Article reproduced with permission
The People Bulletin
3rd December 2009

All the world’s a stage

If you have had to endure death by Powerpoint or suffered stage fright on the podium fear no more. Help is at hand with Stephen Engelhard’s print out and keep essential guide to successful presentations.

There are countless reasons why you or your staff might need to give presentations to an audience at work. Maybe you need to brief your team on health and safety, or new procedures at work. You might need to describe your research to an audience. Perhaps your job involves selling new products to sceptical customers, or telling a room full of parents why you propose to vaccinate their children. Or explaining last year’s figures to the board.
In any case, you are probably anxious about the business of presenting. Most people are, including the most experienced professional performers.

Some professionals spend a lifetime honing their presentation skills. Weighty books have been written on voice technique alone. You do not need to go into such depth, unless you are planning a career on the West End stage.
Working with a voice and presentation expert, Greg de Polnay, I recently produced a brief training DVD which sets out to teach the basic skills for transforming presentations from a painful ordeal to a manageable task. Armed with the simple techniques described here, you might still feel nervous, but at least you will have more confidence that you can keep the attention of your audience and get your message across.

1 Choose appropriate content
This is content which is:
right for your audience
deliverable effectively in the time and place available.

Find out about your audience in advance. Maybe you already know them. Maybe you can email them a questionnaire before the day, or have a chat with the person who invited you to speak. You need to know:
who they are and how many are likely to be there;
what they already know about your subject matter;
how well they will understand any jargon or technical content; and
whether they are likely to welcome your message or be resistant or even hostile to it.

The most common mistake presenters make is trying to say too much. It is very tempting. You might be excited about a rare opportunity to talk about something you know inside out. But if you have 10 or 15 minutes, or even 30, to talk about your lifetime’s work, it should be obvious that something has to be left out!

Maybe you are used to working with written words: a report, an essay, a proposal. Remember that spoken language is different, often less formal, than written language. For this reason as well as for brevity, it is crucial not to think of a spoken presentation as an opportunity to read out your report. If your presentation is based on a big piece of work, you have two choices:
devise a concise overview of the subject; or
select specific parts of the subject which you think will interest your audience.
Would you prefer your audience to leave feeling they’d heard too much from you, or not enough?

2 Prepare
Once you are satisfied that you have devised the right content, you need to practice delivering it (of course you can still change it if, while practising it, you realise it can be improved). This familiarises you with the content so that you can memorise some or all of it and avoid having to read from your notes too obviously. And you can think of alternative ways of making the same points.
Only by speaking out loud can you get a feel for speaking to an audience, and find out how long your words take to deliver. Speaking out loud is best done to live human beings (preferably willing ones) but if these are not available, any inanimate object can play the part of an audience, although it might not fidget or ask difficult questions.
Prepare cards with a few bullet points and headlines to jog your memory, instead of a complete text to read from paper. Then you will really be able to look at your audience, engage with them, and look and sound as if you are speaking spontaneously.
Ideally, it is good to practice your presentation in the room where it will take place. You will get a feel for the room, hear what your voice sounds like in there, and be able to check that any equipment you need is working. You might also be able to rearrange the seating to suit you better.

3 Start at the beginning
When giving your presentation, first impressions count. People often make the mistake of launching straight into their subject matter without any introductions.
Greet the audience (hello, good morning, hi, or whatever suits the occasion).
Tell them who you are. Your name, your role in the organisation, even if most of them already know you.
Tell them what you’re going to talk about. They can follow you more easily if they have some idea of where you’re going to lead them.

4 Body
Try to look relaxed. It might even help you to feel relaxed. Stand straight, and not too rigidly (or sit upright if being seated is appropriate to the occasion). Move around and feel free to use hand gestures if you naturally use these for emphasis.
Above all, look at the audience. They are not the enemy. Well, it is possible you might have to speak to a hostile audience. Maybe you need to tell them why their homes will be demolished or they will lose their jobs. Even in these cases, you have something to tell them which they are entitled to hear, and which you are entitled to say, so look at them. They are more likely to trust you if you make eye contact than if you appear to be trying to hide from them behind a script or a lectern. And for most presentations, there is no reason for the audience to feel hostile in the first place, so there is no reason to hide.
You might find it easiest to start by looking at one or two people. They will almost certainly reward you with little visual cues – subtle nods or smiles – which will build your confidence and enable you to look around the whole room happily.

5 Voice
Slow down. Whatever speed you are talking at, it is almost certainly faster than you realise. In part this is likely to be due to your nerves. It is also to do with your familiarity with the subject matter. You might know it all already, but your audience is hearing it for the first time, so they need much more time to make sense of it than you do.
Pause frequently to breathe:
it gives the audience a moment to think about what you have just said;
it gives you a moment to think about what you are going to say next;
it enables you to look around and check the reaction of the audience; and
it enables you to speak your next sentence without passing out.

6 Technology
Apart from the ubiquitous PowerPoint, there are old fashioned flip charts, white boards, overhead projectors and many other technologies meant to help you giving your presentation. Using them is not compulsory. Use them appropriately if you think they will help, but remember that all they can do is help you. They are not a substitute for you and your words and your communication with the audience.
There is a lot of talk these days of ‘death by PowerPoint’. We all know that sinking feeling of being in a meeting and seeing a presenter starting a slide show and wondering how many tedious pages we will have to endure before we are allowed our tea and biscuits. How can you avoid perpetrating such crimes against humanity?
Ask yourself whether you need PowerPoint (or similar) at all. What will it contribute?
Do not fill slides with dense text which repeats what you are going to say. In fact, don’t fill them with dense text at all. Do you want the audience screwing up their eyes to read from a screen instead of looking at you while you speak to them?
If you use text, confine it to headlines and ’signposts’ which help the audience pick out the key points and know where you are in the presentation.
Use PowerPoint for what it’s best at: showing pictures, graphs, videos and other elements which engage the eye and add something you, the presenter, cannot say.
Rehearse your slides (or other visual aids) in advance, as well as your words.
Print out a copy of your slide show to refer to, so that you always know which one is coming next.

7 Expect the unexpected
You have designed a great presentation, rehearsed it thoroughly, introduced it well, remembered to breathe, and generally done everything right. Even so, things can and will go wrong, many of them completely outside your control.
Question time is part of presenting which makes many people anxious – because you don’t know what to expect. First make it clear what kind of questions you are inviting. And if you still get questions you cannot answer, it’s best to be honest and say so, or offer answers by email next week.
Apart from difficult questions, the list of potential mishaps is endless:
A power cut or equipment failure stops you using PowerPoint.
Someone in the front row faints.
Only three people turn up.
More people turn up than the room can seat.
The room is double-booked or the event is running behind schedule, so you have to finish early.
The next speaker is late and you are asked to fill the extra time.
That’s life. If the problem is your own fault, admit your mistake, apologise and move on without letting it preoccupy you. No point in ruining the rest of your presentation because one part has gone wrong.
If the problem is outside your control, all the more reason not to let it upset you. The key is to know your material really well, so that you are not dependant on a script or a slideshow, so that you can say more or less than you planned, or tailor it to the unexpected needs of the audience. Above all, stay focused on your key points, so that whatever else you have to change, you still deliver the main message you intended to.

Steve Engelhard

Steve Engelhard is the proprietor of Angel Productions and has recently produced ‘Can You Hear Me?’ – a workplace training DVD on how to give memorable presentations.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009 at 2:28 pm and is filed under Training & Development.
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