Most of us at sometime in our career will need to stand in front of an audience. Whilst this comes naturally for some, it fills others with dread. Here are some presentation skills to consider when it’s your turn to be on stage. With preparation and practice and by following a few simple rules, none of us need to be afraid.
Although it may look that they are speaking “off the cuff,” even naturally gifted public speakers need to prepare. Crucially you need to know who your audience is, what they are interested in and what you want to tell them.
Pitching your presentation at the right level is crucial, this is particularly true with technically complex topics but also with legal and financial ones. In small groups that you know this is easy, if asked to speak at a larger conference, it is worth contacting the organisers. If it’s a mixed audience you need to present in steps, I’ll come back to this later.
Nothing turns an audience off quicker than not covering the topics expected. If a businessman gives up time to attend a conference it is because they are interested in the topics advertised. Most organisers will ask you for a synopsis beforehand, make sure you keep to this. Otherwise look at the conferences literature yourself. If the topic is not for you, decline the offer to speak, you are wasting yours and the audiences time.
Few of us can keep an audience engaged for more than about twenty minutes, with introductions and questions no more than thirty. Resist requests to speak for longer, similarly, ten minutes is too short to make an impact so should also be resisted.
In accepting an invitation to speak, ultimately we want to promote our businesses. Speaking at a conference or a local networking group is not though a place for hard selling. You should use the opportunity to demonstrate your expertise, use your products and services as examples but keep it primarily informative.
A simple but highly effective tool is to involve your audience. A useful trick is to ask how many are familiar with topic XYZ, perhaps following up with something like how many have used it. This tactic draws them in making them feel part of a meeting rather than being in a lecture. Use near the beginning and be ready to use it again.
Questions and Answers
Try to think of the likely and less likely questions that will be asked, with your colleagues if necessary, pre-prepare answers. Prepare for awkward and controversial questions.
The temptation is to cram too much in, you’re asked to present because of your knowledge and you want to demonstrate it. The opposite is where you need to aim. By giving them a taster of what you know, there’s more chance you’ll be asked back again.
Content overload kills many presentations. My tactic is to summarise the main points I wish to cover then cover half of them! Alternatively, try to keep it to three main points.
- Right at the start list the topics you are going to cover with a brief sales pitch of what it is about
- Cover each topic in order, starting with a simple explanation with following slides having more complexity
- Summarise the key messages and benefits (if relevant)
- Have a slide for Questions
- Finish on a slide with your name and contact details
Presenting to an audience with varying levels of expertise needs some thought. Striking the right balance is challenging. For each of your main points, start with a general slide explaining “simply” what it is about. Further slides can add detail, consider including some as backup slides that you can use in teh question time if required.
Supporting your presentation with slides is well worthwhile. It allows you to use diagrams, possibly videos and photographs to enhance your words. Crucially, it should support not mimic the presentation. In other words, don’t simply put your speaker notes on the slides, people want to hear what you have to say.
Preparing your slides
There are plenty of guides and slide templates online giving advice. I’ll stick to one, never choose a point size less than 32 point, if the text won’t fit on the slide at this size, reduce the word count, or if you must, add an extra slide. It’s important that everyone in the room can read the slides.
Diagrams are best shown on separate slides, again for visibility. Keep them simple with no detail. If you need to show a detail part, have a separate “zoomed” in slide. Slides should include key numbers and figures.
Some guides say have a one slide for each two minutes, it is just a guide. I count 2-3 slides on the same point, separated for clarity purposes as one.
Having slides is one thing, being able to project them is another. Always have your own laptop with you and copy the slides onto a memory stick. Try to get to the venue early so that you can test it out beforehand. Videos seem more troublesome than slides, so always have a backup plan.
In larger venues microphones, preferably clip on models are recommended
Samples that can be handed out and passed around can be useful, but don’t overdo it as they are also distracting.
Unless you are going to have the use of an autocue, beware of using them. Standing reading notes from a screen or paper comes across poorly. Notes should still be made and rehearsed as many times as needed. Don’t expect to learn them like a stage actor, but be familiar with them. Instead, for the live show, just make bullet point notes of the main issues you need to cover for each slide.
Even those gifted with natural presentation skills should take time to prepare. Read your notes many times over, make as many edits as you want. Make sure it fits inside the time slot with a few minutes to spare.
When your rehearsing, stand up and look in a mirror it’s also useful to make a recording. This is a good time to fine tune the bullet point aide-memoires you will take with you on the stage. Repeat as many times as needed to get it flowing smoothly and right. If possible try to rehearse at the actual venue, get use to teh surroundings, decide where you want to stand and test the technology.
Audiences know what a challenge performing on stage is, many will have done it themselves. They are there to listen not to catch you out or laugh at you, so don’t worry about it not being perfect. Avoid adding to the stress, arrive in plenty of time, talk to people, have a coffee and relax. Remember you are the expert, that is why you have been invited to talk. You are there for your expertise, not because you are a hilarious speaker.
Referring to the previous section, the more you have rehearsed, the less stressful it will be on the day.
Unless the venue is local, it’s worth staying overnight close by.
At the Show
Networking with delegates before presentation helps you to relax, it breaks down barriers and can even provide last minute feedback. Don’t drink too much, wanting a call of nature on stage is not a good idea.
Take your time, we seem to talk faster when nervous. Timing is not just important for comedy. When you get to the podium, take a bit of time to relax, let the noise naturally die down before speaking. After each topic, take a few seconds to allow the message to be processed by your audience. Take good breaths. Look around, if faces look confused, offer to elaborate.
Unless you are good at humour, it’s probably best avoided. A joke that fails isn’t a good start.
Check your attire, dressing up helps to boost confidence. Try your best to be relaxed, be yourself don’t try to emulate a speaker you admire, just have your own style. Smiling helps to build trust. I prefer to walk around even into the audience I find it builds stronger contact than standing remotely behind a podium. Look at different people in your audience, making eye contact builds trust.
Don’t panic if you adlib or deviate from your speaker notes, talking naturally about your area of expertise is what matters. Just use the slides and the bullet points to make sure you haven’t missed anything. You can do this publically, no one will mind!
Make sure there is some to drink, it’s surprising how thirsty public talking makes you. Have a sip is also a good foil if you need a quick break to re-compose your th
This stage, rather than the presentation itself can be the most stressful. Always repeat the question, this benefits the audience and you, giving you time to think. Make sure that the question time is not dominated by one person or interest group. Use names if known, it’s more personal.
These are the ones you already have answers for, try not to make it look obvious that you have the answer already, take a pause whilst supposedly thinking for an answer.
New and Awkward Questions
Questions with unprepared answers are more stressful to handle. Importantly you don’t want to say something that could be misquoted or has other consequences. After repeating to the audience, repeat it silently to yourself. Sometimes it’s useful to ask a question back to clarify something or to buy more thinking time, don’t rush your reply. Only when you have had enough thinking time should you respond.
If the question is beyond your remit, don’t answer it, be polite and promise that you or someone else will get back with an answer.