Imperfections in your presentations

There’s something about being perfect that set’s people’s teeth on edge. Perhaps it’s the idea that if something is perfect it must be artificial – not authentic. It’s true both in presentation in real life. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Maya Angelou - astonishing presenter!About a year ago, my Mum died. At her funeral, my younger daughter read a poem by Maya Angelou. It’s a damned hard poem to read and she read it in a way that would make professionals weep – until the last line when there was a catch in her voice, almost a break. And that half second of imperfection reduced everyone to tears. Too perfect a performance often makes things look like it’s not an ‘connected’ presentation. By allowing her voice to break a little it showed it mattered.

Tina - no better rock presenter!At the other end of the spectrum is the life-affirmation that is a Tina Turner concert, but as you’ll see from this video, not even a slick and rehearsed presenter asTina is perfect.  Listen to her gasping for breath at 6:45-ish.

Does it bug me? God no!  Just makes it look human, as though the singer is a person, not a machine. And watch her grinning as she dances with her backing dancers and band. Clearly this is something that’s personal, not just a lip-synched recording. Too slick and we might as well be watching the studio-edit-version.

What’s that got to do with better presentations?

Think about this – just as a music fan will tell you that live music is better than a recording, so audiences will tell you that a real, authentic presentation is more impactful than a studio recording, no matter how “perfect” the studio-based recording might have been.

That’s great news for presenters, because it means our presentations don’t have to be perfect… in fact our audiences identify more with us as presenters if we’re not perfect. The problem is that showing “weaknesses’ can very easily undermine our credibility as presenters by cutting away at our authority. So what’s the secret for being imperfect enough without being too imperfect?

Simon Raybould - presentations trainerFor me, the “trick” lies in what I’m imperfect about.

Let’s make it personal – not long ago I gave one of my rare public/open presentation skills training sessions, where pretty much anyone could sight up to get a massively intense hit of presentations science. I didn’t go for the “stack them high and sell them cheap” approach, and a half day cost well over £200. (It’s astonishing value for money when you add in everything, but as you can imagine, the stakes were pretty high from my point of view.)

The pressure was on the presenter, for sure!

Imperfect things in my presentation:

  1. A cup of coffee - do all presenters run on coffeeputting down a cup of tea during a break and making a joke about having lost it
  2. admitting to being bad at remembering people’s names
  3. handing out books before the presentation started
  4. a story about mixing up my children’s names (it’s why I call them D1 and D2 on this blog! 🙂 )
  5. clipping on a microphone for a hearing-impaired attendee so that my voice went directly to his hearing aide and in the process messing up my tie

(Incidentally you might be interested in this old post looking at other reasons for not making your presentations perfect!)

Things I didn’t allow to be imperfect about my presentation:

  • anything at all to do with the technology, such as slides, screen, projector and laptop and remote control
  • the actual delivery of the presentation
  • timing of my movement as I crossed in front of the screen
  • my knowledge of content – and of content around my content (that is, things in questions that led to other things being brought up on conversation which in turn led to other things…)

The point is to allow imperfections be evident to the audience about the things that allow you to be ‘human’ and relatable, but not about your presentation’s content, design or delivery.

On a personal note, I often allow audiences to see me changing from Simon, to Presenter Simon, so that they can relate to both. YMMV for that kind of trick however, so be careful. Presenter Simon stands differently and gestures differently to Normal Simon. You might not be able to tell the which you’re looking at in a photograph of a presentation, without context, but the actual transition is very obvious and means that audience’s can relate to Normal Simon as ‘friendly’ but Performer Simon as ‘authoritative’.

Michelangelo did it

Even Michelangelo had mistakes in his presentationOne of the other, big advantages of your presentation not being perfect is that it gives a sense (if you do it right!) that your presentation is a living thing, and up to date. The pic here is of a pieta by Michelangelo that I snapped on my iPhone a few years ago. The front is a masterclass in the perfect.

But round the back it’s not even finished! (The story is that Michelangelo found a flaw in the stone and didn’t finish the carving in a paddy) Whatever the reason it’s not complete, there’s a huge advantage – as you look at this work of art from the side you can see it coming alive and ‘being created’. The perfect stuff seems to be ‘growing’ out of the raw stone at the back.

Yes, it’s a stretched analogy, but I love that statue too much not to talk about it whenever I can! 🙂  I’m sure you get the idea – your presentation can benefit by looking like it’s live, not static and dead.

The danger points about undermining your presentation

presenting a road workerThere’s some interesting research evidence that an audience’s perception of your technical competence will bleed into their perception of your presentation’s content. What that means in practice is that there’s a risk of taking the licence of not being perfect too far. Differentiating between critical-to-the-presentation and non-critical things (see the last section) will help, but it’s still a value-judgement as to what you allow to be imperfect.

A bit of common sense advice here would be to err on the side of safety and not allow many imperfections at all. After all, you can relatively easily add an imperfection, but once it’s been made you can’t unmake it.

So is there a formula? No, but there’s a guideline.

Before your audience arrive, take time to consider, as objectively as you can, how you stand on the scale of

the presenter's authority arrow

There are two things to consider. The first is the obvious one of “For the aims I have for this presentation, where am I?” but then run that answer through a bit of an ecology check – specifically – “What sort of a presenter am I instinctively?“. The latter answer will give you a feeling for if your first answer is biased or inappropriate! You’ll also need to filter through some consideration about your audience and the event, too. (Do a cost benefit analysis of mistakes-vs-effort in your presentations!)

For example, because I’m a research scientist turned presenter, I’m rarely (very rarely!) anxious about my material. I know my content and I know I know it. I’m also confident that because I’m an expert on the topic of (say) presenting, no one is going to know more than me and say something like  “But XYZ found that ABC, which blows your stuff out of the water”. That depth of knowledge, combined with my personality, means my instinctive place on that line is off towards the right and I need to be aware of that as I present – making sure I consciously deliberately try and move a little to the left.

You’ll be different, of course!


By the way…

Anneli BlundellI’m not the only person who’s writing about this at the moment. Over on Linked In, the fabulous Anneli Blundell posted this article on the Hidden Power of Bloopers quite recently.

Presenting Dr Samantha BoardmanSimilarly Dr Samantha Boardman has a short but eloquent post on the Pratfall Effect – and other things – pointing out that while being imperfect is a winner in general, that’s largely only true if your audience already respect you… so perhaps it’s better to make sure that any imperfections you allow yourself to show in your presentation should only come after you’ve got your audience on board by being competent.

Janet Murry - excellent presenter!Oh, and purely by co-incidence I was listening to episode 341 of Janet Murry’s podcast, with Marsha Shandur. It’s flagged as a conversation about using stories to get new clients etc, but there’s some very interesting conversation about showing vulnerability and connecting.  (Brace yourself for spammy popups but you can easily click them away.)

And if you’re still not convinced, take a look at your facebook ‘friends’. Then find the one whose posts show a perfect life. Now ask yourself if you want them to get a flat tyre on the way home from work! 🙂


A parting shot about presentations and their imperfections

Yes, I could make my presentations perfect. I could make my workbooks perfect. I could make this blog perfect… but at what cost. If the point of a presentation is to make the world a better place by changing something, then you might consider it a good idea to trade off the existence of imperfections against the effort it takes to track them all down.

Mistakes get harder to find as you remove them so that there are fewer left. Yes, you could proof read your handouts the 42nd time, hunting for the last (possible) remaining typo, or you could use that time to do something else. Does the one mistake in your presentation mean it’s not going to achieve its aim? If not, is it worth finding it? Or are you better spending your time drafting the next world-changing-presentation? 🙂

7 Replies to “Imperfections in your presentations”

  1. Found this really helpful. Guess there is a danger of getting hung up on unimportant details rather than focusing on what really matters.

    1. Absolutely Jon!

      What matters is the outcome, not how many people stand up to applaud or give you money in the room – it’s what happens afterwards that counts, and if not being perfect helps that, then I’m all for it. 🙂

  2. I’m working on a small presentation right now, Simon, and this blog really let me breathe. I’m something of a researcher too and am presenting my original in-depth study. So I took heart in your encouragement to “be aware…as I present – making sure I consciously deliberately try and move a little to the left.” I guess an ironclad presentation is just that… And thank you for sharing the insights of all the women you included!

  3. Hi Simon – Thanks for taking a stand for allowing imperfection in presenting! We need much more of this attitude to overcome the enormous fear of public speaking that stems from expectation of perfection. It’s impossible to do and oh so unnecessary. I’ve been pounding this same drum for about 40 years with thousands of clients. I’m in Houston, Texas. Nice to know about you.

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