As we know, presenting is an essential part of the communication between human beings. We already live in a world topped-up with information and it is a must that, at certain times, we present some fraction of this information in front of other people in order to make this exact piece of knowledge stand out or, simply, make a statement on a topic which is important for you or the people surrounding you.
In other words, man has gone through such a social evolution that, nowadays, it is almost impossible that you do not present something in front of other people. Actually, the chance for that is really small and this is why even kids at school are taught how to perform presentations.
So, presenting is something that every one of us must and is going to go through. This is why, after having accumulated presenting experience and skills and also having gone to numerous events where someone else presented for me, I decided to share my top advice for being a better presenter. Remember that gaining strong presentation abilities is a vital part of the communication skills you build up throughout your life. Presenting yourself, your team or company, your project, event something you did in your spare time require that you possess some presenting knowledge base that is to be extended during your whole life. Remember that today you may be, some kind of, “forced” by someone to go and present something, but tomorrow the subject of your presentation may be your own concept, idea or proposal which you will desire to give air to. So, presentation skills should never be neglected. But, when we say “presentation skills”, we should somehow define…
What exactly is a presentation?
Well, it depends. In general, we can call the action of sharing some sort of information, hypothesis, knowledge, experience, ideas and concepts with other people a presentation. It is quite simple – we share ideas and thoughts every day with the people surrounding us – we present 24/7. In this sense, convincing your dad, for example, to buy you a trinket by giving some grounds for that is a presentation of that exact gadget. However, when it comes to speaking in front of public, we can consider this a presentation event. So, every day we present our ideas to our colleagues, friends, relatives and so on, but why are we so afraid of doing presentation events?
Yes, it’s the fear that catches us. Some studies claim that public speaking is the number-one fear humans experience worldwide. And this is normal – even experienced presenters feel scared before coming on stage and starting to talk. It is a natural phenomenon – I have even gone through the situation of doing a presentation in front of colleagues who are my close friends after the 8-hour work day is off. And guess what – when I stood before them, I could hardly breathe, my limbs were ice-cold and my heart rate went off the scale. I had the feeling that I do not make any pauses between the words and sentences coming out of my mouth. A friend of mine has even stated the feeling that, when talking with a microphone attached to your collar or chest, the heartbeat can be heard through the stereo provided in the presentation hall.
The truth is that nothing of this actually happens. Yes, the natural fear you experience raises your heart rate and makes breathing hard, but the public cannot spot this. And it is a myth that your heart can be heard beating through the microphone.
But how can we cope with the fear during presentations? It is actually quite easy – you just have to know the content you are going to present in the first three to five minutes by heart. Why? Because, during experiencing the symptoms described above, you never think about what you speak. You think of how to overcome the stress and fear. And this is the key – when knowing the initial part of your talk by heart, you can concentrate on calming down without your mind “crashing”. After these awful initial five minutes are gone, you will be calm – this happens always. The stress strikes in the beginning and is gone in no time. The important thing is that you are prepared to just “sing by heart” during these several minutes. Afterwards, it is just plain sailing. But, if you cannot cope with the fear in this 5-minute interval, this will reflect in the presentation and the public will spot your uncertainty. People in the public probably know you are nervous – they have walked in your shoes. But if they do not see you calming down in the upcoming minutes of your talk, they may become frustrated and even angry. So, learning how to cope with stress is essential and, actually, quite easy. Just study your initial words by heart. Here are some other tips for coping with stage fright:
- Always remember that you know more than everyone else in the public. Even if there are more experienced people than you, during the current moment it is you who is the most prepared person on the subject. Also remember that the public is not there to eat you and wants you to perform well.
- Always know that the way you feel does not correspond to the way you look. The fact you are uneasy does not necessarily mean that people see you like this.
- Always think positive and give yourself the freedom to change the direction of the presentation on the go. Forget about the strict presentation rules – they are history. Be agile and adapt constantly. My experience shows that a presentation never goes in the exact way you planned. The reason for this is that while preparing you are alone, but while presenting there are people standing in front of you who often initiate a discussion. So, it is always you that set the direction in which the performance goes, but the public can enforce deviations. The solution is to feel free to change the content on the go.
- Before the presentation event starts, go and get to know the place, the hall, the stage. Furthermore, introduce yourself with some of the attendees – in this way you will feel the place more like home and the public as friends, thus relieving the painful stress.
The attention of the public
The first step in making a cool presentation is to cope with stress – we checked that. However, there is another catch which we have to resolve – keeping the public’s attention onto your presentation. First of all, remember that it is a must that you introduce yourself to the public – give some sentences about you – who you are, what is the field of your work, why are you standing there speaking and what is the topic you are going to present. The public needs this information in order to “trust” you.
Furthermore, after giving a short intro, it is vital that you catch the people’s attention. The easiest way is to describe the problem or topic you are going to speak about in an interesting manner – say a short anecdote, reveal some strange fact connected with the topic, bust a well-known myth, give a relevant quote, ask the public an interesting question and instantly initiate a discussion – it is up to you, but all of these approaches are true miracles! The beginning of the presentation is vital for catching the attention of the public and it is really hard to do this while coping with the stress described in the previous point. So, it is up to you to be creative in the beginning and, as already said, know the initial content well. This guarantees that you will easily cope with the fear while, at the same time, acquiring the attention of the public. And never forget – an interesting beginning can extract the stress from inside you as well. Being attractive in the beginning is your hidden power!
However, it is natural that, at some point of the presentation, the public may lose interest and stop paying attention and this is quite normal. You can easily spot when people are losing interest – they become talking to each other, they do not lean to the front to hear you better anymore, they cross their arms, they do not look at you, but through the window, they frown and so on. However, in order to bring back the smiles and nods in the public, you can simply try to:
- Stop and ask the public what they think about the context of the presentation.
- Provoke the public to take action – ask a member to share his or her knowledge and experience on the topic.
- Change your behavior unexpectedly – do a deviation in the intonation, make a short pause – this always catches the attention of the public. However, be prepared with some words to go back to the normal flow of the presentation.
Furthermore, there are some things you have to know when you are leading the public. Firstly, try to always look at the public and never look to the ground. Stay upright – this shows that you are confident. Pay attention to what you do with your hands – never put them in your pockets or cross them. Find an object to hold (e.g. the remote control for the beamer), put it in your hands and place them somewhere between the head and the waist. However, it is not necessary that your hands remain static – you can freely use them to point at something or be more expressive. Always speak clearly and distinctively and never ever stay in front of the screen (this is something I really hate). Try not to be “frozen” at one place – move around the stage and look at different “sectors” of the public – in this way all the people in the hall will have the feeling that you maintain personal eye contact with them. Always be polite and smile! This is the key for the public falling in love with you!
Finally, never forget that the words “I don’t know” are not banned when you are a presenter. You can never know everything – you are a normal human being, you have done your best to prepare yourself and you have decided to share your knowledge and experience. So, if you come to a situation you do not know what to answer or how to react, just say “I don’t know, can you clarify a little bit?” In this way, you will initiate a discussion and, believe me – the discussion during a presentation is your best friend.
The content and the digital presentation
We already discussed why the stage stress is trying to trick us while presenting and how to cope with it. We also reviewed the best practices on how to guide the public during a presentation. But there is one more thing we need to address – no matter if you have learned how to cope with stage-speaking fear or how to catch the public’s attention, you will not go anywhere if what you present is not well prepared. In other words, besides the action of presenting itself, it is essential that you have spent enough time working on the content you are revealing in front of the public.
Firstly, it is required that you do some extensive thinking in advance and clarify for yourself what is the exact aim of the presentation. You have to have exact answers to questions like – what are you trying to achieve by presenting that idea? Are you willing to inspire the public, or you want to just educate them on a certain topic and share your knowledge? Does the public need some practical information or they are looking for some advice on whether to plunge deep in the matter you are talking about or not? Remember that getting to know the type of public and the needs they have reflects directly on your performance. This has actually got a double benefit – on one hand, knowing the public’s needs will help you answer these needs and, on the other hand, will make you feel more confident during the presentation itself and will give you more control over the event. So, when summing up the content you want to present, always first go through the following questions:
- For who is my presentation designed?
- What could the public possibly know about the topic?
- Why my exact presentation is important for the public and what expectations may they have?
- What is the expected size of the public? Of what age? What gender?
- Is it necessary to pay attention to intercultural differences?
When creating your presentation, always keep in mind that there is a proven recipe for content structure which affects the public the most. Firstly, when doing the introduction, besides introducing yourself, try to give a short summary of what you are going to present. Then, expose the topic in great detail. Finally, when doing the conclusion, repeat again the topic you have discussed in short. In such way, the public will remain with the feeling of actually having gained what they need from the presentation. Furthermore, never forget to make strong logical connections between the parts of your presentation, but beware of overflowing people’s heads with information! Remember that there is a narrow border between interesting and boring information. Also, never make long presentations. It is scientifically proven that a person’s attention can be held for at most 45 minutes. So, a one-hour talk for exhibiting the content and doing a post-presentation Q&A discussion is pretty enough.
Finally, we have to give some short tips on how to do our best if our presentation includes an electronic presentation. Firstly, remember that the digital presentation is just a helper for the physical presenting you are doing. In other words, a Power-Point file is not a presentation – what you are speaking is the presentation! So, when you are preparing the digital presentation for your talk, remember that:
- Less equals to more – always make the digital presentation as simple as possible. Too much visual or text information will distract the people’s attention from what you are talking about.
- Added to the previous statement, limit the number of points, sub-points and text.
- Forget about the old-fashioned animations, transitions and so on. Just do a plain slide deck.
- Always use high-quality images and graphics – nobody would like a pixelated image.
- Think outside the box – never use banal templates – make one on your own.
- Do not use too many colors, as well as fonts. Stick to one proven and, at the same time, beautiful font (Arial is a good example) and use at most 2-3 colors. Serif fonts are good for printed documents, but for digital presentations, Sans-serif fonts are the better choice.
Some final words
When it comes to presenting, all of us feel a bit ungainly and uncomfortable. But with practice and thinking, you can become a presenting master. Just remember that you have to always try to answer the public’s needs while being interesting and polite. So, always think outside the box, forget about the strict presenting rules and improvise! And, if you are afraid of speaking in front of public, remember that everything interesting begins when you step outside of your comfort zone. So, go on, present your ideas freely!