by Jason Harrison. Spring-o-ween, October 2015. A true nightmare of a day etched firmly in my mind for all eternity. The agency had organized a combo Spring & Halloween party and I had decided to get into the spirit of things and really dress up properly. Like full-on-Darth-Vader-properly. But, before we could gorge ourselves, I decided to hold a staff meeting to deliver a killer presentation.
At precisely 4.50pm on a Friday, I cued IT to pump the music and proceeded to waltz into the staff meeting in full Darth Vader regalia to the haunting sounds of The Emperor Strikes Back. As the music stopped and all the staff stared back at me in bewilderment, I realised I’d erred in my judgement. Badly. Very, very badly. (Why is it that IT never, ever works for big presentations but this time it was right on the money?)
Ensconced in the latex helmet, sweating profusely and completely unable to see or breathe out of the cheap knockoff face mask, I seriously considered just running out of the room. But, before I could make a dash for it, the next level of the hellish nightmare kicked in: I began having an allergic reaction to the latex and my neck, ears and cheeks started to swell and heat up to atomic proportions. In a complete panic. I gave up all sense of dignity and whipped the mask off, wheezing uncontrollably, my whole face swollen and completely pink. Half man, half Vader, I managed a few slides looking like a swollen pork sausage in black latex and finally called it off with “Listen, this is the most-embarrassing moment of my career. Can we just do this next week, rather — and, oh, does anyone have an Allergex?”
Copious amounts of cheap tequila late into that night helped. Kinda. Needless to say, it was (and still is) the worst presentation of my entire career. There are a lot of learnings in that story, most important of all — don’t be an #idiot. But it did remind me of a couple of presentations I did early on in my career: sweating profusely, unable to breathe and pink all over.
No one is made for presenting and it’s a daunting task at the best of times. Yet it’s a suit’s core job and most powerful weapon, so how do you master this crucial skill?
1. Dress ups
I think we’ve covered the first obvious point. Dress up is only applicable for stag dos, 40th mid-life-crisis parties and your child’s first-birthday celebrations. Don’t ever do it at work. Ever. Not even a team-branded T-shirt or pitch outfit. You may not get an allergic reaction but your clients most certainly will.
2. Post-it notes are your very best friend
Plotting out the storyline with post-its is a great way to get the flow right by visualising the moments of impact and key thoughts. It’s easy to move things around, and it’s also easy to show an objective person the flow to get their view before you commit anything to keynote.
3. Your job is to take clients down the terror curve.
Put yourself in their shoes. Four weeks ago, they gave you a brief for what they thought they wanted: a beautiful braised lamb shank with baby potatoes. Today, you are about to remove the silver cloche and reveal a stunning sea bass with creamed spinach. The story you tell in your presentation needs to very carefully build a bridge from logic to magic and land on the right solution for their problem. Even better, call them a week out and take them through your story on the phone as a pre-sell.
4. The power of three
It’s well-known that humans are more likely to remember key points when they are grouped into threes or start with the same letter. Watch any presentation that Steve Jobs ever did and you’ll see how he mastered this technique. Great presentations are about: confidence, clarity and conviction.
Not that Comicon nonsense (see point #1). Once you have your presentation sorted, put it up on screen and go through it with someone you trust. Your peer. Your mentor. Your boss. Your spouse. They will always have an objective view and will soon spot the logic flaws for you to iron out ahead of the big day.
6. “Spontaneity is a meticulously prepared art,” said Oscar Wilde
Great orators and debaters have one thing in common. They practice. It’s weird at first but, the more you hear the words, the inflection, the intent, the better you are at delivering them. If you haven’t practiced your speech at least three times, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
7. “Ja, so I’ll quickly recap the brief and then hand over to the creatives,” said the worst suit ever
There’s not one iota of value in that. Your job is to start the presentation off with a bang and get positive momentum. Think of yourself as the Olympic 4 x 100m relay team. Every runner has a role to play in winning that gold medal. If you can’t run a sub-10s 100m, then step off the track and give your place to someone who can on that day. Then fight for your place in the next race as a matter of pride.
Of course, there’s no set formula for a successful presentation and even Darth Vader has his off days but, as that famous scene in The Empire Strikes Back goes: “Luke, you do not yet realise your importance. You have only begun to discover your power.”
Jason Harrison started as a 23-year-old account executive at Ogilvy & Mather before moving to London five years later to run three agency teams in three different European countries. He joined his old mates again in 2011 as one of the founding partners of the M&C Saatchi Group at 33. He believes that creating beautifully simple solutions for an increasingly complex world will, in fact, save the world. His MarkLives column, “The Suit” is about inspiring and helping up-and-coming suits to be better at their craft. He is no longer on Twitter.
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