We’ve all heard the expression in business, “Fake it until you make it.”

Starting out in the advertising business, I was a nervous-norvus any time I had to present to an audience of more than one or two. I remember my boss’s advice at the time. “Fake it until you make it. Just smile, act like you know your topic better than you do, deliver your pitch with confidence, and you’ll get there,” he counseled me. I got the message. And I’m still getting it. That is what it takes sometimes.

But I learned something recently by volunteering as a judge at the 2019 Future Business Leaders of America® (FBLA) New York State Leadership Conference, which was held in our town. As I sat through and evaluated eight teams of statewide high-school students’ five-minute presentations of their public service announcements (PSAs) on the topic of “the importance of soft skills in the workplace,” I learned a lot about soft skills, especially communication.

More importantly, I was reminded how an audience actually judges a presentation. I learned anew that first impressions are huge. I experienced how a smile, eye contact, and pleasant greeting instantly establish likability. And I rediscovered the power of passion for one’s subject.

Five minutes is plenty of time to sort out which students truly had bought into their pitch (versus the dude who couldn’t wait for it to just be over). The deciding factor in rating the presentations, for this judge anyway, turned out to be: who believes in what they are presenting? Who has a passion for it?

Our first-place presenters turned out to be a dynamic duo that knew their stuff; owned it; had done the research; made a strong PSA; stated their objective and made their case; choreographed a dynamic, interactive presentation; and smiled and interacted with the judges, making appropriate eye contact the whole time. They did all this in four minutes and change. These kids will go far.

Then there was Heavenlee, a name that testified to this young lady’s oratorical skills. It was just her in that room. No Powerpoint. No theatrics. Just her and the PSA she had shot, herself, using her iPhone. Heavenlee wove a story that had us judges captivated with its honesty. She didn’t check all the boxes for production or technical prowess, but she more than made up for any deficiency there with sheer believability, impeccable body language, command of words, and powerful delivery.

Authenticity is a word that is widely bandied about but sorely lacking in this age of social media. It doesn’t get more authentic than a high school student standing in front of two judges, telling her story, without notes, and without editing. The students that made it through to the regional, state, and national finals made their points by talking with the judges, not at them. So that, I guess, is the point I’m trying to make. Yes, in business sometimes we need to fake it until we make it. On the other hand, if we really want our audience to buy what we are selling, to practice what we are preaching, or to take the next step, we had better be authentic. We had better interact. We had better connect. We had better believe it before we present it.

As for the FBLA, this was my first experience with the esteemed 50-year-old institution. I wish I’d known about it when I was 16. It gave me a new appreciation for the quality, character, and drive of today’s youth. It renewed my hope that we (society) will “make it.” I would recommend volunteering to be an FBLA judge, timekeeper, or administrator. This is their creed:

I believe:
• education is the right of every person.
• the future depends on mutual understanding and cooperation among business, industry, labor, religious, family, and educational institutions, as well as people around the world. I agree to do my utmost to bring about understanding and cooperation among all of these groups.
• every person should prepare for a useful occupation and carry on that occupation in a manner that brings the greatest good to the greatest number.
• every person should actively work toward improving social, political, community, and family life.
• every person has the right to earn a living at a useful occupation.
• every person should take responsibility for carrying out assigned tasks in a manner that brings credit to self, associates, school, and community.
• I have the responsibility to work efficiently and to think clearly. I promise to use my abilities to make the world a better place for everyone.

For more on the FBLA, visit: fbla-pbl.org.

By Steve Johnson, Managing Partner,
Riger Marketing Communications, Binghamton, NY
sdjohnson@riger.com