Thursday, August 10, 2017

When "improve presentation skills" comes up in your performance review

If you like this blog, you may thank the client who called me about a bad performance review, in which she--a top performer on every objective criterion--was told by her all-male board, "Your presentations aren't sexy enough."

That didn't surprise me. In fact, it felt like things I'd heard before, and it started me on the path to explore gendered issues in public speaking more than 10 years ago. I've heard from both sides, the person being reviewed and the employer seeking correction in presenting skills, many times now. And I've dealt with it myself, as an employee and as a manager. Here are some observations from the coach that may be useful to both sides:
  1. Seek clarification: One problem with saying "you need to improve your presentation skills" is that you can drive a truck through that wide-ranging list of topics. And many times, that's why it is chosen for your review, particularly if you are a woman: Something vague that you can't fix may be an easy way to damage your record. In the example above, my client drew herself up, and said, "Help me understand specifically what you mean," a nice, neutral comeback. The answer was still vague. She decided, in that circumstance, to demonstrate a willingness to improve by seeking coaching and paying for it out of her own budget.
  2. Remember this may not actually be about you and your presentation skills: One sign: Vague prescriptions for improvement, like being "sexy enough," "more lively," or "better." I told the client with the "sexy enough" feedback that I didn't know how to do that, but I could help her change enough about her presenting that a change would be noted. As we worked together, she shared that the feedback was likely more about her informal relationship with the board, which differed from her male predecessor. 
  3. Ask for help and get them to pay for it: I can't tell you how many times I have been approached by an employee who's been told to improve her presenting--and thinks she has to pay for it out of her own pocket. If it comes up in your performance review, that meeting is precisely the time to ask, "What's available to support my further professional development in this area? I'd like to improve." Suggest coaching from an independent coach. Let them have input into the coaching goals, wince-making though the feedback may be. 
  4. Is it about a particular, high-stakes presentation? If your boss is specific enough to say, "I'd like you to be able to present to the board/sales/external meeting," ask for coaching to prep and practice such a presentation and to give your boss a preview of the improved presentation before the big day.
  5. If you are seeking help, consider what *you* want to improve: It's not just about what your employer wants, and any good coach will want to know what you want to be able to do and how you'd like to change. Don't leave your wish list out of it.
  6. Are you willing to try? That's one of my top factors in predicting your success in speaker coaching and the same thing applies here. If you're surprised by the feedback, are you willing to try something new? That will at least buy you time in this negotiation, and you may learn a few things.
  7. Do they want you to fix something that's actually normal? This is where a seasoned coach can really help. If your feedback is about ums and uhs, vocal fry and uptalk, gesturing, and resting face, you may be getting feedback about perfectly normal things that we like to torment speakers about. Or perhaps you're introverted and the boss is an extrovert. A good coach can discern when and whether these things are actually getting in the way of your good presentation, arm you with data to answer queries, and give you practical ways to make them less noticeable.
  8. Is the feedback about the boss's pet peeves? The boss can trump all, so if she insists there be "no storytelling" in your presentations, or prefers slides, she can have that be the case. But it's important for you to understand which feedback is based on many use cases and norms, and which are just personal preference. Don't forget: Sometimes the boss forbids the very thing that makes him most uncomfortable as a speaker, so he won't be shown up. Not fair, but something worth understanding. 
  9. Ask how improvement will be evaluated: Despite seeking out a great coach, you need to understand what your employer wants as proof of improvement. Does that mean giving an improved presentation to the team in a lower-risk situation? Actually speaking successfully at the board meeting? Some written assessment from the coach? A video? Don't be surprised if your employer has not thought this far ahead, but do ask and listen to what is wanted.
Sometimes, as you may suspect, the boss just doesn't like the employee, or really wants a lot of mini-me presenters who act and look like him. I can tell that's the case when I am asked to "change the leopard's spots," rather than find an authentic way for the speaker to speak and contribute. I usually decline those coaching opportunities.

Finally, do let any coach you call know that this is a performance issue--it creates a very different tone for the coaching from the outset, and it's only fair to let your coach know the stakes involved.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Sheila Dee)

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