topSkip to main content

I survived a career-killing presentation — you can, too

Woman making a presentation

It was a sunny October morning. I was presenting at our forecasting meeting. The room was packed, including my boss, a host of brand managers and the leadership team. My hands were shaking, my mouth dry. I had to already reboot the projector twice. I was off to a poor start.

And then came three questions from the vice president. What was she asking? The room was spinning. I scrambled in my head. I knew my business. And my mouth wouldn’t open. Stunned, sweaty and silent. My boss was livid. He avoided me for days. It was a career-killer moment.

I hated presenting. My hatred for presenting only grew after that horrendous meeting.

I’ve never had a root canal. But my mother did and I remember the pain she experienced. I’d take a root canal, removal of impacted wisdom teeth and filling cavities all in one appointment over presenting any day of the week. That is how much I used to hate presenting.

I had a vision for myself. I wanted to be a passionate leader, mobilizing the troops toward a final destination. Except how could I ever be that leader if I couldn’t even present in front of 10 people?

For me, getting over my hatred of presenting was about practice and preparation. I took piano for seven years to fulfill my mother’s dream. Except I never practiced. Never. I would only peck away at the keys just before lessons, thinking I could fool the teacher into believing I had been playing songs all week. No surprise, I can’t even play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” now.

So I practiced presenting. I practiced while driving, in the shower, while I cooked. I practiced with my husband, trusted colleagues at work. I raised my hand for opportunities to present — sharing an innovation at a staff meeting, volunteering to lead the team exercise, offering to close the meeting.

Now, along with practicing, I continue to focus on these ways to prepare for a presentation:

Scout the space.

Know the meeting location. Scout it out. The weekend before our intern presentations, my roommate Catherine and I found the room and practiced. I got comfortable with the space as I envisioned the chairs filled with leaders. And yes, I got the offer.

Ask yourself the questions.

Ask the question before someone else does. Review your presentation as if you were the vice president. Prepare responses. I built key appendix slides in anticipation of questions. The appendix guided me in case my shaky hands took over.

Take a moment to pause.

Slow down, breathe. In the past, I would rattle through my presentation just to get it done. I talked too fast. My volume would go in and out. I would stand like a statue. Take a moment to read the audience. Are they with you? Stop. Ask if they have questions, give them a moment to digest while you breathe.

Know it’s okay to say, “I'll get back to you.”

No one wants to stump you. Senior management is likely asking questions to help you make your ideas bigger and bolder. When someone asks me a question I can’t answer, I try to make an educated guess. “Great question,” I respond. “I believe it’s approximately X. Let me followup and get back to you.” The key is following up within 24 hours.

Plan for the unexpected.

Laptop battery dies, speaker doesn’t work, projector flashes, Skype participants can’t hear. Loud construction outside, only 10 minutes left. Fire alarm goes off. Your boss says she’ll be late, start without her. What can you prepare for? Tip: Bring your materials on a stick. More importantly, how do you handle yourself when faced with the unexpected?

Now I don’t approach presenting with fear and hatred. I seize every opportunity to present as a career defining moment. Now, I actually enjoy it.

Mita Mallick is director of diversity outreach and inclusion at Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumer goods manufacturing companies.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.