Public speaking was once one of my greatest fears, I’d do anything to avoid it at all costs. This fear was borne from school; I’d given plenty of presentations on topics I had little interest in and of course standing in front of a class rambling a load of nonsense about a topic I knew nothing about only succeeded in making me look foolish – denting my confidence and leading to embarrassment in similar situations later in life.
Just over a year ago I decided I was going to become a confident and successful public speaker. I’ve since turned a feared activity that I was hopeless at into something that I now enjoy. I no longer have any fear, in fact I get a great buzz from it and try to take as many opportunities to talk as I can. This is not to say that I am an expert by any means, I still have a lot to learn – but I have come a long way from where I started.
Overcoming this fear has opening up many opportunities for me; I got a job teaching, I recently gave a talk on storytelling at Creative Camp – a small conference in Belfast and pitched a product in front of the worlds top student entrepreneurs and venture capitalists at Stanford University in California. This time last year, I never imagined myself doing any of this.
I wrote this article to share some of the knowledge and experience I’ve gained so far. It combines some of the teaching I’ve received during my Masters degree along with personal experience. It will provide some useful advice on how to put a successful presentation together and deliver it.
Structure – Tell Them a Story
It’s important that your presentation has a well defined structure and narrative, you want to take your audience on a journey that flows naturally and clearly leads from one point to the next. Define the main sections of your talk and put them in a relevant order – give thought to transitioning between sections – treat it like a conversation and don’t abruptly jump between unconnected points or sections as this can confuse people. Clearly label each section with an appropriate title on your slides so your audience can follow the structure.
At the beginning of your presentation, give people an overview of the main sections and close with a summary at the end to remind people what was covered.
This requires some time and planning, so start on paper first or type out a narrative before you move to Keynote or Powerpoint.
If your not comfortable with the idea of a room full of people staring at you endlessly, then it’s a good idea to have some kind of slides – this gives the audience something else to focus on.
Use well designed slides. Even if your audience aren’t seasoned graphic designers people will pick up on bad design. If you have no design skills, find someone who does or else use a well designed template. Good slides will portrait a professional image about you.
Use animations with caution as these can look tacky, if you must use them then use simple transitions and don’t over do it. Be wary of long transitions as these can cause awkward moments in your presentation as you wait for an animation to finish. Personally, I tend to stay clear of them altogether.
Keep the information on each slide to a minimum, if you can represent a point with an image or a diagram then do it.
Do not use slides that contain large amounts of text, quotes or too many bullet points. If people are forced to read a lot of information, then they won’t be listening to you.
Slides shouldn’t mirror your spoken narrative, they are simply there to re-enforce your point or illustrate a point more effectively.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!
I can’t enforce this enough. You will not be able to walk on stage and “wing it”. If you try it, people will notice and you will look unprofessional if you haven’t prepared. Run through your presentation until you know it off by heart. Try running through it in your head while your in the shower or driving to test your ability to recite it subconsciously.
If you learn the content off by heart, you will breeze through it on the day – it will give you confidence and you won’t be worrying about forgetting what you were going to say.
If you are pitching and there is a time limit, then practice with a stopwatch and keep adjusting the presentation until you can pitch it perfectly every time within the allocated time frame. Going over your time allowance because you are unprepared is unprofessional and will reflect badly on you. There is no excuse for this and you may be cut off when you reach the end of your time.
If you are using your own equipment, make sure and check it beforehand – ensure your laptop is charged and you have brought any accessories you require such as a remote control or a specific VGA adapter you may require – especially if you are using a Mac.
If using someone else’s computer, ensure you have submitted your slides in advance and always bring a backup on a USB memory stick, it doesn’t do any harm to have a copy on Dropbox as well just in case. It’s also a good idea to have a copy of your presentation in both Keynote and Powerpoint formats if possible. In Keynote; you can easily save a copy as a Powerpoint presentation which will work on any PC.
Don’t rely on other computers to have the fonts you require. If your using non-standard fonts then place them into your presentation as images. Always test your presentation on someone else’s computer.
Check your slides as many times as you can, check your spelling. I’ll say that again; check your spelling. You should accept nothing short of perfection before presenting your work in front of a room full of people.
Breathing The Room
This was amongst some of best advice on presenting I have received, courtesy of Andrea Montgomery in her presentation workshop. When you arrive on stage, take a moment to relax – look around the room and take a deep breath, feel yourself breathing in the size of the entire room and then exhale. You will feel much more at ease and less intimated by the size of the room and audience.
Get onto the stage as early as possible so you have more time to familiarise yourself and make yourself comfortable. If people are switching laptops or preparing equipment then this is a great opportunity to do this.
When you start speaking, it’s important to gain peoples attention straight away – you may have to cut through some background chit-chat in the audience. To do this, address your audience loudly with a Hello or Good Morning then pause for a second and then continue with your introduction. A loud dramatic introduction like this will silence the audience and gain their attention.
When you are talking remember to pause for breaths regularly, it can be easy to go full steam ahead into your presentation – especially if you are nervous but it will catch up on you and you will find it difficult to talk when you run out of breath. Talk loudly and clearly; project your voice to the back of the room.
Your non-verbal communication says more about you than your verbal, so it’s important to consider this as well. If you have practiced, you will be able to reproduce your talk without having to consciously think about every sentence – this frees up your conscious awareness to focus on your body language.
If you are a low energy presenter then stand confidently – keep your feet shoulder width apart and root yourself on the spot. Don’t cross your legs. If you are a high energy person and like to walk around the stage – occupy as much space as possible to develop a strong presence.
Use your hands to gesture and re-enforce your points. Use open hands with your palms facing upwards. Don’t gesture with your palms facing downwards as this is condescending. Use your hands to direct people to the screen when required.
Make sure not to fidget, don’t put your hands in your pockets or stand in an awkward position with your hands by your side or in a V shape in front of your body. If your passionate about what your talking about you will gesture naturally.
Be sure to engage with the audience using eye contact; this can be difficult if your nervous and requires practice but make eye contact with as many people as possible. Do not single someone out and stare at them.
This is the hardest part – no amount of preparation can fully prepare you for this, try to anticipate common questions you may be asked. When someone does ask you a question, take a moment to think about it before responding. If you don’t understand the question, engage with them to clarify before providing an answer.
The key thing is to practice, take all the opportunities you can to put yourself in front of an audience. If you want to read more about these principles I recommend reading the following:
Dale Carnegie – How to Win Friends and Influence People
The Art of Conversation by Vincent NG