Wednesday, 8 February 2012

As Monty Python would say, talking yourself down at the start of a presentation is just silly

Few would argue that self-belief is one of the most essential elements in your Presentation Skills tool kit.  And yet, many of the business people I coach in this area slip in a little pre-cursor to their presentation along the lines of “this is not going to be very good because…” or, “I’m sorry but I only had time for a quick run through on the train….”.  My response is always: “we will talk about Preparation techniques later on, but for the moment don’t talk yourself down – you will almost certainly meet your expectations!”. 

I told this to the publisher of a glossy magazine and she said: “You know, you’re absolutely right.  We went recently to a breakfast presentation by Tommy Hilfiger and we were all very excited because he very rarely does this sort of thing.  But he started off by saying he was really sorry, he felt awful having just got off the plane and not slept all night, so he might not be very good.  And you know what? He wasn’t very good!  Had he said nothing and concluded by thanking us for our attention as he wasn’t feeling great we would probably have enjoyed the talk and thought 'good on him' for doing it under what turned out to be difficult conditions.

I was reminded of this incident at the weekend as I watched the Monty Python documentary on Sky Arts. The team had made ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ and they were very nervous because they had never made a film before and had been learning on the job. They kept re-editing – 13 times in total – and no one laughed when they were shown it. They thought they had a dud on their hands. Then they were given an opportunity to show it to a paying audience in California and they loved it, laughing all the way through.

Python member Terry Jones observed – some 35 years and many films later - that no one had laughed at the previous showings because they were watching as a favour in response to the Pythons’ plea “we’re really worried about our film, would you come and have a look and tell us what you think”. They had been setting expectations low – and living down to them. The final test audience, however, had paid money to come out for good time – that’s what they were expecting, so that’s what they got.

So, while it may not feel very ‘British’, be sure to talk yourself up at the outset, not down.  Indeed, with a touch of ‘hyper-confidence’ up front you should soon feel a sense of energy bouncing back between yourself and your audience.  Get off to a good strong start and you should sail through.  Just make sure you conclude with a big, impactful Call to Action.

And now for something (slightly) different
While I am on the subject of Monty Python, I am also reminded of an excruciating Python-based incident that I experienced personally a few years ago.  I live in South-East London, close to what was for more than 30 years the home of the aforementioned Terry Jones.  Friends of mine moved in immediately next door to him; they had a lot of parties and Terry was usually in attendance, so I got to know him a bit.  As we sat down for dinner on one occasion I was seated two places away from him so we started with a bit of polite conversation about what each of us had been up to.  I concluded with a congratulatory mention of his success in a film-goers poll.  That week his famous line from 'The Life of Brian' had been voted the funniest line ever in a film.  

Terry thanked me with a hint of embarrassment, sparking an enquiry from the woman between us as to what we were talking about.  I explained that Terry's famous line in the 'Life of Brian' had been voted the funniest ever.  "Which line was that?" she asked.  I looked nervously at Terry, who shot me back a very definite 'I'm not doing Python's greatest hits tonight thank you' glance.  Which left the onus on me to say: "He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy".  I had just re-enacted the funniest line ever heard in a movie - in front of its originator!

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