Standing up in front of a room full of people to give a presentation is not everyone’s idea of fun, but it can be an important element in career progression.
The good news is that anyone can learn to give a good presentation. “There is a tried and trusted formula,” says David Malone, executive director of training consultancy Evolve. “If you’re shy, you need to get yourself out of your comfort zone on a regular basis.”
The first step is to get direction. Malone observes that golf instructors frequently videotape learners’ swings and let them bring the tape home to watch it. “We often don’t accept our flaws until we can see them,” he explains. Awareness of your current skill level is essential before you can improve, so soliciting friends and colleagues to give you feedback on your current presenting ability is a good start.
The next step is to create opportunities to speak on a regular basis. This could involve volunteering for a task at work that requires you to be more vocal or joining a debating society or a Toastmasters club.
What separates a good presentation from a bad one boils down to what Malone calls
the three Cs: charisma, context and controls.
“We say to people when they’re getting up to present it’s almost like showtime. Energy and enthusiasm transfer, so project your voice and manage your body language. Once you know that this is not natural to you, then it’s necessary to get out of your comfort zone to practise it.”
Context is vital if the audience is to make sense of the presentation. Malone emphasises that slides and PowerPoint notes are there to support you, but you’re the one people want to see. “Lots of people are good at calling out information like a lecture, but giving too much information without context goes over people’s heads.” His advice is to make the presentation relevant by using real-life examples. Knowing your audience and engaging them are also critical: an anecdote that works in Dublin could drop like a lead balloon in Cork.
As you present, you need to measure your performance at various stages. “The question you should be asking yourself is: ‘How do I know that my audience knows what I need them to know?’” says Malone. Having question and answer sessions at intervals — to gauge whether you are getting your message across — will aid your presentation.
Top 10 tips for presenting
1. Never wing it. If you’re not sure of your audience, don’t give a presentation.
2. Have a set of notes. The best broadcasters and politicians all use cue cards. This helps you stick to the plan and prevents panic if the audience doesn’t react to something you say as you anticipated.
3. Get your audience involved by asking questions, even very basic ‘hands up who…’ questions.
4. Know your start and finish off by heart as these are what people will remember the most.
5. Don’t look at your notes for about an hour beforehand. Revising at this stage is counterproductive.
6. If you’re in a series of presentations, don’t watch anyone else’s talk. This will prevent you from worrying about what you’ve left out.
7. Check the machinery is working in advance. Laptops, projectors and cables can ruin a well-prepared presentation.
8. Where possible, don’t set the equipment up in front of people.
9. Remember that, by and large, people in a room want you to do well. Calming techniques such as positive visualisation and breathing exercises can help.
10. Have a holding process for when you don’t know the answer to a question. Even simply saying ‘I’ll get back to you on that one’ can be effective.