How to give a good presentation? How to hold a room, to carry all before you? It’s a key life skill, and one that we’ve all agonised over at some point.
It is also, in my opinion, a skill that is sorely neglected. I can think of several, seminal moments in my career that have come down to standing in a room, staring down the gun barrel of success or failure, and delivering a line, a paragraph, or a message that has crucially swung things in the right direction.
These can be genuinely life altering moments, and yet how often do we actually examine what impression we make as we shuffle in the spotlight? What preparation, aside from creating slick powerpoint slides and colourful charts, do we undertake to ensure that our delivery is compelling and our message unequivocally received.
So let’s dispel a few myths about giving a presentation, and look at a few key points while we’re at it.
"But I’m rubbish at presentations"......
The first myth is that some are naturally good at presentations, and others not so (and that those in the latter category will never deliver a world-class lecture). I have seen top presenters struggle appallingly, and modest, staid, introverts deliver superb messages. It is simply a case of playing to your strengths.
The best presentation I’ve ever seen (and bear in mind I do this for a living, and over the last decade have seen some of the best conference speakers in the world in action) was a shy, reserved gentleman who had just won an award. The award happened to be for growing salad (long and thumpingly good story, which sadly I don’t have time to go into here) but he delivered his speech with such quiet conviction, such pride, and such power that he received a standing ovation at the end. When I approached him afterwards to say that his was the best presentation I’d ever seen, he positively beamed.
"Really, well, it’s just that I love my work I suppose. Yep, I really, really love growing stuff."
So perhaps the first rule is to analyse your strengths, figure out what it is that you do well, and incorporate that into your presentation.
We all have a passion, a delicious whiff of eccentricity that makes us unique. This is the essence of you, and it is - after all - you giving the talk. Why leave the best bits of you back at your seat as you stand up to talk?
Kenneth Williams suffered from the most appalling stage fright and his routine as he stood to speak was to lift his head, and think “I am magnificent.” If nothing else it’ll make you smile as you take the long walk to the podium, and after all is said and done there are worse ways to begin than with a smile.
Get them involved....
It’s a fact, proven in numerous studies, that engagement with a message requires active participation. That may be a show of hands from your audience at key moments, asking for estimates of the facts and figures you are presenting, or even times when you get your audience to talk to each other about their own experiences of the message that is the core of your presentation.
Doing a talk on leadership? Ask the audience to break for a moment to discuss with the person next to them what is their greatest personal experience of leadership? Presenting on the quarterly figures? Ask for a brave soul to estimate them before you announce them? Do this and a frisson of energy courses through the room, a ripple of laughter or nervous shuffling, a tiny, tectonic moment that makes your presentation come alive.
You may well be thinking that this is somewhat unconventional, and for many - hog-tied in a tedious protocol that demands presentations are done in a clear, linear style to a room of bored, silent people - you are quite right. But if you engage with those in the room, give them the opportunity to become involved, regardless of how fleeting that may be, then you will have them with you.
"They want me to fail."
No they don’t. Every person in the room, unless they are a complete sociopath, or unless they’re after your job, or unless they’re both, wants you to succeed. It is a common feeling to have a primal fear that everyone is just waiting for you to fall flat on your face - indeed it harks back to the days when we as pack animals would test one another, a time when to stand up in front of the group was to challenge the alpha.
This is the root of your fear, that you will be judged, and then cast aside, rejected from the sanctuary of the herd to be at the mercy of the hyenas and the jackals. It’s safe to say that in modern life this is unlikely to happen, even in Slough, so for the vast majority of your presentations everyone is willing you to do well.
The feeling in most rooms as you talk is not hostility, it is sympathy, it is empathy, and it is interest. As a rule the only person perceiving hostility is you. It is, invariably, your ancient inner chimp getting over excited. Put him back in his box, and stand up to talk to your friends and colleagues.
Enjoy the ride.
We tend to view each presentation as the be all and end all. It isn’t actually, it’s just another presentation. Without wishing to contradict my opening paragraph - if it goes well, that’s tremendous, but if it doesn’t it is not a train crash. In the vast majority of cases it’s just a presentation that didn’t quite hit the mark, and there’ll be other chances. Relax, enjoy the ride.
And if it is the presentation that is a genuine life-changer, then stand up, look up, speak up, and smash it. You are, after all, magnificent.