Presenting to a room full of people can reduce the most confident conversationalist to a nervous wreck, but it’s an essential skill for leaders and persuaders. So, what are the magic ingredients?
1. Keep it simple, do it well
People can only absorb so much information in a short space of time, so the more you try to cram in, the more of the good stuff you’ll drown. Pick a few central points and focus on these.
A great way to approach this is to note down what you want your audience to think, feel and do as a result of your presentation. Write down these three sentences on a post-it note and stick it to your laptop to refer back to whenever you feel you’re going off track.
This also goes for any supporting materials you have. If you’re using a PowerPoint presentation, stick to bold images, statements, statistics and graphs, and use the largest font size you can for text. People can only do one thing at a time, so your graphics should subtly reinforce what you are saying, highlighting the major takeaways. If your audience is straining to read everything on the slide, they won’t be listening to you. Whatever you do, don’t just regurgitate your entire script on your slides!
2. Tell a story
People are not moved by facts and figures. What moves them is the story behind the numbers. This doesn’t just mean starting with an anecdote (although that can be a great ice breaker). It means that, when you come to write your presentation, you need to think about the overarching story. What were you struggling with? Where did the idea for the new approach come from? How did you put it into practice – and what problems did you come up against on the way? Then, when you get to the grand finale, your audience has been taken on that journey with you, they are emotionally invested, and they care about what you have to say.
It’s important, too, to adopt this storytelling approach in the way that you deliver your presentation. Use short, clear sentences and accessible language – absolutely no jargon. The way we absorb spoken information is completely different to the way we read, so make sure that your script is written for the ear and not for the eye. Always, always read it aloud to check it flows. If you stumble, it’s probably too complex.
3. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse!
This is the single most important thing you can do to make your presentation great. If you don’t rehearse, it won’t be as good as it should have been.
Newbies to presenting often say that they want their presentation to sound natural and flowing and unrehearsed, and so they’re not going to practise. This is utter nonsense. The only way to get a natural, free-flowing, unrehearsed feel is, in fact, to rehearse. No professional presenter worth their salt would ever say, “Ah, you know what, I don’t want this to look staged, so I’ll make sure that I walk into this high pressure situation with no idea what I’m doing and hope it all works out.” If the pros don’t do it, neither should you.
To rehearse, find a quiet place and deliver your presentation to a mirror, thinking about where to pause or gesture for emphasis. Write your notes on flashcard-style cards and hold them so that you can glance at them subtly without interrupting the natural flow of speech. Mark in your notes when you need to change slides so that you don’t miss a cue.
The more times you do this, the more effortless it will seem to your audience. If you’re relaxed and confident, you’re half way to winning them over.
For an in-depth guide to great presenting for stage and screen, check out this awesome video from VirtualStudio.TV: