The Olympics are incredibly inspiring. The best of the best from around the world come to compete for the ultimate prize. You watch people who have trained for years, reach deep down and give this moment everything they have.
Presenters can learn a lot from these amazing athletes.
— Take care of your most important tool
Athletes know that their body is their most powerful tool. When they have a competition coming up, they understand the importance of getting enough sleep, eating right, and treating their body with respect. For some reason, many presenters tend to forget this. If you want to be at the top of your game, you have to make sure you are preparing for it inside and out.
— Everyone has an off day
Even the best athletes have an off day. How you handle that disappointment will determine how quickly you can bounce back. You can either let it continue to discourage you, or you can take it as a learning opportunity and decide to get inspired by it.
— It takes a lot of work to craft a great performance
Olympic athletes work very hard to reach this point. They have taken the time to practice every single component of their performance, numerous times. You don’t want to walk up to the front of the room knowing you could have done more to prepare.
— Have a plan but be ready to adapt
Athletes enter a competition with a clear plan in mind. They know which jumps, spins and tricks they want to do. However, they have to be relaxed enough to deal with unexpected circumstances. This is important for a presenter to remember. Being able to stay calm and confident while you think on your feet is a valuable tool for any presenter.
— Enjoy the moment
Many Olympians have spoken about how important it is to take in this special moment. You only have so much control over the outcome of the event, but you do have control over how much you allow yourself to enjoy the opportunity. When you are presenting at an event, make sure you give yourself time to appreciate being there. You get to share your thoughts, opinions and hard work with an audience. Enjoy it.
No matter how hard we try, there will always be instances when we have limited time to practice a presentation. In this situation, it’s critical that you don’t panic or scold yourself for failing to carve out enough time beforehand. Instead, focus on the following game plans:
1st Level: No time to prepare
If you haven't rehearsed your speech, try to stay relaxed. Walk up to the front of the room, breathe and smile. Introduce yourself (if someone hasn’t introduced you). Then, look at your first slide, say the point of the slide, and then go into the details. When you click to the next slide, pause, breathe, and then say the point of the slide and then explain the details. The pattern of 1) Point of slide and 2) Details is very effective if you want to stay on track and look confident as you present.
2nd Level: A few hours of time to prepare
If you only have a little time to prepare, the first thing you should do is practice your introduction. It’s the first time people hear you and it is your premium opportunity to establish a solid connection with your audience. The second thing to do is figure out your transition sentences. When does one idea end and another begin? Plan out each transition and practice it out loud. Last, practice your conclusion. An audience won’t know you haven’t practiced very much if your introduction, transitions, and conclusion are smooth.
3rd Level: At least one day to prepare
When you have a high-stakes project that you are presenting, it is critical to leave time to prepare. For these presentations, in addition to the introduction and conclusion, I suggest knowing the first and last sentence of every slide. This will drastically help the flow of your speech sound professional. If you can look at any slide and know how it begins and ends, you are ready to present.
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One of the hardest tasks when putting together a presentation is figuring out what to edit. At the start, all the information seems necessary. However, an audience can only take in so much. If you overwhelm people with too much information, they start to tune out. Therefore, in order to keep your audience’s attention, it is critical to know how to distill your message.
To help you edit, here are three questions to ask yourself:
1. What do I want the audience to remember?
Too many tangents are hard to follow. Many presenters want to impress their audience and stuff too much information into their presentation. In one sentence, answer the question, “What do I want my audience to remember?” Knowing this statement will help you clarify your message and delete unnecessary information.
2. Will the presentation make sense without this information?
Whenever I am working with a client on a presentation, I always ask them, “Do you need that?” This question helps people distill their message, as well as edit the images on their slides. Remember, wanting to talk about everything and needing to, are two different things. If a piece of information is critical for your overall message, then keep it. If it’s not, get rid of it.
3. Can I remember this without my slides?
Once you’ve done your first round of editing, go through the presentation and see if you can remember the content without looking at your slides. If there is a section that is too hard to recall, this is a good indication that you have included too much information. Because, if you have a hard time remembering your presentation, then your audience will too. Go back through and see if you can make additional changes to distill your message even more.
When you are crafting a compelling presentation, editing is critical.
As a presentation coach, one of the questions I get asked the most is, “What do I do with my hands?”
While there are plenty of power poses and effective body language techniques I could explain, my first response is a little different. If you are worried about your hands, it means you are worried about YOU. How you look, how you are being perceived, how you are portraying the information. A presentation is not about you. It is about the audience. It is about trying to do something to the audience. If you are worried about yourself, it means you’ve shifted the focus inward. You need to redirect that attention out again.
Figure out what you are trying to do with your information. Why you are saying it? Do you want to excite your audience? Do you want to rattle them? What effect do you want this content to have?
While there are specific motions and poses people can do to help maximize the effectiveness of a point, you can’t start there. Presentations can become too choreographed and staged. I want to listen to the genuine you. That can only happen if you start by thinking about the audience first. After you connect with them, you can work on making small moments stand out.
A lot of things go into making a presentation memorable. The slides have to be designed well, the content has to be engaging and the presenter has to seem confident in front of a crowd.
However, there is one main ingredient that many people overlook when putting together a captivating presentation — their personality.
I see it all the time. As a presentation coach I work with people from marketing to engineering to humanities. No matter their backgrounds, people want to seem professional. This is important, but that goal can often be taken too far. People will still take you seriously and see you as a professional if you bring your personality to a presentation. Personality adds flavor, it grabs the audience’s attention. It makes your speech more authentic, and therefore, more engaging.
If you and a colleague are given the same topic, the same script and same slides — there should be a noticeable difference in your presentation.
If you are having a hard time bringing your personality into a presentation, here are things to keep in mind:
Giving a speech can be nerve-wracking and many people physically tense up during a presentation. Try to relax. Breathe before you start. The audience can’t get a sense of you if you are too tense.
2. Add in Vocal Variety
In real life, when you are talking to people, your vocal tone naturally shifts. For example, when you really want to stress something, your pitch changes and you pause for effect. You might switch up the pace of your speech to add in momentum. However, many people lose this variety during speeches. Let your voice sound like it does in real life. Don’t fall into the “professional monotone” trap.
3. Have Fun
When you are having fun, your real personality comes out. Smile before you begin. Show the audience you want to be in front of them. Enjoy sharing your story with the audience. If you look like you are having fun, the audience will want to join you on your journey.
Remember, if you aren't memorable — your ideas won't be either. Let your personality shine throughout your presentation so your audience can feel connected to you and your ideas.
The best presentations are the ones where you feel the presenter is talking directly to you. Where ideas flow naturally and it feels like an easy discussion. However, many presenters have a hard time making their speeches sound like this. It’s probably because they don’t think about their presentations as conversations. Instead, they think of them as formal events where they talk, uninterrupted, in front of a large crowd. Normal interactions don’t happen under these conditions. Therefore, you must find a way to change things around so you can practice your presentation as a conversation.
Practice in an a different environment. Practice giving the full speech on your couch talking to your best friend. Practice in a coffee shop. Practice while you are taking a long walk with a coworker. When you practice, don’t just go through the “talking points” but fully explain each idea, as if you were giving your presentation. Figure out where your voice goes into “automatic” and you stop sounding genuine. Or have your friend point out when it no longer sounds like you are speaking to them, but at them. By changing up the environment, you will start to notice when your tone, pitch and delivery sound out of context. Then practice giving the talk, in that natural way, in the actual space where you will be presenting. Try to bring the “genuine” and conversational tone into the formal environment.
When you are having a conversation, you are normally telling a story. You are relying on your voice to paint a picture. In presentations, people rely on their slides to tell the story and explain the concept. Instead, practice telling your story without any visuals available. Notice what changes when you have to use your words to make the ideas come to life. Or, try using a whiteboard to draw the visuals as you tell them. By changing up the visuals you usually rely on, you will find more natural ways to convey the information.
In a conversation, people can interrupt you to clarify a point, ask a question or offer thoughts. In a presentation, the speaker is the only one talking and there is no give and take. It is just one voice that continues to speak for an extended period of time. To make the presentation more conversational, practice having a friend ask a question before each slide. Then, answer their question with the information on that slide. You can even put that question in the “presenter notes” section of your talk. That way, you continue to give the information in your talk as if you are having a dialogue with the audience.
Switch up your environment, change up your visuals and practice answering questions to make your presentations more conversational. That way the audience will feel more connected to you and your content.
Soft skills are essential for success in any field and there are ample opportunities for people to improve their presentation skills. People can read books, take workshops, enroll in courses, and train individually with experts. However, there is another training opportunity, one that is easily accessible, that is often overlooked.
Next time you attend a meeting, go to a conference, or even watch a speech online, take extra care to tune in to the presentation. Analyze the speech. Take notes during and after it. Actively engage with the entire process.
Things to Consider During the Presentation:
1. When do I get pulled into their speech?
Note at what moment you become engaged with their presentation. Was it a phrase they said? Was it their body language? Was it an image they created? Write down what the presenter did to hook you in.
2. When do I tune out?
It is critical to notice when, instead of paying attention to the speech, you are focusing on your to-do list or thinking about some project on your plate. Once you realize your mind is wandering, try to tune back into the presentation and figure out why. Was it the way it was organized? Does the presenter sound engaged with the content? Is the information too technical? Figure out what is happening in front of you that made you tune out.
Things to Consider After the Presentation:
1. What do I remember?
After someone is done speaking, it is a good idea to take a moment and think about what stayed with you after the presentation ended. What phrases come to your mind? What images, either from the PowerPoint or from their stories, are still in your head? What did you learn from the presentation?
2. What questions do I have?
Instead of disengaging with the presentation after it is over, ask yourself what questions you have about the content. Is there a term or a concept that you aren’t clear on? Was there a statement or a claim that you didn’t understand fully? What follow up questions would you send the presenter if you had the chance to continue the conversation?
3. What notes would I give the presenter to help them improve?
This is the most important question to answer. How would you reorganize the presentation to make it clearer to the audience? How could the speaker sound more engaged with the content? Was there a slide that had too many graphics on it? Think about how you could help the presenter improve their speech and what steps you would take to make it happen.
After you do this with a few presentations, you will start to see patterns. For example, you might notice that you tend to tune out of a presentation during the overview slide. Therefore, when you give your own speech, take extra care to make sure that your overview slide is engaging. You can change up the graphics, infuse it with active statements instead of passive ones, or even get rid of the overview slide altogether.
Answer these questions and analyze your answers. Don't miss an opportunity to improve your own skills. Actively engage with every speech you hear and apply what you learn to your own presentations.
In the last two years I have coached hundreds of graduate students on their talks for conferences, thesis defenses and symposiums. While I am always impressed by their innovative, creative and noteworthy research, there are definitely ways to improve their presentations of it. There are three things in particular that I consistently advise graduate students to eliminate from their research talks.
1. Stop Reading Your Title Slide
What I see: During presentations, graduate students walk up and say, “Hello” and then immediately turn to their title slide to read what is on it. Many times they stumble over what they have written up there. Sometimes, they even read their own name.
Instead: Know your title. Your title slide is the audience’s introduction to you. This is the first time they hear your voice, get a sense of you and figure out if this is a talk worth listening to. If you walk up and have to read your own title, you are telling the audience that this is information you don’t know very well. How am I supposed to believe in your innovation if you can’t even remember what your presentation is on? You need to memorize your title. Don’t rush through it — take your time. This is your opportunity to get the audience excited about hearing your talk.
2. Stop Saying, “I'm going to talk about my research.”
What I see: After students say their name and title, they follow up with “And today I’m going to talk about my research.”
Instead: Get rid of that sentence or any variation of it. There is no need to state the obvious. The audience knows you will be talking about your research. It is a research presentation. In the first minute, you need to grab the audience’s attention. When students say this sentence, it takes away from getting to the point of the talk. It is an unnecessary statement and takes time away from convincing the audience that they should listen to your presentation.
3. Stop Transitioning With “So”
What I see: After the presentation has begun and a student clicks to a new slide, they begin explaining the slide by saying “So”. Then, as the presentation continues, each transition begins with “So”. In a five minute presentation, I hear “So” more times than I hear the subject of the talk.
Instead: Find other transitions to utilize. Otherwise, a five minute presentation can seem like a fifteen minute one. Instead of using “So” to propel the talk forward, drop it from the sentence.
“So we conducted three experiments…” becomes “We conducted three experiments…”
“So the next thing I did…” becomes “The next thing I did…”
“So this graph shows that…” becomes “This graph shows that…”
Doing this makes the presentation stronger and more direct. That way the audience can follow the logic, feel the momentum of the talk and stay engaged with you and the content.
Making these small changes will dramatically improve the introduction, the transitions and overall effect the presentation has on the audience.
When I’m giving workshops on presentation tips, I often get asked about the “proper way to speak at a podium.” I always answer with one sentence, “Unless you absolutely have to, never stand behind a podium.” This response normally gets met with looks of fear and alarm.
I then explain how speakers have a hard enough time creating a connection with their listeners without putting a tree in between themselves and their audience. It is very hard to appear as the authority on your subject when you hide behind a block of wood.
Many people feel the need to stand behind a podium because that is where the microphone is. If you ask ahead of time, normally there is another microphone option for speakers. There are lavaliere microphones, handheld ones and headsets. Or if the only microphone is on the podium, it is often adjustable. You can twist it to the side and stand beside the podium. That way the audience can see you and connect with you.
Other people want to stand behind the podium so they can see their notes. However, your slides are your notes. They are there to help illustrate your points. If you have practiced, the images and ideas on the slides should be sufficient to help you remember what you want to say. If you like to see what slide is coming up, and your laptop is on the podium, you can stand close enough to it to glance at the screen as needed.
Beyond logistics, people feel "safer" behind a podium. Nervous ticks are hidden from view. It gives people something stable to hold on to and ground themselves. However, you have to ask yourself what your ultimate goal is. If it is to feel safe, use the podium. But if your goal is to get people excited about your content, step out in front of people. It is worth feeling a little uncomfortable if it means people feel a connection to you and your ideas.
Experts know it is better to speak to an audience directly. During award shows, no one stands behind a podium. The microphone comes up from the floor, or if there is a “podium” it is clear so the audience can see through it. During TED Talks, people use headsets and walk around the stage. When CEOs like Elon Musk or Tim Cook launch a new product, they don’t stand behind anything. They are front and center.
A podium creates a physical barrier between you and your audience. Next time you give a speech and you see a podium, ditch it. Stand in clear view of your audience so they can connect with you and your content.
Practice, practice, practice. We’ve heard it a million times and we will continue to. If you want to be good at something — to nail it — you have to work at it. However, when it comes to presentations, there will be times when you have practiced too much. When people have overly memorized a speech, or given it too many times, it can become robotic and lose the life it once had. It becomes like a song you hear on the radio, where every breath, pause and beat is preplanned. The audience won’t feel the need to listen if they can sense you are on autopilot.
In order to breathe life back into your presentation, you need to intentionally break up the pattern. Not only will it disrupt the routine you have settled into, but you might actually find a new and better way of saying a section of your presentation.
Here are five ways you can break up the routine:
Change up the pace on purpose. Say the entire thing as fast as you can. Or, say it as slow as you can. Then, speed up and slow down throughout the talk.
Switch the pitches you are using. Say the speech like you are going on a vocal rollercoaster. You can go from a high voice, to low voice, to medium and back again.
3. Movie Genres
Instead of giving your presentation in the normal professional style, imagine you are in a movie. You can pretend you are are in a western, horror film, comedy, musical, James Bond film, etc.
Change the volume. Start by saying your speech in a whisper and then gradually increase your volume as if you were telling it to someone across the parking lot.
We go into “presenter mode” when we rehearse. We settle into our professional persona as we see ourselves on a stage or in a conference room. To disrupt this pattern, imagine you are in a different environment. You can be underwater, at a concert or talking to kindergarteners. Imagine you are giving this speech in a different space.
With all of these techniques, your pitch, pace, intonation, key words and pauses will change. By doing your presentation wrong on purpose, you are giving yourself the freedom to play around again. You are letting yourself experience this presentation in a new and fun way. Whenever you have a routine, you can get bored with the predicability and start to tune out. By giving your presentation variety again, you are inviting spontaneity back in. This way you can reestablish your connection with the message and bring your presentation back to life.
Bri McWhorter is the Founder and CEO of Activate to Captivate.