Scott J. Allen is a professor of leadership and executive communication and the host of two podcasts, CaptOvation and Phronesis: Practical Wisdom for Leaders. He is also the co-founder of Captovation, a services firm dedicated to “Presentation Coaching for the Digital Age.” Scott is also a published author as he is the co-author of "The Little Book of Leadership Development: 50 Ways to Bring Out the Leader in Every Employee", for example, and he has more than 50 book chapters and peer-reviewed journal papers published.

In this episode with him, we discuss the four components for improving leadership, presentations, and communication.

How Scott became part of the presentation industry

Scott shared that he did not grow into this space, but his Ph.D. in Leadership, which is his passion topic, led him to it. Decision-making, problem-solving, influence techniques, stress management, communication skills, and so on are all aspects of becoming a great leader. As a leader, can you energize, mobilize, connect with and excite others about where we are going? It is hard work. What is required for being an incredible leader is Herculean.

Then, of course, Scott encountered Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte through their works, who are so influential in the industry. He also mentioned a book called “Range,” which discusses how generalists may survive in our hyper-specialized society. Because you enter this new place with fresh eyes, you could notice something that no one else has noticed yet. And Scott views this as a strength.

The science of how people improve their skills

Practice with intention. Scott highlighted the need for deliberate practice. You can work on your communication and presentation skills every day.

K. Anders Ericsson was a brilliant thinker and psychologist fascinated by how individuals perform at the top levels everywhere and how they get there. In 1993, he published “Deliberate Practice,” a key work that has changed Scott’s perspective on nearly everything. What genuinely distinguishes an expert from a novice is exactly that deliberate practice.

Experts, according to Scott, can rapidly assess a situation and have a few scenarios prepared as well as a strategy for what they can do at the given time. And then comes skillful intervention. Consider this scenario: you are giving a presentation, and your A/V goes out; you consider two or three possible directions for action, you then pivot, and continue. You do not make a big issue about it, but you figure it out and adapt.

When you think of it, this also happens on the automaticity level – you skillfully get everything back up and running. A novice in the situation would be someone searching for a fault or blaming someone else. You should instead learn to navigate and move on.

The four components of improving your presentation skills

Scott shared the four ingredients of leveling up your skills simplified – time, repetition, real-time coaching and feedback, and working on skills outside of your current ability level. When you think about presentation skills, often a couple of those ingredients are missing.

Consider a brilliant musician: they have spent at least 4 to 5 hours each day practicing and receiving real-time feedback to reach their present level of competence. However, you must be cautious when it comes to repetition; repeating the wrong things because you are not receiving feedback may lead your practice to backfire. That is why getting feedback is so important.

Finding the opportunities to practice

If you have the expertise, you will not even set a slide for you to fail in the first place. Many people have killed themselves before they begin, and it is not even if something goes wrong, but when something goes wrong. Remember that you are free to slow down and adjust.

We frequently overlook the practice field when it comes to presenting skills. People often say “go practice this, and then we are going to watch your final presentation”. There should be a practice field.

And you’re lying to yourself if you say, “Oh, I don’t have time for practice.” You have plenty of time! Take a job that’s totally unrelated to presentations – cardiologists, for example, present all day; they simply happen to present to an audience of three or four people, according to Scott. They influence people to turn their life around, which is leadership and communication. Alternatively, you speak with your group or coworkers and tell them stories in an attempt to influence them in some manner.

All of those scenarios are missed practice opportunities. You cannot measure the opportunities missed because you did not rehearse. About 90% of how the presentation delivery will go is already cast in stone before you even step on the stage. So, in the end, let’s go through the four ingredients needed to level up your skills.

Reframe your day and your mentality so that you can practice in every interaction you have. Switch your pitch, tone, and speed to practice using your voice. Look for any chance to put those skills to use.

This one is a little risky since you must repeat and reinforce the appropriate habits; otherwise, you will develop habits that will not benefit you. Repeat the right things.

Coaching and feedback in real-time
That will aid you in repeating the right things and progress.

Working outside of your ability level
Actively practice the skills that you don’t know how to do well yet. Scott, for example, said that to perfect storytelling, he intentionally incorporates a few minutes of telling a lively story that has humor and captivates in his presentation, to get to where he wants to be with his storytelling skills. He says that he is not there yet, but he is deliberately practicing it, which for us is the important part.


You can connect with Scott J. Allen on his LinkedIn. Check out his company’s website and The Captovation Podcast here (the latest episode is with our founder Boris Hristov).  His other podcast Phronesis: Practical Wisdom for Leaders is available here.

Also mentioned:
Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by K. Anders Ericsson
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
Tim Urban: Inside the mind of a master procrastinator

Listen to the full episode!

YouTube video