Present yourself: Principles and pitfalls

Stood by the roadside thumbing lifts was an empowering experience. Drivers who stopped validated what I was doing and thus hitchhiking became meaningful, worthwhile and rewarding.

Whilst it wasn’t rocket science, I always thought carefully in advance about my appearance as well as how and where I stood. And I looked at the driver as the vehicle approached. Simply put, by thinking what would influence the driver I was doing my best to sell the idea of being offered a lift.

As the pace of life speeds up, so we have to make more decisions and judgements than ever before. Consequently, our frontal brain lobes develop automatic short-cuts and become wired to rely more heavily on first impressions. We just can’t cope with the amount of information and data streaming into our heads. Hitchhikers today probably have a maximum of two seconds to influence a driver’s decision. So to get the desired result, a simple and audience-focused presentation style is critical.

Presentation Principles

Influencing a whole audience as part of a professional presentation is typically a more complicated process because there are far more people with whom to communicate and greater amounts of information to convey. However, the fundamental principles learnt from hitchhiking hold.

A sound presentation needs to inspire confidence in an audience and the message must be conveyed in a clear and easy to digest format. Presenters must also prepare and look the part. To see someone executing these principles brilliantly, watch this video of a leading voice of education  ‘Sir Ken Robinson’.

Presentation Failure

Unfortunately, far too many presentations fail to get close to the quality of Sir Ken’s work because keeping things simple (i.e. one man talking without a script to an audience on stage) typically requires a combination of: lots of practice; experience; confidence; and passion for the subject. Yet you can do it if you are prepared to put in the effort.

However, there’s another fundamental reason why presentations are not as good as they should be. And this one’s much easier to remedy. According to advertising guru Jon Steel, presentations are poorer because of the way ‘PowerPoint’ is used.

Jon’s excellent and highly recommendable book ‘Perfect Pitch’ highlights how and why we use PowerPoint as a crutch. Not only does this make us lazy but it also takes the focus of the presentation away from our ability to communicate directly and passionately with the audience. How many times have you sat and been bored by someone going through endless PowerPoint slides, each one packed with mind-numbing information? For top ‘tips’ on this subject, read the blog post: ‘If you’re going to screw up a pitch, here’s how’.

For over 25 years Jon Steel has experienced remarkable success at the top of the global advertising industry. His book outlines precisely how to present ideas convincingly (like hitchhiking; simple, personal and audience focus are key messages). Reading through the pages you will also discover how people like Sir Ken Robinson are able to stand on stage, talk for 20 minutes without barely moving and then receive a standing ovation.

Entrepreneurs must constantly pitch ideas. And employers are always looking for people who know how to deliver sound presentations and influence the thinking of others. If you can communicate with an audience in a confident, clear and meaningful manner you will have a special talent that will last you a lifetime.

Key Learning Points: Convey clear messages in presentations by thinking about your audience & keeping things clear. Watch presenters like Sir Ken Robinson to hone skills and avoid using PowerPoint if it detracts from and dilutes the quality of what you say.


Start now and value the journey

“Entrepreneurship often happens when people are on their way to something else”.

This excellent quote by Aldrich and Kenworthy (The Accidental Entrepreneur 1999, p. 18 *) is absolutely true – especially in these times of immense speed and connectivity.

Like the hitchhiker, the entrepreneur is often starting new things but what marks them out is their openness to fresh ideas and ability to remain flexible in their thinking. To demonstrate the point, watch this mindblowing presentation by entrepreneurial artist Janet Echelman:

Just start something

The very act of starting a new venture or hitching a lift exposes us to the possibility of experiencing new events, meeting new people and seeing life in a different perspective. But if you don’t start or are only prepared to repeat a previous life experience (I catch the bus, I always catch the bus) then you deny yourself countless opportunities.

Creating different experiences and thus perspectives in our lives naturally involves an element of risk. However, it is important to maintain this simple attitude to always doing new things if for no other reason than keeping mind and body healthy. But unfortunately humans are creatures of habit.

As we age so we create patterns in our lives which become norms. And before we know it, it is very difficult to break the chains of safety that we have bound around ourselves for fear of squaring up to uncertainty, difference and failure. Ultimately, it is not just our actions that become imprisoned; habits incarcerate thinking and ideas. And once this happens, our capacity to do anything meaningful with our lives is reduced to almost nothing.

The value of Failure

Economist and author Tim Harford recently wrote the ground-breaking book ‘Adapt: Why Success always starts with Failure’. This Blog can’t explain the tome in detail (for more, visit, but essentially this ‘must read’ book is about the importance of trial and error in solving problems (from local to global) and accepting that mistakes and failure are not only a necessary part of the process, but an essential one.

But there’s a problem. In chapter 8 of his book, Tim Harford illustrates clearly and brilliantly how humans are programmed to respond to mistakes and failure. If you hadn’t guessed it, we respond badly. We deny it; we choose to forget it; and/or we reshape our history in a different, more favourable light. Unfortunately, none of these self-preservation mechanisms help us to learn from mistakes, move forward, evolve and thus have the ability to create something better.

So, next time you are on your way to somewhere, whether it’s hitchhiking, a new course/job or even venture, look out for things you wouldn’t normally encounter. And if you try something new and it fails, don’t simply chastise yourself or take criticism from others. Carefully examine the value of what you have learnt along the journey and then make good use of the experience. Janet Echelman did and look where it got her.

Key Learning Points. Always be open to ideas and activities and use your initiative to start new things. Be aware of the crippling effect of habitual behaviour and instead be honest with yourself and embrace the learning value of failure.

* (1999) Howard E. Aldrich and Amy L. Kenworthy. The accidental entrepreneur: Campbellian antinomies and organizational foundings