What I Learned About Presentation Skills I Learned From Star Trek(TM) Captains :: Springboard Training

What I Learned About Presentation Skills I Learned From Star Trek(TM) Captains

SylviaH • October 15th, 2009 

What I know about presentation skills I learned from Star Trek captains.

I am a trekkie, may I live long and prosper, and I see that many of the principles of effective presentation skills are exhibited by the many generations of Star Trek captains. Starfleet Captains have had to communicate their ideas and their demands effectively and efficiently to their crew throughout 30+ years of space journeys. Their communication, unlike most of ours, affects life-or-death actions and responses and weekly viewer ratings.

Cover Graphic - TM Magazine_Presentations_STCaptains As communicators—presenters, trainers, coaches—we would do well to emulate the lessons the captains teach by their example. The following are some of the pointers I have elicited from years of observation of captains from the original Capt. James Tiberius Kirk (Star Trek®), through Capt. Jean Luc Picard (Star Trek: The Next Generation®), Capt. Benjamin Sisco (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine®), and Capt. Kathryn Janeway (Star Trek: Voyager®).
Make an impact

Communicators communicate to make an impact. The impact may be a purchase that benefits the buyer, training that improves the skill of a trainee, a message that inspires and motivates, consolation that counsels and eases the soul, guidance that leads a person to take a certain direction, an investment that saves a business, or agreement and support for a cause that benefits a community or society. A speaker with strong presentation and delivery skills makes an impact on their audience.

We make an impact by being dynamic, entertaining, captivating, informative, persuasive, assuring, and sincere. When we grab and move an audience, we make an impact on that audience.

Do no harm

The Star Trek universe is guided by the Prime Directive—to do no harm and make no changes to the societies encountered throughout space exploration. If you consistently watch Star Trek you know that, at times, the directive is difficult to heed.

We are taught as presenters and speakers that we will be more effective if we inject humor and stories into our programs. We must be careful, however, with the humor and stories we use. Consider the diversity of our audiences—age, ethnic backgrounds, sex, religion, preferences, political beliefs—and we must take extra care with what we consider humor. Attempt to keep stories personal to ourselves and specific to the point we are trying to make in our presentation. E-mail transmitted jokes are 95-percent (my figure) inappropriate to general audiences and should be avoided. Good humor books and resources are available through presentation and speaking organizations such as Toastmasters International.

Celebrate diversity

The crew of all of the U.S.S. Enterprise and Voyager space vessels and the DS9 space station are from every race and planetary origin imagined by the writers and producers of Star Trek and the late Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek. These crew members speak languages that must be interpreted through special devices so that their language is understood by the English-speaking members of the crew and their leaders. Our audiences will not comprise as diverse a mixture as an audience from the United Federation of Planets, but they will be diverse. Sometimes the diversity will be in ways not obvious to us by sight. We might think we are addressing a homogenous audience but no group of people is all the same.

When we use examples we should consider examples that are not specific to a unique group of people. We should talk about experiences that will most likely be understood by most of the audience. For example, if the audience is comprised of trainers, the experiences referenced should be training experiences. If the audience is comprised of web developers, the experiences referenced should relate to web development or at least, Internet technology.

We might ask members of our audience for situations that they would like to share so that everyone can learn something of another person’s culture, beliefs, views, or experiences. We should be aware of our scheduling and food logistics so that we do not offend or eliminate someone’s participation, yet provide a chance to expose others to food or situations they might otherwise not encounter. Celebrating diversity means learning about others different from ourselves.

Entertain a Flair for the Dramatic
(Captain Kirk, U.S.S. Enterprise)
scan - captain thumbnail (Kirk) Watch – Captain – Kirk – emphasize – a – situation – in – which – he – believes! He huffs. He puffs. He uses exaggerated motions. His face contorts. Long-time trekkies mimic him and make fun of his dramatizations but the last laugh may be on those who do. He is a great example of a speaker totally immersed in getting his message felt as well as heard.
As presenters, we would do well to put half of his dramatic performance into our delivery. We will be watched, remembered, and probably will move our audience.
Engage! … [Your audience]
(Captain Picard, U.S.S. Enterprise)
scan - captain thumbnail (Picard) Captain Picard, in the manner of a Shakespearean actor (which the actual actor who portrays the Star Trek Captain—Patrick Stewart—really is) engages his audience with his commanding voice and intense, no-nonsense style. He gains audience buy-in and then moves them to “engage!”
We want our audience to remember our message or take action when they leave the immediate performance. The best way to ensure they do so is to capture their attention at the beginning of the presentation, keep them involved throughout, and have them buy-in to the message or action and come up with a plan for implementing a follow-through once they leave. This can be done through group exercises, logging notes into a journal, presenting them with a challenge to carry out once they leave, or offering follow-up consultation within a specific time after the program.
[Seek action or commitment] … and make it so.
(Captain Sisco, DS9 Space Station)
scan - captain thumbnail (Sisco) Don’t just get the audience to nod their heads and agree. Get them to lay out a plan of action and then to carry out the plan. Provide resources for “making it so”. This is a good opportunity for future business—coaching, follow-on seminars and presentations, product sales. Making it so provides an opportunity to empower the audience to take action or effect change.
You will return to the Alpha quadrant, someday. [This, too, shall pass.]
(Captain Janeway, U.S.S. Voyager)
scan - captain thumbnail (Janeway) The crew of the U.S.S. Voyager is lost in space, on a perpetual mission to get back to the Alpha Quadrant and Earth (home). They maintain their spirits with the belief instilled by their captain that they WILL get home someday. Their space roaming will come to an end, whether they return home or at series cancellation.
No matter how well we prepare our presentations and our environment, sometime, somewhere we will encounter that moment where we just want to slink into the floor and disappear. It might be a malfunction of equipment, a loss of our materials, forgetting our content, encountering a disruptive audience, or some other situation for which any experienced presenter can relay a “war story”. The best way to get through a difficult situation is to keep in mind that it, too, will pass. Time does not stand still. We will survive and we will learn from the situation so that we can better handle it or eliminate it the next time.
The Dilithium Crystals will fail just when you need warp speed
[When using A/V equipment, expect the power to go out.]
Just when the U.S.S. Enterprise (pick the version) needs speed the most to get out of a tough situation, the power generation equipment—the Dilithium Crystals (the high-test gasoline of the starship)—always seemed to fail, be inadequate, or be in the process of destruction. Engineer Scotty (“beam me up, Scotty!”) dramatically informs Captain Kirk that the crystals cannot be saved and Captain Kirk tells him to do something miraculous because the ship will be destroyed in five seconds. Somehow, Scotty always comes through.

Plan for contingencies. When we plan a multi-media, state-of-the-art presentation we must anticipate that something will go wrong. If we plan a laptop presentation with an LCD/DLP projector, we should have transparency slides printed as backup. If we plan overhead transparencies and a projector, we should have an extra projector bulb and a set of hard-copy (on paper) copies of the slides for last-minute reproduction as handouts if the projector does not work. Carry a three-prong-to-two-prong plug converter in case the outlet is only a two-slot outlet and the equipment has three-pronged (grounded) plugs.

The Away Teams [first ones to a situation] take the most risks and get the most praise

Every episode usually results in exploring the surface of some planetary object. The Away team is the front team that goes in first. Usually the team consists of several of the stars of the show and one guest (see next bullet). When all goes well—which of course it does not because there would not be 42 more minutes of show time if it did—the team gets praise and accolades for their performance.

One of the ways in which to get professional exposure—whether in a job, association, political organization, business, or peer group—is to volunteer to speak first. We are admired for having the guts to go first, receive the benefit of the doubt if we err, and get it over with so that you we give the following speakers our undivided attention. Consistently being a forerunner earns us the respect and praise—and accompanying risk—that a leader wants to have.

The weekly guest dies first
[Be a permanent and contributing member of the team.]

Whenever there is a new face in the crew we pretty much know who buys the farm when the explosion occurs. It pays to be a full-time crew member who appears week after week.

When we present as a team we should be a contributing member of the team. Ensure transitions are smooth between team members and have a fall-back “generic” transition to throw in should a team member not hold up their part of the bargain. When a team member is soliciting audience feedback, step up to the easel pad and serve as the data recorder so that the teammate can devote full attention to the audience. Be the A/V operator so teammates can focus on presenting. Offer to flip slides so a teammate is not fumbling with the overheads while speaking. A team presentation is impressive when team members appear to work smoothly together and flawlessly transition their duties between each other.

When presenting as a team, use everyone’s strengths to your advantage

Every crew member on every ship has a clearly-defined role with documented tasks to perform. They seldom overlap but when one member has to step in for another they know what to do. They train countless hours prior to the mission and learn how everyone fits together in the team.

Every team has members with their own strengths and weaknesses. A team presentation must be put together and rehearsed to take advantage of various members’ strengths while minimizing members’ weaknesses. The members with the best voices and most engaging presentation manners should be the ones who actually perform. The member with the skill to physically put together the presentation should be the one who does so with everyone else’s input. The member with the best customer interaction should be the one who “works the audience” or markets to client management. Everyone on the team does not have to present. The object of a team presentation is to show how we work together for the benefit of the client, not show off to the client.

Maintain your ethics

In the face of a difficult, emotionally wrenching situation, one thing that can be counted on is that a Starfleet Captain will resort to what he or she most dearly believes morally and ethically to make the final decision. No matter what, taking the ethical path allows captains to sleep at night knowing that, in spite of lives lost, they did what was “right”.

We are presented with situations that tempt us to take the easy path, cut corners, do what our client suggests we do for “both our sakes”, or otherwise challenge our ethics. Our credibility comes down to whether or not we stand for what we think is the right decision. Such a stand might cost us a particular job short term but I believe strongly that in the long run, our stand for our beliefs yields far more credibility and respect and, in turn, more clients.

Dress appropriate to your audience

Starfleet uniforms change with the situation. Dress uniforms are worn for hosting heads of state. Everyday uniforms see the crew through most of their dress needs. Casual uniforms serve recreational needs. Each uniform designates the crew member’s rank and service.

When we learn to make presentations we are taught to dress up and wear business attire. However, the better advice is to dress according to our audience. If we are presenting to a formal business audience, the dark suit/white shirt uniform is probably appropriate. If presenting to a casually-clad high-tech audience, we should check on the expectations they have of our attire and dress accordingly. I try to always dress “up” to the audience—dress a level above the audience to which I am presenting. This is not to appear better than my audience but to command the respect I need to establish credibility with them. As a five-foot, four-inch tall black female I am usually presenting to six-feet-tall men of varying shades of lightness. Since I do not look like the majority of my audiences, I need to command their respect by dressing in a manner that does so.

Keep your phasers on “stun”
[Be prepared for difficult situations.]

The Star Trek crew carry phasers (hand guns, sort of) that have variable settings from light stun to kill. Most of the time the stun setting is appropriate. The crew is taught to use their phasers only when absolutely necessary, but when necessary, the phasers are right there with them.

My politics of handguns are not at issue here. What is the issue is the preparation ahead of time for handling difficult situations. Usually the difficult situation is an audience member. Working with more experienced presenters to learn how to handle difficult audiences is one way to prepare. Researching the audience ahead of time—which is one of the tenets of preparing the presentation—helps eliminate the surprise of difficult situations. The result of analyzing our audience is to create a presentation that meets their needs and keeps them from becoming difficult. We cannot eliminate all situations, however, which is where practice, reading about how to handle difficult situations, and observing other presenters comes in.

Continue to seek out new life and new civilization; to boldly go where no one has gone before
[Challenge yourself and be the one in front.]

Star Trek will endure through the ages. Turn to a cable or satellite channel any day and, some time during that day, a Star Trek episode will be aired. I have little doubt that future versions of the show will be developed for we trekkies will not fade away. The crew and captains of Starfleet continue to explore space and give their fans the entertainment they seek.

I believe our craft of presenting, training, and public speaking will always be in demand no matter the levels of computerization and societal automation. As long as there are people, people will have to present to people to exchange ideas, encourage action, impact change, build businesses, promote careers, influence politics, and enlist social causes. We, as presenters and speakers, must seek out new opportunities to ply our craft. We must learn new tools and technologies to enhance our delivery. We must practice, practice, practice to be the presenters we think we are and would like to be.

What I know about presentation skills I learned from Star Trek captains. They teach by example. Watch them!

© Sylvia Henderson
Published in The Toastmaster Magazine–May 2001. The author holds copyright to the published article which includes the published artwork from Star Trek® and Warner Brothers Studios. No other copyrights or permissions are granted for the Star Trek® material.