Emma Serlin is the author of The Connection Book published
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FUNDAMENTALS OF BETTER PRESENTATIONS
Far too many people find the prospect of giving a presentation daunting. An equal number dread sitting through presentations because of past experiences with dull speeches that left them none the wiser. Yet presentations are a huge part of many people’s lives, so we need powerful tools to make presentations with confidence and achieve the desired results.
A presentation’s writing should be powerful, engaging and get the point across. The physical delivery should feel fresh, alive and full of energy. The following five chapters will help you achieve this and more.
CHAPTER 1: PRESENTATIONS
– CREATING SOMETHING SPECIAL
START WITH YOUR OBJECTIVE
To avoid waffling and going off topic, clearly define the objective of your presentation beforehand. Think about what effect you want to have on your audience. Do you want them to come away feeling inspired? Delighted? Motivated? Do you want them to buy the product, vote for you or change their life in some way? Every slide or spoken point should clearly refer back to the objective.
TIP: While there will be an overall objective, for a longer presentation there may also be smaller mini-objectives which can also have their own structure, as outlined below.
A GOOD STRUCTURE
There is a straightforward structure that works for most presentations and you can vary it to suit any occasion, situation and setting. It should be shaped into a sequence of: problem, solution, evidence, summary.
This might be a problem for your audience or a problem you are trying to get your audience to engage with. Whatever it is, there is
usually a problem. (That’s life!) It can be described in story form, or as a case study with a powerful hook.
This could be a quick fix, or a longer, more academic information piece. Ensure that you show how the solution works and how it will address the problem. This is the time to be an expert.
Whether it’s a pitch or an information-based presentation, you will need to offer the evidence to back up your point and establish trust and credibility. Evidence is needed so an individual can make deci- sions with both their head and their heart. Use qualitative evidence (i.e stories) to appeal to the heart and quantitative evidence (i.e. statistics) to appeal to the head.
Finish with a brief summation of their problem and why you believe you can help. To round off your presentation you can also mention your values or what is driving you.
TIP: Use numbers or map the presentation so it’s clear to follow. For example, “there are three strong arguments supporting this theory. I shall run through each of these in turn.”
ENRICHING THE STORY
In order to connect with people, we need to show them a bit of ourselves, to make things personal, and ideally infuse our storyline with a palpable sense of emotion and humanity. This shouldn’t be overdone, but sideline it at your peril.
– DELIVERING WITH PIZZAZZ
When it comes to delivering your presentation, it is important that you remember the essentials of making the right impression with both your body and your voice.
TAKING YOUR SPACE
As we know, first impressions count, so those first moments are crucial. Hold your shoulders back, your head upright and your chin level as you take the stage or stand up to speak. Next, take a moment to adsorb your space before you begin. This will ground you and let the audience see you and you see them. It’s a subtle thing, but it will help calm your nerves and is a great way to connect with the audience. A smile or a nod are also excellent ways to make that all-important connection. Always remember that they want to enjoy their time listening to you, so they actually have a vested interest in you doing well!
EYES IN PRESENTATIONS
You may not know your presentation by heart and, as such, will likely need to read from the notes you have prepared. When reading, of course, you can’t make constant eye contact and you don’t want to either. It pays to remember that eye contact is about quality, not quantity.
The place for ‘quality’ eye contact is the final few words of the sentence or important point. At these points, hold the gaze for a moment, as if you are checking with the audience to confirm that they have received your message. This makes a psychological statement to your audience, conveying that you want them to receive and understand each point. And they will start to feel as though you really care.
Unfortunately, people often get this wrong. They look up in the middle of their text, and then look down at the end of their sentence to grab the next sentence. This makes entirely the wrong statement
– that they are checking to see if people are still listening. Not the best impression to make!
TIP: Presentation preparation – When preparing for your presentation, underline the key points and draw a little eye symbol next to the final words of these points. This is where you should make eye contact to have the most impact. Remember, you’re going for sustained eye contact, with intention.
TIP: Eye contact with a large audience – When you have a large audience, sharing your eye contact with different parts of the room is a good idea. A reliable rule of thumb is to spread the wealth from left-front to left-back, middle-front, right-back and right-front. Or, simply scan left, right, middle.
CONNECTION SPACES FOR PRESENTATIONS
Use connection spaces to build, shape and give dimension to your
presentation. This will help your audience to remember the content and stay engaged. To do this, markup different sections in your presentation with your own relevant connection spaces.
If this feels a bit tricky, ask yourself what your goal is for each section. What do you want the audience to feel? Then match to the connection space that feels most appropriate. For example, you might use intimate to build intrigue, performance to excite and relaxed to make people feel at ease.
HOW TO ANSWER QUESTIONS
Always take a moment to acknowledge and compliment the question – it makes people feel recognized and if it is a particularly challenging question, showing them you are genuinely open to engaging with it will instantly soften them. Not only that, but it changes the dynamic, and allows you to feel more in control rather than at the mercy of the questioner. Moreover, it will help ensure that the entire audience is involved, which will keep everyone focused and engaged.
If you don’t know the answer, don’t try to hide or pretend that you do instead, it may be appropriate to offer a straight-up, ‘I don’t know.’ You can then immediately reframe the question, which is a great way of showing your willingness to learn. As long as you are open about not knowing, this technique leaves virtually no room for another person to counter-attack. If the question is complex, ask for a moment to jot down your thoughts. (See the tools in the
Fundamentals of Better Meetings section of this book for more on this.) What you must not do is react from a place of panic.
TIP: Always give yourself a moment to think when asked a question.
USING TECHNOLOGY FOR PRESENTATIONS
Make sure you know what facilities and equipment will be available at your meeting location. You will probably be using your laptop, so test everything in advance and have the cables needed to link to a projector. But don’t rely on the technology to deliver a brilliant presentation – have clear notes, bring along a backup print-out of your slides, and be prepared to talk it through. If technology lets you down, start with a strong statement to give your audience a good first impression.
CHAPTER 3: PRACTICE DOES MAKE PERFECT
This seems obvious, but is often overlooked: there is nothing like practice to get you ready for an important presentation or speech. Practising in front of a mirror or with a colleague will help you to become familiar with it, build muscle memory and identify any rough spots. If you want practice for speaking in general, join a speaking club or use the techniques below and you will quickly improve.
- Remind yourself of your overall objective and what, for you, is the best possible outcome of this speech. As you read through the material, make sure you feel attuned to this.
- Read through your prepared remarks and look for keywords or phrases that are particularly important. Highlight or underline these; later you will be highlighting them with your voice and gestures.
- Mark out little pause points after big ideas – this is where you will be connecting with your audience through eye contact.
- You can now do the first practice run. Be aware of the key points you want to deliver. Committing a handful of those important moments to muscle memory will be helpful when you actually deliver the speech.
- While practising, you may have become aware of different energy opportunities, where you move from one connection space to another. By marking these different spaces in your speech, you will ensure that a range of gestures are used and keep things interesting.
- If you want to deliver from memory, use an outline of single-word bullet points that act as reminders. You should avoid superfluous points. Having one or two of those points will be okay, but with any more there’s a chance that your audience will get lost.
- If your presentation is divided into several sections, make sure you know the most important point or two you want to make within each part, and any keywords or phrases linked to each point. Make sure these are underlined and use your gestures, tone and emphasis to highlight these ideas and get them into your listeners’ heads.
- Now you can practise the entire speech, either in front of the mirror or to a willing observer. If you are able to have an audience, take notice of when they seem engaged and when they are not. At the end, ask them about their levels of engagement at different points and what they got out of it, and see if that aligns with your objectives.
CHAPTER 4: OVERCOMING NERVES – EVEN GANDHI GOT NERVOUS
Some people are completely at ease when they speak to an audience, while nerves get the better of others. But fear of public speaking, known as glossophobia, has been found in hundreds of studies to be people’s number one fear, ranking even before fear of death.
Whether we have a full-blown fear or some nervous discomfort when speaking in public, it helps to have some ideas and tools at hand. A first useful step is to remember that there is rarely a rational basis for our fears. The strong fear we have is more likely to be a leftover primitive instinct from hunter-gatherer days, when being singled out and stared at by a large group of fellow humans could easily pose a survival risk. Obviously now, standing up and speaking to a crowd, whether to ten or ten thousand, is unlikely to pose any actual risk to your survival.
While this realization won’t eliminate the jitters, it will help you to get a grip and not take them too seriously. The good news is the more we engage in public speaking, the easier it gets. Read through the techniques and tools below and try out the ones that resonate with you.
CONNECT WITH YOUR NEED TO SPEAK
Some of history’s greatest speakers were in fact terrified of public speaking, including Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi. Both overcame this dread because their need to speak was greater than their fears. If you really want to communicate your message, embrace your need to speak.
Look at your prepared remarks and ask yourself:
- What are your goals for the audience; what are you giving to them? Will they be moved? See something in a new light? Have relief from pain or fear?
- Come back to the places in your speech that really deliver on these goals and tune into them. They are gems you will be placing into the hands of the audience.
FOCUS ON PRACTICAL DETAILS OF COMMUNICATION
Modern psychology tells us that we can’t think two opposing
thoughts at the same time. Try thinking of something sad while holding a grin. It’s not easy. That’s because your brain is receiving signals that it’s happy. If panic sets in during a presentation, simply focus on emphasis, or delivery, and let that shift your mind away from fear-based thoughts. If negative thoughts creep in, bat them away like a fly and focus on your listeners.
Some people are sceptical about visualization but scientific research has confirmed that it is, in fact, a valid cognitive tool. Psychologists have found that by imagining a physical process, you can build neural pathways in your brain that are almost exactly the same as if you had actually completed the activity!
Try visualizing yourself calmly getting out of your seat and walking onto the stage, looking at the audience and delivering your speech. Take it all the way to the applause and your sense of triumph. At points, you may start to feel anxious – this is fine, and shows you are in the imagination zone – but you have control! Simply rewind a little and do it again until you don’t feel the nerves.
This is an incredibly powerful technique and is well worth the concentration it requires. There is a lovely anecdote about a concert pianist who was jailed for nearly a decade, and when he got out he was even better at playing his instrument than before. People asked him how he did it, and he told them it was by practising every day
– in his imagination.
Imagine a ball of gold melting in your belly. Let its warmth spread down your legs and radiate up through your chest. With each breath you take in, the ball melts further. With each out-breath, the gold oozes through your body. Roll your shoulders slowly; let the gold ease into your neck. Open your chest and roll your shoulders back. Stretch your arms out. You can do this sitting in a chair just before you need to get up to do the presentation.
It has been proven that if you stand in a power position for two minutes, you will significantly reduce the cortisol stress hormone in your system and elevate your energizing testosterone levels. So before a presentation, go somewhere private and stand with your arms outstretched and legs open and firmly planted on the ground. Two minutes later, you will feel different. (To understand this better, watch social psychologist and Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy’s compelling Ted Talk on the science of power gestures).
MEET YOUR CHIMP
In his book, The Chimp Paradox (2015, Random House Export), English psychiatrist Steve Peters asserts that we are made up of two parts: the chimp and the adult. The chimp comes from the primitive limbic brain and is defined by base appetites and the fight-or-flight response. The adult, on the other hand, comes from the rational, higher functioning cerebral cortex. In high-pressure situations the chimp can get in the way, taunting us with our worst fears. He is the proverbial ‘monkey on your back’.
So, according to Peters, we need to recognize who is doing the talking. If it’s the chimp, simply ask yourself what your adult would say. The adult is usually more grounded and level-headed and helps put our fears into perspective.
You are feeling nervous, your heart is pumping and your breathing is fast, but by acknowledging this distress, half of its sting seems to dissipate. With this technique, you take notice of and label each of your physical symptoms in your mind. You are mindful of them, without judging them or fighting them. Awareness, in and of itself, can be a potent antidote to what troubles you.
IMAGINE YOUR AUDIENCE IS FASCINATED
Simply imagine that the audience is fascinated by what you are saying. If you hear any counter-thought, kick it out and replace it with the image of their thrilled faces. They are hanging on your every word. Start having fun with your speech and taking the time you need. Chances are the audience will pick up on this positive energy and become increasingly interested. Positivity tends to feed on itself, fuelling a virtuous circle.
DON’T SCREW UP! TOP TEN THINGS TO AVOID
Avoid these negatives and you’ll be doing really well!
- A weak opening: Shuffling papers, fiddling with your laptop, dealing with technical problems, an incoherent opening line.
- Statements that diminish your credibility: I hope this isn’t boring; I put this together at the last minute; I’m not really an expert on this but …
- Complicated jargon: You are aiming to communicate, not confuse.
- Waffling: It’s not about counting the words but making the words count.
- Lack of structure: If your presentation wanders, so will your audience’s attention.
- Poor body language: Slumping, pacing, shuffling, hands in pockets, back to the audience, curved shoulders, crossed arms.
- Lack of eye contact: Looking at the PowerPoint, your papers or your shoes instead of being intently focused on the audience.
- Overwhelming the audience: Don’t give too much information, use arcane terminology or overwhelm them with irrelevant detail.
- Over-reliance on the slides: Use your slides to add value, but don’t expect them to be the value!
- Not having everything you need: Before giving your presentation, write a list of everything you might need – audio-visual equipment, a pen, an illustrative prop, handouts, etc. Being unprepared is never a good look!
PART FOUR TAKEAWAYS
- 1. Make sure that your content includes a story and, if possible, some personal motivations or values. This will help build engagement with the audience.
- 2. When you come into the room or stand up to deliver your presentation, take a moment to simply connect with the audience. You can also use the floor to ground you at this point; it can help you feel anchored and confident.
- 3. Try using the connection space tool to give your presentation physical dimension and range.
- 4. Make sure you orient yourself towards the audience as you deliver your ideas, using eye contact and body language, instead of turning your body towards the slides.
- 5. If you are preparing a presentation, underline where you wish to make eye contact.
- 6. An antidote to nerves is good communication – get your objective clear and focus on your audience.
- 7. Practise, be it through visualization or the real thing will get your brain accustomed to the speech, which in turn will put you at ease and boost your confidence.
- 8. Remember to choose the fear-busting techniques you like, and rely on them for support during the presentation. Find what works for you.
- 9. It may be useful to understand your fears, but recognize that they are often unfounded. Use your adult brain to combat those fears, once you understand them.
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