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Strong presentation skills are necessary for long-term career and business success, but it may be one of your biggest challenges.
Have you ever mispronounced a word or fumbled a sentence so badly it you felt like a fool?
Are you nervous about speaking up at meetings?
Does the thought of making a presentation turn your blood cold?
Poor presentation skills tarnish your reputation as a professional, damage your credibility, limit your opportunities to get new business or be considered for promotion, harm your self-esteem, and erode your confidence.
The good news: Presenting is a skill that can be learned and cultivated.
1. Set a Goal
What is your goal for the presentation? Do you need to entertain, inform, persuade, motivate, or inspire?
Are you presenting to get the contract, gain support for your recommendation, celebrate the bride and groom, give a memorial at a funeral?
Write out your goal and keep it in front of you. The more you describe the outcome you want, the easier it will be to prepare what you need to say and how you want to say it.
2. Know Your Audience
In addition to setting an outcome, you must consider your audience. Who are they? What do they want? What do they expect from you? Do you want to meet their expectations or surprise them or both?
Your presentation to C-level executives will differ from a keynote to physicians and both are different from a lunch-and-learn in a cafeteria full of elementary school teachers.
When you know your audience, you gain empathy for them and can more easily relate to them. You will create a presentation that uses language they understand and appeals to their self-interest. You improve your ability to achieve your goals for the presentation.
You will achieve your goal.
3. Prepare Talking Points
You want to sound relaxed, comfortable, credible, confident, and relatable. Reciting a memorized presentation will not accomplish any of that. It will, however, put the audience into a coma.
Instead of writing out your speech, list the points you want to make and arrange them in a logical order. I do this on index cards, so I can shuffle them; add and delete points; slot in stories, statistics, metaphors, analogies, and quotations where appropriate; and create memory prompts.
Eliminate anything that does not support your goal for the presentation or that is irrelevant for the audience.
Make sure you prepare responses to questions and challenges. Rely on facts and data to address these.
Prepare your handouts or supporting material and your visuals for the presentation. Do not load visuals with talking points. They are not speaker prompts. Just capture key ideas you want to emphasize and use strong images that capture attention and illustrate your point without words.
4. Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse
Do not memorize your speech or presentation.
Rehearse by talking to each point until you feel comfortable with how you want to present the material. Stand and move around with deliberation, just as you will when delivering it. If you are using visuals and/or handouts, make sure you work those into the rehearsal.
Practice the presentation in segments. If anything sounds awkward or if a movement or gesture feels off, change it and re-rehearse that section. Take breaks between each segment.
With each segment, you will rehearse more and more of the presentation until you are doing it from beginning to end. Now time it out to ensure it fits within the allotted time.
Presenting in a small room usually won’t require a microphone. Take deeper breaths than normal to project your voice. Don’t make your audience strain to hear you.
If you are presenting in a large room, you will need a microphone.
- Practice using a mic since it will pick up every sound like inhalations, sighs, throat clearing, sniffling, and a bunch of other things you’d rather not share with your audience.
- It isn’t necessary to project your voice with a microphone. Just do a sound check to ensure the back of the room can hear you.
Use your voice to create interest and encourage the audience to pay attention.
- Avoid speaking in a monotone. Use vocal variety to create a pleasing listening experience.
- If you naturally speak fast, slow down.
- Clearly enunciate your words, so they don’t jumble together.
- Lower your voice and pause when making important points. It forces the audience to pay closer attention. As Sir Ralph Richardson said, “The most important things in speeches are the pauses.”
I once saw an accomplished actor stand before an audience of more than 1,000 and remain perfectly silent for 60 seconds. He just looked at different parts of the theater, pausing in each area for a few moments.
The entire room fell silent. No whispering. No coughing. No candy wrappers crinkling. Audience expectation was palpable. Finally, he spoke the first word of the opening soliloquy.
6. Use Non-Verbal Communication
The body speaks volumes and needs to correlate with the words being spoken. When body language and words are incongruent, you lose credibility. Learn to use body language so that it strengthens your message when you speak.
- Open, expansive gestures communicate confidence and assuredness.
- Standing tall with shoulders back and feet planted on the ground is a powerful stance that shows who’s in charge.
- Moving randomly communicates uncertainty and can be distracting. Stand still to make a point, then move, stand, repeat.
- Pay attention to the edges of any raised platform! More than one presenter has tumbled off in mid-stride.
- Gestures like fiddling with a tie or hair or chewing a lip show nervousness, insecurity, or discomfort.
- Avoid skittering your gaze around the room. Settle on different people in different areas. Those around them will feel included in the gaze.
7. Handle Nerves
Being nervous isn’t bad. It just means something important is happening. Michael Jordan
Most people get nervous before presenting. I have taught workshops and breakouts in organizations for years, and I still get a bit of nerves before starting, especially if it’s a new client. However, I know my content so well, I can immediately shift the nerves into energy when I start.
That’s one of the most important antidotes to nerves: The more you know your material, the more of an expert you are, the easier it is to feel more confident than nervous when you present.
- Before entering the room where you will present, find a quiet, empty space and work out some of the nerves. Some professional presenters do exercises that loosen up their faces and mouths. One speaker I know screams and shouts. Another sits in her car and blasts rock music.
- Turn nerves into enthusiasm. Let them rev up your voice. Just don’t speak too quickly when you start.
- Remember to take deeper breaths to avoid sounding breathless and nervous.
- Avoid eating or drinking anything sugary or any milk products. They will make your voice sound thick, and it will be harder to project.
- Arrive early and get comfortable with the surroundings. Make sure equipment works, especially projectors. Run the first few slides of your presentation. Do a sound check if you are going to use a microphone.
- If you are presenting on a podium or elevated platform, note the edges! Practice moving around as you did in rehearsals.
- Smile and greet people when they enter. Recognizing people and making them feel welcome puts them in a more receptive mood for your presentation.
Present Like a Pro for Unstoppable Success
We aren’t all natural speakers or presenters. I used to be terrified to speak up anywhere, and I’m a die-hard introvert. The combination was severely limiting to first my career and then my business. I tried coaches, which made me more self-conscious, yet I knew I had to get better at it.
I finally tried Toastmasters. I’m not being paid for this, but Toastmasters was key in helping me improve. It takes three years of weekly commitment to attend meetings and do the work, but it turned my career and business around.
Getting more comfortable and confident when you need to present will boost your self-confidence and self-esteem. It can open the door to career and business opportunities otherwise not available.
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