In a previous article, I described the Murder Board, a rigorous simulation that allows presenters to hone speaking skills and anticipate questions and objections. I compared it the pilot's flight simulator in that it provided the presenter the opportunity to make mistakes when they don't count.
To have a successful and productive Murder Board, I teach in my executive workshops a seven-step process to ensure a productive Murder Board. They are:
2. Sharing audience Intelligence
3. Role-playing by participants
4. Videotaping and/or audio-taping
5. Critique of presenter's style and substance
6. Recording on cards of all questions asked
7. Revision of the presentation
Let's take a look at each of these steps.
In recruiting people to be on your Murder Board, the best place to start is with knowledgeable colleagues. Request no more than four of these colleagues to be your simulated audience. Keep in mind, however, that if these colleagues think that the objective of the Murder Board is only to help you look good, they probably will not want to give up their valuable time. You must give them an incentive tied to their self-interest.
They will have their own priorities. You should frame your request in such a way that these colleagues see a potential dividend accruing to them by investing their time. Remember from earlier in the book, and from your own experience, that "What's in it for me?" is the prime motivator for people to take action. You must find a way to have these colleagues believe they will gain by being in your simulated audience.
Reciprocity is the key. My advice is to recruit only people who themselves must make presentations. Then you say, "If you will be on my Murder Board now, I will be on yours when you must make a presentation." Presto. They see a potential benefit in the future by spending some time with you now.
Why only four people? One reason is to limit the debts you will have to pay in the future. You do not want to be spending all your available time being on others' Murder Boards, and you certainly do not want to go back on your word. Another reason is that most audiences you will face have no more than four key people. Having more than four colleagues helping you could result in a less-than-productive bull session, not a question-anticipating Murder Board.
2. Sharing Audience Intelligence
Because the purpose of a Murder Board is to create an environment for the presenter similar to the actual situation to be faced, it is important that those playing the members of the audience be armed with as much information about this audience as possible.
Participants must be steeped in the details of the issue being presented so they can put themselves in participants' mental framework. Information on the personal styles, idiosyncrasies, temperament, etc., of these audience members provides insight into how they will react to certain comments or proposals. Your colleagues can better role-play if they have this information. The more you know about personalities, the less surprised you will be in the presentation.
If the presentation is to be made internally, say to a board of directors or a committee, participants in this practice session are likely to have valuable information to share with the presenter and other participants. One of the reasons it is beneficial to recruit participants who present regularly is that they may have had the opportunity to present to the same people you are preparing to address. Colleagues can provide first-hand information on how your actual audience listens, questions, reacts and interacts with fellow audience members.
3. Role-playing by participants
The success or failure of a Murder Board ultimately depends on its realism. The closer it is to the real thing, the better prepared the presenter will be. This realism, to a great degree, depends on the ability of your colleagues to get into the heads of your audience's key players. This does not mean having a great gift for acting or mimicry; but it does mean trying to think like the people in the audience so that statements made by the presenter will provoke questions likely to be asked by the actual audience.
After sharing all the intelligence gained on the audience, and eliciting from participants any insights they have on these people, assign specific roles to participants. If you are presenting to senior executives, you most certainly want a person to play the key decision maker. If the CEO, for example, is an assertive person, try to have an assertive person play this role. If you know that the CEO tends to interrupt presentation with questions, request this role-player to do the same.
Remember that role-playing is very dependent on participants having, or having been provided, the most accurate and up-to-date intelligence on this audience. If they do not have this information, the Murder Board could degenerate into a joking session, which may relax you somewhat, but will not help you as much as a rigorous, no-holds-barred simulation of that moment of truth when you stand in front of the real audience.
4. Videotaping / audio-taping
The actual conduct of the Murder Board is likely to not run smoothly, with various interruptions and discussions. Moreover, the presenter cannot be expected to remember all the comments, bits of advice and questions asked. Consequently, much of the spontaneous, valuable information could be lost, even if someone is taking careful notes. Consequently, it is beneficial to have both a video camera and a tape recorder running during the practice presentation. This will provide a game film enabling you to see and hear yourself as your audience will see and hear you.
From the videotape, you will learn if you are shifting from one side to the other, or grasping the lectern so tightly that your knuckles are white from pressure. Only when you see for yourself will you take corrective action. Having an audio tape of your presentation allows you to focus on those vocal qualities such as monotone, inflection, pitch, speaking rate, "uh's" and "you knows." Because the eye is so powerful, you may not notice any vocal problems when looking at the videotape. The audio tape will allow you to concentrate on your vocal qualities.
Perhaps the fundamental benefit of recording the practice session is that you will have a record of the questions asked in the give-and-take of the presentation, as well as your answers. Without an electronic record, the questions provoked by your presentation—and your answers—could be lost, thereby negating the benefits of the Murder Board.
5. Critique of presenter's style and substance
You have now completed your Murder Board, and, in the process, have used the valuable time of your colleagues. Now is the time to ask them for a robust critique of the substance of your presentation and your delivery style. Keep the video camera and tape recorder rolling. These colleagues may be more expert in certain aspects of your presentation than you are, and you certainly want to tap into this expertise.
Additionally, they have just seen you presenting in a stressful environment—presenting before your colleagues may be more difficult than before a board of directors—and their comments on how you looked, how you sounded and your overall presence can be invaluable. Thank them for giving up their time, and remind them that you are ready to pay them back when their time comes to make an important presentation. You may wish to point out that you have indeed kept within the time limit promised, so that you establish a precedent for when your turn comes around to be a Murder Board participant.
6. Recording all questions asked on cards
Now it is just you, a VCR, a tape recorder and a stack of 3x5 cards. Why the cards? Because you are now going to go through the painful process of listening to how you answered the questions posed by your colleagues. Place each question asked on the front side of a 3x5 card. On the back—in pencil—place the answer you gave, or a better one if it occurs to you now, and it probably will. Why pencil? Because you are going to come up with better answers the more you think and research.
When you are at home watching television, have that stack of cards nearby. When a commercial comes on the screen, select a card at random, look at the question, give an answer, and turn the card over. If your new answer is better than the one on the back of the card, make the correction. Go through this procedure a few times, seeking each time to improve your answer so that you not only address the specifics of the question, but also find ways to reinforce your main points.
Following this procedure will do much to remove the fear of the unanticipated question, which has such a direct influence on fear of public speaking. Keep the cards. Do not discard them after the presentation. They can serve as the foundation for your next presentation. If possible, catalog them by subject matter and place them in your database. When you are called on at the last minute to make a short presentation, this card file can be a lifesaver and a career-enhancer, as you can quickly build a new presentation around one or two old questions.
People will think that you are indeed a silver-tongued orator who can put together a well thought out and extemporaneous presentation at the last minute. Let them think that. You will know that you are drawing on the "blood, sweat and tears" that went into your Murder Board.
7. Revision of the presentation
Having completed your Murder Board, you are now faced with a dilemma. What do you do with all the new data generated by this most intense practice session? What if the audience doesn't ask the questions for which you have developed such great answers? Do you just leave this information in your files?
The answer is a resounding NO. Remember, your responsibility as a presenter is to provide maximum relevant information in minimum time in the clearest manner possible. You must make a judgment as to which information best fits your objective and your audience's informational needs. Some of the material you had originally had in your presentation may well have to be dropped, replaced by information that surfaced as a result of questions and discussions in the Murder Board.
An approach I have found useful is to time the Murder Board to be somewhat shorter than the time allocated for the actual presentation. This permits a time cushion that allows you to add new material without deleting too much of your original presentation.
It is best to schedule the Murder Board at least two days prior to the actual presentation so you have enough time to revise it to reflect the changes dictated by your colleagues' questions and comments. This will allow you to integrate the new information and answers that came about as a result of your practice session, and to develop new visuals, as well as giving you the opportunity to practice delivering the revised presentation.
The bottom line on the Murder Board
You need to conduct a Murder Board for the same reason that professional football teams, despite having injured players who could benefit from a rest, go through physically demanding practice sessions before the next game. These athletes and their coaches realize the team will be better prepared by having practiced against what the coaches have anticipated, through scouting reports—the game plan of the opposing team. Presenters must follow the same logic.
It is foolish to deliver a "chips on the line" presentation without going through an intense Murder Board. The wise presenter realizes that he or she should put as much effort into the presentation as has been put into the product or service being sold.
Larry Tracy is the author of The Shortcut to Persuasive Presentations, conducts executive presentations coaching workshops. Visit www.tracy-presentation.com.