The 3 Rules of an Awesome Presentation Every Perfectionist Needs to Know

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“I’m not sure how it went”, read my daughter’s text. She was participating in a cross-university competition and her team had just presented their business case to the panel of judges.

“It wasn’t polished at all” she replied when I asked her why. Shortly after, she wrote: “It was fun though”.

I smiled to myself. My daughter is both highly ambitious and a perfectionist. Like many high-achievers, she has extremely high standards of herself and puts in an insane number of hours making sure her work leaves no stone unturned. Sometimes I see her enjoy the process. But most times, she drives herself (and everyone around her) batty with the demands she places on herself.

As a recovering perfectionist myself, and as a leadership coach to high-achieving women, I fear that her perfectionism will get in her way of success and fulfillment once she moves past the early stages of her life and career. With increasing demands on her time, she’ll need to let go of the urge to dot all i’s and cross all t’s before she can put her work away. She’ll need to stop perfecting her tasks and presentations, and learn to take the leap with “good enough”.

If she doesn’t, she’ll struggle like many of the women who come to me for coaching. They are doubting themselves, feeling cynical about their boss or advancement prospects, and looking outside for other options. What they don’t realize is that perfection and the inability to delegate does not position them well for leadership roles. In her book How Women Rise, women’s leadership expert Sally Helgesen explains that many of the behaviors that help us early in our careers (like attention to detail), become hurdles to advancement because leadership places different demands on us.

Besides, career progress often coincides with advancing age where women are straddling multiple demands on their time. Many of my clients are struggling with the guilt of not spending time with their family, or frustrated they aren’t going to the gym, meeting friends or attending the art class they signed up for. Many are poised on the brink of burn out and questioning their ambitions, their career decisions, even their ability to be a good mother, partner, daughter or friend.

If you relate, the answer lies in letting go of your addiction to perfection, not in changing jobs or careers — that is a later decision. This means building your sense of self-worth, so you’re not driven to prove yourself in a job you’ve already earned, for fear you’ll reveal your self-perceived incompetence or unworthiness.

This is why presentations are excellent opportunities to build self-worth. They’re tied to the two deepest fears we live with — that of failing (incompetence) and that of being rejected (unworthiness). By putting ourselves in front of an audience who is expecting us to have something knowledgeable to share, we are at our most vulnerable, and most desperate to resort to perfection.

One of the best ways I’ve found to distance ourselves from this urge, while also delivering a great presentation, is to “put connection before perfection”. Dr. Jennifer Crocker at the Ohio State University, who researches self-esteem, says that this the process of going “from ego to eco” is particularly effective in building our sense of self-worth.

How do we do so?

Rule # 1: Be Passionate about the Subject 

Drop the thoughts of preparing the perfect presentation and truly immerse yourself in the topic you’ll be speaking about. What are the stats or stories that may pique the audience’s interest. What are the latest insights or twists that no one is talking about? When you approach your topic with passion, you exude an energy and excitement that is infectious.

Rule # 2: Do Not Write a Script

Psychologist and Harvard professor Ellen Langer says that she never writes a script for her presentations. It gives her the freedom to be present in the moment, aware of attendees’ cues, and able to go with the flow. No wonder my daughter found her unpolished presentation “fun”. Without the stress to follow a rigid script, she could be more human and alive.

Rule # 3: Break it down into 3-5 points

Create a general outline and break your presentation down into the three to five points you want your audience to walk away with. This is great because the brain likes to categorize in small numbers. Adding too much nuance, rambling from point to point, or packing your presentation with too much information is the surest way to lose your audience very soon.

Side note: My daughter’s team came first place in the competition! I’m hoping it’ll be a good reminder for her that putting connection before perfection not only makes you enjoy the process, it also leads to great results.

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