The first time I had to do a really big presentation at work, I was ready — I knew my material, I had a strong message, and it was my chance to show off my skills to my co-presenter, our group’s Vice President. But halfway through the presentation I looked down and was mortified to see the piece of paper in my hand was visibly shaking and people were staring at it!
Prezi conducted a survey of employed professionals and found “telling a clear and persuasive story through presentations is a fundamental job requirement and a necessary component of career success.” I think that is absolutely true — if you want to get ahead in this world you have to do presentations at some point. Some of us will present more than others, and the audience sizes may vary, but avoiding presentations will probably hurt your career regardless of your role.
We thought it would be useful to have a professional development focus at Datagami. Some people are born presenters, I am not. Some people are born extroverts, not me. I’ve come a long way since those first presentations and I’ve done hundreds of presentations now, but I still get incredibly nervous. So, while this story isn’t about data, I thought I’d share some of the presentation tips and tricks that I’ve learned over the years in hope that they will help you.
Practice and Preparation
I know this is obvious but when we get busy practice and preparation can suffer. I can wing it if I’m talking about something I have already spoken about or my audience is small, but for large audiences or new material you really need to make sure you are prepared and walk through your presentation a few times. If you can get a friend to help be the audience then do that. If not, we all have smart phones now – video record yourself and play it back.
Filler words are words or sounds we fill in when we don’t know what to say or are giving ourselves time to think. Things like um, ah, like, etc. Do you know what your filler words are? If not, have a friend listen in or video yourself to find out. You may not even realize you have them.
Filler words are distracting and can make the speaker sound inexperienced and unsure of themselves. You could try to replace your filler words with something a little more professional. Or use some transitional phrases such as “let’s transition to”, or “an important consideration is”, or “let’s move on”.
Most of us use filler words to give ourselves time to think or because we are nervous. If you really don’t know what to say and someone asked you a question, repeat the question or reframe it to give yourself time to think. There is also no shame in having notes with you – but your notes should not be so detailed that you have to stop and read entire sentences. Use bullet points or simple reminders to trigger your memory and keep yourself on track.
Be comfortable with silence. I am terrible at this but silence is a great tool. You don’t have to be talking ALL the time. Having a little silence gives the audience a chance to think about what you said while you figure out what you will say next. And it helps you stay away from filler words. Next time you’re listening to a speaker, see how they utilize silence. You’ll notice that the most effective speakers are not afraid to pause, to wait, to look around the room. They seem more in control, more comfortable, and more engaging.
Eye contact is also easy to forget when you’re nervous but the audience will relate to you much better if you look at them! This can be tough to do when there are 100 people in the room. When making eye contact, it is important that you don’t go too quickly. If you catch someone’s eye and then immediately look to the next person you seem unfocused. But if you stare at one person too long, you are ignoring the rest of the audience and you may seem creepy. I was taught to try making eye contact for 4 or 5 seconds before moving on. And try not to go from one person to the next person in a row – look around the room and engage more widely and randomly.
This is a hard one. Some of the training I’ve received told us to stand on both feet, connected solidly with the ground. And this is great advice for some presentations. But there are others where I’ve felt that I was more approachable if I was leaning on one foot or more relaxed. If you’re not sure, I would go with connecting solidly with the ground. And if you watch presenters like Steve Jobs, you’ll see that he usually stood this way.
Motion and movement
If you want to engage your audience, moving around is key. Sometimes this isn’t possible but if you can move around then do it. Move forward to get closer to your audience when trying to pull them in. Back up to make a larger point. Move left to right to add in some energy.
You may be surprised at how hard it is to get yourself to move. We did some team presentation coaching exercises and one of them focused on movement – almost all of us forgot to move. It was funny to watch because most of us were a minute or two into the presentation when we remembered we were supposed to be moving around and we looked more like robots trying to force movement. But a little practice and we got there.
This is a good skill to video yourself doing and play back. Did your movement look natural? Did it add to the presentation or distract from it?
What to Do With Your Hands
I learned a new phrase during one of my presentation training sessions – ‘dinosaur arms’. This is a tendency some people have where they hold their arms at their sides and move their hands from the elbow down. I don’t suffer from this but many of my coworkers did and once you start noticing it you can’t stop.
Your arms and hands are a great tool – they help you tell a story, help you bring in the audience and help you see more approachable. But again you should practice here. Do you tend to make the same motion over and over again? Do your hands help with your point or are you just moving them because you don’t know what else to do? Or worse, are your hands glued in one position because you don’t remember they exist while you’re talking?
This is also a good one to observe and watch. Find presenters who make good use of their actions and motions and see how you can learn from it.
And lastly, I suggest you do NOT hold a single sheet of paper in your hand if you’re prone to nervousness. After that first presentation, I now make sure that if I need notes I carry a notebook that is heavy enough not to shake!