Presentation skills training – what it’s like – why you need it.

So PowerPoint is not evil after all (used correctly). But that’s just a tool.  How about presentation skills?  If you do not think they are CRUCIAL to being a PM Ninja, then you are sadly mistaken.

Why?  As Steve Johnson at Pragmatic Marketing likes to say, “When Product Marketing doesn’t do their job of representing the market, Sales and R&D will come in to fill the void.”  If you read between the lines, you can infer that even if you DO your market and customer research, if you cannot effectively communicate the information and “sell” your ideas to influence management, you have still effectively failed.

So assuming you are achieving near ninja status on creating PowerPoints… but what about become a presentation ninja?

About 2 years into my first pure Product Management job, my company offered a 2-day training course on presentation skills.  It was offered to all the two dozen PMs and Engineering managers in the company and surprisingly, only about half of the people took advantage of the class.  BIG MISTAKE.  One of the best (if slightly nerve-racking) 2-day classes I have ever taken.  So what was it like? Why did it work (at least for me)?

Well to this day, I can’t even remember the name of the gentleman who gave the class, but I can play back the memory like a YouTube video.

Before I get into the details, I will say this:  don’t expect to improve your presentation skills just by reading a few blogs and watching  a few videos offering tips.  You actually have to practice the craft.

So what was the training like?

  • The training came in three “layers” starting with basic points on content and effective slides, then we layered on voice intonation and body language, then finally eye contact and ways to connect to the audience.
  • At each phase we watched examples of god and bad presentations highlighting the new tips we learned.
  • We were then asked to create a 15 minute presentations, taking into account the new tips, and then we were RECORDED on video each phase.
  • By the third presentation, you were supposed to try to put it all together (lessons learned at all three stages).
  • The next day was the most nerve wracking because we each had to watch our “before” and “after” presentations to see how we had improved.

I must say, I did not become Steve Jobs overnight, but the improvements were significant for just about everyone.  And the secret to success in presenting (besides good content) really boiled down to two things:

  • Preparation.
  • Practice, practice, practice.

Good presentations require WORK.  Even for the best presentation ninjas. Practice is especially important because this will make what you want to say second nature.  You won’t have to use your bullets as a crutch and you can focus on connecting with your audience (note: there is such a thing as over-rehearsing but I think most people know when they’ve hit that barrier).

Think about star professional athletes.   The pro leagues have plenty of people with raw athletic talent.  But the ones who stand out are the ones who out-work their competition.

So the next time you have a key presentation – with killer content – don’t worry about looking silly practicing in front of the mirror or talking to yourself out loud.  The payoff  will be worth it.

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