Why Learning to Present is Like Learning to Swim

Swimming coaches step students through the component skills in progressive stages. The first lesson takes place out of the water, at the side of a pool, where the novice learns how to do the arm strokes and the leg strokes separately. Then the novice gets into the shallow end of the pool and practices the arm strokes and leg strokes, still separately, but now with training equipment—flotation devices, kickboards, and the rungs of a pool ladder. As the training progresses, the novice puts aside the equipment and swims, first in the shallow end of the pool, then the deep end, and finally, in a lake or the ocean. The fundamental aspect of this approach is to deconstruct the basics and reconstruct them progressively. It works in swimming—as it does in all sports—and it works in presentations as well.

At Suasive, we also use a progressive approach to help participants learn all the essential presentation skills. We begin the deconstruction by developing the story first, without the slides—a revolutionary departure from the universal business legacy of considering the deck to be the presentation. 

 There are two important benefits of this approach:

  • To reduce the complexity of the exercises (like the swimming lesson on dry land)
  • To reinforce the primacy of the presenter over the slideshow

Next, we focus on the slides. Because today’s slides are conventionally used as handouts, they all too often become highly complex, forcing presenters to either skim over the slides or, in the worst case, read them verbatim. This unholy alliance also fragments the narrative because each slide stands alone with no relationship to the next. When we exclude the slides in the practice, presenters focus on telling their story, connecting the dots, and creating a clear progression.

This is not to say that you should eliminate slides completely. Given the standard operating procedure of using decks in business today, that would be too radical. Instead, use simply designed slides that serve only to illustrate your narrative.

We use the same approach when focusing on delivery skills. Just as learning to swim involves multiple iterations, so, too, does perfecting the way you deliver a pitch. We ask our clients to repeat a short pitch several times. The benefit of repetition is that, as presenters develop their delivery skills, they also improve their narrative flow. This happens for two reasons:

  • Verbalization, a technique in which the presenter repeats the narrative aloud and, in doing so, becomes more familiar and more fluent with the content.
  • When presenters are freed from their slides, they can concentrate on their narratives.

Ultimately, we bring the story, slides, and delivery back together in a culminating set of exercises–the equivalent of putting the novice swimmer into the water. Then, having developed each component skill individually, presenters can integrate all of them into the final presentation.

To recap the deconstruction/reconstruction process to optimize your presentation skills:

  • First develop a clear and logical narrative.
  • Then design slides to illustrate your narrative.
  • Combine your story and slides in a verbal run-through of your presentation, but do it seated in front of your computer screen so that you don’t have to think about your eye contact, gestures, posture, or voice.
  • Do another run-through standing up in a vacant conference room and present to the empty chairs as if they were occupied by a live audience. This time, focus on your engagement (with the “persons” in the chairs), gestures, posture, and voice.
  • Do a dress rehearsal to colleagues or friends, integrating all the components.
  • Dive into the water and swim like a fish.

This blog is an excerpt from my book Winning Strategies for Power Presentations published by Pearson. Also check out my newly released Presentation Trilogy—Presenting to Win, The Power Presenter, and In the Line of Fireavailable on Amazon and other retailers.