What do advanced presenters and winning poker players have in common?
Dr. Carmen Simon
I recently watched several professional poker players on TV, during a tournament, and realized that there are a few commonalities between them and outstanding presenters. After doing some research on poker psychology, I discovered that the similarities are more striking than I imagined.
Of course, you could argue that poker players and presenters have different types of goals. As my friend Bruce Kasanoff points out, “Poker players want to hide, not share info. They want to beat the others, not help them. They want to be deceptive, not authentic. Their goal is to personally profit, not serve others.” Even though the goals may be different, the personal satisfaction after a well-played event is the same. Poker players feel great after winning. And advanced presenters feel great after a presentation where the audience buys in. What can we learn from their abilities and psychology to get there?
Know how to focus on the present moment. Winning poker players know how to block what happened in the past and avoid being concerned too much about the next moment. Barry Tanenbaum, one of the most famous poker players, reminds everyone that poker players “get paid only for making the right decision now.” It’s the same in presentations. Advanced presenters know how to gather cues from the audience and make adjustments “in the now.” They don’t engage in “woulda, shoulda, coulda” moments that have already passed. When you are concerned about the present moment (instead of thinking of the entire performance all the time), the rest of the presentation delivery will take care of itself.
Take lots of notes on previous events. Even though you are not concerned with the past during the delivery, you can still learn from the past. Here is what authors Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie note about top class poker players: “[they] go home and write down everything they’ve seen at the table… There are players with enormous written notebooks on the habits of hundreds of other players.” Based on this information, they choose specific events, they recognize certain players, and they pick certain seats. Presentation psychology is no different. Once you engage in acute observation, you can recognize specific audience members and their habits. You can determine your position around the projector, which part of the room enhances your delivery, or the time of the day to present. You can’t adjust unless you know how some people might “play” during your presentation. And this will come from a lot of observation and note-taking.
Winning poker players do not turn down “soft plays” where they compete against weaker players, but they balance those games out with ones where the stakes are higher. In a similar way, advanced presenters don’t deliver the same type of presentation all the time. If you typically present to small groups, or deliver only internal presentations, challenge yourself to do large group presentations or present to real customers so you can test the range of your skills.
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