Have you ever had to stand up in front of a group of people to give a presentation? Whether it’s three people or three hundred, if you are expected to deliver a presentation, two things are likely to be true: 1) you will be nervous immediately before your presentation, and 2) you will probably do just fine. However, instead of giving just an OK presentation, there are a few things that you can do (or avoid doing) that will easily make your presentation excellent. What follows is a short set of tips that you should consider when it’s the night before your event and you’re standing in front of the mirror rehearsing.
The first item relates to how you’re going to organize your message. You may have heard this before but the simplest formula for organizing a presentation is this: 1) tell them what you’re going to tell them, 2) tell them, and 3) tell them what you just told them. Your English teacher might call that the introduction, main body, and conclusion.
In presentations, it’s incredibly helpful to briefly state what you’re going to cover. It sets expectations and gives the listener something to watch for as the presentation unfolds.
Alternatively, consider going on a trip but not knowing where you’re going or how you will get there. It might be exciting but it might also be pretty frustrating. Not knowing what is important in a presentation sets the audience members on a course of investigation, which will distract and fatigue the mind. And, they will be busy trying to figure this out when what they should be doing is paying close attention to you. So, by not offering a pre-summary, you’re creating competition for yourself; you compete against the audience members’ own imagination. That is bad. However, it can be eliminated or greatly reduced if you just tell the audience in advance what you’re going to cover.
Have you ever sat through a PowerPoint presentation and the speaker simply read from the screen? He puts his entire presentation in sentences, puts the entire thing on the screen, and proceeds to read from the top of the screen down to the bottom, adding in a few comments along the way. This is incredibly boring. If you’re anything like me, I read the entire slide and then start wondering what will be revealed on the next screen. Once he puts his cards on the table, in this case the big screen, I pay almost no attention to the presenter.
In your rehearsal, try to make a conscious effort to note how many times you utter “Um,” “Ah,” or any of the dozens of non-word fillers. I consider myself to be an above average presenter. I recently watched a video of myself as I was presenting at a conference. I had no idea that I was a habitual “ahh” user. I actually believed that of all the presenters that I’ve seen who use non-words, I was not one of them. I was shocked. But once I discovered it, I made the change. In my case, I was using non-words when I was transitioning between my visual aid and my audience. I would make some comments and then refer to the screen, and then as my attention shifted back to the audience, I reliably said, “and … ahhh” like clockwork. The moment I realized that I was doing this, I immediately stopped. I didn’t even have to really work to make the change. It just happened. I hope that it’s as easy for you as it was for me.
My final tip is something that usually comes naturally: breathing. Of course, no one really needs to think about breathing. It’s involuntary. However, there are two things about breathing and public speaking that are easily overlooked. First, as a person begins to experience stress, his or her breathing tends to become shallow. This is incredibly unhelpful of Mother Nature. Deep breathing relieves stress. Right before a presentation, you’re stressed. The second thing about breathing is, leading up to your presentation, you should be doing a lot of it – long, slow, and deep breathing. Not only does this calm your nerves but it also primes your lungs. Your lungs supply the air that you need in order to have a clear speaking voice. It’s sort of ironic: breathing is involuntary, stress-relieving, and makes you sound better. But when you need copious amounts of air, your body magically forgets to breath properly. My tip: get a Sharpie and write, “DEEP BREATHING” on your palm. I have found a technique called “box breathing” that works fabulously when I need to have optimal composure. In box breathing, you use three seconds to inhale, hold your breath for three seconds, use three seconds to exhale, and keep your lungs empty for three seconds. Repeat this box-cycle 10 times, 20 cycles is better. You will be simply amazed at how relaxed you become in a matter of seconds.
If you’d like to see professionals in action, look no further than your evening news. Watch the weather person. He or she is usually unscripted and is standing in front of a large screen while speaking to a camera. Your local meteorologist does a 1-2 minute presentation and most likely doesn’t use a single non-word, doesn’t read from a screen that you can also read, and always sounds composed and comfortable. I offer one note of caution. Once you start paying attention to your own presenting style, you will never view anyone else’s presentation with an uncritical eye.
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