Professional Presentations: Critical Political Skill

By Ellis Chase

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Presentation Skills are Key!

I’ve been teaching Professional Presentations for many years, in two-day workshops in large organizations, one-on-one coaching, as well as one-hour versions in graduate school classrooms. Initially, the purpose of the programs, from the vantage of the sponsoring organizations, was to help participants improve their public speaking skills in meetings and larger gatherings. This coaching and teaching also was intended to assist in getting past the profound fears of public speaking that most people experience.  

Very slowly, I’ve come to the conclusion that not only is this fear-inducing skill important in many work activities – but it’s an important political skill. The political angle is simple. If your co-workers and management don’t know you’re doing a great job and possess critical skills, it’s almost like that tree in the forest. If they don’t hear or know about your accomplishments, then maybe you’re not so successful after all.  

The perception is key.  

The ability to present can mean as little as an important conversation with your boss or a job interview. How well prepared are you? How articulate are you and how effective is the manner in which you present? Are you getting your point across well?  

I certainly don’t mean to indicate that everything you say has to be prepared as though you were giving speeches all day.  In many circumstances, though, it’s important to be prepared. The most devout introverts need to be heard at staff meetings. Not everyone can speak easily without preparation, although the ability to speak extemporaneously is a talent that can go a long way in advancing a career. 

Fear of Presenting

Whenever I prepare to discuss this subject, I’ll start with a conversation about fear. It’s important to identify the level of the fear. I like to ask people how they’d rank that fear from 1 (abject terror) to 5 (willingness to speak with minimal preparation to a group of 500). Usually, the results average somewhere in the 2-3 range.  (Of course, some of the groups are self-selecting and included many terrified public speakers.)  

If you’re fearful of public speaking, even in very small groups, you’re not alone.  I like to research, at least once a year, recent surveys of common fears. One of the most recent lists of most common fears, in order:

  1. Snakes
  2. Public speaking
  3. Heights
  4. Being stuck in a small space
  5. Spiders and insects
  6. Injections
  7. Death 
  8. Dogs
  9. Crowds
  10. Going to the doctor

Tough not to notice that “death” is #7, and “public speaking” is #2.

It’s probable you’re in the majority when it comes to fear of public speaking – but in order to move your career along, it would help to improve. I never suggest that everyone must become a brilliant orator; what I do encourage is to try to become at least competent, or somewhat more comfortable when addressing groups or individuals in important situations.  

Qualities That Determine Success

Just in case I haven’t made the point that presentations skills are important political attributes, I’m going to refer to yet another list. There have been many of these lists compiled where senior executives of large organizations are asked what the qualities are for predicting individual success in an organization. As you’ll see in a current list below, I’ve used this to prove my point.

Criteria for success (in order):

  1. Clear articulation
  2. General communication skills
  3. Presentation skills
  4. Listening skills
  5. Simple etiquette
  6. Appropriate business attire
  7. Organizational skills
  8. Telephone courtesy
  9. Post-secondary school education level
  10. Previous experience

See something unusual in there? Aside from presentations skills being #3 as a critical component for success in an organization, also notice that the only “hard” skill listed is #10, “previous experience.” I search for these lists yearly; sometimes there are no “hard” skills listed at all, and sometimes as many as two.  

In other words, it’s not what you know or have done that counts most; it’s how you package it. Those so-called “soft” skills may mean more than the skill set. At least according to these lists.  Clearly, the same goes for an ordinary job interview, as well.  

Which is what brings us back to the issue of presentation skill. Not only is it important in career mobility, but it also frequently involves overcoming a significant level of fear.

In the next blog, I’ll tackle key elements in getting past the fear by thorough preparation, and improving your overall presentations style.  

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