Public speaking and the ability to present effectively in front of a group of people is a craft. I hesitate to call it a skill because skills seem more finite while a craft can always be refined.
Some might think that anyone can get up in front of a room full of people and present. I would counter that with, can anyone simply act, sing, or play an instrument? Like those other forms of expression, if you want to get really good, if you want to have confidence instead of being nervous, then you need to practice.
So many people are terrified of public speaking. This post is not about why people are so frightened to speak. The point of this post is to argue that public speaking/presenting does not need to be that scary. If you take advantage of the opportunities to present, then you will certainly get better. People will notice and appreciate if you present well and it’s also a great weapon to have in your professional arsenal.
Use the following steps below as a rough starting point but never underestimate the importance of practicing as much as you can.
1. Keep Your Cool
This is 100% stolen from Dr. Tim Flood, my professor at UNC. I cannot find my notes from the class but this top reason was burned into my brain by him 7 years ago (Thank you sir).
a. Whether you’re speaking to 10 people or 300 people, there will almost always be a disruption or a distraction. A group of people laughing in the back, a co-worker who cannot stop asking questions, an obnoxiously loud sneeze, a phone ringing, etc.
Stay calm and never apologize for having to stop, even for a moment.
If you’re cool, everyone else will be cool.
b. You might find that the work-horse projector that your company has had since you started working there decides to call it a career when you get to slide 3.
This isn't a disaster.
All this means is that now your audience really needs to pay close attention to what you have to say, which is a great thing! Additionally, it won’t matter whether your slide deck is being projected behind you because you knew to…
“I’ll just wing it.”
“I’ll figure it out when I get up there.”
While almost anyone can get up and read off of a projected slide, that does not mean it is a good presentation. You may get through all of the material but the audience will know that you did not prepare. There is a noticeable difference between a polished, rehearsed presentation and one that is done ‘off the cuff.’
Your audience is giving you their attention whether they have to be there or want to be there. Show them the respect of a prepared presentation.
Rehearse your presentation 5-7 times and use a timer to see how long it takes you (it’s usually longer than you think). Rehearse standing up with your laptop so you can coordinate advancing the slides in line with your talking points.
2a. Really know the material. Do not memorize.
You will get interrupted. If the material becomes ingrained, then you can pick up from wherever you left off without any issues. If there are specific figures that you need to communicate, write them down on an index card. Give yourself a break. Don’t stress over a data point or two.
3. Create concise, visual slides
The bulk of the information and the story-telling needs to come from you. Let the slides be a guide with key points, figures, and visuals. Also, use the animation feature to slowly build the slide. This allows you to manage how much information your audience sees at any time and keeps them focused on you instead of a new, full slide of data. And once you start your presentation…
4. Look at your projected slides only if absolutely necessary
The audience does not need to see the back of your head. If your slides are visual and concise, simply tell people where to look or point in the general direction for emphasis. While the laser pointer/cat toy does exist, no one on earth has a steady hand and that red light is usually more distracting than helpful.
An easy way for you to know what slide you’re on is to have the laptop that is projecting the presentation face you so that you can easily see what everyone else sees (without having to turn around).
5. B-R-E-A-T-H-E and relax
Most people know it takes guts to stand up in front of a room and present. People want you to succeed, especially if you’re presenting to colleagues. The audience is there for you. You’re already prepared. Deliver what you have practiced.
Also, keep the hand/arm gestures to a minimum. It’s a waste of energy and doesn’t add much value.
6. Look at everyone and make eye contact
What I’ve learned after presenting many times is that people will listen to what you have to say even if they look completely miserable while you are presenting. You need to trust that if you are delivering a confident, thoughtful presentation then you will have their attention.
When looking around the room, locate those people who give you a slight nod when you are speaking. Find them and return back to them during the presentation if you feel yourself needing some quick reassurance.
Unless you’re presenting disappointing news…smile. You will feel better and you will notice at least a few people in the audience smile back. It’s kind of strange but it happens every time. This also helps you to relax (#5).
8. Silence is your friend. Verbal clutter is not.
You do not need to fill your entire time with meaningless words, phrases, “ums”, “uhs”, or “ya knows”. If you pause to let a thought or an idea sink in (or to gather your own thoughts), the audience will not become impatient. It may feel like a long time to you but it’s literally seconds. Use it to your advantage especially when trying to highlight important points or topics. This leads to…
9. Repeat important points
Repeat important points.
This is especially true for longer presentations. Audience members will zone out from time to time. It’s inevitable. If there are a few points that you absolutely HAVE to make, say them twice...with a pause in the middle. Pausing will also break the audience out of their daydream and bring them back to you. Then you can deliver the punchline with greater effectiveness.
10. End Strong
Deliver the last 2 or 3 sentences, which should bring the whole presentation together, slowly and clearly. You can even turn the slides off so people look right at you and give you their full attention. Once done, pause for a second, smile, and say thank you.
11. Invite questions (if applicable)
12. Get feedback
Later on, ask anyone who was in the audience for his or her thoughts. As I said, presenting is a craft and can always be refined. In fact, if there is a way to video record your performance, that’s even better. As awkward and awful as watching yourself on screen is, it will only help you improve.
13. Don’t give up
You stumbled or fumbled over a section? One or two parts dragged on too long?
There was a reason for it. Learn from it and improve for next time. Simple as that.
These steps are based on my observations over the last few years and can serve as a general guide.
Take advantage of the opportunities to present to a group as they may not come along too often. My guess is that you won’t have to fight off too much competition either.
Remember, there is really nothing that can occur during your time presenting that you cannot ultimately control or manage…so go for it!
You may even start to enjoy it.
1. "Verbal clutter" is also from Tim Flood.