Also in the room was my mountain climbing partner / expedition physician who once prescribed me Viagra when I suffered from high altitude pulmonary edema.
When it was my turn to speak, I could not hit my groove because I kept envisioning scenes from the past. I completely lost my focus. I finally confessed this to my colleagues, who laughed with me, then allowed me to regain my composure so I could finish my talk.
The Joint Commission was in town and I was up after the morning break to describe our organization’s IT journey. It was the opening session for their week-long survey and behind our six evaluators sat our entire officer cohort. Per tradition, I went to grab my pre-speech Frappuccino from the lobby Starbucks 15 stories down. Plenty of time.
With my venti cup of deliciousness in hand, I went back to the elevators. Only one elevator was working. I nervously looked at my watch to evaluate the risk of waiting versus taking the stairs. Down to five minutes, I relented and chose the stairs. I walked in winded as our CEO reconvened the large group. I became self-conscious, as I had broken into a sweat. Then my breathing increased and I became nervous.
I sensed I was losing my audience and lost my normal cadence, so I finally stopped and confessed. TJC was merciful. I took a few deep breaths as people laughed and felt my pain.
I was rehearsing my presentation for my very first board meeting. I got out of the shower and grabbed the box of gauze I had been using to cover and protect my newly minted Ironman tattoo on my right calf. The wound was still fresh and required lotion and covering to keep the red ink and blood from staining my clothes. The box was empty.
I was desperate and certainly did not want to have my tattoo ruin my suit nor risk infection. I frantically searched the bathroom for large Band-Aids or anything that would work. Desperate, I grabbed the only material visible: my wife’s sanitary napkins. I cut one down the middle and splayed it open. In the garage, I found duct tape and strapped my makeshift bandage around my calf. I put on my suit and I was good.
Every time I even considered getting nervous speaking that day, I reminded myself that I had a feminine napkin wrapped around my calf with duct tape. I had to smile the entire speech. When I removed the napkin later that evening, I had a perfectly imprinted Ironman logo on the napkin itself. My wife and I had a good laugh. I have never been short of gauze since that day.
I don’t do panels any more. Here is why. I was asked to speak on a panel of a university where I sat on the advisory board. The dean asked for each of the panelists to introduce themselves and share 2-3 key areas of focus for the year. We were allotted five minutes each with the expectation we would then go into traditional panel / audience Q&A mode.
Two of us finished on time and the third panelist pulled out a PowerPoint. After 10 minutes, I began to alternate looks between my watch, the presenter, and the dean. Fifteen minutes later I started a sidebar with the other panelist. After 20 minutes I literally stood up and discreetly walked off the stage and sat in the audience. Finally, at 30 minutes, I left the venue.
I had a couple of less-dramatic but equally frustrating panel experiences, but this event convinced me I should no longer participate in panels. The key to successful panels is a skilled moderator.
I was invited to speak to the leadership of all the government-operated hospitals in China. It was an amazing cultural experience I will never forget. I started my presentation, which was simultaneously translated into several Chinese dialects via headsets. My host was forward-thinking, and under each of my PowerPoint bullet points, he had the direct Mandarin translation.
About halfway through, I realized he had inadvertently removed all the English bullets and I was only left with the Mandarin. Since I had pictures or graphs on each slide, I was able to remember the concepts and winged my way through. However, they never invited me back. Now my presentations are almost exclusively pictures. They paint a thousand words in every language.
I am certain I will have more presentations gone bad in the future. While they happen, they are no fun, but in hindsight, I am reminded never to take myself too seriously and to just laugh. If there is one area for any leader to focus on, it is presentations. I have a long way to go.