How to improve presentation skills: Train like Katie Ledecky

Posted on August 19th, 2016 by G. Riley Mills

Wondering how to improve presentation skills? There are some valuable lessons you can learn from five-time Olympic gold medalist, nine-time world champion, and world-record holding swimmer Katie Ledecky to achieve gold medal worthy presentation skills.

Practice Like It’s Your Performance

Katie Ledecky swims 55,000 to 70,000 meters each week. Aside from logging quality pool time, she often practices at “race pace” – she swims at the same stroke rate in practice that she strives to replicate during her races. She doesn’t just turn it on when she gets in the Olympic pool.

The same goes for your presentation. Practice the presentation as if you were in the room delivering it. As mentioned in a previous post, Steve Jobs used to spend two days practicing his keynotes before delivering them. You can’t expect to just show up to the conference room and deliver a polished presentation.

Fail “catastrophically”

Ledecky’s coach said there are training days where she “fails catastrophically.” Because she trains at race pace, she’s constantly pushing her body to swim faster and subsequently runs out of gas in practice and falls off. She’ll come back the next day though and do it again. And by day three, she has it.

The only way to grow is to push beyond your comfort zone. According to Cal Newport, author of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” ridiculously successful people are experts at practicing – they push to the limits of their skillset and expand their abilities day after day.

Start Strong

Stroke rate is especially important in the first 100 meters. According to Ledecky’s coach, Bruce Gemmell, by the time the race is 100m in, it’s over. Other swimmers lose their stroke rate or they don’t have the confidence to start with it.

Presentations are the same way. You can’t warm into it. The first 60-90 seconds is critical. You must capture the audience in that time span or you will lose them. You must start strong.

Review Video To Identify Areas for Improvement

Ledecky religiously reviews video and analyzes data. She knows her 50-meter splits, her stroke rate, and number of strokes per lap after each practice and race. Reviewing video with her team, she realized she could improve her turns. By dramatically improving her turns, which previously was a weakness, she reduced the number of strokes needed per lap, which subsequently dropped her times and earned her world records.

Record your practice sessions. The camera does not lie. See what your body language is communicating and look for opportunities to improve. Are your transitions smooth or jarring? Is the content flowing or choppy? Are your gestures expansive, specific and congruent or disconnected? Are you using a strong intention?

Close with purpose

Ledecky rarely has anyone within half a pool-length of her at the end, especially in her long races. Rather than coast into the wall though, she explodes into it.

According to her coach, “We’re doing repeat 50s in practice, and she’s the one who’s putting her head down, powering into the wall, trying to get her hand to the wall first. And seven out of eight of the other great athletes in the pool are just finishing their repeat the same way they swam the other 35 meters.”

Too many business professionals close their presentations with, “That’s it. Thanks.” The close is your last chance to leave an impression and bring the presentation full circle. Summarize the main points. Reframe the message. Reintroduce the call to action. Close with a challenge. Leave them wanting more.

As mentioned in The Pin Drop Principle, most people make the mistake of spending all of their time on preparing their material and none on preparing the delivery of that material. Practice really does make perfect (or close to it), so the more you have prepared your message, the more comfortable you will be when delivering it.

To learn how we can help your company deliver gold level presentations, please contact us.

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