Can you hear me at the back? Five tips for better presentations.

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Last week I gave a presentation in Lincolnshire. It's been a while since I did this (give a presentation I mean, not visit Lincolnshire) and I realised I might be a little rusty. So the night before, I ran through a few 'golden rules' - just a mental checklist of sins and virtues gleaned from years of presenting to clients, students and colleagues.

Now, I'm a bit strange. I actually enjoy addressing groups of people, but I know most people dread it. Indeed, I've worked with a handful of people who flatly refused to do it. Although I quite understand their anxiety and dismay, I would suggest this is something any professional creative should be able to do with confidence. After all, if you can't stand up and sell (and in some cases, defend) your work you can hardly object when nobody buys into it, much less believes in you and your skills.

I'd love to be able to turn every reader into an award-winning public speaker in a single article, but sadly life isn't that simple. However, all is not lost - because  I can share those 'golden rules'. With a bit of luck, they will provide some food for thought and remove a sliver of the horror and potential for disaster inherent in pitching, presenting or addressing a meeting.

Pay attention, there'll be a test. (There won't).

1. Never plan a presentation which cannot be delivered without slides.

Nobody really likes PowerPoint. It's a clumsy tool which many presenters treat as a substitute for something genuinely interesting. I'm not against its use, and actually deploy it myself now and again. BUT, if your presentation cannot take place without fancy slides, you have a problem. I have lost count of the number of times I have rocked up to present and found that nobody knows how to use the projector, the software fails or the promised equipment is absent. If your performance isn't viable without PowerPoint, your only option is to cancel if you cannot display it. That is not good. At all.

2. If you are using PowerPoint put as little as possible on the slides.

Having sat through innumerable presentations where every word of the script has been typed onto slides, I am often left wondering why I wasn't just sent the file so I could read it at my leisure. Remember, people have attended in order to hear YOU speak. If everything you intend to say appears on a screen behind you, you are being upstaged by your own slides. And I guarantee your audience will spend the entire session watching the screen, not you.

By all means show creative work on slides (always ensuring you have hard copies too), or tables, or illustrations - but never display your own words.

3. Do NOT hold your notes in front of you.

Whether you have cue cards or A4 sheets, it's a very good idea to use notes when presenting. That said, I would suggest you don't bring a full script to read out - you'll sound like a newscaster. Instead, use bullet points to guide you from one point to another. This will avoid waffle and repetition as well as acting as something of a satnav to take you from the beginning to the end of your presentation. However, Do NOT hold your notes in your hand as you present. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, you will shake. In fact, we all have a slight tremor in our hands, even when we're relaxed. In front of a crowd, the adrenalin pumps and that tremor is amplified. A piece of paper or card, held in the hand, will vibrate accordingly and the audience will perceive you as terrified. Secondly, you will find yourself looking down at your notes rather than up and forward. This will alienate your crowd.

Instead, print your notes out in a big old font and have them on a table next to you. When you've finished a point or section, glance at your notes (if you need to) and move on.  

4. Don't be afraid of silence.

This sounds counter-intuitive. Surely the whole idea of a presentation is to talk, talk, talk? But it isn't. The whole point of a presentation is to convey  ideas and information in a way the audience will retain. Silence will help you achieve this. Not enormous swathes of silence, but substantial pauses between points. Observe a great public speaker like Barack Obama. He lends weight to his delivery by allowing two or three seconds for the audience to absorb what has just been said. Pauses are the punctuation in public speaking - they'll also help you to regulate your breathing, which in turn will stop you gabbling. Pausing is also an excellent tool if your audience is chattering amongst themselves (it happens to the best of us). If you stop talking, so will they. Eventually.

5. Prepare.

The best tip I can give you.  If you're underprepared you'll underperform, guaranteed. You'll also be far more anxious - and rightly so. The better you know your material, the more relaxed and confident you'll feel. But preparation comes in several flavours.

Ensure you know your material inside out.  Appearing baffled by your own script is fatal, so go through your script/notes again and again. Check you can back up your points and facts, you may be challenged by mischievous audience members, particularly in a pitch.
Run through your timings. You will probably have an allocated slot and will not be popular if you overrun. (I once took part in a pitch which four people had to deliver in 35 minutes. The first presenter spoke for 25 minutes.) For a vital presentation, it is essential you rehearse in front of an objective third-party (friend, relative, spouse). There is no way of knowing whether your presentation has holes in it until you run through it. Listen to their feedback and be prepared to make changes.

Finally, remember that a mistake is only a mistake if you let the audience know. If you lose your place, miss something or forget a point, just move on. Chances are no-one will notice.

And if you're due to give a presentation soon, good luck - and please, enjoy it.


Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant



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