A few years ago, one of our coaches went to help a group of high-powered executives put together what they called “a do or die presentation.” The coach is great. Smart. Thoughtful. Insightful. But due to traffic and some miscommunication on the part of the client, she arrived nearly an hour late.
Though not her fault, the group leader admonished her in front of everyone. Not a great way to start the day or make a good impression. She was flustered and unfortunately she showed it.
When she told me what happened, I couldn’t help but think about the Barefoot Contessa otherwise known as Chef Ina Garten. I’m a huge fan of her cookbooks. In her Barefoot Contessa party book, she has a section called “Stay Cool.” She says when having a party your guests must believe that you’ve whipped the party up just before you got dressed; not that you’ve been slaving for weeks, are exhausted and nervous that it might not go well.
The same I realized is true for a speech or presentation. Like a great hostess, listeners want to know you’ve got it under control. Even if you’re a little nervous or make a mistake, they don’t need or want to know. And chances are, they won’t know you’ve slipped up anyway!
So, the next time you have to speak up, take a deep breath and take charge. Your job is to put others at ease. Like a dinner party, invite them into your space with outstretched arms and a warm smile that says I’m so happy you’re here. Like a party, make it feel personal. Like a meal you’ve prepared to perfection, what can you provide for them that is unique to you?
Ina Garten is a menu master. You can be too. What can you put on your menu that your audience will devour and ask for more? Like a great party, so much of your presentation success depends on how you prepare in advance. You can start by asking these questions in anticipation of every talk you ever give:
- Who is your audience?
- What do they care about?
- How can you personalize the experience for them?
- What exercises, stories or anecdotes can you share to help your menu be specific to their tastes?
Just like a great chef would not serve the same menu to everyone, you should not treat all audiences alike. If you think through your talk in advance before you start putting together slides, not only will the preparation make your message more focused, but it will provide a better and more unique experience for your listener.
Think of your speech as a chili cook-off. If you were hosting the event for employees, what would you want them to experience? Networking? Team building? Camaraderie?
When my colleague Vincent Milano, former CEO of Viropharma, a pharmaceutical company took over assumed leadership of the company, he told me “I want this company to feel like the chili cook off we had the other day — fun, interactive, competitive with feelings of camaraderie and teamwork.”
Despite his status and success, he was always focused on what would motivate and inspire his employees to help them feel good about themselves. He always put people first as his compass to help guide the company in the right direction.
Even if you aren’t running a worldwide company, the message is the same. What do you want your key listeners to feel? What do you want them to think, do or know as a result of what you’ve shared with them? Like the hallways of Milano’s company, what atmosphere do you want to create in your room?
As a presenter or meeting leader, it is your job to own your room. That means like a party host, you need to have fun too. If you have fun, your audience will have fun. If you’re engaged, your audience will be engaged. If you laugh, they will too. If you brush off a mistake instead of dwelling in it, they might not even realize you erred.
So like Chef Garten, aim to create an experience that is relaxed, warm and fun. Give them a “hug” as if they were a long lost friend you are delighted to see. Just these few simple ingredients will produce a winning recipe audiences will savor long after you’ve stopped speaking.