Students flock to the Atkinson Graduate School of Management with the understanding that they will come out the other side with the elite skill set of a true business leader. We put our dreams of an early-20’s retirement out of our minds in exchange for the promise of the tools of managerial decision-making, a cross-functional understanding of management, and many other skills that will help us land the sexiest job possible once we graduate. As the first month of school begins, many of us are still riding the high of starting a new, life-changing experience, letting the professor’s warm words describing all of the wonderful things we’re about to learn wash over us. And then the first PACE presentation sneaks up on us, and we realize: this is going to be a lot of work.
My PACE team had this realization exactly two weeks ago, when we met to do our first presentation run-through. In PACE (Practical Application for Careers & Enterprises), a class that epitomizes “learning by doing,” we spend the first semester presenting case studies about non-profit organizations. During almost every class, one group gets to send two representatives up to the front of the class to own the spotlight for 45 minutes. This breaks down to about 15 minutes of presenting the material from memory (no notes allowed!), 20 to 25 minutes of questions from the class and Professor Larry Ettner, and a few minutes at the end for critiques or standing ovations.
As our team’s first presenters, Sveta Krishna and Museb Alkhomshi, tested the waters of presenting a case study in front of our small group, we saw that we had long hours of work ahead of us. The intelligence and motivation were there, but the confidence and expertise were lacking. One presenter’s speech was fast-paced and excited, while the other’s was slow and deliberate, and both of them had their eyes pointed down at their notes for at least half of the presentation. Much to our dismay, we realized that enthusiasm and good intentions would do very little for us.
The week that followed consisted of presentation practice every single day for Sveta and Museb, and many of these practices were done in front of our own group and some second year TA’s. In addition to explaining the case information and presentation structure from memory, our two resilient team members put up with criticism of their every move and a barrage of questions drawing from every class reading to date.
Last Monday morning we gathered to watch Sveta and Museb do one last practice before getting up in front of the crowd. Their extensive practice had clearly paid off. The notes were gone, the pace of their speech was much more evenly matched, and they could respond to every one of our questions. In the afternoon class, as their presentation unfolded, the rest of our team watched with pride as we saw two blossoming business leaders emerge in front of us.
In a post-presentation debrief, both Sveta and Museb admitted that although they had public speaking experience from their undergrad coursework, they were nervous going into the presentation. “Presenting in front of Larry was different,” Sveta told me, “I knew I would be criticized – regardless of how well I did in comparison to my peers, I knew he would encourage me to fix some part of my presentation style.” She explained how this understanding made her work that much harder: “Knowing he would present us with challenging questions made it even more vital for us to really understand the material we were presenting on, and not leave holes in our content.”
Sveta advises anyone facing an imminent presentation to “Practice, practice, practice!” She also notes the value of talking through the material with peers as much as possible, to be sure that all ground has been covered. Museb, who is from Saudi Arabia, warns international students against getting too fancy, saying “Only use words you really know… this is not a time to try out new vocabulary.” Having watched many others present, including my own team members, I now covet these tips, as they will be badly needed when my time to present comes. Our group chose to save our most confident speakers for bigger presentations that will come later in the semester, but now I am sure that Sveta and Museb’s first-time presentation experience has left with them far more valuable ammunition than my pre-existing confidence of my oration skills.
The lesson learned from this PACE presentation experience is that Atkinson truly is preparing us with valuable business skills, but there is a lot more to it than simply attending class. The competencies don’t happen to us, we have to put in long hours, openly accept extensive criticism, and focus on providing quality thorough results. I am beginning to realize how much more work there is to come before I graduate (with honors and a lucrative job offer, of course), but the path has become much more clear and concrete. I know I’m still a far cry from completing Atkinson’s program with my full set of business leadership skills, and so for now I am content to look forward to the day when I can proudly carry the knowing smile of the second-year MBA student, as I observe the new first-years who have yet to discover how much work they have ahead of them.