I recently attended and spoke at a conference on the topic of customer experience. As at every conference, throughout the day, there were many speakers and panellists – some great, and some less engaging. For some, as they walk toward the stage, you can see that they are filled with the fear of god, and yet others are clearly enjoying the experience. As I ran through the presentation the evening before with work colleagues, we shared advice on presenting well, looking confident and creating a buzz. Of course, the more you present in front of an audience, the more you learn and the better you get, but here are 5 pieces of practical advice that will help those who may not yet feel like they have cracked it.
Eye contact: Whether in front of a small team of colleagues, or an amphitheatre of conference attendees, it will feel nerve-wracking as you look around the room as you kick off your presentation. That’s OK, even if you’ve done it a few times, you still get a frisson of nerves. But as the nerves kick in, we sometimes see behaviours that don’t help in your delivery. Mumbling, stuttering, repeating a section because you missed a line you wanted to include, and worst of all, avoiding eye contact. If you want the audience to pay attention to you, you’ve got to give the impression that you are talking to each and every one of them. And it can feel off-putting if you look someone in the eye (especially if they look disapproving or disinterested.) It’s not really going to be possible to give eye contact to every one, especially with a big audience, but a handy tip I learned years ago is to scan the room, looking at everyones’ eyebrows. It sounds a little bizarre, but it will give that sense of eye contact, keeping your audience with you throughout your presentation.
Dramatic Pause: Every presentation has a couple of points where you REALLY want people to pay attention. If you are presenting after other, less engaging presenters, this can feel like a tricky thing to do. Another very useful tip I learned from Nicci Take at M62 is the “dramatic pause”. As you approach a key message that you want to “land”, stop talking suddenly and wait. Instinct kicks in, and the audience will suddenly pay attention again (wondering why you stopped.) As difficult as it is, count to 3 or 4, then deliver your message when you can see the audience looking at you directly again. It’s a cool technique that you can practice on family and friends to gain confidence in using it before your use it in your presentation. Word of warning, don’t overuse, keep it for the important moments.
Don’t over rehearse: I am a terrible planner for presentations, because I like to fly by the seat of my pants and minimise planning. For me, it will flow better and sound more natural that way. That’s not to say that lack of planning hasn’t come back to haunt me when I have overrun on timing or missed out important info. But by and large, it works for me. At the other end of the spectrum, you have the over-planners, who heavily script every slide in their powerpoint deck, rehearse over and over again until they get everything just right, and end up sounding like a robot talking at, not to the audience. Whilst you may shudder at the thought of only doing 2 or 3 run-throughs before you deliver your presentation, if you know your topic well, have a positive attitude and something interesting to say, you shouldn’t need to create a script and prepare till their is no personality left in your presentation. Keep notes per slide to a minimum, bullet points so that you won’t be looking at the prompter to read a message word for word. Your audience will appreciate a more natural style where you are at ease and talking in your normal style.
Don’t read the slides!: My pet hate with presenters is when they read out the bullet points written on a powerpoint slide (usually accompanied by reading their notes that deliver the same message in slightly different words.) This makes for THE MOST BORING presentation. People can read, they don’t need you to do it for them! Too many bullet points on a slide distract the audience from you, as they strain their eyes to read the words. I like to keep the slides as an amplification of my message, using one or two key words to get the audience’s attention. Then, with the help of a dramatic pause, you have the audience wondering what you are going to say, and hanging on your every word. Just remember that a Powerpoint presentation is NOT what the audience is there for, you are!
Know you message and deliver it clearly: On the topic of the slides you create to accompany and enhance your presentation delivery, I’ve already suggested that too many words distract the audience, but it can also distract you. By keeping the slides short and sweet, you are more likely to stay on message. If you want to take this one step further, identify one single word that will remind you of the critical message(s) to get across in your presentation. In an ideal scenario, with practice, a single word per slide or key message will prompt you deliver the message you want to get across. It also makes for a very easy one post-it crib note! This is most helpful when your slot is unexpectedly cut short (and this happens very often!) Instead of delivering your full presentation, you can focus on your key words to get your message across in the shortest possible time.
Overall, presentation skills are developed over time – the more you do, the better you get. Even better, the more you do it, the more you learn to turn nerves into a positive buzz, that helps you focus and be more confident. As you develop your skills to deliver an engaging message, find a happy medium, using a key word to trigger the key message per slide, and be yourself to make it personal and memorable. And of course, the audience thinks you have something worth saying, so enjoy delivering your presentation!