As a technical speaker, the advice to be yourself when you give a presentation is not new. It is, however, hard to follow. I learned this the hard way the first time I ever gave a business presentation.
For the first 10 years of my career, I was a software engineer. I was never asked to give a presentation of any kind and I was pretty happy with that. That changed when I was working for a vendor who sold supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. Honestly, I was really scared about the idea. The whole reason why I chose computer science as my major in college was that I could work with machines instead of people! The idea of presenting some information to real people was nerve-wracking.
The occasion for my first presentation was to meet with a group of customers in Tennessee with one of our salespeople. I had always been told that software engineers should never meet with customers because we couldn’t speak their language. The more I prepared for the meeting, the more I believed that. I found that I didn’t really feel comfortable with my content.
Before we left for the meeting, the salesperson wanted to do a “dry run” with me to hear what I was going to say. When I asked him for some advice, he said “Just be yourself. You’ll be great!” We went into a conference room and ran through my presentation. He thought it all sounded pretty good. As a matter of fact, he said he couldn’t see why he wouldn’t take me to visit other customers around the country.
Then the day came for the presentation. We flew to Tennessee. We entered the conference room and there were 16 people from a couple of different companies there. The salesperson made his introductions and promptly turned the meeting over to me. Panic immediately took over. Instead of following the advice of “be yourself”, I turned into some other person that I now call “SpeakerMan”. I spoke like I THOUGHT I should, rather than just being me. I started using all kinds phrases and words that I never used in real life. In the end, it was a terrible presentation that I was totally embarrassed about. The salesperson asked me about what happened to me. He said, “You became a totally different person. You completely changed from you”. I decided then, that I never wanted to do another presentation.
Things have changed for me from then. Since this event, I’ve spoken in over 15 countries and presented very technical information at over 20 different technical conferences. I’ve trained technical experts around the world how to make their messages more understandable. One of the keys, for me, has been to follow that original advice to be yourself. While there are some great rules to follow in terms of how to create presentations and give them, the bottom line is to “be yourself” when you give the presentation. Give YOUR presentation, not the corporate-sounding version of it. Use YOUR personality and not the one you THINK your company wants. Use YOUR words and not the corporate-speak. Have a conversation with your audience and don’t just preach. Have a dialogue with your audience, don’t deliver a monologue. If you will be yourself, you will be much more understandable and believable.