My heart was pounding outside of my chest and my hands were sweaty and trembling. I had my flashcards in hand and was rehearsing them as many more times as I could. The previous speaker had just finished, and now it was my turn. It was my first ever public speaking experience, on a topic that I can’t even remember anymore. What is ingrained forever in my memory though, is how uncontrollably my leg started shaking when I stood up and spoke in front of that class.
This was my first ever experience in giving a presentation, and little did I know back then how far I would come. I was fortunate that throughout my degree, I would have to do many more presentations. Why fortunate you ask? It helped a lot with the anxiety of public speaking. However, not shaking in front of a crowd isn’t the teller of a good presentation. Being able to capture your audience, and take them on a journey through your presentation is.
Think back to any of your school time, and recall your favourite lecturer or teacher. What was it about them that made them your favourite? Was it easy to pay attention to what they were saying? Do you know why?
I have had quite the journey with presentations, and I think I’ve come quite a long way since that first trembling experience. I’ve had hiccups along the way, of course, but I’ve stood up on stage to a crowd of over 100 people with no flashcards and excellent feedback.
So, what makes for a good presentation?
Tell a Story
If you have ever sought advice on giving a presentation, I hope this is something you have come across before. As humans, we think in stories. We can relate to stories. To keep your audience engaged, tell them a story. Think about what makes a good story? Stories normally follow a certain pattern. You start out with some context setting. Then, there is an obstacle or problem. Next, that obstacle is overcome in some way. Finally, we have a lessons learned or morale of the story.
Learn how to tell a story. You would be surprised the types of topics which can be brought into this format – yes even technical talks. Don’t be afraid to go outside of the usual information dump format that too many presentations follow. Your content will stick better with your audience, and I can bet you will have better feedback afterwards as a result.
Figure out what is the purpose of your presentation, what do you want the audience to leave with? Use this as a guide, and if you can’t get the full presentation to follow a story format, use personal stories in your presentation that relate to your content. This will make the information more meaningful to your audience, and make you more relatable.
Rehearse, Practice, Rehearse
Umm…. like… hmmm… : presentation killers. We often use transition words in-between thoughts without realising it. This especially happens if we don’t know our content well. We need fillers while we try to remember the next part of our thought process. Your presentation should be concise and clear. Using “umm” and “like” too many times does not help towards achieving a clear and concise presentation. This can also happen with other words that we might over-use, for example, “obviously”. Be careful, when you over-use words, your audience will start to notice. You want them completely focused on the message you’re trying to deliver, not particular words you use.
*Pro-Tip: Try the “Orai” app which can record your talk and give you feedback on your pace, clarity, filler words, and more.
Go over your speech multiple times. If you’ve ever watched a TED talk, you’ll see some speakers that look so natural in front of a crowd. That “natural” presentation took hours, days, weeks, and months of practice. The better you know your content, the more able you will be to emphasise points, introduce meaningful pauses, and engage your audience.
If you’ve never done public speaking before, I would recommend practicing in front of friends or family. It feels awkward, but you’re going to have to deal with it, it’s going to help you. Get their honest feedback – not what you want to hear. You could also consider joining a Toast Masters club if you have on locally. Volunteering at a local school to talk about a career path or a matter you have a lot of experience in is also a great way to practice. I volunteered for a few years at schools, and trust me, little kids are the best audience ever. You won’t be judged, and because you’re a new face that is in some cool field they don’t understand, you’re pretty cool to them.
Body language tells a story without you having to say anything. It can be used to emphasise certain points by using certain gestures. It can show your confidence and increase your audiences trust in you. However, if you are not watching your body language, it can have the opposite impact. For example, if you stand behind something while talking, perhaps a podium; you’re creating a barrier between you and your audience. While feeling less exposed might make you more comfortable, it will not make your audience more comfortable.
Engaging with your audience requires some animation, movement, and gestures – but well thought out ones which are not over the top. You do not want to be overly animated where the audience is more focused on your movements than your words. You also don’t want to be robotic where it seems “put on”. Practice will help you demonstrate natural animation. Move around the room and look at your audience, not into the distance. Expand your arms when you are mentioning something is “big” or has a heavy impact. Use your fingers to demonstrate a number when using one. For example, if you’re going through three points, raise your index finger and say “for my first point”, and so on for the next two.
These may seem like small details, but they truly add up to make for a better presentation, speech, or demo.
When I gave my first presentation, and still on occasion to this day, I can get overwhelmed with nerves. My heart starts racing, I feel uncomfortable, jittery, and my throat starts to swell up.
Hearing the words “stay calm” as advice for this, in my opinion, is useless. We all know the best thing to do is stay calm. Clearly, our bodies are not listening to our minds. So, what do we do? In a book I read, called Psyched Up by Daniel McGinn, I found a piece of advice that actually worked. First things first, channel that nervous energy into a new energy – excitement. Instead of saying to yourself “I’m scared” or “I’m nervous”, say “I’m excited” or “I’m really looking forward to this”. Studies have actually proven, that when told to say either “I’m nervous” or “I’m excited” before doing anything in front of an audience, the group saying “I’m excited” did much better than the other group. It’s a simple mind trick.
Next step, learn a breathing method that works for you. When I’m sitting waiting to go up for a speech, I will have my hands gently folded resting on my lap. I make sure my posture is upright, and I breath deeply. I sense my breath as if it’s moving from my nose down into my toes. What is this really doing? Breathing exercises give you something to focus on, it brings your mind into a peaceful almost idle state. Instead of running through how nervous you are or what you’re going to say, you take a step back. Trust your mind to do the work. A breathing exercise like this will help you with any jitters.
Public speaking is a journey that I will continue to be on. I am by no means a star TED talk level speaker. However, in my humble opinion, I’ve come a long way since that first time in front of my class. These methods have helped me to get to where I am. If public speaking is a skill that you would like to develop, but you’re having trouble, have a look at my Developing New Skills article for some inspiration.
There are a few more areas around presentations that I may do a follow-on article about, such as what makes for a good PowerPoint/Slide deck.
What advice would you give on speaking in front of an audience?