What’s the Biggest Thing That Holds Amateur Presenters Back?

Over the past few months, I’ve spent a lot of time with new leaders who want to hone their “executive presence”.  They want to be perceived as confident and competent.  They want to put forth their ideas with clarity and energy.

In our time together, they’ve had the opportunity to design and present their ideas in a group setting, and learn through practice, observation, and feedback.

Based on what I’ve seen with these groups (and others like them) I’ve come to the conclusion that amateur presenters face one particularly daunting barrier to their progress and growth:

The Ugly Phase.

Don’t pretend that you don’t know what it is.  Maybe you call it something else, but you’ve been there.

The Ugly Phase is a subset of the larger category of “preparation”.

It’s that part of the process where you’ve cognitively walked through your content, and now have a rough presentation outline in place.

The ideas in your head are new and freshly baked. You have a general idea of what you want to talk about, but you’ve not yet locked in the logic of how the concepts flow together.

Now comes the moment of truth.

You get up and try saying your ideas out loud for the first time.  To get it, as they say, “on its feet”.

Maybe you’re talking to a mirror.  Or your dog.  (If you’re lucky, you’ve got a friend who offers support.)

Words are coming out of your mouth, but it feels all weird.  The synaptic connections between the thoughts in your head and the words in your mouth are not firing correctly.   You feel like a blabbering idiot.Your inner critic is shouting at you:




Welcome to the Ugly Phase.

You didn’t think that you were the only one to experience this phenomenon, did you?

The Ugly Phase is universal.  It’s the dirty little presentation secret that no one wants to share.  Why would they?  It’s physically painful, emotionally draining and mentally taxing.But just because no one talks about it doesn’t negate the fact that the Ugly Phase Happens to Everyone.  Every time.  It’s painful to everyone when it strikes.  If you’re not ready for it, you’d do anything to make the pain and and agony disappear.

So what do amateurs do?

They stop.  They give up on their rehearsal.  They tell themselves “I know what I’m talking about.   I’ll be fine.  It’s good enough.” They pack up the presentation until game day.

And then, the strangest thing happens:  When they get up to give their presentation, the Ugly Phase has miraculously disappeared.

What gives?  How can this be?

They don’t feel any Ugly Phase pain, because it’s drowned out by the stress.  The adrenaline and nervous energy masks any Ugly Phase symptoms that might otherwise show up.

Ugly Phase problem is seemingly solved.Well, not really.The amateur didn’t put in the work.  He’s under-rehearsed and unprepared.  The consequences?

  • He comes across like he’s giving a presentation, rather than having a conversation. We feel talked at rather than talked to.

  • He hasn’t polished his ideas to the point where they sparkle with clarity. We strain to follow his train of thought, and either get frustrated or give up.

  • His transitions are clunky, and there’s a lot of “dead time”. We find ourselves thinking about other things.

Every missed detail reveals him to be the amateur that he is.What does the professional do differently?

  • She keeps working right through the Ugly Phase. She knows that this phase is a necessary part of the process, and keeps going anyway.

  • She knows that if rehearsing the material five times is “good enough”, she runs through it an extra seven times.

  • She has tools to ensure that she shows up on game day rehearsed, yet relaxed, and won’t come across scripted. In fact, she comes across as quite natural. As though “All she’s doing is standing up and talking with us.”

The pro knows that’s it’s her job to make it look easy.

So when the Ugly Phase strikes next time (and it will), remember these three things:

  1. The Ugly Phase happens to everyone.

  2. Get your Ugly out in rehearsal, so it doesn’t get Ugly in performance.

  3. The only way out is through.

How do you deal with the Ugly Phase of preparing to present?  Join the conversation by adding a comment below.

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