In the 15 years I have worked with professionals on their presentation skills, I have discovered that there are very few of us for whom presenting comes naturally.
Most people dread making presentations, even those in senior management. Worse is that the ‘audience’ often dreads watching a presentation from an anxious presenter even more. That’s because the presenter ends up so concerned about how they’re coming across that they forget about the people listening. Their presentations are an arduous task and the way through it is to grit their teeth and get it over and done with as quickly as possible.
One of the key reasons why presentations fall flat is that ‘presenting’ is not seen as a key skill or job, and presenters rarely receive training. We tend to put much more emphasis on the content, forgetting that much of what an audience reacts to is non-verbal. Increasingly, we are asked to stand up and speak, underprepared, to share our knowledge, in front of colleagues, clients and total strangers.
So how can we make our presentations better?
Get inspired by actors
Actors train, rehearse and prepare to give a believable and compelling performance. The very nature of their job is terrifying for most people; remembering lines, dealing with difficult audiences as well as the fear of failure. However, the actor’s ‘toolbox’ contains the tricks of their trade to over come nerves and perform efficiently.
I suggest that the two most important tools for ensuring a lively, engaging and relaxed presentation are:
- Preparation. Most people prepare their material. However, not many think about preparing themselves. Actors, musicians and athletes ‘warm up’ to achieve a top performance.
- Connecting with your audience. What do people need to be able to listen comfortably and take in the message? From writing to presenting, put yourself in the shoes of your audience. Focus on them; are they nodding, engaging you with questions, or looking as if they are waiting for a dental appointment?
- Practice. Once you have written your ‘script’ make friends with it. Practice not only makes perfect, it gives you confidence. Speak your presentation aloud, present it to a friend, practice in the car, or record and listen to it, keep going until you are sure of your message and what you want to achieve. Make it as succinct as possible.
- Remember to breathe! Fear causes ‘nerves’, which result in adrenaline creating a Fight or Flight response. In this state we are not in control. Whenever you think of your presentation, at home or work, take a moment to notice your breathing and get used to pausing with a few relaxed, deep breaths.
- Warm Up! Like you, actors experience nerves. Correct breathing is the most effective way to calm down and focus. Before you make a presentation (in your office, restroom, or wherever you can find a quiet corner), stand with your legs hip width apart, and arms hanging loose. Close your eyes, listen to the sounds around you and then bring your attention to your breathing. Take a deep breath in and hold it. Where are you holding your breath? Most people breathe into the upper chest, which causes our shoulders to tense and creates a fear reaction (adrenaline starves the brain of oxygen so we can’t think straight.) Breath out. Open your eyes. Put your hand on your lower belly and slowly breathe into your ‘belly’. As you breath in, allow your belly to expand. Then contract it to push the air out. Exaggerate this way of breathing, feeling your hand going up and down. Do this for a few minutes and feel your self becoming more focused. If you are relaxed, your audience will be relaxed. Without adrenaline, we can stay in the moment and be present with our thoughts and actions. So can the audience.
- Commit. No matter how dry the information is, if you are not committed to what you are saying, the audience won’t be either. Commitment needs energy. Before the presentation, sing in the shower, listen to music that energises you, do a few jumping jacks, anything that makes you feel good. Get the endorphins pumping.
Make your presentation efficient and enjoyable with preparation
There are four things to remember about preparation:
Making the audience connection
The first connection the audience has with you is visual. Whether you are getting up from your seat, walking onto a podium or entering from the rear, what do they need to see to trust you? Even if you are sitting down, prepare yourself. Take a few deep belly breaths and relax your shoulders and focus. Walk tall to avoid the ‘crumpled, mumbler’ look. Keep in the moment and stay present so your thoughts don’t race ahead of you. Take your time to make yourself comfortable, make sure you can see your notes easily.
Continue the connection: Make eye contact and smile.
Welcome your listeners with your eyes. Eye contact is the first step for engaging with your audience. It removes the fear barrier, making you and them feel comfortable. Take a moment just to ‘be’ before you speak.
Now you are ready to present!
One final tip: I am sure you have heard the phrase ‘Death by Power Point.’ I would like to add another: ‘Death by the Lectern’.
Standing behind the lectern immediately puts a barrier between your audience and yourself. Stand to the side of it; you can still bend the microphone towards you. If you have to stand behind the lectern, do not slump as slumping restricts breathing and makes you look bored. The lectern is only there to prop up your notes.