The art of presenting

A microphone

Have you ever sat through a presentation where you concentrated more on your daydreams, or on everything else other than what the person was saying? I am sure all of us have experienced this at some point but being the one at the front of the room doing the speaking can be a whole other can of worms. A disengaged audience can make speaking in front of an audience tough.

For anyone who has only known me in my post-university days, they might be surprised to know that in my teenage years I was shy. I’ve always been outgoing with my friends, but I was nervous and quiet with anyone outside of that. I used to cringe every time a teacher called on me to speak out in class, and I would never volunteer.

Here’s how it would play out: Thoughts: what if I say something silly, what if I don’t know the answer, everyone is going to look at me, what if my face goes red, oh my gosh, my face is going red…

Naturally, my face would go fire truck red, and because I knew it was bright red, it felt like it got even redder. Queue in, nerves, a racing heart rate, stumbling through words, and combining words together that aren’t real words, oh great. Then, sometimes I’d get asked why my face was red, which was even better for my nerves.

Much to my chagrin, public speaking and presentations were something I had to practice throughout university and in every job I’ve had since. When I speak in front of a group today my heart rate does still spike a bit, my face is less likely to be a shade of red, but the biggest difference is with my internal thoughts, attitude and preparation. Presentation skills are not a natural talent for a lot of people, including me, over the last ten years, here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. Think about your audience – What would you want to hear about if you were sitting in the audience? Is there anything that should be taken out of the presentation that is redundant? Does some audience participation make sense? Have you answered the ‘so what’ throughout your talk? Too often I find I listen to presentations and walk away without the answer to ‘so what’. For example, I used to make presentations to a board of directors and I would start with all the information I had and then would go through it line by line and focus on what information was important for them for their decision making. Remove some of the nice to knows and keep the need to know.

  2. Practice – If you pull up beside me at a stoplight, I am not the car blaring music and rocking out (usually). I am the one talking to myself because I like practice what I am going to say in the car. Find a spot that works for you and practice there. I still stumble over words, but my ability to create new words diminishes if I’ve practiced the message in advance. Now, when a jumbled word comes out, I chuckle, refocus with a moment of silence and continue with my message.

  3. Get to know yourself – Identify triggers for giving you nerves, and figure out how to calm them. I know that if I practice it means I am prepared and it calms my nerves because I’ve heard what the audience will hear out loud already and how it flows together.

  4. Ask for feedback – While brainstorming, after practicing, or after speaking in front of an audience always ask for feedback. Do you have a habit when speaking that you don’t know about? Did you need every slide in the presentation, or did you need a PowerPoint at all? For example, when I speak my hands move a lot and I have dry, sarcastic sense of humour. If I want to include something funny, I like to try it on a couple people before to avoid being able to hear a pin drop in the room when there’s supposed to be some chuckling.

The most difficult aspect of improving a skill like speaking in front of an audience is being patient with yourself and understanding that it takes practice and time. So, from one fellow presenter to another, the next time you daydream through a presentation, if you get the chance, give some feedback – be honest, tactful and help someone else on their path.

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