Presentations have to be practised in advance. Even people who look like they were born to present have spent solid time muttering to themselves. Lights twinkling behind them like an angelic aura, they flawlessly deliver polished material peppered with ‘improvised’ one-liners, then they stroll off for tea and a pay-rise before you’ve had time to realise that a) you’re spilling your coffee on your lap, and b) you’re next.
Whether you’re simply updating your team virtually, or persuading people in a room to do something difficult, for some of us, presenting is a journey to the depths of the soul in which you lay yourself bare in front of the great and good, hoping you’ll be able to remember your material, and your name, before time and energy run into the sand. It doesn’t have to be that way. The secret to delivering the perfect presentation lies in solid preparation. Ease the tension with tips from three of our leading experts.
“There are 5 myths about preparation” – Tom Cassidy
1. It will take a long time…
Good preparation is not like revising for an exam. It does not take hours. If you know what you need to prepare it can take minutes. Start with the outcome in mind. What do you want to achieve? Along the way, what could happen? How will you react? What are the key points you want to get across? What is the overarching narrative or image that you want to create?
2. It will appear weak…
The perception that you should be able to just walk into a room and ‘do your thing’ is a mirage. In truth, anyone who appears like they are a natural, most likely prepares behind the scenes. In a macho environment, there is a pretence that being well-prepared is a sign that you can’t do it naturally. In reality, anyone who wants to make progress does so with quiet, self-confident humility knowing that they need to get ready to be their best.
3. It can be done the night before, or in the lift on the way to the meeting…
The more time you give yourself before the event, the more creative you’ll be in delivering your message. Practice and preparation will allow you to become familiar with your material. You’ll discover the points that are hard to remember or that are likely to trip you up. Unpick them. Identify the trouble and find a way round it. Take the time to gather other points of view from colleagues. Incorporating a spectrum of thoughts into your material will help to shore up support from others.
4. Thinking it through is a good form of preparation…
Actually, thinking can be strangely unhelpful. Your thoughts are subject to negative interruptions from your inner critic. No-one is going to get any fitter if they only think about taking exercise. The primary form of preparation is practise. That means ‘out loud’. Whether you’re addressing another person or simply yourself, by speaking aloud you will hear how things sound, find your natural word patterns and recognise what doesn’t make sense.
5. I don’t want to over-prepare…
You cannot over-prepare. But you can over-think and over-plan. Preparation allows you to secure the material in your head. You don’t have to learn it word-for-word, in fact it’s better not to, but by knowing the material well you’ll be able to freely express it on the day. Practice will help you choose specific words and phrases. Over-thinking and over-analysing can tie people in knots and diminish confidence. Practising and rehearsing avoids this, but practice for clarity.
“The camera records everything” – Paul Hill
Filming yourself on your phone can be extremely useful
There’s something really helpful about seeing yourself in action. Ever wondered if you’re prone to using space fillers or repetitive gestures? The camera records everything. It won’t necessarily free you from blunders and foolish notions, but it will make you aware of them!
There is something utterly cringe-making about seeing your filmed self, (it’s far worse than seeing yourself in the mirror, for some reason). Maybe it’s the sense that you’re seeing the version of you that other people get, rather than the one you’re trying to present.
After filming myself speaking, I’m afraid that I saw myself making some fairly common mistakes: I was speaking too quickly, using the same gesture a little too often, breathing in a little too audibly while trying to think of the next thing to say.
But… I was pleasantly surprised too. I think I sounded enthusiastic, and that I knew what I was talking about (something of a tall order, given the nature of the material). Did it make me uncomfortable to see myself on screen? Yes, in part. Was it useful, and did I learn something from it? Definitely. Once clients get over the initial discomfort of seeing and hearing themselves, and the horrible self-consciousness it provokes, they can begin that slow progress towards greater self-awareness. And that’s what leads to self-improvement.
“Too slow can be ponderous, too fast can be annoying” – Nick Smallman
For some people, speaking at an appropriate speed is difficult
The speed that is most appropriate is 120 words a minute. That’s two words a second. Speaking slower than this can come across as ponderous, speaking too fast can be hard to follow. At the same time, everyone needs a little variance. Speaking slowly at times can add weight to what you’re saying, or build tension. Speaking quickly can convey urgency, but is generally less useful.
Be aware of how you speak by recording yourself. Really listen to how quickly or slowly you speak – don’t worry, no one likes the sound of their own voice. Now, take 120 words from a book, and time how long it takes to get through them. You might want to do this with a few different texts to get a good gauge of your speed. Next, try again, slowing down or speeding up until the 120 words fit nicely into a minute. You’ll have to keep practising to keep it up.
Dealing with nerves
Speaking at a comfortable pace will help to disguise any nerves you might be feeling. Having helped people who suffer from a lot of anxiety in public speaking, I can tell you that the majority of them tell me their anxiety stems mostly from the fear of failure. In fact, most fears come down to being, or feeling under-prepared. The good news is that you can do something about this.
One fact to remember is this, it’s very rare for people to look as nervous as they feel. Prepare yourself. Go over your speech out loud in front of a mirror, and go through things with and without your script, (if you have one). Practice on a friend or two if you can. Get to a position where you’re comfortable, and keep it fresh in your mind. Get a good night’s sleep before the day, and don’t drink alcohol or too much coffee beforehand. You may hate being nervous about it, but chances are if you weren’t suffering from a bit of anxiety, the speech or presentation may lack energy and purpose.
According to TED curator Chris Anderson, the perfect presentation is one in which your personality shines through, something that can be achieved through a coachable process. At Working Voices, we can help you achieve this through a range of training courses on presenting. Start with the basics by learning to become a confident presenter or take a look at the pitching skills training. Learn to win over your audience by becoming a persuasive presenter, and hone your skills with storytelling Workshop. As part of your professional development goals for 2022, presentation skills are a great place to start.