One of the most common small talk questions is, “What do you do?” People ask this question because it’s a quick and concise way to ask people how they spend the majority of their time. But often, this question doesn’t allow people to open up and connect.
Folks might answer:
I’m a grad student at X university.
I’m an attorney.
I’m a Developer at X corporation.
Some people will share a little about the type of work they do, but people are often quite succinct and don’t elaborate. This makes it hard to find an organic way to continue the conversation. That’s why I recommend following up by asking people about what aspects of their jobs (or their fields) that they appreciate.
For example you could ask:
What’s something you enjoy about your work at the moment?
Are you noticing anything changing in your field right now?
What is one of the best parts of your job?
What is something about your current role that you find interesting?
What’s something you look forward to when you work with your colleagues?
We can always find ways to bond over stress and discomfort, but when you are meeting someone new, it’s good to connect over things that energize or intrigue you. If your goal is to get people to open up, think about also asking them to share things that inspire and motivate them.
Many speakers worry about forgetting what they want to say during a presentation. They don’t want to freeze in front of their audience. It can be a very surreal experience, to completely lose your train of thought in the middle of a talk. However, many people don’t realize that there are a few situations that can make it easier for someone to blank out.
1. Replaying a former rehearsal
Some presenters are surprised when they practice a talk perfectly, and then when they do it live, they completely forget what they want to say. This can happen when a speaker is thinking about a former rehearsal as they start their current presentation. If you are trying to replay something you did in the past, your attention won’t be on the current moment. Instead, your brain goes back in time and this disconnect can often trigger a person to forget what they are actively saying. This happens to athletes as well. If they are thinking about a previous time when they shot a basket correctly, or a moment when they kicked a ball really well, they lose focus on what is in front of them and it affects their performance. Therefore, instead of trying to replay a former talk, just trust your rehearsals prepared you for the task at hand. Then focus on the present moment as you share your work with the audience in front of you.
2. Made sense on paper
Another thing that throws presenters off is when they map out their transitions on paper, but they don’t work as well when they are spoken out loud. So if you’ve ever had a moment where you can’t remember the next part of your talk, it’s often because your last thought didn’t make you think of the next one. This happens to actors all the time. If they forget a line, it’s often because they don’t know why they need to share their next line. That’s why I recommend saying your transitions out loud without being able to look at the text. If you know how to begin and end each slide, you’re far more likely to have a consistent flow of ideas and remember your content.
3. Focusing on the words not the story
When presenters try to memorize a presentation, they are focused on remembering text. However, that’s not how we tell stories. When we tell stories, the exact words aren’t important, it’s more about replaying images and events in our head. Instead of trying to memorize words, try to get comfortable with a sequence of events. Going into “storytelling mode” helps people remember their content as they connect with their audience.
So if you’ve frozen during a presentation before, forget any former rehearsals, map out your transitions, and then go into storytelling mode. It will help you focus on the current moment so you can successfully share your work with others.
Author: Bri McWhorter
No matter how prepared you are, surprises happen. That’s why it’s difficult when people feel ready for a presentation, but then something happens when they get up in front of an audience and their nerves take over. Thankfully, there are things people can do during their presentation prep work that can help them practice dealing with these unexpected variables.
1. Practice in different environments
People usually practice presentations in a familiar environment that they have full control over. However, when you go to a conference or a new location, the entire presentation set-up changes. You have a different visual in front of you, people might be moving or shuffling their stuff around, and you are no longer inches from your laptop in a quiet room. That’s why I recommend practicing parts of your presentation in different environments. See if you can practice in a new conference room, at a different desk with people around, even practice the transitions in your presentation as you walk around the block. If you can get comfortable with new variables around you as you share your talk, you’ll be far more prepared for your presentation.
2. Practice without looking at your slides or a script
Every presentation setup is different. I’ve given hybrid presentations where my laptop is in the back of the room while I’m in front of a conference table. I had no access to notes and I couldn’t see what slide was coming up next. Thankfully I was very familiar with my topic and I didn’t need to access any notes. However, you don’t want to be thrown off if something like this happens to you. That’s why I always make sure I practice the outline of my presentation without looking at my slides. If you know what idea comes next without a visual reminder, you’ll feel prepared with and without your slides.
3. Practice having something go wrong
While you can’t prepare for every situation that occurs, you can control how you react. If you’re worried about how you’ll handle curve balls, I recommend practicing having something go wrong. Click ahead a few slides and pretend you had a tech glitch, close your laptop in the middle of your presentation and pretend the screen projector turned off, or practice with a friend and have them interrupt you. The more you train yourself to stay calm, breathe, and continue the narrative, the more prepared you’ll be for future events.
While you can’t prepare for every variable, you can practice handling them. Rehearse in different environments, go through your outline without looking at your script, or have something go awry on purpose. That way you’ll feel much more prepared for your next presentation.
Author: Bri McWhorter
During the PhD journey, one important milestone is the advancement to candidacy oral exam. This is where a student talks about the work they’ve done and the work they intend to complete in order to proceed to the PhD dissertation phase. The student prepares a presentation and their committee can interrupt and ask questions at any point. Then the committee votes as to whether the student has advanced to candidacy. Because of the talk’s unique nature and importance, many students get overwhelmed preparing for it.
That’s why I’ve put together three tips to help you reframe how you think about an advancement:
1. Right Mindset
If you’ve had test anxiety in the past, anything called an "exam" will ignite stress. However, this is not an "exam" where you are checking boxes on a piece of paper — this is a conversation. Think of your committee as a panel of consultants who are there to look at the various components of your work and identify any blind spots that you might want to account for now, rather than deal with later. Think of this as a formal meeting where you get to discuss your project with some of the most brilliant people in your field and get their feedback.
2. Appreciate Questions
Instead of worrying about questions from your committee, try to appreciate them. Your committee is asking questions about your work for a reason. They want to make sure your plan is solid before moving on to the next stage. It would be far worse if people knew there could be an issue with your dissertation, but didn’t tell you until it was too late. This is an opportunity to examine your plan from every angle before moving forward.
3. People Are Trying to Help
Sometimes a committee member shares feedback in an unfiltered way and their vocal delivery can come off as harsh or judgmental. Whenever I work with people who are a bit more "direct" in their delivery, I like to assume they are coming from a protective mindset where they are focusing on the information, not on how they share it. For example, if a kid runs into the middle of the street, we might react with "No! Come back!" and forget to deliver that information in a gentle way. People on your committee are invested in your success. So if they ask questions that come off harshly, remember they are there to help you and have your back.
If you are preparing for an advancement (or another oral exam), try to adjust your mindset, appreciate questions, and remember that your committee is there to help. Before you enter the room, shake off any nervous energy, breathe deep, and walk into that room with your head held high. Enjoy this time where brilliant people are taking time out of their day to help you succeed.
Author: Bri McWhorter
During a presentation, people share a substantial amount of information. Even though the audience is listening, sometimes a message might get missed. You don’t want people feeling that they need to make an effort in order to keep up. That’s why it’s important to be intentional about pausing during certain moments in a presentation.
1. In the introduction
In the introduction, you need to give people a moment to get used to your voice, presence, and presentation style. If you share your ideas too quickly at the start, the audience has to work to keep up with you. Then, if they feel like they need to put in effort at the start (before the information gets complicated) people will just tune out. That’s why you want to pause between your ideas at the beginning, so that your audience has a moment to connect with you and your material.
2. Before you share important information
People need a moment to process the last idea they heard. Therefore, if you are sharing important information, be sure to pause right before you share it. Otherwise, even if your message is clear, your audience might not hear it because they are still digesting the last thought.
3. When you share your contribution to a project
Background information can easily get confused with new information. That’s especially true if someone is not familiar with the topic you are presenting. However, you want your effort to be acknowledged and stand out. Therefore, I recommend pausing before you share your contribution to a project to make sure it’s recognized.
4. Between slides
Every time you click to a new slide, the audience needs a moment to process a new visual. If you talk over your slides, then the audience feels like they need to catch up. That’s why I recommend pausing every time you click to a new slide. It gives the audience a chance to process the new image before they refocus on your speech.
5. Before your last sentence
A lot of presenters rush through the end of their presentation. When that happens, the audience doesn’t have time to digest the last thought before everything ends. Therefore, before your last sentence, be sure to take a moment and breathe before you share your last thought. Not only does this help the presentation feel more polished, but it also allows your conclusion to land much more effectively.
Pauses are powerful. That’s why I recommend pausing during key moments of your talk. This way, you help your audience relax, process information, and enjoy listening to your presentation.
Author: Bri McWhorter
Some people have a difficult time sharing their achievements. While being humble is important, there are certain situations where you need to be able to talk about your success, like in a job interview or when you’re up for a promotion. Because if you can’t talk about what you’ve achieved, then it puts the pressure on other people to figure it out. That’s a lot to ask of someone else, especially if they don’t know you well. It’s also hard if a supervisor needs to advocate for you, if you can’t advocate for yourself. That’s why I’ve come up with a few phrases to help people share their accomplishments in an authentic and genuine way.
1. Looking back at myself five years ago, I’m proud to say that I’ve been able to…
Thinking about how far you’ve come in your career is a great way to talk about your accomplishments. It’s a nice way to give yourself some perspective so that you can articulate your journey and highlight how much you’ve achieved.
2. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to contribute to __________ project. Coming from a place of gratitude is useful in most situations. Especially since pompous people rarely bring up how thankful they are. Try using this phrase to help you bring up an achievement in an organic way.
3. When I look back on my career, some of the moments that stand out are…Accomplishments aren’t always attached to a particular project. They can be relationships that you’ve formed, people that you mentored, or even times you’ve invested in yourself — like going back to school to learn a new technique. Reflecting on your journey allows you to highlight experiences that have made an impact.
Try using these phrases if you have a harder time bringing up your accomplishments. Using these responses can help other people understand your strengths, your career milestones, and give others a picture of what you might be able to achieve in a new role.
Author: Bri McWhorter
We are used to instant gratification. We click a button and an article appears, we ask our phone a question and immediately get a response, and we can order an item and expect it to arrive the next day. We don’t live in a world where we patiently wait. Therefore, it’s difficult in presentations when people use phrases that tell an audience what they won’t be getting right now.
For example, people will use phrases such as:
I’ll go over that more later…
I won’t go into the technical details right now…
We don’t have a lot of time so I won’t go over the specifics…
I’ll explain that more in a few slides…
I’ll describe that in a bit…
These phrases are meant to help alleviate questions about more details, but what they really do is distract your audience from what you’re currently explaining. They start to think about what you aren’t sharing right now and it ends up disrupting the narrative. The audience won’t know that you aren’t sharing all the details unless you tell them.
So if an audience is listening to you — right now — you want to provide them with the information at that exact moment. If you aren’t going to talk about something for a while, just wait until you get to the point to bring it up. Don’t alert the audience to what they aren’t getting. Instead, just share the information you want and then you can go into more details when you get to that section. This way, your narrative keeps flowing and people can follow your message as you reveal it.
Author: Bri McWhorter
There are many types of people in a group. Some people are more talkative or extroverted and some are quieter or more introverted. In these situations, it’s easy for the talkative people to dominate the conversation. However, even though quieter people aren’t pulling as much focus, they are still paying attention. Yet, it can often be tough for introverts to establish themselves in a group when they aren’t sharing their voice as much.
That’s why I’ve put together a few phrases that quieter folks can use to remind people that even though they aren’t as talkative, they are still actively engaged in the conversation.
Phrases to use:
“I’ve been listening to everyone’s initial thoughts about this and I believe…”
“What you said made me think about __________. So I’ve been strategizing the best way to approach this…”
“When you brought up _______ a little while ago, I started brainstorming about options…”
What all of these phrases have in common is that they start by letting people know what’s happening while you’re not speaking. They’re reminding people that even though you are not talking, you are still playing an active role. That reminder is important because many people get silent when they are tuning out. Therefore, teammates might mistakenly assume that if you’re quiet, you’re not actively involved. These phrases stop that false premise and correct the narrative.
Then, during future meetings, people won’t assume you have checked out if you’re quiet. Instead, they’ll know that you’re analyzing the situation, and will be more likely to check in with you. Letting people know what’s happening behind the scenes is a great way to stop incorrect assumptions and take control again. That way, even when you aren’t talking out loud, people know that you are still actively part of the conversation.
Author: Bri McWhorter
Every presentation is a conversation. Even though the audience isn’t speaking, they are still responding to the speaker’s content. There is a back-and-forth between the two parties. However, the more a talk sounds like a “presentation”, the easier it becomes for the audience to tune out. There is a subconscious distancing that can occur which makes it more difficult for the speaker to effectively communicate their message. That’s why I advise avoiding sentences that bring attention to the presentation such as:
1. In this presentation I’ll be talking about…
You wouldn’t start talking to a colleague by opening with, “In this conversation I’ll be sharing…” so I wouldn’t open a talk by saying, “In this presentation I’ll be talking about…”. Instead, just share the information without that formal set up. Think of how you’d start talking about this topic in a conversation and open that way instead.
2. I’ll go into that more in a few slides…
When people use this phrase, it minimizes the importance of the slide you’re actively sharing. The audience starts to think about what slides will be shown in the future, when that information will come up, and what that info will be. The audience’s attention jumps into the future and they might miss the details you’re currently talking about. If you share the information as you get to it, the audience is always paying attention to what is currently in front of them.
3. This slide shows you…
In conversations, images are used to reinforce ideas. They are helpful because pictures add context and specificity to a story. However, you wouldn’t share a photo and say, “This photo shows you…”. Instead, you’d share a bit of background and then show the image to add in more depth to your point. By eliminating that phrase, the slide becomes helpful for adding in details instead of something you are having to explain to the audience.
Great speakers want their audience to feel that their participation is necessary and appreciated. Therefore, if you wouldn’t use the phrase in a conversation, I wouldn’t use it in a presentation either. This way, your speech is approachable and your audience can feel more actively involved and connected to your content.
Author: Bri McWhorter
One of the best parts of conferences is how people in an audience can ask experts questions. It’s an amazing opportunity because you get to interact with someone you might never talk to outside of this event. Because of this rare moment, some people get nervous or anxious as they wait to share their question. It can be a lot of pressure to stand up in front of a large group of strangers and directly address an expert in your field. I know many people who blank out when they’re called on or who get out of breath after sharing a few sentences.
That’s why I wanted to share a few techniques that can help you feel more comfortable sharing your voice and asking questions:
Tip One: Breathe
When you’re “holding” a question in your head people feel they have to “pause” and they end up holding their breath as they wait for their turn. Then they go from shallow breathing to feeling vulnerable as they share an idea. This can cause your anxiety to spike. If you’re in line or waiting for the microphone, keep breathing and engaging in the discussion as the speaker addresses other people’s questions. If you’re worried about forgetting what you want to ask, write it down. That way you can engage in the dialogue and be comfortable when it’s your turn.
Tip Two: Practice the transition from your name to the question
Depending on the event, some people want to introduce themselves before asking a question. Once someone’s shared their name it can be hard to smoothly transition to the question. That’s often when people blank out. They don’t know what comes next. So if you’re going to share your name, think of the next phrase you’ll say so you can go from the introduction to confidently sharing your comment.
Tip Three: Begin with the comment that sparked the question
Many people worry about how to start a question. They know the core of it, but the exact phrase to begin with can be daunting. That’s when I recommend starting with what comment sparked your question. For example, “As you shared this data, I got curious about…” Then your question has a direct link to the presentation or panel discussion and feels organic to bring up.
Being able to ask experts questions is a wonderful opportunity that few people have. That’s why you want to feel comfortable taking advantage of these events so you can share your ideas and get feedback. If you get nervous, practice these tips so you can feel more confident at your next event.
Author: Bri McWhorter
Bri McWhorter is the Founder and CEO of Activate to Captivate.