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7 Ways to Improve Your Presentations and Speak With Presence

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As long-time readers know, each year I write down goals for the next twelve months, something I’ve been doing for about twelve years now. This year one of my goals was to “dramatically improve” my presentation skills. In truth, this is a goal every single year but this year I made sure to put it to paper and then I proceeded to read a bunch of books and blogs on the subject. I’ve also spent a lot of time analyzing the presentation styles of those around me, since I have ample opportunities to do that at work.

Why the push? See, about halfway through last year I found myself presenting to medium-sized groups of people (from fifty to a few hundred people) bi-weekly instead of, at best, quarterly. That was clear motivation to get better. No one likes to completely suck at something you have to do all the time. Plus, if you’re not a halfway decent communicator, you’re probably not a halfway decent leader either.

Of course, I’m still far from good at it. This stuff, like most anything else, takes a ton of dedicated practice and attention to really nail it. The difference between star performers and everyone else is that the people who care to get better use deliberate and corrective practice. They set specific goals, respond to feedback, and look at the process of improvement as a long-term thing. Others don’t, they just go through the motions. This isn’t just me speaking, by the way, it’s been exhibited in research by Psychology professor Dr. K. Anders Ericsson.

Now, before getting into the tips & tricks, remember that there’s always room for improvement, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever be perfect. Perfection is a pipe dream. But you can absolutely make your presentations better, in some cases much better, and you can always become better at public speaking. So make sure to have the right expectations going in and then just commit to the process fully.

Look, presenting is hard. Putting together presentations is hard too. It’s all quite scary, especially if it’s not something you do often. I remember a few years ago when I wasn’t doing this regularly, the nerves prior to presenting were so intense that I could barely sleep the night before. If this describes you, then maybe one of these tips will help you get over the proverbial hump. Look at this as just the beginning of a lifelong journey. Here we go.

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How it Feels to Ship Stuff



If you don’t know what I mean by shipping, you might want to read Real Artists (Plan to) Ship first.

Shipping is hard.  It’s especially hard if you’ve never done it, or simply haven’t done it often enough to know what it feels like.  You suspect that ‘inspiration’ will pull you through it, yet in reality inspiration usually doesn’t last more than a day or two.

Inspiration is an ephemeral feeling that tricks you into thinking it will always be there.  Of course, it can’t be… and won’t be.

Inspiration has never shipped anything.  Grit is how you ship. If you think you’re always going to be inspired and that you can just “lean on” that feeling everyday to power you, you’re going to fail.  It doesn’t work.  Inspiration will disappear as soon as the caffeine leaves your blood stream, you get distracted, or you wake up with a headache.  You need a model for shipping, something that helps get you through the emotional dips you’re bound to experience.

When you’re inspired, you don’t expect to have dips in your motivation.  You’re above that.  You’re made of steel.  The feeling will last forever.  People who ship know better.

The art of shipping is the same the world over, no matter what the subject is.  Paint, code, words, chords, clay, whatever. If you’re creating anything from nothing and expect it to see the light of day, you’re looking to ship something. Creating something without delivering it may still be considered art by some, but it’s not shipping.

When we hire new program managers at Microsoft, one of the most important things we look for is people who are good at all phases of the product cycle.  We expect people to be strong at the beginning, coming up with creative ideas and unique approaches to solving tough problems.  We look for strength in the middle, people who are able to execute and get the team through the grind without giving up.  And we want people who can pull the team all the way through to the finish line, dealing with the (very hard) act of pushing something real out the door to a few hundred million users.

This means that the best people are the ones who can decide what to do, figure out how to do it with the team, and then start it, drive it, and ship it.

Anyone can have an idea.  And just about anyone can write a strongly worded email or document about how “obvious” that idea is and how everyone who doesn’t “get it” is an “idiot”.  But the people who are able to sell the idea, line the people up, and bring it all the way to the finish line, imperfections and all, and then do it over and over again are the real stars. 

The funny thing is how these people usually aren’t the same people who think they’re superstars just because they have some ideas.  The best people are too busy shipping to care what you think.

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Written by Mike Torres

March 21st, 2011 at 10:02 pm

The Self-Serving Bias: 3 Steps to Total Eradication!

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I love the word eradication.  I don’t know why.

Self-serving bias in action… by actors

As a part of an overall approach to personal growth, it’s important to know when your mind – which is far more complex than many of us give it credit – is working on your behalf and when it isn’t.  Or, to put it more specifically, when it thinks it’s working on your behalf… when in reality it’s doing the equivalent of tying your hands behind your back so you can’t hurt yourself… but can’t eat or drink either!

In so many ways, our minds have adapted almost too well over millennia.  In an effort to protect us in the short-term, we can frequently be hurting ourselves over the long haul.

The self-serving bias is like that.  It’s the tendency to see ourselves as responsible for our successes, but to see others – or the circumstances – as responsible for our failures

This is so clearly a coping strategy – we do this to protect our self-image, improve our confidence, and keep ourselves from dwelling on the negative.  We also do it to (at least seemingly) protect the image of ourselves in the eyes of others by playing up the good stuff and deferring blame for the bad stuff.

But is it healthy?  Is that really who we strive to be?  Someone who takes the credit and assigns blame?

I doubt it.  Most of us would probably say that this doesn’t describe us at all.  That we’re great about giving credit where it’s due and taking blame when things don’t go well.  And of course, most of us would be kidding ourselves (there’s that damn bias again).  Because who you think you are and who you actually are are rarely the same.  That’s one of the core tenets of psychology.

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Written by Mike Torres

April 25th, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Posted in Leadership,Positivity

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Real Artists (Plan to) Ship

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Ed. note: This post is appropriate because we’re “shipping” our son to the world in just a few hours.  Wish us luck!  Posting may be slow for a little while as we adjust to a bigger family, but if you’re signed up for email updates, Twitter, or RSS, you may not even notice!

Click for photoIf you work in the tech industry, you’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase, “Real artists ship”.  It’s a quote attributed to Steve Jobs, the founder and current CEO of Apple, as a motivator for the development team of the original Macintosh computer.

In this context, shipping means getting your product out the door and into the hands of the world.  But it could mean submitting your term paper, completing a big sale, or finishing a year-long boat renovation.  Life is full of projects like these that could go on indefinitely, but ultimately have to ship in order to make a difference. 

If these projects don’t ship, they’re just hobbies.  If they don’t ship, they were just fun ideas – and ideas are a dime a dozen… everyone has good ideas.  But shipping… that’s hard.  And the rewards of shipping are reserved for the few that are able to do it, not the people who first thought of the idea.

The “problem” with starting a project with the expectation that it’ll ship is that it imposes all sorts of constraints.  The technology isn’t where you need it to be, you don’t have the time you need to do everything you want to do, or you don’t have the people or money.  In order to truly think “outside the box” you need a team that’s twice as big with twice as much money and faster computers!  Of course that’s all bogus.

Constraints are why things ship.

If you didn’t have a deadline to submit your term paper, you could tweak it forever.  If you didn’t have customers waiting for the next version of your software or competitors breathing down your neck, you could add every feature you’ve ever thought of.  You need constraints to really think about how to best solve a problem.  Constraints are good.

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Written by Mike Torres

March 29th, 2010 at 7:50 am

Be a Thermostat, Not a Thermometer

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Click for photo Seth Godin makes an interesting observation in his book Tribes about the key difference between a thermometer and a thermostat and how it’s reflected in human nature.  He says that a thermometer is great for identifying when something is broken after the fact while a thermostat does it’s best job to regulate temperature to stay in sync with its environment.  Thermostats are leaders while thermometers are just squeaky wheels.

To put it another way:

  • Thermometers like to criticize once a direction is chosen.  They’re always first to notice when something is wrong, but can’t take the necessary steps to fix it.  They’re the armchair quarterbacks of the world and are great at telling you what you already know.  The thermometer has an ability to lead only in so much as hindsight is 20/20.  They can’t plan or adapt to changes.
  • Thermostats take the temperature of the room first and then put a plan in place to adapt.  They’re the leaders and the visionaries, and the people you rely on to stay calm in a crisis and lead you to the next level.  Thermostats are able to work past criticism and negativity and push forward even when the odds are against them.  Thermostats exhibit self-control and stability.

Naturally there are corollaries in the business world but what about for personal growth and achievement?  When I read this I immediately thought about the high-achievers I know and how they approach their lives.  They’re all gifted in keeping things in balance and staying in control – events and people don’t inject drama into their lives because they don’t let them.  They understand the factors at work and adapt accordingly with time to spare.  They aren’t prone to wild swings in “temperature”.

This description also reminds me of one of my favorite Bruce Lee quotes, which is a key lesson in Zen philosophy: “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.”  Thermostats are masters at adaptation.

Thermostats don’t like to spend time with thermometers because it’s almost always counter-productive for them, making everything harder than it needs to be.  Thermometers hold people back through negativity and second-guessing while thermostats do what needs to be done.  It’s all about learning, adjusting, and driving ahead.

So… are you a thermostat or a thermometer?

Written by Mike Torres

April 19th, 2009 at 11:48 am

Posted in Leadership

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