LA 036: 6 Premortem Questions for the Perfect Presentation

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Premortem the perfect presentationWelcome to this edition of the Leadership AdvantEdge Podcast and my purpose this week is to help you confidently make your next meeting or presentation perfect, and not be anxious about it.

To do that, today, I'm going to share with you how to do a premortem on your meeting or presentation by asking yourself six questions. On the show notes, I'll share a PDF and a word template that you can download and use to plan your next presentation or meeting premortem and make it perfect.

I have a secret to share with you. I have a fear of public speaking. Not because I don't like to be the centre of attention, I love that. No, it's because I'm a bit of a perfectionist. I want everything to be just so, well, perfect. And because of that, every time I have to speak in public, whether in a small group or a large auditorium, I get anxious. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot anxious. And I'm not alone.

Glossophobia is the official term for a fear of public speaking. Most statistics I've seen show between 21% (Psychological Medicine 2003) and 40% (Gallup 2001) of people have a fear of public speaking or performance. Only snakes appear to be feared by more people (in America).

What makes giving a presentation so nerve-wracking?

It's not just those who give presentations on occasion. Professional speakers and trainers too can get anxious before a presentation. We all have our tricks and tools to get around the issue and I've shared four great hacks you can use in another podcast. But there's another tool that anyone can use to help them overcome any concern, and that's a premortem.

You've heard of a post-mortem, where a corpse is examined to determine the cause of death. A pre-mortem takes the same idea but examines the corpse of your presentation before you present to help you prevent its demise. Its purpose is to take your well planned presentation and shake out your own optimistic bias.

We need to shake out your optimistic bias?

It is estimated that less than 35% of presentation achieve their desired outcome. We have an inbuilt optimistic bias that causes us to ignore baseline data even when it is contrary. We believe in our own skills, abilities or experience and that we will be different and succeed. We believe that they (the audience) will know what they need to do once we present the facts.

Gary Klien suggested the idea of a pre-mortem to help organisations improve the success rate of projects. The procedure is simple and I have adapted this to help you improve the success of your presentations.

What is a successful presentation? Better still, what makes a perfect presentation?

To answer this we have to start with the purpose of a presentation and that is to influence others to change and act.

You might be, for example, sharing a new idea with your audience. The change is that the new (without a k) becomes knew (with a k). Now, what do you want the audience to DO with that idea? Surely you desire that they DO something with the new idea? If not, why are you presenting it?

A successful presentation then, is one where the audience acts on the information or opportunity. Indeed, that would be perfect. And if they are to act, then we need to be very clear to ask the right questions.

Six questions to make sure we successfully get the audience to act.

I'll bet that you, like me have sat in way too many meetings that had no actions. You're probably heading out to one today. So if you're the host, take just five minutes and ask yourself these six questions.

Imagine that it is the end of your presentation. You planned it very well but it seems that the audience simply didn't do what you wanted them to do. It was, in terms of presentation success, a flop.

The right questions come from knowing what might derail us. To know that, we have six:

  1. What, specifically, did I want the audience to DO at the end of my presentation?
  2. Why, specifically, did I want to achieve that?
  3. What happened that prevented me from getting it?
  4. What would have happened if I did get it?
  5. How did I not get what I wanted?
  6. What did I not overcome?

Take 5 minutes and WRITE down your responses to the questions (you can download a PDF template here).

Let's look at two common business examples to help you understand how this works in practice

  1. The first is a pretty common situation is a presentation to colleagues and boss in a regional meeting about the progress of the presenters team.
  2. The second is proposing a new business project.


Question Progress Update New Business Project
What, specifically, did I want the audience to DO at the end of my presentation? I wanted them to appreciate (recognise) our (my) achievements and for my boss to commend me in front of my peers. I wanted them to approve the project and make me project lead.
Why, specifically, did I want to achieve that? They need to appreciate how hard we work It's my idea and I should lead it so that it is successful
What happened that prevented me from getting it? I was just bragging and not really telling them anything useful for them I don't have project management experience and the business plan had holes in it
What would have happened if I did get it? I would have felt good but unsatisfied. I would have been overwhelmed and stressed out
How did I not get what I wanted? I went ahead and gave them a list of boring facts and figures that no one else cares about I think I changed my mind
What did I not overcome? I didn't overcome my own need to satisfy my ego and focus on what they wanted to hear instead I didn't make them recognize that I was the best person for the job because I don't believe that I am

How many meeting presentations like the first case have you sat through? One where the update was all about how great the presenter has been, how hard they've worked and that they should get some plaudits. And now the very tough question: how many of those have you given?

Now, by using the 6 premortem questions we can face the reality and go back and clarify the purpose of the presentation. Ask yourself why does the audience need to know this and why should they care? Be clear what you want your audience to do at the end of your presentation. And remember, if there is no action then, pray tell, why are you presenting again?

And how many new project proposals have you seen or delivered that sort of just fizzled out?

By using the premortem here, we can go back and be completely clear about the outcome we want and that is best for the business.

Surely it's a good thing to feel optimistic when a little fearful?

Feel optimistic for sure, and you can be after the pre-mortem. What we want to do is address the certainty of our presentation achieving the desired objective and remove as much overly optimistic beliefs or assumptions within the presentation itself.

But my meeting presentation is the only chance I get to blow my own trumpet

I understand that feeling. Way back when I was implementing a new computer system in the London Pub Estate for Chef & Brewer, my boss and peers could have cared less about my accomplishments. There were snide remarks about how little my team had achieved, so when it came to provide an update I was enthusiastic to claim all that delayed recognition. Big mistake. No-one cared.

I would have been far better off using these premortem questions then and working out what they needed to hear and what the benefits were for them. But then I was young and foolish and thought that the world revolved around me.

How does this help us achieve the perfect presentation and reduce anxiety?

I think we are agreed that a successful, or perfect presentation is one where the audience acts on the information or opportunity. That is, the presentation achieves its purpose. When we ask these six premortem questions we're setting ourselves up for success. They help us make sure that we are clear about our purpose and specific outcomes of our presentation and fix everything that might derail us.

Now that I'm certain I have planned everything to achieve my purpose here, I'm less anxious, less worried. More confident and now I can get up to present.

Use this for your next meeting or presentation. Be honest with yourself, and sufficiently critical to test your planning. Your time will be well spent because that next meeting or that next presentation is going to achieve exactly what you want it to achieve. And that, my friend, would be just perfect.

Check out this episode!

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