Communication skills, of which presenting is a huge part, appear in most lists of the top things employers look for in a candidate - in a survey conducted by MBA, it topped the list. It's not only important when looking for a new opportunity though, that same survey showed that good communication skills signal leadership potential and in a world where the average tenure is just over 4 years, companies are looking to 'grow their own' leaders.
Here are my 6 top tips for improving your presentation skills:
Death to PowerPoint
How many times have you seen one of the following images in a meeting?
The phrase “death by powerpoint” didn't come about by accident, but despite the frequency of it's use the word “presentation” has become almost synonymous with “powerpoint”. This becomes especially strange when you consider the well known 7% rule that says 55% of communication is conveyed through body language. How much body language do you think someone is converying when their audience is staring at a projection screen?
I'm not saying you should never use visual aids - they certainly have their place - but they shouldn't be the focus of your presentation. If they are, you may as well just send out the file and let people go through it in their own time. Visual aids can be great in capturing or retaining an audience's attention, adding depth to what you're saying, but if you are to use them ensure that they are adding genine value to what you're trying to say, rather that detracting from it.
A presentation, by definition, is usually the one directional presentation of information. But does it have to be? How many presentations have you sat through that are essentially just a monologue?
Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak, and to sit down and listen. Sir Winston Churchill
Even when presenting raw information there is no reason why you couldn't ask your audience for their views - in small groups this could be verbally, in larger ones, perhaps a poll (I find Kahoot is great for this). Engaging with your audience is a fantastic way to keep them engaged with you and build rapport. The more natural this can be, the better, and if you can tailor the subsequent content based off of this, then you've hit the bonus points jackpot!
I first heard of the RSVP when I was about 13 as an Air Cadet on radio course. The context then was about speaking on two-way radios - and is something we still use when we teach this now - but is relevant to presenting too. I made use of it many times when I was presenting either on the radio or on stage. It exists to remind you of the things you should vary when presenting and stands for:
It seems obvious when stated that these should be varied, but it takes practice to be able to do it naturally, especially when nerves may be playing a part. The most important one, in my view, however, is speed.
The speed at which you naturally talk at is probably too fast for presenting. Next time you are listening to the radio, pay attention to the speed at which they speak at - it will likely be much slower than in a face to face conversation. This is done primarily to aid understanding; It is far easier to understand someone when they are speaking slowly. When you try this it will feel very unnatural and as though you are talking far too slow, but you will eventually get used to it. I would recommend recording yourself and listening to it back - you'll be surprised how slowly you can talk without it sounding odd to others.
The secret to great comedy is… … … timing! It's the same for presentations. We've all sat through presentations in which we've spent more time watching the clock then listening to what's being said. Rarely are presentations too short, but often they are too long.
To talk well and eloquently is a very great art, but that an equally great one is to know the right moment to stop. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
I find that half an hour is about the limit before people's attention starts to wander without some significant engagement. I think, however, that they key to timing is that it is appropriate. If you have a lot of content that takes a long time to deliver, don't rush it, but equally consider splitting it up or making it as engaging as you can. Never try to fill time, that's a sure way to lose people's attention, and once it's lost it's very hard to recover.
Novelty can be difficult to get right, but when you do it is fantastically valuable. To be clear when I say novelty, I don't mean turn up dressed as Mr Blobby (although if you have gone to the effort of acquiring and attending in a full costume then fair play to you, crack on). What we're trying to do here is introduce something humourous or unexpected in order to make your presentation more memorable. For example, when I teach presentation skills to Air Cadets, there is a part in the lesson plan that says the cadets are to spent some time practising their vocal projection by reading a script - rather than using the provided script for this, I have them read a strange little children's story I found about a mouse and a sausage. This story, if only for its oddity, stays in their memory, making the presentation as a whole more memorable. It doesn't have to be anything that far fetched though, it could be as simple as a handout with a funny meme on it (as ever, the more relatable, the better). Another tactic I've seen used is that the first slide of a presentation is simply a picture of a needle and thread - this stays until the presenter starts, by saying “so…..” and then clicks through to the title slide. I wouldn't recommend using this particular idea, however, as it is on the verge of being overused - besides something original will always be superior.
I purposely left this one to last, because as I said, it is very difficult to master. It will take a lot of practice and it's important to apply the same logic as we did to visual aids - don't do it for the sake of it. Ensure that any novelty you do add is adding legitimate value. It can be very easy to stray into the realm of too much.
Anyone can, nerves withstanding, stand in front of people and talk - being an excellent presenter, however, is not learned overnight. It takes hours of practice. As we already saw, presenting skills are in employers top attributes and hopefully the tips discussed will help you to stand out from the crowd either in your current or any future roles. Now go and supercharge that next presentation of yours and #GoForIt!