Great presenters are aware that there are many variables in a presentation. While you can control the content and the delivery of a presentation, many other factors play a role in a presentation's success. Here are five things to think about to help you avoid disaster in your next presentation:
1. Investigate Your Fears
You are your best critic and chances are you know where you are underprepared. Are you worried your presentation will be too long? It probably is. Are you worried you might forget information for a certain slide? You probably will. Are you worried you use too much technical jargon in your presentation? You probably do. Trust your gut. Figure out what you are uneasy about and take extra time to address these potential problems.
2. Prepare Without Technology
Technology has a tendency to fail at the worst time. That’s why great presenters use PowerPoints to enhance their presentations, but they don’t need them. They know the information so well that if something does go wrong, they can still tell their story effectively without any aids. Make sure you know the information well enough that you could give your presentation with or without visual help.
3. Brainstorm Questions
The audience’s reaction to your presentation also depends on how you answer questions. Are there questions you hope the audience doesn't ask? Assume those questions will come up and practice your answers out loud.
4. Take Improvisation Classes
A great presenter can think on their feet. If you are worried about being able to handle the unexpected, try taking some improvisation classes. I’ve seen firsthand how practicing improvisation can help people grow and learn to trust their instincts.
5. Practice Things Going Wrong
The best way to avoid disaster, is to practice dealing with it. In a rehearsal, have a friend reorder your slides without telling you. Or, you could have a friend ask you a hard question in the middle of your speech. Bring in someone to help you explore how you handle numerous situations.
When it comes to avoiding disaster, you have to think outside the box. Great presenters can overcome many obstacles. Give yourself the opportunity to experience dealing with the unexpected.
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.
Interviewing for any position is nerve-wracking. You are entering an environment where your abilities are evaluated, analyzed and scrutinized. However, it is important to not let that pressure affect you. Here are some ways to overcome the stress of an interview and showcase your confidence:
When you don’t breathe normally, your nervous system kicks in because your body isn’t getting enough oxygen. This causes your heart to beat faster which can make you feel nervous. That is why proper breathing is so critical. Before you enter the interview room, take long deep breaths. Stay as calm as possible. Continue this awareness in the interview room. When you are asked a question, don’t hold your breath as you listen. Breathe the whole time. If you notice you are running out of breath when answering questions, slow down. Proper breathing is the first step to staying calm and looking confident in an interview.
You don’t have to speak to communicate. Body language is often much louder than words and body tension is often read as insecurity. Before you enter the room, stretch your shoulders, neck and back. When you enter the room, imagine you are taller and wider than you are. During the interview, don’t collapse down into a small ball. Stay relaxed and open. When you leave the room, stand tall, smile and look them in the eye as you thank them. Let your body tell the interviewer that you are ready and excited about this opportunity.
Many people enter “defending mode” in an interview. They feel they have to justify their history, experiences and goals. You don’t have to defend anything. You need to own it. You are there to give your qualifications a voice. If you get an interview, they are already interested in knowing more about you. You’ve done everything you can to prepare. Now enjoy the chance to share your thoughts with a potential colleague. This is the time to bring your ideas and passion to life.
When you breathe normally, have open and relaxed body language and own your ideas, you can show the interviewer how confident and excited you are about this opportunity.
It’s common knowledge that the best way to nail a presentation is to practice. However, there will be times when circumstances prevent this. Here are three ways you can still impress your audience even if you don’t have time to prepare:
Messy transitions show the audience that you haven’t prepared. Even if you don’t have much preparation time, think about how you are going to transition between slides. I suggest writing down the first and last sentence for each slide. That way, even though you haven’t rehearsed the content, it still gives the illusion that you have. You can rest easy knowing that even if you get a bit off-track, you have a way to bring it back and transition flawlessly to the next idea.
When people don’t have time to practice, they try to cover it up by speaking very quickly and charging through their entire presentation. Instead, utilize the power of the pause. Breathe between slides. Give yourself a “reset” button. Pausing allows the audience’s ears to perk up and take extra note that you’ve said something important. Pausing also shows confidence. It tells the audience that you feel in control of the situation. Utilizing the pause allows you to work the room, even when you feel unprepared.
When people haven’t practiced, they spend most of their energy trying to remember what they want to cover. Instead, think about your presentation in a different way — as an opportunity to teach the audience about your idea. When you teach, the order naturally comes out in the most efficient way. Highlight the important parts. When you teach, you create a connection with the audience because you are focused on them, rather than on yourself.
Even without preparation, focusing on the transitions, pausing and teaching the audience about your ideas will create a powerful and successful presentation.
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.
Students are busy. Their schedules are packed and they are constantly struggling to meet deadlines. Due to this hectic lifestyle, many times job searches, professional development training and networking is put on the back burner. While this is understandable, it is also a mistake. Students need to realize that they can’t just be focused on their immediate projects — they have to focus on finding internships and jobs. Networking is a big part of this. It is critical in today's competitive job market. However, many people don't realize that it doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking.
Here are three easy ways students can start networking before they need a job:
1) Connect with Previous Mentors
Your mentors are already invested in your journey. They care about your career, your well-being and your goals. Far too often people only reach out to mentors when they need something. While asking a favor is perfectly fine, it shouldn’t be the only time your mentor hears from you. Instead you should:
2) Engage in Social Media
Interact with people who are invested in the same topics you are. Even if you aren’t looking for a job at the moment, you never know who you might meet and what opportunities will present themselves down the road. There are numerous ways to connect with others over social media:
3) Attend Events
While social media is incredibly useful, it isn’t a substitute for connecting with people in person. There are so many ways to meet people with similar interests. You can:
As a student it is easy to get overwhelmed and overlook opportunities. By taking some time to connect with mentors, engage on social media and attend events, you can easily expand your network. That way when you do need an internship or a job, opportunities will be much easier to find.
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.
Bri McWhorter is the Founder and CEO of Activate to Captivate.