This guide is both for those who are new to the field of presentations and those who are just looking for new ideas for their hundredth presentation. Whether you are a novice or a professional, I hope this guide offers you some new nuggets of information.
In under two thousand words, I will touch on the basics: standing properly, remembering names and giving out handouts. I will also look at newer ideas, such as reading the audience’s body language and avoiding difficult questions.
Be confident and connect with your audience
How can you be naturally confident in front of an audience? It goes without saying that you should look neat and presentable. The fact that you have taken pride in your appearance should help, as should a friendly smile on your face.
However, your body language will give you a better sense of confidence than an expensive suit or a killer smile. When standing in front of an audience, you should avoid swaying from side to side. Swaying will not only make you look nervous, but will also make it seem that you are out of control.
To strike a confident posture, stand with your legs apart and your body facing the audience. Do not sway or move your weight from one leg to the other. To be in control of your audience, you must appear to be in control of your own body.
You should also avoid turning your back to the audience. If you have opted to use a whiteboard, do not spend too much time writing on the board during the presentation. I find that the best thing to do is to have written everything you need on the board before the audience arrives.
If you need to point to notes on your white board, do not face the white board directly but stand so that the audience can at least see your side profile.
If you want to avoid showing the audience that you are nervous, then make sure to bear the following in mind. Always avoid touching your face or head during a presentation; touching the face and head are indicators that you are feeling uneasy and perhaps even vulnerable. Also, if you are asked a question by a member of the audience, try not to fold your arms. Doing so creates a barrier between you and your audience and will signal to them that you do not like being asked questions, or that you are feeling a little defensive.
To make your audience feel valued and involved, you should make brief eye contact with them. Try scanning from the left of the audience to the right, giving each audience member a brief moment of eye contact. This will ensure that they feel valued and will give you a feeling of control and confidence.
For my own presentations, I prefer to use nothing but a white board, and I would suggest practicing presentations with nothing but the same to get you started.
If you have no experience writing on a board, this is easily remedied by practice. You could also try using a large ruler to draw some lines on the board in order to keep your writing straight. This will avoid having your writing appear noticeably uneven to the audience. Another thing to do is walk to the back of the room that you are presenting in and check whether your writing is large enough to be seen by every member of the audience.
If you would like to use video or audio clips, then I would suggest keeping their duration to under two minutes each. If you are a novice, then standing in the background waiting for a video to finish can feel a little awkward.
You may also want to remember that computer equipment can sometimes fail to work at the worst possible moment. In fact, it may be better to work on getting more experience developing your stagecraft and charisma before adding too much technology to your presentations. Slides would make a better start, preferably with short sentences (ten words or less) and a maximum of three sentences per slide.
What was your name?
If you are giving a presentation to a small group of people that you have not met before, remembering their names will make them feel more comfortable and make the presentation feel intimate.
Remembering people’s names can be difficult, but there are ways to make this process easy. Before coming up with a way to remember names, you should carefully consider the room that you will be using for your presentation.
In a typical classroom (containing a white board with rows of desks placed in front of it) you can opt to use small paper placards. Use a little glue, if needed, to create triangular shaped placards and then ask the audience members to write their names on them.
If the room is less conventional, but you still have at least a table or lectern in front of you, get a typed list of names before the audience arrives. You can then ask each audience member their name when they are seated. You could remember a name by the person’s seat. For example, Burt Smith: left side, first row.
If you are artistically inclined, you can always draw a picture of each audience member next to their name. The main objective is to have the list on your desk or lectern so that you can easily refer to it if needed.
The often quoted advice of most books on the subject of presentations is to keep all information in batches of three. I agree with this. I also think that you should tell your audience where your presentation will go in terms of information and insight. To this effect, I’m going to offer a little advice that will help you get the audience on your side before you have even spoken one word.
Your presentation, like a novel, should have a beginning, middle and end. I would suggest that in order to make sure your audience retains as much information as possible, you should use the three parts of the presentation as follows:
- Beginning: Tell them what you are going to tell them.
- Middle: Tell them.
- End: Tell them what you have told them.
To avoid looking boastful, ask a third party to introduce you to your audience. This will make you seem humble (which the audience will like) and the person introducing you can briefly cover your road map of the presentation. A typical introduction by a third party would be something like this:
Please welcome Joe Bloggs. He’s here to help our company improve its internal communication. Joe has a degree in Communications, and twenty years of experience in Business Communications. He’s going to talk to you about three things today: spoken communication, IT communication and external communication.
Stories of triumph
Whenever possible, try to have an inspirational story in your presentation. From my own experience, it seems that people love short biographies and stories about underdogs who beat the odds and become successful in their chosen fields.
When I was teaching English to foreign students, I noticed that their biggest fear was that they would struggle with nerves when communicating with native English speakers. To remedy this, I told them about James Earl Jones’s difficulties and his later success in speaking clearly. The students enjoyed the story, and it also dawned on them that with enough practice they too could overcome their shortcomings.
When giving presentations about a particular subject, try to find an inspirational biography and tell your audience about it for about fifteen to twenty minutes. This will give you maximum effect.
Are they interested?
In theory, when giving a presentation, your instincts will tell you whether the audience is enjoying it or not. If you want some tell-tale signs, then I would suggest paying close attention to the body language of the audience.
If a person is interested in what you are saying, then they will lean forward whenever possible in order to ensure that they can hear what you are saying clearly. Their movements towards you also express that they are enjoying your company, and more importantly, that they are interested in your presentation.
People who are not interested in you, or what you have to say, will lean back to create a distance between the two of you. Look for folded arms and people pointing their feet. If a member of the audience is pointing their feet away from you, this usually indicates a feeling of indifference and a lack of interest.
Involve the audience
I personally think that involving the audience makes a presentation friendlier and the audience feel more comfortable.
The following suggestions are based on my own experience, and you should experiment with my advice to find what works best for you.
With my own presentations, I have discovered that making the audience work together in pairs is best. When people are instructed to work in larger groups, there is often hesitation as others wait for one individual to assert themselves as the leader of the group. Pair work allows people to forge a connection, and often makes the audience more relaxed than if they were asked to work in a larger group.
However, whenever you ask people to work together, you should take the time to introduce audience members to one another. Failing to make introductions will cause the audience to feel awkward, and make you look ignorant.
The benefits of pair work are that you can walk around the room talking to each pair on a more intimate level, and further put them at ease by offering help with the task you have set for them. With any luck, the audience will be grateful that you have introduced them to a new friend.
Paraphrase if needed
If you are asked any questions about what you have already said, then first ask yourself if you have been speaking too quickly, or if you have been using slang or obscure references that the audience may be unfamiliar with.
If none of the above has caused your problem, then simply rephrase what you have said in the simplest terms and make the main idea of what you are saying as clear as possible.
Likewise, if you are asked a very difficult question that does not relate to your presentation, or will divert you from your road map, tell the audience member that you will talk to them about their question once the presentation has concluded. By the end of your presentation, you may find the audience member has forgotten their question or had it answered in the remainder of the presentation.
The wrap up
When you have finished your presentation, I would suggest a very simple one page handout. Do not bother to write paragraphs of information about your subject. Instead, give the audience a plain list of further information in the form of web links, YouTube videos, and any relevant podcasts that are available on iTunes.
Once the audience has left, you should sit down for ten minutes with a pen and some paper (before cleaning the room) and consider what did and did not work for you during the presentation. Try to decide where you could improve, and jettison anything that did not work.
- Consider who your audience is: what are their ages and nationalities? As an example, Japanese people do not like to be asked for a personal opinion, but they do enjoy working together in a group. Research foreign cultures carefully if you have to give a presentation abroad.
- Should you use simple or complex vocabulary? Avoid overly technical words or jargon, if you can help it.
- Jokes; make sure the audience will understand them and not be offended by them.
- Keep your ego in check. Do not get high on the power of hosting a presentation; it is easy to lose your head and reveal personal or sensitive information that will embarrass the audience.
- Consider splitting the audience into two groups, and conduct a fun team quiz about the subject of your presentation.
- Make audience members feel valued by looking happy when they make suggestions or give feedback. Practice looking surprised until it becomes a natural emotion.
- Use audience member names whenever possible, being that addressing people by their names will always help break the ice.