Whether you are a college student or a professional whose job requires making presentations, this article will help you formulate a solid procedure for creating presentations that will impress your audience every time. There are simple but effective devices that everyone can use to create good presenting skills or to improve existing skills.
Presentations are made up of two main parts: thea material and the physical presentation of the material. I am going to start with the latter, since there is less to be said about it.
When it comes to thinking about what to speak about, the field narrows considerably, since anyone whose profession includes making presentations usually has, if the subject matter has not already been chosen for them, a specific group of topics relating to their profession. The remaining groups include students, who are sometimes required to choose their own topic in order to develop audience targeting skills, and freelance writers, who must continually find interesting and relevant topics to maintain their reader base.
There are certain core questions to ask about your presentation topic which will make it clear whether or not your presentation has a good chance of success:
1. Will it be interesting to the general public?
2. Is it pertinent to the group to which I will be presenting it?
3. Does sufficient material exist on the topic to create a good presentation?
4. Am I knowledgeable or can I easily become knowledgeable about the subject?
5. Has the subject been too thoroughly covered already?
The first question is important because an important part of a presenter’s success is appealing to all the members of their audience. If you are lucky enough to be an expert, such as a handwriting analyst, speaking to a captive and highly motivated audience, all of whom are there because they are interested in the topic, obviously this becomes less relevant. Unfortunately, most presenters will not, especially initially, find themselves in this situation. Often an audience will consist of people from diverse backgrounds with highly diverse interests, moral values, and motivations for being there. The most difficult of these can occur in college, where the audience is your fellow students, a number of which will inevitably and sometimes quite obviously have no interest in you or your topic unless you choose a topic of as universal interest as possible and present it very attractively.
Question 2 is vital and closely related to question 1, the difference being that you are thinking about the audience as a whole – ie. a certain population group, social group, or religious group – and not as individuals. Although you don’t want to make too many generalizations about any group, certain logical observations can be made which will help you avoid choosing a topic doomed to failure from the beginning. A large part of this is simply common sense: obviously a speech about a woman’s right to have an abortion will have limited chances for success if presented to a religious group whose teachings condemn abortion as murder. Presenting a speech on the proper handling and preparation of meat will not interest a group made up entirely or largely of vegetarians. Know these things about your audience when possible, and target your presentations accordingly.
Question 3 is most important if your resources are somewhat limited. For example, if information on the web about local health food stores is lacking, there are numerous other ways, probably more effective anyway, to find information for a presentation on them. On the other hand, if you choose a topic like postmodern Chinese poetry, which is both highly specific and, speaking from an American point of view, geographically considerably removed from both the audience and the speaker, going to China to research it may not be practical. In this case you have simply to ascertain whether enough resources for gathering information are available to you; if not, another topic might be a better choice. If you are set on researching a certain topic, generally you can find a way to gather enough information. Where there’s a will, there’s a way; it boils down to whether or not you are willing to put in enough time and effort to make a difficult-to-research topic work.
Question 4 is central to the success of your presentation because confidence or a lack thereof in your knowledge and ability to speak intelligently and authoritatively on a given subject is immediately transmitted to the audience. Here personality is a key factor – obviously the more you know about your topic the better – but if you can muster enough hutzpah to present a sketchy topic as if you were an expert, you can often get away with knowing less about the subject than you seem to. But caution is important here as well; if you suspect your audience knows more than you do about the subject, do your best to find specific and/or hard to find details that will interest them and keep them from calling you on any vagueness or holes in your information. Under no circumstances bluff in professional situations unless you are certain you can carry it off, as professionals often have no time to be entertained by nonessential details and will be unforgiving of a lack of preparation on your part.
The last question has most to do with news or transient types of material which gain and lose the public eye quickly. Like high-risk stocks, such current or faddish topics should be approached less often and treated with caution unless they are your metier, since they tend to be seized by professionals and thoroughly discussed before they can lose public interest. For example, unless you have a startlingly new slant on the trial of O.J. Simpson, you could have a great deal of difficulty resurrecting interest in the subject today. In general a good rule of thumb to follow is: keep articles on such topics current to the minute unless you have something really unique to say.
The next aspect, and often the most important part of your presentation, is the actual physical transmission of your message to the audience. The questions to ask about your presenting are these:
1. Do I keep eye contact?
2. Do I project both physically and vocally?
3. Am I larger-than-life in my manner and persona?
4. Do I grip interest from beginning to end?
5. Do I speak with confidence and authority?
6. Do I establish an immediate connection with the audience?
7. Do I care about getting my message across?
8. Am I prepared to support my point of view to a hostile audience?
9. Have I prepared enough that I can deliver my speech clearly and without hesitations?
10. Do I believe I can do it?
Some of these may seem obvious, but it is useful to discuss them anyway and explore the reasons they are important.
Question 1 concerns a fairly well-known principle of public speaking, the eyes connect you with your audience, so it is vital to sweep the audience with your gaze and make frequent eye contact with as many people as possible to avoid alienating anyone. If, like me, you grew up or were intimately acquainted with a hearing impaired person, you will intuitively understand the importance of this, but among those who have not there are many people who tend, for whatever reason, to avoid eye contact when speaking. This is a habit that is essentially counterproductive in public or private speaking, since, as people equate eye contact with openness and aggressiveness, it will instantly cause any person who doesn’t know you well to wonder what you are hiding and/or why, if you don’t care enough about your subject to be aggressive and connect with them about it, they should care about it at all.
Projection is another vital aspect of reaching your audience. There will generally be a difference in the distance of people in the audience from the speaker, and it is up to you to make up that difference. If you have trouble projecting vocally, a voice coach may help, or you can simply practice yourself using a tape recorder, although this is dependent on your ability to assess your own success. In general, concentrating on filling a room with your voice and/or reaching the back rows with your voice will help. You may and probably will feel like you are speaking too loudly at first; keep in mind that not many people have a loud enough voice to pose a serious problem, and it is much less detrimental to your speech if you are a little loud to the people in the first row than if you fail to reach the back half of the room. Volume is also equated with confidence, so the louder you are the better, especially at first. You can always scale down once you have acheived good volume and projection, when a problem exists with these, getting them up to speed is usually the problem, not the opposite.
Question 3 is tied to question two and involves the projection of your persona. This includes being animated, keeping eye contact, use of humor, songs, other colorful additions – basically doing whatever is necessary to make each person in the audience feel that you are speaking to them personally. Imagine how you want to be spoken to and how you feel when a lecturer stands still in front of the class and keeps a deadpan expression the whole time. A way to think about it is this: your persona needs to be as large as the number of people you are speaking to all added together, because the amount of risk for losing interest increases with every additional member of an audience. In addition to the abovementioned, some strategies for enlarging your persona might include adding a splash of color to your outfit, depending of course on the appropriateness to the situation, use of visual and audial variety, moving among the audience, asking questions of the audience, etc.
Question 4 naturally follows and is dependent on the preceding questions. If any of them are insufficient, you will have trouble engaging your audience. This is important especially at the beginning, since if you do not grasp an audience’s interest in the first few minutes, you often will not be able to get it at all. Think of reading a book or watching a movie – if the first ten minutes are deadly dull, how likely are you to finish it? You may get lucky with a few of your audience, who might be the sort who would finish the book anyway, just from personal principle or habit, but for the most part attention lost during a lecture is extremely difficult to get back. People make an investment in you when they give you their interest, and, feeling let down and annoyed when you show a lack of respect for this by losing that interest, are generally disinclined to give you a second chance. A good image to keep in mind when designing your opening is that of a horse race where a gun is fired to start the horses. You can wind down quite a bit after a dynamic beginning without losing interest, but never let yourself get complacent, and always stay attentive to your audience – if they show signs of disengagement, it’s time to call out the troops – the persona.
Also, audience attention predictably lags about 3/4 to 5/6 of the way through a performance, so keep this in mind and have appropriate strategies ready. Avoid lengthy endings.
Question 5 we touched on earlier and in question 2 with the projection issue, but it’s more than simple projection, it’s the measure of how much you believe in the value of your message and your own ability and qualifications to talk about it, and it is important enough to revisit, since it can make or break your speech. The reason for this is that people instinctively follow a leader and ignore anyone they perceive as being less qualified than themselves for a given purpose. If you don’t immediately establish that you are THE person to speak to them about this topic, at this time and place, you give them no reason to listen to you. The pecking order is a natural and central part of society, and as a result, and no-one is going to give you their respect or attention unless you command it, especially in certain situations. If you are a person who lacks confidence anyway, this will be your biggest battle. Taking up a martial art is an excellent strategy to combat this, since you not only gain confidence from a better physical shape and function, but are also exposed to intimidation in a mainly safe, controlled environment where you know the right responses and have a real effect on the outcomes.
Question 6 is essentially part of question 5, but again, it is the most important part of the whole and worth reiterating.
7. This may seem obvious, but often one of two issues becomes a problem for the speaker – either they are unable to generate a deep, genuine interest in the subject, because of poor topic choice, or they are unable to express their enthusiam in a way the audience can understand. The first is basically a mortal blow, you should choose another topic if you have time, if not you can only try your best and hope for a passable result. The second is more common and has to do with communication skills and establishing a connection with the audience. If you never have a rapport with the audience, there will be no channel for exchange of energy, and however strongly you feel about a subject, you will be unable to transmit your passion, which shows the importance of the first several questions. Ask yourself why you care about a topic and why your audience would care. Never assume that people will care about your message for the same reasons you do. You have to give them a good reason to listen to you.
Number 8 applies to a somewhat limited field, since you will not usually have to deal with an audience that is physically or verbally abusive or hostile to you and your message. However, it can happen, and at some point in your career, probably will, so it is best to be thoroughly prepared, mentally and physically, to deal with such a situation as politely and as effectively as possible. While antagonizing your audience will get you nowhere, you must at the same time refuse to allow yourself to be intimidated into losing face. The moment people sense that you are unwilling or unable to defend your message, they will also invalidate it unless they already agree with you.
Your level of preparation is a direct indicator of your level of professionalism and your dedication to what you are doing, both to yourself when doing self-checks and to any audience. If you care you will spend the time and do whatever it takes to get your presentation where it needs to be – free of obvious factual and pronunciation errors, well-developed visually and vocally varied. It will be impossible for you to project a vibrant persona if technical problems are tripping you up, so practice until you can reliably present your piece at least 4 times out of 5, depending on its importance. You may want to aim higher. As with musical performance, a strategy that for whatever reason often seems to work best is this: practice with increasing intensity and expectations up to a set time, usually a day or less, before the presentation, then stop practicing and do not revisit the material until presentation time.
Question 10 is curious in that while the success of all other aspects depends on it, it tends to depend on them as well. For example, although strong belief in your abilities will immeasurably improve all the aspects of your presentation, if you don’t initially believe you can do it, often the only way to refute this to yourself is to do it until you can do it well and have no reason to doubt yourself. It’s the eternal conundrum of needing one thing to do another, but only able to gain the first by doing the second, of needing experience to find a job but unable of course to gain experience without working. Luckily, formulating and practicing giving presentations can be practiced on your own time and simultaneously with other responsibilities and pursuits.
Although the brilliance of each individual presentation will inevitably vary, these basics will give you a passably strong presentation every time if you can get to the point where you can answer questions 1-4 and 1-10 with a confident “YES! “.
Use these questions as closely or loosely as your needs require to develop good habits and avoid waste of time and effort.