Part II: Can You Present?

Some people are so uncomfortable with public speaking, just the thought of having to face an audience starts the body to perspire, the throat to dry, and vision begin to narrow.  As The CTE, I am extremely comfortable in these environments, but it was not always the case.  Those who know me would never believe this, but I had this fear of standing before an audience and delivering a message.  Last week, I started this series, “Can You Present?“, where I focus on this seemingly very simple question.  In part I, I observe three types of presenters or categories.

  • Nervous Reader
  • Skilled but Skeptical
  • Master Storyteller

If you have not had a chance to read that blog, you may click here to do so, it will provide you context and background for this blog, where I will be focusing on the “Skilled but Skeptical” presenter category.

Let’s briefly recap the main topic, “Can You Present?”.  I believe it means different things to different people, depending on where you find yourself in these categories.

Today, that question causes me to look at my calendar, see if I am available, then I ask about the topic, how many are estimated to attend, location and overall value to the company, etc.  All the things one should do in order to be as fiscally responsible as possible when it involves potential travel and expenses.

However, when I first started my career many, many years ago as a Pre-Sales systems engineer the reflex inside me was a bit of fear, to be quite honest.  I didn’t hear, “can you present?”, I heard, “do you have the ability to present?”, at least in my head, that is how the question was translated.  You will remember in Part I of the series, I talk about my experience auditioning for the high school musical, Oklahoma!, and the lessons I learned, the key one, of course, is being prepared.

I have observed several presentations where the presenter was ill-prepared.  Preparation and lack of confidence are extremely difficult to hide, the attendees can pick up on it like sharks smell blood in the water.  In my experience what happens next, is the presenter ends up reading what is on the slide, using props such as notes or a podium to hide behind,  lose control of the nerves, and ultimately losing confidence, both theirs and the audience.  The end result is a speed reading demonstration, as opposed to a captivating presentation filled with detail and connection.

Even if you are prepared, but uncomfortable in front of an audience of 10, 20, 50 or even 100, there is a good chance you will end up in the Nervous Reader category.  Well, I have good news, there is a way out, and I hope this series will help you find the tools to progress along this continuum from the Nervous Reader to become a Master Storyteller.

Skilled but Skeptical

You are probably wondering how in the world I came up with these categories?  Simple observation and personal experience.  I was a Nervous Reader, and yes occasionally I can feel it rise up inside of me, but for the most part, I am able to control its surfacing.  This new category came about, again, from my personal experience when I was once called a Skilled but Skeptical presenter early in my career.

Simple definition:  You have domain expertise, but do not trust your own bank of knowledge or abilities.

What holds back the Skilled but Skeptical presenter is fear, but not fear of preparation or even standing in front of a large audience.  Most presenters in this category are pretty much beyond that type of fear.  It is fear of having this domain expertise called into question or doubted by the attendees.  Even the slightest hint of being challenged can send the Skilled but Skeptical presenter in the tank.  The resulting presentation begins to look very much like the Nervous Reader if the presenter does not have this trait fully in check.

So…how does one reach this level of skepticism, who are obviously so skilled?  From my experience and through several discussions with others who have fallen into this same category, it seems to come down to one thing, the word “expert”.

There is a joke I often refer to when the word, “expert” is used to describe me or anyone for that matter.  It goes like this:

You know the word, “expert” is the combination of two words, right?  Sure, Ex and Spert.  An “Ex” is a has-been and “spert” is a drip under pressure.


Some personalities have no problem with the “expert” moniker, others, such as myself, feel (or felt) the pressures tied to its definition.

  1. a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area.

Here is your expert

It is a double-edged sword when you work to promote people to this level of “expert”.  On the one hand, you attempt to instill confidence by telling customers, partners and your own internal people what an “expert we have on our hands”, while on the other hand, some of these proclaimed “experts” become as nervous a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

What if someone finds out, that I’m not really an “expert”?

What if I am asked a question I cannot answer?

What if someone finds out I have only been an “expert” for six months?

I have had this happen to me, not once but a few times.  The first time it happened while I was working for OpenVision as a consultant.  My actual title on my business card said, “business analyst”, but hey, I was a consultant.  Having left Cheyenne Software, my goal was to join a company where I could learn a new technical skill, Unix Administration, and scripting.  I ended up at OpenVision with no Unix experience whatsoever, but that did not stop my then boss from hiring me.  He said, and I quote, “I’ll get you into Unix Admin I and II courses right away and you’ll be an expert in no time.”

There was that word again!

Well, as a recovering Nervous Reader, I was going to study, prepare, and practice everything I learned in these classes.  I went out to the bigstock-The-words-Hello-I-Am-An-Expert-36518137bookstore and bought Unix in a Nutshell, borrowed several Unix scripting books from my boss, even had a Sun workstation I took home so I could practice, practice, practice.  Within a few short weeks, I had completed my course and received a piece of paper that essentially made me an “expert” in Unix Administration I and II – but I had no practical experience, just book, and lab experience.

My boss, eager to get billing dollars from his freshly pressed expert, sent me out on my first “gig”.  It was to install our high availability software at one of our top customers in the Chicago area.  Yes, he was sending ME to one of our TOP customers.  I still remember meeting the sales rep who was going to introduce me to the customer.

Sales Rep: So you are a Unix expert, huh?

ME: Well, I don’t know about being an expert but I do know how to spell Unix! (laughing at my own joke)

Sales Rep (not laughing): Don’t screw this up, the last guy we had in here didn’t know shit about Unix and they ran him out.

ME: …

Can I just say, I wish I would have packed a change of clothes?

Off I went to meet the customer.  We talked about the implementation, I presented the options and steered clear of any UNIX-isms and only focused on our software.  We decided which machines I would work with first, and off we go.  I was on this project for about two weeks, installing our HA software on several server pairs when the customer invited me to lunch.  Remember he is the guy who ran off the last guy, I accepted with great hesitation.  During lunch, the inevitable came up.

Customer: So, David, how long have you been working at OpenVision?

ME: Oh, about 6 months.

Customer: Where did you learn Unix?

ME:  Why do you ask?

Customer:  I was just curious, you know more about Unix than I do and I’ve been working with it for over 10 years.

ME: *gulp* – Well, to be very honest with you, 6 months.

Customer: …

I was so worried about being “found out” that I did not realize how much I had really learned and retained during lab and actually practicing what I had learned at home.  This Dilbert cartoon sums up how I felt I would be perceived.


I was very skeptical of my level of skill, simply based on the length of time I had been working with this new skill.  Lessons learned during the musical audition and my time at Cheyenne Software really did prepare me for this next step in my presentation evolution.  I just did not know it at the time.

Most Skilled but Skeptical presenters have no idea they are stuck in this ‘rut’ until someone points it out.  I was fortunate enough to have someone call me out while I was presenting training to a large auto manufacturer in Detroit.  It was a student, who pulled me aside during lunch break.

Student: You are probably one of the best instructors I have had in a long time, but I don’t think you even realize it.

ME: Well, I don’t know that I am that good, but thanks

Student:  You need to stop being so skeptical of your skill set and present this material with confidence.  That is the only thing missing, confidence in yourself.

ME: I’ve only been at this for less than 12 months, and there are so many in this class who have so many more years experience than me.  I know what I have been taught, but I cannot go much beyond.

Student: Then say that, when it comes up.  I think you know more than you give yourself credit.  If you don’t have the answer, be honest, no one can fault you for being honest.

No one can fault you for being honest.  This was the turning point for me, it was okay not to have all the answers, it was okay to be called an “expert” and still not have all the answers!  It was okay to learn, even during a time when I was to be teaching.

The biggest barrier for the Skilled but Skeptical is the fear of being “found out”.  Reality is, no one likes a “know it all”, people like it when people are honest, open, and transparent.  Just because a sales rep has billed you as the “expert”, doesn’t mean you have to have an answer for everything.  Take a step back, relax, and accept it.  When you do, your world opens up, you drop your defenses, and your confidence begins to rise.  The best part is your audience, like the sharks I mentioned earlier, will sense it and gain a new respect for you.

In closing…

If you are still not comfortable being referred to as an “expert”, then try on a couple of these hats to see if the fit is better.

  • Subject Matter Expert
  • Domain Expert
  • Specialist in the area of …
  • Average Joe, with a year of mistakes

The bottom line, if you fall into the category of Skilled but Skeptical, there is good news.  First of all, you obviously have a deep knowledge of the particular area you work within and people have recognized your skillset.  If you are being referred to as “the expert”, it is because of this recognition, but be honest about where you reach your limits of knowledge, it doesn’t mean you are any less of an expert or qualified technician, it only means you have not yet attained that bit of information to add into your bank of knowledge.  Responding with, “I don’t know, but I will find out and get back to you” is absolutely an appropriate response.  The fact that you can research to find the answer, demonstrates your expertise.

Getting over your perceived knowledge deficiencies, and accepting the fact there maybe someone in the room with more knowledge than you is critical for you to continue to move away from this Skilled but Skeptical presenter category.  Remember, this doesn’t happen overnight, and moving on doesn’t mean, “leaving it behind”.   I still carry this with me, but over the years of study, preparation, and practice I am able to recognize when the Nervous Reader or the Skilled but Skeptical presenter begins to come out of me.  Most times, I’m able to control the tendencies, but there are occasions when it slips out.

In the next and final blog of this series, I will talk about the Master Storyteller and techniques you can use to help temper the Nervous Reader or Skilled but Skeptical outbreaks through mastering the art of storytelling.  Should be a fun blog, I hope you will stay tuned.

-Chapa, signing off

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Eric Berglund says:

    I’m a bit skeptic about people who think they can coach others into better speaking style through a couple blog posts. But so far you’ve picked two of the most important messages: Be Prepared and Be Honest (if asked) About What You Know. Nice.

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