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Are You Good Enough to Present at TED?

We interviewed Martha Denton about presentation skills and preparation.

- or - Never Let ‘Em See You Sweat

You may notice that these are typed up words on a screen in front you, and not a real live human speaking words on a stage in front of you. There’s a reason for that [this being a blog article aside].

Those in the know would call it: “Total Fear of Public Speaking.”

I mean, I can talk in public…on a sidewalk…in an office…on the subway with my head shoved into someone taller’s armpit. But if faced with a boardroom of VC’s, where my every word could make or break a Series A round? Good God I’d crumble.

…and I’m not alone.

Michael Bay has made more blockbusters than I care to count (and pretty much all that I’ve yet to see…) but when he got up before a roomful of folks at this winter’s Consumer Electronics Show – the dude panicked, and walked offstage.

…but Michael Bay and I are not alone.

You might be one of us. And let’s be honest, no matter how kickass your pitch deck is, you’ve got to be able to talk the talk.

And so we present: An Interview with Communications Specialist/Innovation Skills Builder/Public Speaking Coach, Martha Denton.

[New Haircut] My first question, and I quote, I’ve heard that you are a “communications specialist, innovation skills builder, and public speaking coach” – which are a lot of words that actually mean… what?

[Martha] You got it – I help people write, design, and give better presentations. What I’ll do is help people analyze their audience – figuring out who it is you really need to talk to, figuring out your stakeholders…that kind of thing – then, after that, we’ll put a strategy together. I also help people actually create their presentations, helping with the design of the presentation. And then finally I also do speaker coaching.

[New Haircut] So just that – you know, a light job.

Yeah, no big deal, whatever. And then I also teach classes on all that stuff, too.

[New Haircut] So how did you get into this? Probably a pretty safe bet that you didn’t go to school to be a Presentation Specialist…

Ha – no, this was definitely not a job that when I was 8 I thought, This is what I want to be when I grow up.

[New Haircut -- In the interest of time and space, I will now give you the Martha Denton Road to Presentation Mastery in 7 bullet points]

· Graduated in Government and Women’s Studies
· Unloved first job on Capital Hill
· New job at McKinsey & Co. in NYC
· Desire for a creative outlet led to night courses in interior design, with the intent of eventually doing it professionally
· Meanwhile, back at McKinsey–a branding project led to hiring a Visual Communications Specialist dude, which led to Martha becoming his go-to for in-house work
· One day the VCS asked her why she wanted to be an interior designer , and she…had no answer
· BOOM—cut to Martha being apprenticed into a whole new field she never saw coming

Yep, just like that.

[New Haircut] So, do you think if you hadn’t have met him, you’d be doing interior design right now?

[Martha] That’s a really good question. I probably would have floundered around a little bit because the interior design field is very emotional, and I don’t really want to have an emotional conversation about a shade of red. But ironically, I use my women’s studies degree everyday – because the biggest thing in women’s studies is putting yourself inside someone else’s shoes so you can communicate with them better, and that’s exactly what I do.

[New Haircut] Then onto exactly what you do… When you work on a pitch deck project with a new client, where do you start?

[Martha] The main thing I do is manage the process. I’m the one to figure out the strategy pieces, the writing pieces and that sort of thing – helping them analyze who their audience is. A lot of that material will also get used by the web design team and for writing up the creative brief.

[New Haircut] So you’re like the content whisperer, basically.

[Martha] Yeah, totally. I’ll also flesh out what the process flow should look like or any frameworks that need to be designed. I prefer working in teams with this kind of work, especially with designers, since different people have different skills – mine is visualizing complex concepts; for some reason I’m a freak of nature and can do it damn near instantly.

[New Haircut] We could call that a ‘savant’—but we can roll with freak.

[Martha] Maybe a superpower?

[New Haircut] Why not, let’s go with that. So what happens when you’re meeting with people who are not just having happy hour around you and using you as a party trick…say, people who come to you because they have a real fear of presenting. Do you have a big 3 as far as rules for getting in front of a room to present?

[Martha] Yes – I do have a couple of tips I give everybody. First things first, it is the most common fear that people have…and individual’s fears can really vary. Like I’ve worked with people who’ll say, I can perform on stages, but I can’t do anything else, and I’ll tell them to do karaoke the night before – that kind of thing for that person. Basically a way to go find their vocal range if they don’t have it right now.

Does it work for everybody? No. But a tip I would give everybody is to rehearse your presentation so many times that you can go into autopilot if you get stuck.

[New Haircut] Ah – I’ve heard people say if you over-rehearse, that can be bad. So you don’t believe that – your lesson is to practice it so many times that you can do it without thinking?

[Martha] There’s this point in rehearsal where it sounds like you’re reading it off of a script, and the solution to that is counterintuitive – it’s actually to rehearse more.

[New Haircut] So basically press through the robotic phase until you’re back to human.

[Martha] Exactly. I heard somewhere that Steve Jobs used to rehearse 72 hours for each presentation.

[New Haircut] Jesus.

[Martha] Yep. But that was so he could go back to sounding off the cuff. So that’s the first thing I’ll do. The second thing I’ll tell people to do is clarify that when rehearsing you have to say it out loud completely, not just in your head.

[New Haircut] Does muttering count?

[Martha] Nope – it works for memorizing your content, but it does not count when practicing. Because you don’t want to slip in your real presentation and sound like you’re muttering to yourself.

[New Haircut] Unless you’re trying to sell to a room of serial killers, in which case…

[Martha] Ha, yeah, maybe. But if you’re really nervous, you don’t want to have that default of muttering anywhere in your head. The other thing I’ll tell people to do is to do mountain pose from yoga, because it will help them with their posture and it’ll help them calm down.

[New Haircut] Which one is that? I’ve done yoga, but I wasn’t quite into yoga.

[Martha] It’s the very first pose you’ll do at most yoga classes. The “how to stand in yoga” position – it’s so basic sometimes they don’t even tell you what it’s called.

I’ll also tell people to visualize being awesome. And if they’re really struggling, I’ll tell them to look at Amy Cuddy’s TED talk and do some power posing – which is when you stand really big and it will actually change your brain chemistry, ups your testosterone levels and lowers your cortisol levels.

[New Haircut] This is really good to know – personally, I’m a terrible public speaker. Let’s be happy I can get through a phone interview.

[Martha] No, you sound fine!

[New Haircut] I’m not standing big but I AM petting my dog as we talk – he’s small and furry and finds that he’s most centered when lying on the couch. So…that’s MY tip. [For no presenter. Ever.]

[Martha] I also tell people when they rehearse to present to their pets – or if they don’t have any, stuffed animals will do, a whiteboard with a drawing – basically anything with eyeballs to look into while you’re speaking, so you can practice moving your eyes around. Oh—and also, sometimes it’s good to rehearse in front of a camera…because if you’re doing a weird staring thing, that’s when you’ll find out.

[New Haircut] …and back to serial killers.

So what about the other side – when people aren’t freezing up, but are kind of overzealous. How do you help people not sound like Crazy Larry trying to get you into this car today?

[Martha] I tell people to be authentic and represent themselves – so if that’s who they are? Then just go with it. I think everyone should be who they are. If you’re a quiet, gentle speaker and have a serene way of speaking? Then that’s what you should be doing. If you’re not funny? Don’t tell jokes. It’s really funny how many speaker coaches will tell people that they should crack a couple jokes – and I’m like, Oh my God, some people are not funny; don’t embarrass yourself. But in general, the over-enthusiastic speaker? I like it.

[New Haircut] Let’s narrow in on pitch decks – do you believe people should have a brand voice in their slides, or keep it very minimal business speak, and let their presentation offer the personality?

[Martha] They should have both. You still need to sound like a business person – you’re not going to be like, Hey, I’ve got this cool app, yo… It’s one thing if that’s how your brand voice on your website is, but when you’re going to ask someone for a couple million dollars, it’s not appropriate.

[New Haircut] There definitely is a sort of startup way of speaking – do you think there are things a startup might write into a pitch deck, thinking they’re being cool or funny, that would just translate entirely differently to an investor?

[Martha] It depends on the investor. After doing some personal research on investor classifications in general – because I have a hypothesis that there are different archetypes of investor and that you need to write to 2 or 3 of them – I’ve broken it out mainly to these:

There are some that have this formula, so you have to have the formula and you have to sound like an adult. Then there are others that when you talk to them, they just have to like you and feel like you’re going to be able to do it. And then there are others that need you to so believe in your brand and show them that you’re living it, and it’s the only thing you can be.

[New Haircut] It’s definitely a daunting way to present – I mean, it’s not a full auditorium of people dying to hear you, it’s usually just a small room with a few people and it’s all up to you to make them want to be a part of your vision.

[Martha] Oh yeah, and your passion clearly has to be there. When you talk to an investor, it’s got to be clear that there’s just nothing else you could be doing.

[New Haircut] Speaking of your passion, I was watching one of your presentations: A PowerPoint About PowerPoint. And I caught a little mention of color theory – can you give a brief 101 on that for the kids not in the know?

[Martha] Sure, yeah. I think the biggest point to know is that there has been research done around the way people emotionally respond to color and trends. So you can actually pick your colors based on your strategy instead of – hey, I like pink. It can be around we’re going to use this fuschia shade of pink because it’s brighter, it’s bolder, it’s fun, and it’s a little feminine, because we’re going after independent women in their early 30s, and this goes with our branding cues and our strategy. Ha, which is something you can’t do in interior design, where it’s use pink… because they like pink.

[New Haircut] I checked out the chart, too – which was pretty handy.

[Martha] Yes, but you do have to know that that chart is focused on Americans, so if you’re working with people from another country you need to keep that in mind. And you also have to keep corporate culture in mind, too– because say you’re working with Pepsi, you’re not going to want to use red because that’s connected with Coke.

[New Haircut] I will now use absolutely no segue to spin from color theory…into my final super-important question. If you could work with any dream client, who would it be and what would the project be?

[Martha] I’d want to design the Dalai Lama’s TED Talk. But the way that you actually get to work with a TED speaker is to know the person directly – so I’d basically have to be best friends with Richard Gere to make it happen.

[New Haircut] Hey—could happen.

[Martha] Well, he lives around here – so maybe. My sister made him cookies once because she’s a pastry chef, so it’s not impossible.

[New Haircut] You’re just one cookie away…from being one person away…from the Dalai Lama!

[Martha] Ha, yeah – though not that he needs help, because he’s pretty perfect as is.

[New Haircut] Can’t argue with that.

But can add one final thought: I am now one person away from being one cookie away from being one person away from the Dalai Lama.

I feel calmer already—where’s my mic…….

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