Symptoms vs causes: rethinking presentation skills

Posted 27 March 2024 by Chris Wickenden

When you present, what you do with your hands, how you stand, how you sound, whether or not you jangle your change in your pocket, are merely external effects, or symptoms, of a much deeper cause.

Like any good doctor, we need to find the root cause of your external symptoms. Only then can we go about finding the right remedy - the right course of rehabilitation - the right medication. I hesitate to continue the analogy, as it’s perhaps unhelpful to think of your difficulties presenting as symptomatic of any great ailment, but hopefully you get the point!

Equally, it’s not just about stopping bad habits, or creating positive effects. Both of these approaches are entirely focused on the external. They’re also entirely focused on you and your performance.

And actually, it’s important to start moving away from language around performance, tips and tricks when it comes to public speaking - an arena where authenticity and the ability to build trust are your key currencies.

A presenter who uses all of their energy to stop their bad habits and create certain positive effects has very little space or energy left for connecting with their audience. For building a genuine relationship. This is where all the ability to positively influence lies.

Yet, surely the audience is the very reason that you’re presenting in the first place? It’s their time. Not your time.

As Brene Brown beautifully puts it: “Public speaking is generosity serving connection.”

A case study

To clarify: Person A has a habit of shuffling their feet, they say “ummm” and “errr” a lot, and scratch their head. They book themselves onto a Presentation Skills course. They want to stop those 'bad habits' and come across as confident, project their voice more, and entertain their audience, somewhat. They want some ‘tips and tricks’. Without spending time to work out the cause of the 'bad habits', and conversely, the cause of the positive effects, you play a dangerous game.

At most, you get a presenter that now, plants their feet firmly, replaces “ummm” and errr” with silence, and has no nervous ticks. They now have fairly confident body language, you can hear them loud and clear, and they crack a few jokes to 'entertain'.

However, the amount of attention and energy exerted to do, and stop doing these things is huge. The presentation may appear, at least externally, more polished, but with all that focus on themselves - and that’s a lot of focus - how do they connect with, build trust, and inspire their audience? They simply can’t. Sorry Person A.

Any presenter who focuses on ridding themselves of bad habits and creating positive effects massively increases their level of self focus. This reduces the headspace to truly be with your audience, read the room and serve their needs. 

Yet this is the very reason to speak in the first place. What a huge opportunity cost.

We live in a world that demands quick results. It’s so tempting to skip the process and go straight after the outcome. In the short run, it may feel like you’re saving time. However, without the process, the results won’t stand up to the test of time.

There is another way

By spending a little more quality time on the process, you can do more than just put a plaster on things.

Take Person A, again. By working on the externals, like above, you don’t fix any problems. The chances are that by stopping one nervous tick, they develop another.

Person A was not born, pre-disposed to scratching their head every couple of seconds.

Neither were they born with a propensity for saying “ummm” and “errr.” Both of these are symptoms of a deeper cause.

Does Person A do these things in an environment when they feel completely relaxed, confident and passionate? Of course they don’t. So what is it about the environment of delivering a formal presentation that brings out these habits? Well, perhaps they’re nervous; feel uncomfortable; or feel uncertain about their material.

Now, these are issues that we can work on positively. The causes are different for everyone, but by identifying them, and working on them, you have a much greater chance of fixing ‘bad habits’ and creating positive effects, without it being detrimental to your connection with the audience.

In fact, so often, we find that by strengthening the focus on the audience, you can be liberated from self-consciousness. The positive effects are created and the ‘bad habits’ vanish without them having to actually think about them at all.

To clarify 

(These are just potential causes and remedies):

Person A

Habits: Shuffling feet, scratching head

Cause: Feel uncomfortable

Remedies: Breathing exercises in advance to calm nerves; making non-threatening eye contact with the audience to lower the sense of fight, freeze or flight and to create intimacy.

Habit: Ummm, errr

Cause: Lack of clarity over the material

Remedy: Spend some time really connecting to the purpose of your presentation and how you need to affect your audience.

Both of the sample remedies are very audience focused and free Person A from their own hang-ups.

At From:Today we believe that everybody deserves to feel brilliant, every day at work - happy, confident, challenged, supported and motivated - connecting with each other and clients in a way that is authentic and inspires.

You don’t achieve this by getting everyone to turn in on themselves, focusing on their flaws and how to stop them. Equally, you don’t get very far by seeking to imitate the positive effects created by others.

By going a little deeper to identify the root cause of one’s discomfort or ‘flaws’, you’ll fix them through focusing on something far more positive, and in the process, building a stronger, more authentic relationship with your audiences - and that’s where the ability to truly influence lies.

Chris Wickenden

Chris Wickenden

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Chris Wickenden

Chris Wickenden