Practical Presenting Pointers – Elizabeth Cruickshank and Penny Cooper

Gary Player once said of his success at golf, “the more I practise the luckier I get”. This is certainly true of giving presentations, but only if you take them seriously, prepare well, think about your audience and afterwards reflect on how successful they were and what you could do better next time.

Presenting the presenter

Introducing someone effectively is an art in itself. If you are asked to introduce a speaker, accept willingly as it’s good practice for getting the feel of the podium. Your purpose is to focus the audience’s attention by smiling, welcoming and possibly saying something amusing if the occasion warrants it. Don’t risk getting your facts wrong. Ask for the speaker’s resume, do a Google search and if possible have a chat beforehand. It can avoid the embarrassment of welcoming a speaker as an expert on corporate tax when he specialises in VAT.

It follows that if you are the keynote speaker, sending your resume beforehand and arriving in time to have a few words with the person who is introducing you increases the chances that you will be introduced in a way that you will be pleased about.

Voice control

Refine your facial expressions! Credit: Lee J Haywood

Looking and sounding natural when you are very nervous takes practice. Here are some suggestions:

– Type out what you are going to say in large type and then read it through aloud a couple of times, looking at yourself in a mirror if you can bear it.
– Speak more slowly than normal. Most people speed up when they are nervous. But don’t slow down to a crawl.
– Break up the pace of your presentation. If you ask a rhetorical question, pause and sweep the audience with your eyes. And then move on to the next point. BUT if you are asking a real question and nobody replies, treat it as a rhetorical one, give the answer and then move on; don’t risk an uncomfortable silence where your audience feels inadequate and hostile.


Other things to think about:

– Avoid the deadly monotone by using your facial muscles, smiling sometimes, lifting your eyebrows, turning your head. You can use your hands from time to time to emphasise points that you make. The audience may not notice these movements, but they will make a difference to how you sound.
– Exaggerate the emphases by concentrating on particular key words or slowing down temporarily. To you this may sound unnatural, but to the audience it will simply be more engaging.
– Is your voice deep enough? Some people, especially women, have consciously deepened their voices, having been told by male listeners, that it is easier for them to be “heard” if they do.

Prop yourself up

Most speakers, even the most experienced, need props. The most obvious prop is a lectern.

Use a prop!

Standing with nothing between you and a group of strangers can feel very lonely. But on the other hand the audience wants to feel that you are engaging with them. If you are offered the use of a lectern, don’t let it be a barrier between you and the audience, but treat it as a friendly shelter.

If the room is so large that you will be using a microphone, the best sort to have is one that attaches to you (a “lapel mike”). A static microphone attached to the lectern will restrict your ability to move around while you talk, whereas a lapel mike will give you the option of standing by the lectern, turning away while you are pointing to a PowerPoint screen and will generally enable you to speak more naturally. Treat your lectern like a mother ship and not a suit of armour.

If you are offered a desk, try not to sit behind it as though you were interviewing your audience. Instead pull your chair to one side of it and give your talk while standing – the chair is there as a prop or perhaps to sit on when you are taking questions and want to create a more relaxed rapport with your audience. Of course this may be different when you are making an “informal” presentation to your colleagues, where you will probably all be sitting round a large table and where standing up might be seen as “lecturing” and therefore undesirable.

Getting in the groove

Even if you are in a hurry, try to create some personal emotional space before you start. If you can, take some deep breaths outside. If your audience does not focus on you when you enter, don’t start properly until you have their attention. If you have been formally introduced, the audience should already be hushed and ready to listen. If not,

– Say something loudly in a foreign language.
– Write or draw something in large letters on a white board that is apparently unrelated to your presentation but which you can explain later. The odder (but not ruder) the better.

Needless to say you should have practised these beforehand.

The visuals

Yes, it’s true that one picture is worth a thousand words. If you are going to speak 5,000 words (a fair amount) then that means only 5 pictures. Don’t sweat about the visuals, unless you are going to hand them out for the audience to write on; make sure that the words that come out of your mouth really count. But if you are going to use visual aids, make sure that the are write cortctly, otherwise your audience’s eyes will focus on your errors rather than the words which you should have written correctly.

Very simple diagrams which you build up as you go along can be just as effective as a series of highly coloured flashy scenes. Software allows us all to present in ever more creative ways, but make sure that you do not lose the message of your talk in the fancy artwork or technical wizardry.

Hand-outs

Handing out summaries beforehand is a sensible idea. People concentrate better when they are taking notes and having clear summaries on separate pages gives them a framework to hang their notes on.
However, transcripts should not be handed out until the end of your presentation. Otherwise you will risk your audience reading them while you speak, resulting in noise and inattention.

Coming to the end

At the end of the presentation, take a couple of minutes to summarise briefly. And then make it clear that you have come to a conclusive full stop. This can range from the jokey “That’s all folks” if you feel in a Loony Tunes mood to the simple thank you for being such an attentive audience.

It is not mandatory to invite questions, although most experienced speakers do, provided that they have left enough time. Do not keep your audience there for longer than is scheduled.

And back to the beginning

There is some controversy as to whether Gary Player was the first person to associate good luck with practice. His statement has been variously attributed to other golfers such as Arnold Palmer and to film stars such as Ethel Merman. Does this matter? Only if you are setting it out as fact. Don’t invite the thought that you are not completely in control of your facts.

The aphorism is true whoever said it.

Professor Penny Cooper of Kingston University and Elizabeth Cruickshank are the authors of ‘All you need to know about being a Trainee Solicitor’ (Longtail, 2008) and together with Boma Ozobia of “The Survival Manual for New Wigs” (Odade 2010).

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