Have you ever stood up in front of your peers to give an important presentation, only to find that for some bizarre reason your slides aren’t displaying correctly, you stumble over your introduction and you quickly spiral helplessly into the depths of brain freeze?
Typically from this point there is little hope of a full recovery, you’ve lost your composure but most importantly, you’ve lost your credibility with your peers!
Luckily for us and your future speaking engagements there are a wide number of resources available online that provide advice on how to best prepare and deliver impactful presentations. To save you time, here are my top eight preparation steps.
1. Practice your presentation (Start to Finish) – Even the most seasoned presenters take the time to practice before they present. Practice thoroughly until you become familiar with the flow of your slides, training your mind to remember the main points. Ask some colleagues to sit in on your practice sessions, their objective feedback will be invaluable in helping you to refine your approach and messaging.
If you have access to the physical room in which you will be presenting, it is advisable that you utilise it during your practice sessions. This will help you become comfortable with its environment.
2. Prepare the location – If possible arrive early to prepare the room. This includes the arrangement of the audience seating area and the removal of any distractions that may be located in the vicinity. Connect your laptop, setup and test any audio visual equipment that you will be using. Ensure that your slides display correctly and that the lighting complements with no washout. The preparation of the location should be completed at least 15 mins before the presentation is due to begin. This allows sufficient time for introductions with your audience as they arrive.
When presenting virtually it is also important to prepare. This preparation entails the organisation of your desktop so that is has a clean discrete background. A messy desktop with files positioned everywhere looks unprofessional. Keep it neat! Don’t forget to connect to a power source, turn off your screensaver and any other potential interrupters, such as your email client, popups and sound alerts.
3. Prepare yourself – It is also important for you to take time to prepare yourself for the presentation. If you suffer from nervousness, don’t forget to regulate your breathing. For instance, deep breathing exercises push extra oxygen to your brain, introduces calm to your body and helps center your focus on the task at hand.
Visualisation of your success also has the ability to calm your nerves. Imagine yourself presenting the best presentation of your life, delivering with confidence and seeing the audience congratulating you afterwards. Picturing the outcome, your success, will give you strength.
Certain food and drink also has the ability to contribute to your success. Similarly, there are certain things that you should avoid (source: Foods to avoid before giving a speech).
Examples of food and drink which can boost energy levels for your presentation..
- Light foods which are easy to digest
- Lean, high protein, low fat meals
- Water and some herbal tea
Examples of food and drink to avoid…
- Heavy meals, raw food, sugar
- Dairy, Caffeine, hot spices, soft drinks
Have a bottle of water with you to wet your mouth throughout your presentation and don’t forget to eat something from the recommended foods list beforehand for an energy boost.
4. Open Strong – At the offset, it is important that you establish your credibility with your audience through the use of an appropriate hook. The hook may take the form of a powerful statistic, story or quote which is directly related to your main topic. The opening sets the scene and tone for your entire presentation. Although you may be familiar with some members of your audience, you should still introduce yourself for the benefit of those who do not know you.
After you have introduced yourself, you should proceed to you opening slide (with hook) and to the agenda, this sets the expectation around what you will cover and how you will handle audience questions throughout the presentation. Your choice of opening should clearly deliver the ‘what’s in it for me’ message to your audience, capturing their interest and firmly putting you in control seat!
5. Engage you audience – Remember, you are in control of the presentation and your audience are there to hear what you have to say. According to Dr. Albert Mehrabian (author of Silent Messages) 7% of any message is conveyed through words, 38% through certain vocal elements, and 55% through nonverbal elements (facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc) (source: How much of communication is really nonverbal). Therefore, how you carry yourself means a lot to the successful delivery of your message.
Beware of your posture; it’s easier said than done, but stand strong and appear confident at all times. Relax and square your shoulders in the direction of your audience, centering your gravity and avoid the urge to sway as if you are on a cruise liner! (A common solution to stop you swaying would be to position your feet in a ‘V’ shape).
Make your presence felt by utilising the space available to you between the projected slides and audience. The speaker’s triangle is a common methodology that governs the deliberate movement within this area to emphasise points of thought. When used correctly, the movement allows you to plant points in your audience’s mind , using a simple confident step forward to instil emphasis.
Gestures are another powerful asset that you can use to engage your audience. For instance, rather than looking awkward by keeping your hands by your side or glueing them to the podium in an effort to stop them from shaking, you can use gestures and deliberate movement of your hands to reinforce and regulate your audience’s response to your main points. An example of an effective use of gestures would be the ‘Obama Hug‘ (skip to 13:41).
Gestures should be used as a strategic complement to your verbal messages, overuse can often make you appear nervous or unfocussed. Remember, gestures can serve to deliver energy and emphasis your message or distract from it!
Lauguage is the final element here that I will mention to effectively engage your audience. In this particular case knowing your audience is critical, for instance the use of certain terminology or acronyms can be catastrophic for you if your audience isn’t familiar with them. Likewise if you have a diverse audience where english mightn’t be their first language, you should make an extra effort to pronounce all your words correctly and perhaps even adjust your language to the lowest common denominator.
According to the National Center for Voice and Speech, conversation speech in the US is roughly 150 – 200 words per minute. With this in mind, it is recommended that you aim for this benchmark, controlling your speech so that you come across relaxed without going too fast, raising your voice or going to the other end of the spectrum, speaking too quietly.
6. Make eye contact – I have purposely listed this behaviour as a separate item due to it’s ability to connect directly with your audience in a way that the other elements can not. As the saying goes “The eyes are the windows to your soul” and are probably your most powerful asset available to you when presenting.
Rather than scanning the room or focusing on a single spot at the back wall, it is recommended that you spend time (roughly 3 seconds) making eye contact with each individual in your audience. Of course, this isn’t practical if you are presenting to an auditorium of 50+ people. But in small groups, you should use your eyes to engage people on an emotional level as you emphasis certain points. Often those on the receiving end will return some form of non-verbal feedback (a nodding head, etc.) that will help build your confidence.
If you do struggle with making eye contact, at the very minimum, DO NOT look at the floor or the ceiling, instead try to apply a gaze to the forehead of individuals, just over the line of vision. This is where your practice will help you immensely.
7. Close Strong – Now that you are on the home stretch it is time to finish with a bang! Similarly to the importance placed on a strong start to your presentation, the finish is equally as important.
Try to keep your conclusion to one slide and recap on the important points that you want your audience to take away. Audience members tend to remember the elements of a conclusion more clearly than the main body of a presentation, so keep it short, to the point and ensure to include specific calls to action or next steps.
Never introduce new information during the conclusion, as this tends to interrupt the natural flow and thought progression for your audience.
8. Q&A – The Q&A section is another opportunity to reinforce your main points, so be sure to dedicate enough time for your audience members to ask questions. While taking questions, it is beneficial to take questions from different areas of the room, this approach often breaks audience hesitation to ask questions and encourages greater participate. Sometimes it helps to prepare back up slides with links to additional resources for your audience.