February 9

Could you present blind?  4 Lessons in preparation from Olympic champion, Michael Phelps

Many presenters share the actor’s nightmare of being in front of an audience and not knowing their lines.  I lived that nightmare early in my sales career.

A Presenter’s nightmare

As a new salesperson I was excited when I received a last-minute opportunity to present to an important prospect.  Although I didn’t know the product well or have much preparation time, I felt confident.  After all, everything I needed was on my slides!  I arrived at the prospect’s office, introduced myself, clicked on my PowerPoint and…nothing happened.  I clicked, rebooted, prayed.  Still nothing.  Soon my audience was chiming in with suggestions, all to no avail.  (Now mind you, this was before flash drives and the ability to email large files easily.)

I decided to forge ahead – sans-slides – since I knew it would be difficult to get this same group of people together any time soon.  I wish I had not.  I struggled to remember salient points.  I leapt from one idea to the next.  I spoke nonstop for fear I would get a question I couldn’t answer.  Shocker:  I did not get the sale.

Michael Phelp’s nightmare

Contrast this experience with Michael Phelps in the Beijing Olympics.  In the 200-meter butterfly as Phelps went for the 10th gold medal of his career, disaster struck.  Immediately after diving in his goggles started to fill with water. By the time he reached the last length, he couldn’t see anything.  Like me, he kept going.  Unlike me, he had practiced enough times that he could do it blind. In fact, to the untrained eye, you can’t even tell there is a problem. His pace is steady, his arms swing in perfect motion and when he reaches out for the wall (did I mention he couldn’t see it?!) he is the perfect distance away.  Not only did he win the gold medal, but he broke the world record and became the winningest Olympian of all time.

Swimming blind or presenting blind, preparation is at the heart of both of these stories.  But, as I learned over the course of my career, not just any preparation.  Smart preparation that works when things go well…and when they don’t.

4 Lessons on How to Successfully Prepare for a Presentation from Michael Phelps

  1. Practice without the crutch.

    Even if you’ve delivered a presentation a dozen or more times, it’s not uncommon to find yourself wracked with anxiety if you have go without your deck. That’s a strong indication of over-reliance on a crutch. If you can’t deliver your presentation without the slides, you don’t really know it.  By practicing without the slides, you are forced to internalize your content, which gives you greater confidence.  Instead of being a slave to the slides, you use them as a supporting prop.  This frees you up to focus on engaging with your audience, noticing cues and adjusting on the fly.  The hallmarks of a great presenter.

  2. Visualize the perfect presentation.

    Before each race, Phelps takes a few moments to visualize performing the perfect race.  This helps him to focus, as well as feel when it’s time to breathe, turn or reach.  Before your presentation set some time aside to visualize delivering it perfectly.  What does that look and sound like?  Where will you interact with your audience?  What questions will you hear and how will you respond?  The more details you can visualize, the better.

  3. Plan for imperfect circumstances.

    If you only practice under perfect conditions, what happens when conditions are less than ideal? You might have technical problems.  You may have more/less people than expected.  Maybe you’ll have less time than you planned on. If you’re not prepared for any of these things, you have to make some tough decisions on the spot – which may not turn out to be the best. Professionals practice their presentation in the perfect world, then practice and plan for the imperfect world. Check out this article on how to prepare for common Presentation Disasters.

  1. Keep practicing.

    Michael Phelps had 18 gold medals going into the Rio Olympics in 2016.  He did not say to himself, “I think I’ve practiced enough.  I’m good to go.”  In fact, Phelp’s training regimen is legendary.  And at the ripe old age of 31 he knew he’d have to train differently to keep up with younger competition.  Doing what you’ve always done will not get you where you want to go.  Don’t allow yourself to get complacent.  Develop a baseline practice routine before every presentation.  Double up when you have new material.  Record yourself or get feedback so you can get a fresh perspective and see your blindspots.

Follow these 4 lessons and you’ll never have to present blind again.  Want more tips on how to successfully practice for a presentation with a script? Click here.


Photo courtesy of Karen Blaha  Flickr CC by 2.0



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