Giving presentations

While I was writing a review of a book on presenting it occurred to me that I have some knowledge and experience of presenting that might be useful for other people.

I have presented many times to many different types of people and I actually enjoy presenting now. However, like most people, I used to find the idea of public speaking terrifying. That isn’t to say I don’t get nervous anymore, because I do. Every time! But lots of practice has made it much easier and most of the time I enjoy the experience. This is not a phrase I use very often, but a presentation that has gone well can give you a real buzz!

I remember the first time I had to give a presentation. During my time at uni I was working as an IT trainer, and was encouraged to give a lesson to the group I was working with. It was only 30 minutes long and they were the most friendly audience imaginable. I was terrified. I can’t remember the details of the lesson other than it was about computer peripherals! I’m not sure whether the content was any good but I remember how I felt doing it. Awful! I was so self conscious. I felt like I was stuttering and muddling my words, I forgot to cover several important things I meant to say,  I was shaking, and I had a wall of blank faces ahead of me making me think that no-one understood what I was saying. As soon as I finished I left the room and burst into tears! I felt so stupid. How it looked from the outside was entirely different. My rather surprised manager gave me a big hug and asked what was up? When I explained how I thought I had messed up, he laughed. Apparently I looked cool and calm and managed to successfully get my message across. It turns out my audience found it interesting and thought I did fine!

I learnt some valuable lessons in that one, awful experience:

  • It isn’t as bad as it feels!
  • Your audience doesn’t know what you intended to say, so if you get muddled up, it doesn’t matter
  • Blank faces doesn’t mean your audience is bored or confused
  • Avoid peripherals as a topic!

The next time I presented I still felt very nervous, but it wasn’t as bad. I spent some time teaching, and as part of that I did some three hour workshops where I would spend probably  about half that time presenting to small groups of hours. This was really valuable experience, because the presenting was fun (including being part of a double act for part of the workshop), it was quite interactive with the audience asking questions and discussing their experiences, and the repetition meant that I had no concern about “knowing my stuff”. That’s when presenting became fun and enjoyable. So lessons from a much more positive experience:

  • Knowing your subject improves confidence
  • Repetition of material makes it easier to remember and improves the flow
  • Involving the audience makes the experience more fun for everyone

After doing these workshops I have actively sought out opportunities to present. It’s fun. Well most of the time! So I must have done nearly 40 presentations in a variety of different circumstances and I can say that (ignoring my first) there are two that have gone badly.  Both of those two were to small groups of ‘experts’ with a notoriously ‘difficult’ person in the room that enjoyed attacking the presenter. One of them had the added unpleasantness of so-called leaders who were supposed to be being supportive and encouraging who were clearly not listening because their email, Facebook, or whatever was more important. The difficult people had a strong reputation for behaving in an aggressive and antagonistic way. These were deeply uncomfortable experiences, but this wasn’t because I was a bad presenter, it was because I was saying something they didn’t agree with. I have also done a number of other presentations with audience members that seem to want to disagree with everything I say. In some cases it seems to be the same offenders and appears to be an attention seeking thing, and others where I didn’t explain my point well enough, or they have a different perspective. With these types of situation it is important to answer questions and criticisms calmly, rationally, and as honestly as possible. If you don’t know the answer it is OK to say you don’t know the answer to a question. Offer to continue discussions later in order to move on. Remember just because one person in the room disagrees with you, it doesn’t mean that most people do. In both of the presentations that went badly I had other members of the audience chip in to agree with my point of view and deflect the attack. So things can go wrong, but for the most part people want to hear what you have to say. Don’t take these things personally, and learn from the experience.

Two things make presentations easier and better 1)practice 2)preparation

The more you present the more relaxed you are and the better you get at doing them. Practice your presentation. You can practice on your own, get family and friends to listen, or record yourself. Saying your words out loud makes it much easier to remember what you wanted to say. Write down in full sentences what you want to say and read those words as practice. You won’t need them in the presentation but it will make it much easier to remember what you wanted to say and how you wanted to say it later on. Preparation also helps you to relax and be a better presenter. Preparation includes making sure that your presentation is suitable for your audience and that when you come to do the presentation you know what it is you want to say. You need to make sure that your presentation is about something your audience wants to know about. It can be easy to fall into the trap of writing the presentation you want to give rather than the presentation your audience wants to hear (think peripherals). Your topic might be the most fascinating thing in the world to you, but what is the value for your audience, what do they want to know, what will keep their interest? Think about who your audience is and how much they know already. Pitch it too high and they won’t follow you and pitch it too low and they will tune out.

A presentation is rarely compelling if the speaker is reading a written down speech.  “Death by PowerPoint” sums up the qualities of a presentation where the presenter are reading the content directly off their slides, leading to little audience engagement, and an audience that is reading the slides but is no longer listening. PowerPoint can be a useful tool for communicating information, particularly visual information, and for providing the speaker with a reminder about where they are and what they are going to say next. Ideally stick to pictures and just a few words. Do use a spell-checker! Don’t make the slides overcomplicated.

When you are presenting stand up straight, don’t fidget, look at your audience, and smile! When talking move your eyes slowly across the whole audience to bring them into the conversation and try not to focus on just one person all the time. If you find it uncomfortable looking at the audience, look just above their heads. Make sure you are facing the audience when you talk, it can be easy to turn around and start talking to slides on a screen rather than the audience!

Finally, remember to breathe! It may feel awkward having pauses when you talk, but you need time to stop and think about what you are going to say next and your audience need a chance to digest what you just said. If you find it difficult to pause (I know I do) then take a sip of water every now and again between major points in the presentation.


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