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Few of us really enjoy giving presentations. In fact, many of us dread it. You often don’t know what people are thinking. Are they listening? Are they bored? Do they accept me and what I’m saying? Do they like me?
One of the biggest challenges in delivering successful presentations is building the confidence to work through these ‘unknowns’ and to trust that the audience is on your side. They want you to succeed in your presentation as much as you do.
There are eight steps you can take towards delivering a successful presentation:
1. Select the best mode of delivery.
2. Focus on the three Ws - Why, What and Who.
3. Develop a good structure.
4. Prepare your notes.
5. Manage your fear.
6. Get the most out of your voice.
7. Watch your body language.
8. Use visuals appropriately.
There are four modes of delivery. These are:
- reading a script
- reciting from memory
- semi-structured (also known as extemporaneous).
Each mode has its own strengths and weaknesses. Reading a script is great for sharing quotes or passages such as poetry, but often involves looking down. Reciting from memory is great if you have time to memorise what you’re saying - but it can sometimes feel over rehearsed, robotic and impersonal. Impromptu is great if you can do it - but it takes a vast amount of skill and confidence to do this, without going off track.
For most presentations, a semi-structured approach will serve you best. Semi-structured delivery involves having a plan of the main points you want to cover, but allowing flexibility in the way you deliver them.
This style of delivery offers confidence by having a plan, but it also encourages you to connect with your audience by not looking down at a sheet of paper and reading. It works best when you know the content really well. This way you can really talk to the audience and not distance yourself from them by trying to remember what you need to say next. Meanwhile, you can take advantage of simple ‘cues’ that remind you of the next point to make.
Before starting to write your presentation, or if you are revising an existing one, be sure to start with asking yourself the three Ws.
Why? Have a clear objective to your presentation. What do you want the audience to do as a result? Is it to inform? To entertain? To sell? Make sure you identify what will make your presentation a success. Having a clear sense of purpose from the outset will underpin the success of your presentation.
What? What are your key messages? What messages are crucial and which ones are ‘nice to have’ but not essential? Strip out all of the padding and keep your content punchy. You should have no more than four or five key messages.
Who? Make sure you know your audience before preparing what you’re going to say. What level are they at? What do they already know? What are they really interested in? Is there anything that would be inappropriate or offensive to them?
Determining your three Ws will help you prioritise your content and structure your presentation.
Presentations with simple structures are often the best. Use the three W’s to boil your content down to what you really need to include, and then organise it into a beginning, a middle and an end. Try using the BIKERB acronym.
B Opening BANG. You need to grab your audience’s attention. Starting with, ‘Hello, my name is ___, and I’m here to talk about ___’ is predictable and clichéd. Try opening with a shocking fact or statistic; a provocative, rhetorical question; an ambiguous image that conjures up interest; or a pertinent quote by someone relevant.
I After the opening bang, deliver your introduction. Explain what you will be talking about and how the presentation will unfold. Audiences like to know what is going to happen and where they are at all times. Think of your intro as a kind of signposting or map of the presentation.
K Deliver your key points one at a time. All of your key points should be directly relevant to your objective and supportive of your main argument. It’s easier to prepare a presentation that is long than it is to prepare one that is succinct.
E Use an example to illustrate and round-off each key point. It may be an image, a case study or a quote – but you need to bring each key point ‘to life’. Use examples that the audience can relate to.
R Provide a recap of the main ‘headlines’ that you covered and make sure you hammer home the overall message of your presentation. Spell out for the audience what it is you need them to remember.
B Conclude your presentation with a closing BANG. Connecting your closing bang back to your opening bang can offer a satisfying feeling of completeness. Leave your audience thinking about what you’ve told them. Make it obvious that your presentation has ended, but avoid clichés like ‘Thank you for listening’.
‘I must apologise for making a rather long speech this morning. I didn’t have time to prepare a short one.’
We often automatically ask, ‘Any questions?’ at the end of a presentation. Stop to consider whether this is necessary.
Sometimes people use this opportunity to vent political issues or frustrations or to show off. Questions also often can’t be heard by the whole audience. Opening up to questions means that you have no say as to how your presentations ends, and the audience may leave remembering more about the questions than your presentation.
If asking questions is vital, try providing opportunities for clarification at different stages throughout the presentation. But ensure you get the last word to reinforce the overall message of your presentation through your closing BANG.
To sum up the structure of a presentation:
Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Then tell them. Then tell them what you’ve told them.
Your notes should act as a simple set of cues that will jog your brain to deliver the next key point. They should not contain everything you are going to say. This will inevitably cut you off from your audience and hinder your connection with them.
Use an A5 (or smaller) piece of card that won’t flap around and distract the audience. List your main points in order, using enough key words to remind you what the point is about. This will enable you to look down momentarily, retrieve your next point, and then look back to your audience to deliver it.
Being nervous is a good thing. It means you care, that you want to succeed, and it gives you a much needed dose of adrenaline to give your presentation energy. But being too nervous can also impede delivery of a successful presentation, so you need to manage your nerves.
Feeling nervous is a physiological response. Our bodies are programmed, when confronted with a threatening situation, to either fight or take flight. So unless you take flight and make your excuses to not deliver the presentation, your body will release adrenaline to fight. It’s this adrenaline that has all sorts of strange effects, like blushing, shaking knees and hands, ‘butterflies’ in the stomach, dry mouth and shallow breathing. All of these reactions often distract you from focusing on the task in hand.
The main reason we feel scared about presentations is because there are so many unknowns. But there are four areas you can manage to help with cope with your nerves:
1. Manage your material
Be prepared. Know your material really well. Make sure you practice for friends or family beforehand and get their feedback. The only way to learn a presentation is by practising it – there’s no easy way around this.
2. Manage your resources
Be comfortable with the venue of your presentation. Check out the room in advance and visualise where you and your audience will be. Doing this will create one less unknown. Ensure any technology is working in advance and that your notes and props are all ready and in order. The last thing you need before starting a presentation is to be flustering with the smaller details.
3. Manage your audience
This is hardest because you have the least control over them. Have a plan for dealing with questions. Think about what they might be – and the answers to them – well in advance. Remember, you won’t know what they’re thinking. But if you’re enjoying delivering your presentation, chances are they will enjoy it too.
4. Manage yourself
Our imaginations are powerful things. They can set off physiological reactions in our bodies that are just as powerfully as events in real life. Before a presentation, we often imagine everything that could go wrong, and we picture ourselves failing. Try visualising everything going right. Try to see yourself delivering a good presentation right up until you start delivering it.
We can also limit the flow of adrenaline through our bodies by tricking our brains into thinking we are relaxed. Taking five deep, slow breaths through the nose and exhaling out through the mouth will slow down your pulse – and therefore the distribution of adrenaline around your body, giving your brain a signal that you are calming down. It really works. If you suffer from a dry mouth with nerves, try consciously collecting saliva in your mouth and holding it there for 20 seconds. This tells your brain that because there is saliva in your mouth, your physiological reaction to the threat is diminishing, and in turn you start feeling calmer.
There are seven factors to using your voice effectively. Stop to consider how well you attend to each factor. The first letter of each factor spells the acronym ‘PAMPERS’:
Projection - When presenting you need to speak louder than you would in normal conversation. Aim for your volume to reach the back of the room to ensure everyone can hear you.
Articulation - Try to say what you need to say simply and succinctly. Avoid rambling, using jargon or long-winded language. Avoid ‘fillers’ such as ‘ummm’ and ‘you know’.
Modulation - Deliberately alter the tone of your voice especially if you have a tendency to talk in a monotone. This adds energy to your presentation, attracts attention and helps to emphasise important points.
Pronunciation - Make sure that you know exactly how each word is supposed to be said, for example ‘specific’ – not ‘pacific’! If you’re not comfortable with how to pronounce and use a certain word or phrase, don’t use it.
Enunciation - Aim to deliver each word clearly. Avoid mumbling or cutting off the end of words before you’ve said them.
Repetition - Repeat key phrases with different vocal emphases to reinforce your messages.
Speed - Keep an eye on the pace. Most of us speak too quickly when delivering one-way communication. Don’t be afraid to pause – it gives the audience time to take in and process your messages.
Eye contact is a powerful way of connecting with your audience. Know your material well enough so you can maintain eye contact with the audience for most of the presentation. Try to look at everyone in the room once and catch their eye for 2–3 seconds and keep moving your eyes around to different people. Try not to fixate on any one or two people, nor focus on a single point on the wall or ceiling.
Avoid fiddling with anything when you’re standing at the front as it becomes very noticeable. Don’t take up a pen or anything else you might be tempted to fiddle with. Try not to cross your legs in front of you or hide behind a lectern or flipchart. Plant your feet so that you adopt an ‘open position’ and then move around if it feels natural. Generally, when you stop being conscious of what you’re doing with your body, the audience will too.
When we start preparing a presentation, many of us open PowerPoint and start typing words. But are these slides for us or our audience? Visual aids, including PowerPoint slides are there for our audience. They are there only to support the message that you’re delivering verbally - they should not be making it for you.
People generally can’t do two things at once. If you put words up on a screen, people will start reading them. But if you’re also talking at the same time, it’s not clear what you want the audience to do. Should they read? Or should they listen? As a presenter, you want them to listen, so don’t distract them.
Many of us like putting words on slides because we use it as a prompt for what we need to say next. But remember - the slides are for your audience, not you. Your memory joggers should be on your hand-held notes - not up on a screen for everyone to be distracted by. If you don’t know your speech well enough, practise it.
The best slides use images to convey messages that are difficult to communicate in words alone. Examples include photos, diagrams and simple graphs.
Remember that you are the star of your show - not your slides. We often stand to the side of the screen which is usually ‘front and centre’. Try making yourself front and centre and have any slides displayed to the side. They are there to support you, not the other way around. Other visuals may include props, video, posters or prepared flipcharts. Audiences appreciate different media - especially when it differs to PowerPoint.
Practice makes perfect. The best way to improve your presentations is by getting detailed feedback. You may not like everything you hear, but it’s for you to decide what feedback is helpful and what isn’t. Even better, film yourself and watch it back – you are your best critic.
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