The Worst Presentation I Ever Gave (and What I Learned from It)

My mouth is parched.

Not like “oh, I fancy a sip of water,” but like, “please attach a firehouse directly to my lips, screw it tight, and let it flow.”

I remember someone saying something about providing water on the table. I glanced next to the podium: a table full of empty water bottles.

I guess this is what happens when I speak at the end of an all-day-conference-marathon. Probably shouldn’t have drank so much coffee. Or maybe I was dehydrated from flying too much. This was the third city I had been to in five days. Except it was Sydney, coming from a speaking gig in San Fran.

Whatever the cause, I am thirsty.

The Fear

I am no Tony Robbins. But many people really hate public speaking. I don’t. That doesn’t make my fear and anxiety any less than those that choose not to speak.

I guess I figure I should lean in to any feeling of discomfort. That which doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger right? I have yet to know anyone that has literally died from speaking on a stage (politicians and cultural activists excluded).

So any chance I get to jump in front of an audience and speak, I take. I figure the best way to share value is to do it at scale and in front of as many people as possible.

The problem with this idea is that most of the time, it scares the bajeezus out of me. No amount of preparation has ever made that go away.

My late mentor, Noel Cunningham, used to give talks that would get an audience in tears or laughter in seconds. Maybe it was because he was Irish.

I’m Not Irish

No one in the Sydney audience knew this, but in the few hours prior to standing before them, choking on my tongue, I decided to gut my entire presentation. I had given the same presentation just two days earlier in San Francisco and didn’t like it.

I don’t know why I didn’t like it. But I didn’t.

It wasn’t me. It wasn’t from the heart I guess.

(This was a business conference… you might wonder, “does it need to be from the heart?” Yes. Always. If you can’t speak from the heart, then get off the stage.)

I decided to fall back on some content that I had published in one of our professional communities a few weeks prior. I was a bit worried (later validated) that this would disengage people in the audience that were members of our site. But I did it anyway.

I locked up. I was speaking ninth out of ten. Even though I am (usually) pretty good in front of an audience, watching eight great presentations wore me thin. My confidence waned. I forgot what the heck I was doing there.

Self-defeating thoughts raided my brain:

“My presentation sucks.”

“They’re all better than me.”

“I’m not good enough.”
Like ants marching on a spilled bottle of maple syrup:

“Left… left… left right left! Ok gents, we’re going to first take his ideas, then his confidence, then we’re going to empty all of the moisture from his body. Don’t let up. Take him down! Left… left…”
And so they went. Until finally I stood before three hundred staring eyes with little to say and a mouth that couldn’t squeak out a word.


One of the conference organizers rushed forward and brought with him a glass of water.

I am saved.

Gulp. Gulp. Gulp.

I started in on my presentation. Trudged through each slide. A sloth hoping for audience salvation any minute now. I changed too much. I hadn’t really thought about this content in weeks. No stories. No arch. No hero.

The only villain was me.

No laughs. No “ah hah” moments. No joy. I was terrified and they all knew it.

After a grueling thirty five minutes, I finished. I stepped off stage.

I found the bathroom. Puke.

The conference broke and I headed to the after-festivities. After a few light conversations, my self started to reappear. A couple of people came up and let me know how much they enjoyed my presentation.

Either they were being nice or they didn’t know a train wreck when they saw one.

A long time comrade and friend mentioned that he thought I was a little off. He was like, “I’ve seen you do better. I don’t think anyone really noticed, but something was up.” I thanked him for being honest.

Where to Go From Here

You could say Sydney was rock bottom for my public speaking career. I’m sure there will be a few more duds on my horizon, but for now, that one represents the apex of everything I now know not to do.

I’ve thought at length as to what always allowed Noel to engage like he did. I’ve thought about watching my Dad speak (the very limited times have been very moving) to groups. I’ve thought about the dynamics of every presentation I’ve watched since.

1) Tell a damned story.
Don’t intertwine a story. Don’t tangent on a story. Don’t force a story where a story isn’t. Find the story. Tell the story. The presentation is the story. Stories have characters. They have scenes, an arch, villains and heroes. Stories are epics and tragedies. Stories require you to be vulnerable. Start with a story and create any visuals to back that up.

2) Tell your story to one person.
Don’t try to make the whole audience happy. When you speak to everyone, you will speak to no one. Too often I have thought of everyone that might be listening and I get distracted. Or worse yet, I water down. I take the edge off. I think, “that isn’t appropriate for everyone, I’ll keep that out.” But it’s those nuggets of authenticity that will make it gold.

3) Tell a story that matters to you.
Don’t present something just because someone asked you to. I heard the phrase, “bait and elevate.” Go with your gut. What matters to you. What is it that you think is a story worth telling that is important to you. If you can get the audience to forget what they originally showed up for, then you are doing it right.

Stories are the oldest form of communication. Humans had the art of story before podiums, powerpoints, and fire for that matter. Sure, there are some storytellers that are more gifted than others, but everyone, and I mean, everyone has the power to tell an amazing story.

When I think of what made my late mentor so great at captivating a crowd, it was his ability to tell a story. He never had to prepare because every story he told was one he lived. He told it like it was. He shared moments that made him cry. Situations that were embarrassing.

Whenever in front of an audience, he opened his soul up just a bit and let us all inside.

When I was in Sydney, I focused on the slides. The punchlines. The notes. I forgot that all I had to do was to tell a story.

If you are speaking anytime soon, consider your presentation. Look at your deck and ask yourself, “is this just information, or is there a story here?”

Challenge yourself to turn that conference room into a campfire.

I’ve since taken this approach. And while not perfect, I’m making noticeable improvements every time I get in front of an audience. I’m less stressed. I’m more likely to lose myself in the moment.

And the result is a stronger connection with the audience.

Have you ever botched a presentation? Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter (@brentweaver).

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