Insights + tips

How Not To Present Like Boris Johnson

" If you make a mistake while presenting, don't bluff - admit it and move on "

You will, by now, have seen (or at least heard of) the UK prime minister’s disastrous speech to the CBI at the Port of Tyne recently*.

I received a lot of messages asking what I thought – mainly because I mercilessly and mercenarily used the situation as an opportunity to plug my book!

Most writers asked versions of: ’What should Alexander Boris dePfeffel Johnson have done?’ Well, no one used his full name, I just like using it.

I wouldn’t want to be arrogant enough to give advice to the prime minister of the United Kingdom, but if a private client had the same situation, here’s what I’d have suggested if this problem happened in their presentation:

Understand your audience. I know that I’ve repeated this lesson at least 8,000 times**, but it really is crucial. One of the problems with the prime minister’s speech is that it wasn’t targeted enough at the audience (one senior business leader described it as ‘no relevance at all …a huge disappointment…’ If the speech had been more targeted, the audience would have been more ‘onside’ from the beginning and more likely to forgive a mistake or two.

Don’t try and bluff your way through mistakes – just admit them. Audiences don’t expect you to be pitch perfect, and they’ll happily accept mistakes. However, if you pretend that the mistake isn’t happening, or try to bluff your way through, audiences become uncomfortable very quickly and you lose credibility. It would have been much better to have said ‘I’m very sorry, I’ve lost my place in my notes, give me a moment – it is worth waiting for …’. The audience can then relax.

Most of us won’t be presenting with fully-written scripts like the PM had to deal with, but wherever possible, if you need a memory aid, then use notes, rather than writing out your ‘script’. If I have to present a new keynote, I’ll use index cards, and make a few notes on each one – usually two or three words just to remind me what my main point or story is at each stage of the presentation.

Ignore advice about ‘numbering’ – many people have suggested that the PM would have benefited from numbering the pages but actually if you get lost, numbering rarely helps you because you’ve now got TWO things to remember – the page you were on, and the page you’re looking for. It’s much better to remove memory entirely and either staple pages in order, or use one of those little ‘legal tags’ to join your index note cards together.

Have a glass of water with you when you present. Not just to prevent dry throat but because if you have a moment where you forget your place, or you need to gather your thoughts, taking a sip of water is a great way to do this. The audience won’t mind, and sometimes that 7-second pause is all you need to get back on track.

Skip it and move on. Occasionally, you’ll have a moment which is not possible to recover from. In this case, it’s nearly always better to acknowledge it, move on and try to come back to it later. For example recently, I had a projector fail on me when I was showing my audience some interesting photos of real-life examples of my point. It would have been a mistake to try to fix the projector in real time, so I said ‘I’m sure the tech crew are doing their best to get things working, let’s move on and if I can show you the photos later, I will’. Audiences really appreciate this, they feel in safe hands.

Learn the structure of your presentation – this is much more important than the words. Knowing the structure well will help you to keep going through difficult moments. Presenting is not a memory test, and audiences will never know what you forgot to say. Following a structure means you don’t get ‘thrown’ by difficult moments.

Don’t make weird car noises. Ok, you probably knew this one already, but just in case you’re tempted, it’s probably best to leave it out!

*If, somehow, you’ve missed this event, have a look at this

** That’s a rough guess, not an accurate measurement!

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