What wall climbing taught me about giving powerful presentations – and life in general

Tethered together and perched on the side of a mountain (even one made of concrete), it’s not hard to see why strong communication is essential for a team.

Photo: Aimee Custis Photography via Flickr

“On belay … Belay on!”

If you’ve ever taken rock or wall climbing lessons, you are familiar with this call and response. Belaying refers to a variety of techniques climbers use to communicate and keep each other safe during a climb. When the lower climber (the belayer) has secured the rope, she calls up, “On belay.” My translation: “I’ve got your back. You’re good to go.” The higher climber then responds, “Belay on,” before moving to the next hand or foothold.

Tethered together and perched on the side of a mountain (even one made of concrete), it’s not hard to see why strong communication is essential for a team. Your life is literally in another’s hands. But the concept of being on belay applies to any activity requiring a high level of performance. Let’s consider how this concept applies to giving presentations as a team or individually.

Belaying is all about mindset

Yes, I first learned about belaying when wall climbing with my son. But I’ve since applied the concept to many aspects of my life because at the core, belaying is all about mindset. It’s knowing that you aren’t going to fall. It’s knowing that a small mistake doesn’t spell failure or disaster. Whenever I prepare for a presentation, I come back to the idea of being on belay. I ask, “what do I need to feel confident that I’m good to go?”

The answer, of course, varies depending on the type of presentation, the anticipated audience, the venue and whether I’ll be alone on stage or speaking as part of a team. Let me explain further.

How to be “on belay” as a team

If you’ve ever been part of a group presentation, you know it’s very different from presenting by yourself. For one thing, there’s a lot more to think about.

For example:

  • Continuity of content.
  • Presentation dynamics.
  • Each team member’s specific role.
  • The approach (or “tone”) of individual components.
  • The logistics of the interactions between team members during the presentation.

You want to make sure every member of your team understands each element to avoid any weak links in the chain. Additionally, maximizing the expertise of each speaker depends on ensuring everything runs like clockwork from start to finish. When it’s done right, the results speak for themselves. Whether you’re presenting with a team of two, three or seven, it’s absolutely critical to be “on belay” for each other.

Here are a few keys to a winning team presentation.

Practice out loud both individually and as a team

Realize that a presentation that’s “well done” on paper is only about 70% done in reality. Until you’ve rehearsed out loud, you can’t truly tell what works and what doesn’t, what wording trips you up, what concepts are too complicated for even the most attentive audience or what just doesn’t sound like you.

This is especially true if you’re presenting as a team and several team members have contributed to the writing of the presentation. It is essential that each team member practices his “part” and feels comfortable with the wording and ideas contained there.

Rehearsing together as a whole team is also crucial to success. I once worked with a sales team who came to me after a pitch had fallen flat. The client feedback was that they didn’t present themselves as a team. Yikes! One of the first questions I asked was whether they had rehearsed ahead of time. Their answer, of course, was that they practiced on the drive in. Sorry. That’s no substitute for a complete team rehearsal. Put in the time and see the results for yourself.

Rehearse handoffs

Besides making each team member comfortable with his role, rehearsing also helps teams develop smooth transitions. Decide in advance who will open, who will close and — especially important — how you’ll transition from one speaker to the next. A strong open and close, as well as smooth transitions speak volumes and differentiate you from your competition. Figuring it out on the fly also says a lot — and not in a good way.

The whole team is always “on”

Another element of a truly polished team presentation is remembering that the whole team is always “on” during the presentation. You want to look and act like a team throughout. Keep in mind that even when you don’t have the mic in your hand, members of the audience can see you. If you look bored, grimace, or interrupt a teammate while she’s presenting, it reflects poorly on the whole team.

Team members should all look engaged, supportive, and affirming from beginning to end. Being “on belay” for your team means that you are all responsible for the success of the presentation. Don’t single anyone out. Work together and you’ll have the audience eating out of the palm of your hand.

How to be “on belay” as an individual

While it may not be as obvious, you can also be “on belay” when giving a presentation individually. Again, go back to the belay mindset. What do you need to feel confident that you are good to go? This is what I call being “on belay” for yourself.

Practice out loud

Just as successful teams practice and rehearse together, successful individual presenters always practice out loud. While you might think you’re ready to go after reading through your presentation and practicing in your head, remember your reading speed likely varies from your speaking speed.

Practice out loud to locate awkward phrasing and word choices that might trip you up. Consider gathering a group of trusted friends or colleagues for a practice session. That has the added bonus of giving you feedback from live audience members. Those listening don’t need to know much or anything about the subject matter to give you meaningful feedback.

Profile the event and logistics

Even experienced speakers can get tripped up by an uncommon venue or logistics that catch them off guard. Remember giving a presentation requires a high-level of focus. If you’re not on belay for yourself, even small surprises can throw you off.

For instance, if you’re used to speaking with a lapel microphone, using a handheld mic might feel awkward. Suppose you like to use hand gestures to emphasize points. Having to hold a mic in one hand can feel really constricting. It may also hard to know how close to your mouth you should hold the mic.

Knowing ahead of time exactly what you’re walking into helps you avoid these types of awkward moments that can erode confidence. So, if possible, visit the location where you’ll be giving the presentation ahead of time. At the least, talk with the event organizers and ask them about the logistics. While these may seem like small issues, I’ve seen presenters stumble and lose their audiences for even less.

Have a plan for any unpredictable issues

One of the most important reasons to be “on belay” for yourself is so that you can handle any unpredictable issue during the presentation with poise. In a perfect world, audiences would judge our words and our words alone. In reality, your audience’s perceptions are colored by all kinds of things from how you dress to how you deal with issues that are not your fault.

What if your PowerPoint doesn’t work? What if your clicker stops working? What if you’re using a teleprompter and it stops scrolling in the middle of your speech?

I recall one big government presentation I was giving regarding environmental regulations. With legal presentations, precise wording is critical. So, the speech was carefully scripted. I was also presenting with a partner, who spoke first. When my turn to speak came, I realized my partner had accidentally taken two of my pages.

Fortunately, because we had practiced together, I had the presence of mind to walk over to him and calmly ask for pages 9 and 10. He quickly found them, gave them to me, and I continued with the presentation.

Because I was on belay for myself in that moment, I stayed calm and handled the unpredictable issue almost without skipping a beat. That’s the power of having a plan and knowing you won’t fail.

Concluding thoughts

When you’re “on belay” for your presentation team or for yourself, you can maintain a controlled mindset. You are confident and have the presence of mind to stay focused even during unpredictable situations. This is one huge key to giving a powerful presentation. Are you “on belay?”

Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication advisor specializing in high-stakes presentations. She has 25-plus years experience of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Learn more at ProfessionallySpeaking.net and ProfessionallySpeakingBlog.com.

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