Presentation Skills: Stop Trying to Be Perfect

Think your presentation needs to be perfect? Think again. Trying to be perfect will ruin your presentation.

When I provide speech coaching for executives and when I direct Presentation Skills seminars for corporations, one of the first points I make is this:

Trying to be perfect will ruin your presentation.


First: People want to deal with human beings, not flawless robots. To illustrate: When you hear a speaker who is oh-so-precise with enunciation, so programmed with canned gestures and so fluent without a single blunder, you might react negatively. You sense that you are observing an actor, not a real person.

A prominent example you might be familiar with: Bill Kurtis, executive producer and host of three award-winning shows on the Arts and Entertainment network– Investigative Reports, Cold Case Files and American Justice. Although Kurtis has garnered widespread acclaim during his four decades of broadcast journalism, I never watch him without thinking “That’s a planned gesture,” “He decided ahead of time to take a step forward after that sentence,” or “He rehearsed the inflection he used in that phrase.”

He’s highly successful, yes, so there is no doubt he has satisfied millions of viewers. Even so, I wouldn’t recommend him as a role model for speakers I am coaching. Kurtis represents a level of stiltedness that borders on stuffiness, in my judgment.

Knowing this should encourage you to loosen up, and let people see you “warts and all,” as the saying goes. They will know they are hearing the authentic you.

Second: The quest for perfection creates a damaging perspective. I’ll bet you have looked back on events that, at that time, seemed so critical for your professional success –your report to board members, your explanation of why your company had voted to merge, or your quarterly pep talk to your sales force. You feared that less than a perfect performance would jeopardize your job and profession.

What really happened, though? During the speech, you lost your place once or twice, stumbled over a phrase, and misstated a fact you had to correct. To your surprise, the results were not so dire after all. You accomplished your goal. Although you performed at 80-85% of your potential, that was good enough. So if you had berated yourself during the speech for your imperfection, you might have slipped to a dismal 50% skill level.

Author Mark Twain became a renowned lecturer, appearing across the globe-New York, London, Hawaii, Venice, Berlin, Melbourne and Calcutta. Still, he suffered many embarrassing moments onstage, with large audiences witnessing his gaffes. The first time he tried to lecture, his memory-and nerves-failed him. For two minutes, he and his listeners endured an agonizing span of silence before he could start speaking. Periodically, he experienced other platform failures.

Fortunately, he accepted his imperfection, maintained a beneficial sense of proportion, and moved on to the next performance with his confidence intact.

Like Twain, we can recover from those occasions when the words just wouldn’t come out, or came out wrong. Our career will move along without a hiccup.

Third: If you try to be absolutely perfect with every speech you give or with every meeting you direct, your preparation will move so slowly that you will get very little accomplished with your other responsibilities.

My advice: Prepare rapidly, without fear of blunders. Then review your outline to check the organization, facts, illustrations, and predicted length. Not only will you get more done, you will work more creatively because you are not hamstrung by inordinate fear.

Fourth: Too much preparation for a presentation might reduce your enthusiasm. By the time you stand up to address an audience, you have re-outlined, rewritten, rehearsed, and performed so much wordsmithing that you have lost the zest you felt when you selected your topic.

Audiences want “The Illusion of the First Time,” a phrase borrowed from theatre. When an audience sees the curtain rise, the actors must give the impression that this is the first time they have thought these thoughts, said these words and gestured like that, even when the cast has presented the same play dozens or possibly hundreds of times.

Similarly, your audience wants to believe “this is a live performance.” They want to sense your energy and enthusiasm.

Fifth: Keep in mind that our imperfection is what makes life interesting, challenging, and rewarding. Business mogul Donald Trump hasn’t done everything right. Some of his casinos have plunged into bankruptcy. Tiger Woods went three years without winning a major golf tournament, prior to winning the 2005 Masters. Martha Stewart left her domestic empire to serve jail time.

To sum up: Be real, don’t dwell on your mistakes, reserve time for your other duties while you are crafting your speech, avoid emotional burnout, and accept imperfection as a normal circumstance. Your audiences will love the results, and so will you.

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