In a casual conversation with a renowned neurosurgeon he mentioned that he had recently attended a specialist workshop with a number of experts from his field. He commented that he had been surprised at the very different abilities of the speakers to engage with their audiences. The words had equal value, coming as they were from highly qualified individuals, but the engagement with the audience was not the same. He had two specific speakers in mind, and one had apparently really hit the mark, with the audience engaging and really hearing the content, while the other had engendered almost no engagement at all.
It had nothing to do with the content, and everything to do with the extremely disengaged way in which it was presented to the audience.
As communicators, we have a responsibility to ensure that our words are received and understood, and this is no less important in the presentation context. In fact I would say, if anything it’s more important and much more challenging in a group environment.
You are what brings your words alive, how you command the room, gesture, use your eyes and speak will all dictate how much of what you say is retained by the audience.
If you want people to hear your words commanding the room is more about how you say something than what you say.
It’s all in the eyes, or so they say, and in presentations the importance of this simply can’t be overstated.
You need to speak to one person at a time, with the aim of touching every single member of your audience. Your eyes are the way in which they will connect with you. People want to know you are talking to ‘them’ as an individual, and part of that is having the good manners (in certain cultures) to look at them. The trick is learning to look at this large group as individuals. Have mini-conversations with them if you will.
Eye contact varies from a swift glance to a slightly longer, more focussed interaction. You want to glance over the room, and then settle on a more sustained eye contact then glance again and settle again. When you focus on someone, they and the people surrounding them will all feel as if you are looking at them, and this combined with the glances will make every person in the room feel as if they have had a moment with you during your talk. The sustained look may make some people uncomfortable, in which case they will look away. Do the same and find someone else to talk to in the room.
A few things to avoid;
Don’t scan the room, as then you won’t’ actually be looking at anyone. Don’t look only at certain people only (like the decision makers or those smiling encouragement) and ignore others. Don’t look at stuff. Anything that is not a person’s face (a floor, window, slides or ceiling). Look at the people!
Dynamic Delivery Style
The very word dynamic gives you an indication of what you should be aiming for in your presentation style. Variety. Variety in your voice, eyes, gestures, body and movement. A dynamic delivery style makes the words come alive, is much more interesting and easier to listen to, and ensures that the audience can remain engaged in what you have to say. You are allowed to get excited and enthusiastic. Your passion for your topic is engaging, as long as it’s authentic. Your voice can change, go faster and slower, can fluctuate in volume and even in tone, as long as you remain clear.
You will need to look for your own unique delivery style. How your carry your voice and gesture needs to be authentic for you. There is honestly no point in copying someone else’s style, as it won’t feel natural and will be hard to maintain. You need to find your style and then you need to practice it. See what feels right to you when you’re presenting.
There’s no doubt that stats in presentations aren’t the most engaging thing to listen to. But stories…. Ahh stories. The audience always relates to stories, it’s part of the human condition to find commonality in a story and relate to it, so use them in your talk. They can be metaphors, analogies, case studies or even examples. You have to make it personal, or it just won’t matter. When you tell a real story you paint a picture with your words and your delivery style naturally is more engaged. Your body language becomes natural and that authentic engagement is what will make the difference to your audience’s retention.
Confidence and Stance
If you watch Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on schools killing creativity (and we strongly suggest you do!), you will notice he opens by claiming the stage. He walks to the centre, pauses and stands with his legs slightly apart and his head up, facing the crowd. He doesn’t look down, to the side or behind him. He doesn’t fold his shoulders in or clasp his hands tightly in front of him. This is your power stance. It commands the space. It’s designed to make us believe in the confidence of the person talking. If he’s confident about what he’s saying, maybe we should be too, we think to ourselves. If you stand with your head down, you look apologetic and uncertain, and should you be trying to gain the trust of the room, this is an absolute disaster!
Just like you have been told your whole life, you need to stand up straight balanced on both legs (not leaning on one) and look the world in the eye. Your arms need to be resting at your sides, not held behind you, or clasped in front of you, just relaxed and resting. not behind not clasped in the front just resting at your sides, so that they are free for gesturing when you need them.
We naturally trust those who look confident, like they know what they are doing so we have engender that trust by not slouching (which diminishes our space in the world), or mumbling, fidgeting (which makes us seem nervous – which we are but there’s no reason to show them that), or hiding behind papers, books or the like.
Movement can be included in your presentation style, as long as it doesn’t detract from what you are saying. Aimless wandering can do exactly that! But moving to a location on the stage, stopping and talking for a while, then moving again can be a natural evolution of your talk.
You’ve been given the space to talk because you have something worthwhile to share, so show your audience that!
Gesturing for meaning
Nelson Mandela was not one for gesturing. He largely kept his arms by his sides, so when he did occasionally gesture the emphasis was highlighted. It was authentic and true to his style, and that’s of absolute importance.
Gesturing should be natural to who you are – if you use your arms and hands with energetic passionate gestures then that will look right for you. If you are much calmer and only use your gestures sparingly then do that. Be who you are or you will begin to lose credibility. Use your hands to talk, hands and fingers can be incredibly powerful when bringing meaning to words. Let your hands talk like they do when you are being your most natural, comfortable and normal self.
Do not do things with your hands other than talk with them. Do not hold pens, notes or clickers as you will fiddle with them, and this is distracting for both yourself and your audience.
Avoid clasping your hands in front of you. It stifles your gestures or causes small irritating repetitive gestures that lose their meaning. Do not put your hands in your pockets either, as once again you will lose your gestures or you will fiddle with the items in your pocket. Don’t not hide your hands behind your back, use them to talk.
Leave the lectern alone it will be able to stand on its own and so will you. Use Your Hands To Talk!
There’s good fear and there’s bad fear. Before every presentation, whether to a room of friends or foes, a presenter feels that surge of adrenalin that tells them they are about to ‘put themselves out there’. You can choose to let the adrenalin debilitate you, or to boost you. Surging adrenalin puts your body in a heightened state of awareness, it’s there to support you. So leverage it and be grateful for it, you are supposed to be nervous! Adrenalin causes physical reactions. Your heart rate increases and your air passages expand,. The blood pressure increases and this pushes more oxygen to your body and glucose to your brain so you can react faster and make decisions faster (which is often why you talk fast when you are nervous). It puts you in the best possible state to deliver a great presentation. However you do need to become the master of your own fear when the nerves become unbearable. The most important thing you can do before you start your talk is to take a beat or two to breathe. Deeply and long. If you watch a few Ted Talks, one after the other, you will notice that nearly every single speaker pauses before they begin, to take a few deep, slow breaths. This slows your heart rate and assists you to manage the adrenalin.
Building vocal confidence
When you read a story to a child you naturally make it more interesting by varying your voice. You may pause for effect, change your voice when different characters are speaking, drop your voice in scary parts and even get loud in angry parts. An audience is no different.
What you naturally do is vary three things – pace, volume and tone.
You do need to speak with enthusiasm and energy, which means you don’t need to speak slowly. An audience can hear much quicker than you can speak, so don’t slow down on their account. Just do make sure you are speaking clearly. If you are using technical jargon that they may not work with regularly, then you must slow down a bit, but don’t slow the sentence down rather pause at the full stop for slightly longer than you usually do.
Vary your tone from deeper to higher. You don’t speak in a monotone when you’re sitting around a dinner table and chatting with friends, so don’t do it when you’re talking to an audience.
A 20 minute talk can take an immense amount of effort. We wouldn’t think so, we sit with our mates and chat for hours on end, and yet being the only sound in the room for 20, 30 or even 40 minutes is a physically demanding job! Our vocal chords and associated postural muscles can ache, causing a tightening which makes it even harder to talk. You need to practice building projection stamina up over time, as it isn’t hard to do if you are in a small space, but if you are in an auditorium projection can be tough going over a sustained period of time. Find an undisturbed space and practice phrases or pieces of your talk. Start at ten minutes at a time and build it up. If you can use different accents or inflections on different parts of the talk, it will allow you exercise different muscles (areas of the jaws, throat and even vocal chords).
Using visual aids
Great graphics and slides are a wonderful aid to help reinforce or annotate the words and concepts you may be conveying. But remember you are the presentation, not the slides. They are just there to support you. The audience must naturally focus on you, so remember that less is more. Full slides are distracting.
When placing a point or a comment on a visual aid your audience should be able to look at it and ’get it’ (read, interpret, understand) within 5 seconds then they should be looking at you for clarification or more information.
So no full sentences, or paragraphs! You will only end up reading it to the audience, and they came to listen to you talk, not read to them.
You also need to try and avoid ‘talking around’ a slide. The audience will do one of two things if you do this. They will either read the slide, or listen to you. If they try to do both, and what you are saying isn’t on the slide, they will get confused.
It’s always a good idea to use pictures instead of text on your slides. That way the picture is a clue, but the real value is what comes out of your mouth. Pictures are nicer – use them instead of words (text) wherever possible and then fill in the missing parts though discussion
Navigating presentation technology
I once arrived at a presentation running a little later than usual. I therefore wasn’t able to test the projector set-up before-hand, but I wasn’t too stressed as I not only had the presentation on my laptop but also on a memory stick just in case my laptop couldn’t be detected. Which it wasn’t. Confidently handing over my memory stick to the organiser as the room waited and murmured, I assumed all would be fine. Of course as it turns out their laptops couldn’t read my format and I had to wing it without the aid of my beautifully designed presentation. It was a terrible way to begin and my being so flustered resulted in a discordant presentation from the start.
You have to be comfortable with your technology. If you are using a mic then practice with it beforehand. If you are using a presentation make sure you know how to move from one slide to the next and that your timings are correct if you are using them. When you are presenting at a conference or exhibition confirm in advance what technology they are using and ensure that your presentation works on their system. Emailing them a copy before the event can be helpful, then they can test it on their side. Also think to check things in advance like extension chords, double adaptors, normal plugs vs network plugs. They may seem like small details but they can derail your presentation.
Talking of technology. There’s no rule that states you have to stick with the same technology you have used since the dino’s roamed the earth. Explore new presentation software, or the idea of bringing in different mediums such as music or movies.
Looking the part
People unfortunately do read the book by the cover and will make judgements about how you look. You do want to look smart, elegant and confident and you want to feel comfortable. However the rule here is; dress according to what the audience expects of you, and not what they expect of themselves.
If they are bankers and you are a design specialist you DON’T have to look like a banker, you can look like a design specialist, just make sure that you dress like a smart design specialist. If you normally wear jeans to work because you are an architect, then when presenting at a conference wear smart jeans and shirt but you don’t have to look like an investment fund manager.
I once watched a woman who is highly respected in her field, and is a generally competent presenter literally fall over her own feet at a very important presentation. It caused her to completely lose her composure and in short order the attention of the room as well. The reason? She was wearing exceptionally high heels that she wasn’t used to, but she felt she needed to ‘dress up’. And to a certain extent we do need to dress to a certain standard. Being neat, tidy and not showing too much of a good thing is important, but it’s also of vital importance that we are comfortable and can move naturally in the clothes we are wearing to present. Just one thing. If you’re an engineer at a conference, please put on long trousers. Even jeans. When in doubt dress up rather than down. You never want to be the most sloppy person in the room, especially as the presenter!