The head of an advertising trade group was talking to me earlier this week about doing a talk for her members when something she said caught my attention. She said she liked my approach because “you’re not just about presentation skills.”

I think what she was getting at is that I tend to be prescriptive in my work with agencies and offer solutions that get to the root of the disease, not just relieve the symptoms.

The comment got me thinking, in my prescriptive way, about what it takes to be a good presenter—specifically, one that can persuade an audience to buy what she’s selling.

Certainly, good presentation skills are important to possess, and teaching and coaching to improve presentation skills is something I do–and love to do. And it helps, especially when people struggle with a fear of public speaking, but is it always the cure?

You know the aphorism: no amount of marketing can fix a bad product. You may even have said that to clients (or silently held that opinion as you and your team struggled to come up with a campaign that does just that).

It’s the same with presentation skills – all the training in the world won’t turn you into a strong presenter if your content is terrible.

Here's a simple set of three quality control factors you should apply to your slide decks before writing a big check to a presentation coach:

1. Is your message client-focused?

It’s almost a cliché to say that agencies talk way too much about themselves, but clichés are born from real and stubborn habits and patterns.

I’ll admit it can be difficult to maintain an objective perspective. Most of us naturally default to talking about ourselves. I bet sometimes you talk about you even when you think you’re talking about them.

Complicating matters, this tendency often masks a deeper problem: you haven’t done the work required to succinctly describe what you do and for whom. Instead, you start to weave of a cocoon of credentials that obscures more than it clarifies.

Ok, sure, sometimes the clients specifically ask for credentials in a pitch presentation, but sometimes it’s just so they can check that box. Can you find another way to fulfill the requirement that doesn’t torpedo the precious minutes you have in front of them?

2. Are you killing them with content? 

Ah, another classic (and a close cousin to #1 above)–too many slides and too much information on each slide. 

There are lots of reasons why we do this, all of them bad and avoidable:

“I use the slides as my script so I don’t have to memorize it.”

“The client asked for a detailed description of our process.”

“Someone else is going present this so I have to make sure they have everything they could possibly need to know on the slides.”

“I didn’t have time to edit.”

When you overwhelm your audience with too much information, it feels like an assault–and they react as such.

Blame it on our lizard brain, the oldest part of our brain that’s responsible for primitive survival instincts. It’s also the first stop for any incoming message. It determines whether the message is friendly or a threat.

The lizard brain takes its responsibility for keeping us alive very seriously, but it’s not very good at processing complex information. When the lizard brain is confronted with dense, wordy or incomprehensible information, it goes into defensive mode. It either says “run!” or it decides to expend only enough energy to get what it believes is the gist of things. And with that comes the very high risk that important parts of your pitch will be lost. 

3. Are you presenting final, well-rehearsed content?

Maybe it feels like final content to you, but without running through a practice presentation scenario (aka rehearsing), you’ll never know how much still needs to be edited, reordered and refined.

I will always proselytize the power of rehearsal and I know I’ll always have an uphill battle because everyone hates to rehearse. Even I hate to rehearse, but I do it because it makes me a better presenter. Not only does it get me comfortable with my material, it reveals where the rough spots are and gives me a chance to smooth them over.

Want to know what it feels like when I make a well-rehearsed presentation?

It’s a feeling of comfort that overpowers the nerves—a dominant sense of “I’ve got this.”

It’s feeling the content flow in a natural, instinctual way.

It’s knowing that, even if there’s a glitch or I forget something, I can recover.

It’s being certain (because I’ve been told by others) that I appear relaxed and that I’m connecting with my audience.

It’s the ability to gracefully multi-task–to deliver my content, read the room, and make adjustments all at the same time.

It makes all the rehearsal worthwhile because it feels great

It’s November and you’re probably preparing your 2018 sales and marketing plan. Before you allocate your precious budget for presentation training, ask yourself if the fundamentals are in place.

What you may actually discover is that when you nail the fundamentals, you and your team automatically up your presentation game.


Because you now have confidence in your material, enough to allow some passion and humanity to show through. You’ll tap into your natural human talent for narrative, which will render unnecessary the need to read off slides. You’ll be prepared in a way that lets you react to unexpected interruptions without throwing you off track.

And you might even find it feels great to you too.