What I Learned From Botching a Business Presentation

I vividly remember the first time I felt humiliated at work. It was my second job out of college. I worked for a $3 billion consulting firm based in the Washington, D.C. area, and my client was US Customs and Border Protection. During my third week at work, I was asked to give a presentation to representatives from ten government agencies about an enhanced website that we had launched. My boss approached me about it a few days before the presentation to give me the assignment.

“We need to present the website to our stakeholders. I think you should go ahead and do it. You’ve been working on the website for a couple of weeks now and know it pretty well. It’s pretty slick so I don’t think anyone will have a problem with it. Just show them the website and how it works, and answer any questions that they have. You think you can handle that?”

I have no idea.

“Sure, happy to do it,” I said with a phony confidence.

My boss either wasn’t aware of what I was up against, or she really didn’t like me, because the presentation did not go the way she had so euphemistically described it. In fact, the presentation brought to me a new-found respect for the term, “thrown to the wolves,” because what I encountered in that 20 minute presentation was nothing short of a pack of growling, blood-thirsty government wolves bent on tearing me apart.

Two days after my boss’ assignment, I sat in the US treasury building in Washington, DC, and started my presentation. The first two minutes went fine as I explained the purpose of the website and why we were improving it. But as I started to show the actual content of the website and how it worked, one government agency representative took issue with my work. “Why did you take out the data harmonization tab that was on the old website?” she asked.

I have no idea. I didn’t build this thing.

“Um, I guess that part was left out because it was my understanding that that portion of the work was already finished,” I said.

I knew I had blurted out a terrible answer, so I was wincing inside, just waiting for someone to respond. And someone did indeed respond.

“Well, let me educate you. It’s far from finished!” said another agency representative.

The group erupted with laughter.

Ouch

A few seconds later, the next person chimed in.

“Why did you change this button? It was fine the way it was”

“And what about having to change my password? Why can’t I just keep my old password?”

“Honestly, the old website seemed easier to navigate.”

And on and on it went. My presentation had officially “derailed”. The floodgates had been opened and anyone who didn’t like the new website now had full permission add nasty comments in a completely safe environment. Even my co-workers who came to the presentation were powerless to stop it; all they could do was sit there and watch the train roll rapidly downhill. After a 20 minute lashing by my audience, I thanked them for their time, took my things and walked to the train en route back to my office. I had failed.

That experience taught me two vital lessons. First, never underestimate the power that making a good (or bad) business presentation can have on one’s career. The presentation I gave in Washington, DC that day was only 20 minutes, but it took me a month to regain the full trust back from my clients. Second, it is not very hard to turn a poor presentation into a great presentation if you know what you are doing and put in the extra effort.

Presentations are extremely important for your career because they are extremely visible by others in your company. Early in your career, making a presentation may be the only exposure you get to some key people in your organization. These people don’t know or care about all the work that you do on a daily basis. They don’t know or care whether or not you work extra hours; they don’t know or care whether or not you graduated with honors. The only reference point they will have of you is the few minutes they listen to you while you present. From those few minutes, they will make a judgment about you. Later on in your career, your presentations will affect your credibility as a leader.

In this sense, presentations act like a magnifying glass. They make you highly visible for a short amount of time, allowing you the opportunity to either impress or disappoint. It doesn’t matter what you did before you had the magnifying glass on you; that is all in the past. Now is the time to make sure they like what they are seeing.

Am I really saying that a 30 minute presentation could have a drastic impact on your career? Absolutely! It’s worth it to take the time to prepare and practice. More to come on this subject.

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