It took me 20 years to fail fast

Nancy Duarte

Written by

Nancy Duarte

Originally published as part of the LinkedIn Influencer series:

Red umbrella in the rain "Greatest Show on Earth" written on the top of it

I get asked all the time, “What was your biggest presentation failure?” People want to know what would rattle “The Presentation Lady”. The answer is etched in my brain because I violated the most basic rule of presentations — know your audience.

My toughest audience is my own staff. Imagine the pressure of presenting to a staff that writes and produces award-winning presentations for others all day long—they have pretty discriminating taste. And then, imagine trying to persuade that discerning audience to do something they don’t want to do. Then multiply that by 10.

Every January, we host a vision presentation for our entire company. It’s the biggest, most important internal presentation we do each year. First, we celebrate the accomplishments of the past year, and then we cover what needs to be improved, and where we want the company to go in the future.

This particular year was 2007 and, having been through three economic cycles in the past, I could see all the signs of an impending downturn coming a mile away. One of the benefits of creating presentations for big brands is that you get early access to your clients’ plans — we could see that some of our top clients were anticipating a financial slowdown in 2008. So I knew that there would be an economic implosion soon.

This meant that almost 50% of our work would be at risk in the near future. To navigate the downturn successfully, I would need the staff to shift some of their behavior. Oh, and I also wanted to grow revenue by 10%. No pressure, right?

The plan of action was very clear to me — I had been around this block before. Because the message of this particular meeting was sensitive but important, I read a book about change management to prepare. The book said the first thing I needed to do was create a sense of urgency. That was good advice but I already had that part down!

In addition to a brilliant presentation, I made umbrellas — to symbolize the impending rainy days — emblazoned with the words, “The Greatest Show on Earth”. I made a large matrix of all the strategic shifts we needed to make in order to avoid too much impact on our business. I printed “tickets” that had a laundry list of tasks that each employee was to perform. Step #6 in the change management book told me to Produce Short-Term Wins, so checkboxes seemed like the perfect way to go.

My slides were beautiful and my passion was palpable. On the day of the presentation, I was organized, articulate, and well-prepared. I even brought in colorful bunches of balloons featuring the same logo on the umbrellas — The Greatest Show on Earth.

I’ll never forget the reaction when I was done. The room was dead silent. It was as if a bomb had gone off and the staff was shell-shocked. One manager told me that it would take at least 18 months to rebuild my credibility within the organization. Ouch.

What did I do wrong?

  • I didn’t provide enough context. As a leader who had successfully navigated other downturns, it was crystal clear to me what was about to happen. I had lived through it and I didn’t want to go through it ever again. What is often evident to us as leaders isn’t always clear to our employees because we’ve lived very different lives. Always give context for why.
  • I failed to see things from their perspective. I hadn’t considered that most of our team was very young and hadn’t experienced any form of economic strain. Most of them were teenagers when the dot-com bubble burst. They couldn’t grasp the concept of a thriving organization being threatened by external forces. I should have thought harder about how to communicate from their perspective.
  • Scare tactics backfire. Even though I was terrified about the future, I shouldn’t have used fear as a tactic to persuade. It created more ill will than goodwill. Creative people need a safe place to do their best work and I ruined that sense of security. They were overwhelmed by the message and the number of tasks on the checklist.
  • I didn’t test the messaging. Everyone was stunned when they heard what I had to say. While creating the presentation, I had been plowing through it alone. I didn’t leave room for anybody to warn me of my impending mistake. Now, we test our vision presentation with a subset of people that represent every role in the firm. I listen to how the messages might be perceived and how to convey them so it resonates more deeply. I modify concepts and phrasing to make sure every employee feels empowered and not alienated.
  • I didn’t have the managers on board. Well, that was dumb. Managers are crucial members of the organization that have the power to carry your idea into the trenches and move it further and faster than you can from the top. Now, we have all the managers on board and ready to cascade the initiatives into employee goals. They become ambassadors of the message and help align employees around why we need to make these moves.

The “sky is falling” message hurt my credibility with my team. Luckily — and unluckily— it didn’t take a full 18 months to restore that credibility because the sky did fall the following year, but that was small consolation. Instead of everyone propelling forward after my presentation, things came to a halt as I worked to rebuild trust.

Since that failure, I’ve learned to approach presentations differently, and my entire organization has taken a lesson from the experience. We now know that having a slick, well-prepared presentation isn’t enough. You need to understand the hearts and minds of your audience to create a message that connects with them, emotionally, and logically.