The Rules of Presenting

A lot of schools teach the “art” of advertising. But not one has a course or section devoted to the brutally important topic of presenting. Presentation skills are critical to an ad exec’s career, especially in the creative department. And not just in pitches. If you cannot sell yourself, how can you hope to sell anything?

If the creative director is the star and she’s funny as hell, give her the spotlight. If the creative director tends to mumble and sweat, take the microphone out of his hands as soon as possible. Let his young, nervous team be young and nervous. They can present. It will be more endearing than watching a senior executive choke. You don’t want a dullard or a head case running the offense. Ever. Nothing is as regrettable as losing a pitch because of something so cosmetic.

Some people are born presenters. Others learn. Give the money parts to the latter. The worst presenter by far is the guy who thinks he’s funny (usually one of us creatives) but is hopelessly not. Two lackluster jokes and the boat begins taking on water. Four and you might as well book an early flight home. Funny wins pitches, but so does charming, learned and polite. The only thing I remember from David Ogilvy’s Ogilvy on Advertising is his statement that nobody ever bought anything from a clown.

The following are some notes from a speech I gave to a group of students on this subject:

Public speaking ranks No. 3 among people’s biggest fears.

Public speaking is hard, and most people aren’t very good at it. Many never will be. If you’re not any good, hopefully your partner is.

It is better for one creative to present than two. Choose. Nothing is more awkward than two people stepping over each other in a presentation. Nothing is more humiliating than when the art director points along as the copywriter talks.

Being nervous is OK. It is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of respect. Tell your clients that. I do this all the time. It works before speeches as well. People will warm up to you. Remember, some of the best performances begin with a healthy dose of stage fright.

Look nice. If you can’t afford nice clothes, borrow them.

Don’t start sentences with “basically” or end them with “you know.” Avoid saying, “I think.” If you didn’t think it, you wouldn’t have said it.

Be funny if you can. But not if you can’t. A competent straight man is a close second to a humorous passionate man. Don’t be too funny.

Be passionate not about your work but about what your work can do for the client. Remember, the quickest way to become rich and famous is for them to become rich and famous.

Avoid being defensive. The whiny creative is as much a cliché as the anal account guy.

Do not force a client into anything.

Finally, a client can be genuinely right. You can be genuinely wrong. Happens all the time.

As for me? Well, I’ve had my share of bad outings. One time the CEO kept checking his messages while we were presenting. When my turn came, he did it again. “Do you mind? I’m pitching here!” I said to him. Funnier now than then, I assure you. Of course we lost. But on any given Sunday, I like my chances. Often, I love them.

If I had to prioritize the above pointers, I think the bit about nervousness comes first. So many people try to cover up and play cool. That didn’t work when you were stoned in high school, and it rarely does in pitches. Like your mom, they can see it in your eyes. You know they know, and you end up stuttering and saying “basically” too much. Be honest about your nerves. Tell them this is the biggest meeting you’ve ever been in and of course you’re nervous. Tell them it would be disrespectful if you weren’t. Not only is it the truth, it’s a great opener. Trust me on this. Clients do.

When all is said and done, confidence tempered by respect is the most important trait a team can bring into the room. Second only to big ideas and a cashmere jacket from Barneys.