For even the most experienced among us, presenting to an audience, either virtually or in person, can often seem like a rather daunting proposition to say the least. In the unforgettable words of Jerry Seinfeld:
“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than delivering the eulogy.”
Understandably many of us fear being “judged” by our audience, and our trepidation exponentially increases when presenting to an audience from a different culture! How can we be completely sure that they will “get” our message?
In this article, we will draw on our extensive experience of training presentation skills to business professionals to break down the key elements needed for success. You will also have the opportunity to download a Free Checklist to help you to prepare for your presentations.
Getting Your OBE!
As with any communication activity preparation is key.
If we decide to use visual aids, it is essential to take into account a number of crucial factors. Firstly, who are our audience? It is helpful to consider what level are they, how much they already know about our subject, and whether or not there is likely to be any opposition? As the old adage goes: “forewarned is forearmed!”
This information can be used to tailor our slide deck, so that it truly takes into account our audiences’ most pressing concerns, rather than relying on a self-defeating “one-size fits all” approach. After all, it is an irrefutable fact that the days of “spray and pray” as a presentation approach are long gone!
We can also use this information to craft an OBE for our presentation. Not to be confused with the more famously known acronym denoting an honorific title bestowed by Her Majesty, OBE in this context stands for Opening, Body, Ending.
Quite simply we need to think of ourselves as master story tellers, and apply the same care and structure to our presentation as if we were weaving a compelling tale. And what is it that makes our favourite stories so unforgettable? Their OBE.
Our favourite novels, plays and films all undeniably share certain characteristics. An opening which thoroughly hooks us in, a body which builds interest and an ending which finishes on a high and recaps the message from the beginning. By using a storytelling structure so ingrained in our collective pysche, we are giving our presentation the underlying framework for success!
- To open with impact, provocative statements which arouse curiosity can work well, or perhaps a startling fact, rhetorical question or funny quotation
- For the body, we should remember to include opportunities for interactivity, by asking questions or inviting our audience to comment and offer feedback on what they have heard so far
- For the ending, ensure that you finish with impact and leave a lasting impression! We also need to remember to include a CTA (Call to Action). In other words, what exactly are we inviting our audience to do when they have finished listening to our presentation?
The Power of Voice
When it comes to the key skills required to deliver a winning presentation, little can compare in importance with the need for vocal range, power and variety. It is by no means an exaggeration to state that tone truly is king! By adopting the right tone of voice, we will instantly be able to build bridges with our audience, and fully bring our OBE to life.
In taking care of our vocal tone we need to carefully consider the Four Factors of Voice:
- Pitch – avoid monotony at all costs and envision yourself as captivating master story tellers, enunciating with variety.
- Pace – remember to vary this as required, for instance by speeding up to show enthusiasm or slowing down to emphasise an important point. Keep in mind that if we speak too fast, we run the risk of our audience “switching off”.
- Pause – give your audience a chance to reflect after you have made an important point.
- Projection – not to be confused with speaking too loudly, projection will add intensity and – when used to emphasise a few important words – will also add welcome gravitas.
Incredibly the voice can produce at least 325 different pitches, and there are more nerves in the muscles of the larynx than there are in the muscles of any other part of the body (apart from the eyes).
In fact, we use three quarters of our body when we vocalise a word, so it’s no wonder that stress and over-excitement can affect our voice! Therefore, it’s crucial to make time for vocal warm ups to ensure a steady pitch and projection, and to guarantee that our articulation will be as clear as possible.
An important aspect of any vocal warm up is the practice of tongue twisters. Please see below for some of our highly recommended favourites:
1.Betty bought a bit of butter. But the butter Betty bought was bitter. So Betty bought a better butter, and it was better than the butter Betty bought before.
2. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
3. He would chuck, he would, as much as he could, and chuck as much wood, as a woodchuck would if a woodchuck could chuck wood.
4. Amidst the mists and coldest frosts,
With stoutest wrists and loudest boasts,
He thrusts his fists against the posts,
And still insists he sees the ghosts.
It’s also important to establish a good posture, as it not only affects our body language and perceived confidence, but it can have an enormous effect on our vocal quality.
As part of your warm up, stand with feet shoulder-width apart, with your weight equally distributed, and raise your arms up over your head. Then, breathe in deeply. As you exhale, slowly lower your arms down to your sides and keep your ribcage where it is. Focus on your shoulders to make sure they are down and not hunched up behind our ears. This is the best posture for speaking; you are standing tall, owning your full height, and radiating confidence!
For more tips on the transforming nature of body posture we thoroughly recommend watching Amy Cuddy’s popular TED Talk:
In order to project the best vocal tone, it’s important to breathe deeply into the stomach, otherwise we run the risk of speaking from the chest, which will undermine our best efforts!
One exercise to ensure that you are breathing deeply enough is to put one hand on your belly button and one on your chest. Then, pay attention to which hand is moving most frequently.
Very often we will notice that the hand on our chest is moving the most. However, ideally we want our chest to remain firm and steady.
If you find this is a problem, one technique for breathing better is to inhale deeply, imagine the air going into the stomach, and then exhale slowly as though letting air out of a balloon.
The Importance of Body Language
Often referred to as “non-verbal communication” body language has a significant effect on an audience’s perception of the presenter.
The wrong body language runs the risk of destroying our message. It is therefore crucial that right from the start we send out exactly the right “signals.” Some important considerations include:
- Making sure hand gestures are clear and decisive
- Avoiding the impulse to fidget or play with a pen/any other object
- Not clasping hands behind the back
It is essential to be self-aware of body movements, as nervous presenters in particular have a tendency to sway or rock in front of their audiences. Furthermore, moving around the floor excessively can prove highly distracting, and make a presenter appear more nervous than they may actually be!
Perhaps most crucially of all when it comes to body language and behaviour is to keep high levels of eye contact with the audience. Eye contact helps keep an audience engaged.
A really strong technique for making eye-contact during a presentation is the “Lighthouse Sweep.” This is a method in which the presenter mirrors a lighthouse by spreading their eye contact inclusively in waves to each attendee, so that everyone feels fully included.
It is a fascinating twist of irony that one of Britain’s most famous and successful Shakespearian actors, Sir Laurence Olivier, used to suffer from a condition known as “stage fright.” He literally had to be pushed on to the stage by assistants, otherwise his audiences may well have been deprived of his significant talents!
Having “butterflies” before delivering a presentation is perfectly normal, and viewed from a certain perspective can even provide us with much needed adrenaline to help fuel our delivery! As popular author, Rob Gilbert, puts it:
“It’s all right to have butterflies in your stomach. Just get them to fly in formation.”
But what are the best ways of handling our fear?
Mindset has an undeniable impact on how well we can manage our inner demons. There is a tendency, especially, for less experienced presenters, to jump to assumptions that the audience is “waiting for us to fail” and that they are seeking opportunities to “catch us out”.
This could not be further from the truth.
In the vast majority of cases the audience is on our side and they’re hoping to take away something useful from the presentation. After all, they have committed valuable time to viewing it, so why wouldn’t they?
The better prepared we are, the easier it will be to control our nerves and avoiding unforeseen “booby traps.” We can also try memorising the opening of our presentation to ensure nothing sabotages the maximum impact we require for our opening. Furthermore, if we place our emphasis less on how we are being “judged” by our audience and more on how we can fully serve their needs this will undoubtedly help to reduce our “butterflies.”
On a journey to becoming an accomplished presenter, it will be useful to try to gain as much feedback as possible from colleagues.
If possible, we recommend scheduling time to rehearse in front of them. Having external pairs of eyes and ears will help to point out any awkward gestures or phrases or points that don’t quite land, which may have unwittingly crept into the presentation. The feedback is crucial for making sure the presentation is as good as it can be.
One action you can take, as part of the rehearsal, is to create a ‘Presentation Evaluation & Feedback Form’, and ask if our colleagues could use it to grade the presentation. The form can include whatever you’d like feedback on, but we suggest the following:
- Introduction – Did it have impact? Was it helpful?
- Structure – Appropriate? Did you know where it was going? Why?
- Conclusions – Was it memorable?
- Body language – Mannerisms? Gestures?
- Voice – was the pitch & pace okay? Jargon free? Interesting to listen to?
As well as practicing in front of our colleagues, it can also be highly beneficial to do so on our own – for instance during quiet moments at home.
Many of history’s most famous leaders have observed themselves delivering speeches in front of a mirror, and as strange as this may sound it can actually be an incredibly effective way of catching both helpful and unhelpful gestures and mannerisms.
If you don’t fancy standing in front of a mirror, or if you just want to focus on your voice, you could try record yourself speaking using the voice recorder – your smartphone should have one and if not, there are apps available for free. It can be quite astonishing just how different our voices sound when we listen to a recording of them! It can be useful, though, for picking up awkward phrases and poor articulation.
Presenting, just like storytelling, is a skill that improves with practice. By ensuring we adhere to the fundamental structure of OBE when preparing our visual aids, learning how to control our voice, posture, breathing and body language to maximum effect, and by adopting tried-and-tested techniques for managing our nerves we will undoubtedly succeed in getting our message across.
To help you plan, practice and improve your presentations, we’ve created a free checklist of all the key points raised in this article. The checklist will help you ensure you’ve covered all angles in your presentation. You can get a copy by clicking this link. Once it opens, to save a copy click on ‘File’ and then either select ‘Make a copy’ to save a file to your own Google Drive, or select ‘Download’ to save it on your computer.
If you have any further questions about how best to maximise your presentation skills please don’t hesitate to get in touch. We look forward to hearing from you.