Having had the pleasure of training numerous presenters over the years, one of the most common challenges I have had to assist them to overcome is the deep-rooted fear that they will somehow run the risk of “losing” or even “boring” their audiences!
It was the playwright, Oscar Wilde, who once quipped, “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious”. I am inclined to agree! Given our audiences’ busy schedules and the piling pressures of an elongated lockdown, the prospect of underwhelming them with our presentation has never been more indefensible.
Often, however, the ceaseless chatter of our own less-than-complimentary internal commentary can sometimes be our biggest obstacle. An all-too-common phenomenon that I have observed, in particular among less-experienced presenters, is a conviction that the audience is “out to get them”. In most cases, though, this could not be further from the truth. I am always quick to point out, that since their audience is devoting precious time listening to their presentation in the first place, that it is reasonable to assume that they would like to recoup some value for their investment.
That said, there certainly are tools and techniques we can use to significantly stack the chips in our favour. The vital task of keeping our audience fully engaged during our presentation can be divided into two distinct parts, namely what we do before we deliver our presentation, and what we need to be doing while we are actually delivering it.
Part One: Preparing for Success
The famous words of Benjamin Franklin are applicable to most things in life, and they couldn’t be more apt for presentations either: “fail to prepare and you prepare to fail”.
First, we need to carefully consider the way in which we structure our information. A sure-fire way of losing our audience and causing them to switch off is a presentation that lacks a logical and compelling flow.
But what does that look like? Well, it’s my belief that great presenting is simply just great storytelling. And how do storytellers keep their audience hooked?
I am often reminded of my own mother, who when I was a child, weaved many a magical yarn at bedtime and truly transported me to far-flung realms. Her trademark devices included a colourful memorable opening which instantly sucked me in, building momentum (so that I was hooked, and allowed myself to be carried along on the journey) and a truly unforgettable ending, which had me so addicted I instantly wanted to retrace my steps straight back to the magical kingdom.
A presentation needs to be structured in the same way with a clear Opening, Body and Ending. We need to remember that the most potentially hazardous part will be the Body, as we will be devoting the majority of our time to it. It will be necessary to include facts, figures and interesting supporting evidence to build our case.
First impressions are also, of course, crucial so we need to have a pre-planned Attention Grabber at our disposal. These come in many forms and include:
- Memorable quotations by famous people (that link back to the subject matter of your presentation)
- Startling facts (that get our audience thinking)
- Thought-provoking questions
- Even jokes (so long as they avoid sensitive topics and are connected with our subject)
I once trained a presenter who told me that in order to grab his audiences’ attentions’ he would often employ a smoke machine before entering. We don’t necessarily need to go to such lengths, but I very much admire the spirit and resolve of this gentleman to go the extra mile to stand out from the rest!
Part Two: Delivering Your Perfect Presentation
It has often been said that we only get one chance to make a great first impression! Never has this been more true where presenting is concerned. As a former professional actor, I know what it’s like to get up on a stage and be told “next” by a busy and less-than-enthralled panel of adjudicators.
So, what is the first step in projecting the right message. Undoubtedly well-honed body language or “non-verbal communication.”
If I had to pick what is more important between words and body language, I would always choose the latter. Why? Because our posture and gestures are able to speak in their own right, and can also cancel out our intended message if we are not careful. Some quick and effective tips include:
- Try to use the Anchor Posture (stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with your hands held above your waist) – this will make you look rooted and super-confident
- Use the Lighthouse Sweep – (make it a priority to share eye contact consistently with everyone in the room. Like the steady rays of a lighthouse ensure that everyone is brought into your gaze. If you fail to do this there is a real danger that audience members will feel left out.)
- Use your hands sparingly and only to make distinct gestures (such as tapping fingers when counting)
- Avoid pointless Filler Words – we know it’s hard as fillers like “errr….”. “ummmm….” and “ahhhh” are engrained in our speech pattern, but note that they will weaken your message and make you appear less confident. It can be alarming how many times we inadvertently employ them. The remedy is to try to be as self-aware as possible. Make a conscious effort to count them. A top tip is to try to employ a pause rather a filler as it will make you appear more confident, whilst giving you the opportunity to think or take a breath.
- Remember vocal skills and variety. As an actor, I would take great care when presented with an audition text to underline particular words and phrases where I felt it would be useful to place greater emphasis. This helped me to keep my audience constantly engaged and hanging on to my every word! The same applies to presenting. Try to imagine that you are telling a story. If you were as fortunate as I was to have a super-expressive parent who told you stories as a child then think about the care and effort they took when recounting a tale and try to emulate this.
Given the situation we find ourselves in, with a raging pandemic in full swing, the world of physical presenting feels like a remote dream for most of us (unless, of course, we happen to be lucky enough to be living in Australia or New Zealand).
I am therefore often asked by virtual presenters about top tips to ensure they can enjoy the same degree of traction as they would if they were presenting face-to-face. In fact, the rules of effective remote presenting are not so very different. Warmth, honesty, and authenticity are currencies that are just as much in high demand whether we are delivering over Microsoft Teams or Zoom, or in a room before a live audience.
One of the most frequent concerns I hear is “how will I be able to fully gauge my audiences’ reactions when I am virtually presenting?” This can certainly feel more challenging online especially when we have concluded the initial “icebreaker” pleasantries, and have moved on to the official presenting part. Undoubtedly the best thing we can do here is to try and keep things as interactive as possible. We can best do this by stopping to ask our audience a question such as: “How does this sound so far?”, or if you are feeling a little mischievous you could ask: “You’re sounding very quiet, is that a good sign or should I be worried?”.
I call this “checking the temperature” which will help you to gauge your audience’s level of interest. If they are hooked they will soon let you know. Otherwise, if something is on their mind this is a great opportunity to help them get it off their chest.
Other top tips (which also apply to face-to-face presenting) include:
- Familiarization: Reduce anxiety by anticipating awkward questions your audience may ask
- Positive affirmations: Repeat these to yourself quietly “I am a great communicator” / “I can and will”
- Smile: Helps both you and the audience to relax and conveys confidence
- Stay as natural as possible
But how should we address technical problems should they occur? It’s worth considering the following:
- Use a microphone or headphones for the best audio quality (no one likes listening to a presenter they can barely understand due to poor equipment)
- Get set-up:
- Have your laptop charged up or, better yet, plugged in and notification sounds and pop-ups turned off to prevent unwanted surprises
- Double-check that all the software and files you need are downloaded and updated.
- Set a reminder to shut down any unnecessary windows and programs while you’re presenting
- Do a test run
As with so many activities in life, practice will undoubtedly make perfect. By putting ourselves firmly in our audience’s shoes we can anticipate any possible obstacles or deal-breakers that may occur along the way.
Furthermore, by ensuring that we have a compelling Opening, Body and Ending we will be able to take our audience on an unforgettable journey with us. With the right body language and vocal skills we will undoubtedly hit the mark every time.
Perhaps the best advice I can offer is that given the challenging, not to mention emotionally taxing times we find ourselves in the pressing need to be kind to ourselves and to others in all our dealings with our prospects and clients has never been more paramount.