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Delivering a killer presentation

Updated: Jun 21, 2020

Just about everyone has at some point (whether forced or voluntarily) carried out a presentation in front of an audience. And almost everyone who has tried has, at least once, failed to capture the audience’s attention and interest.

There are indeed quite a few pitfalls that you should seek to avoid if you’re hoping to make a successful presentation – and that’s exactly what this article will tackle.


A GREAT PRESENTATION IS A CONVERSATION, NOT A PERFORMANCE

At one point or another, most of us will find ourselves in front of an audience, giving a presentation. But whether it’s a sales pitch or a project overview, there’s a big difference between a presentation and a performance.

A performance is much like a speech in that it’s scripted and pre-written. It’s carefully put together, rehearsed and totally controlled by the performer. For instance, when an actor gives a performance, he detaches his world from that of his audience, essentially putting up a wall that distinguishes between the performance and the real world.


So, while the last scene of Romeo and Juliet might be utterly convincing, the audience feels no cause for alarm when the actress playing Juliet commits suicide. And just like an actor, when a person gives a speech, he’s performing; his words are scripted and prepared, and the audience is well aware of this.


On the other hand, a presentation is unpredictable as there is a constant exchange between the presenter and his audience. In fact, this interplay is essential to bringing the presentation to life, capturing the interest of the audience and fostering a learning environment. There can’t be any wall between the presenter and the audience; as such, a presentation is less like a performance and more like a conversation.


But it’s not just any conversation. A presentation is an orderly conversation, because conversations can easily get off topic and stray in unproductive directions. So, for a presentation to stay on topic it needs some structure – a framework it can follow while maintaining some spontaneity.


This is a bit tricky because it means that as a presenter, you have to speak with a plan in mind, while also responding to changes and adapting to the uncertain trajectory of your presentation.





THE RIGID CRITERIA OF SCHOOL PRESENTATIONS CAN TRAP PRESENTERS IN BAD HABITS


Looking back on your school years, were you taught how to give a good presentation? Can you remember how your teachers evaluated your presentation performance?


Most students learn how to give presentations and are evaluated according to set criteria, but this method has its flaws. Students tend to be judged on how well they deliver their presentations, based on things like tone of voice, speed, diction and eye contact.


The idea behind this kind of checklist is that it helps the teacher grade all the students fairly. Unfortunately, these same criteria get stuck in people’s heads as the golden rules of presenting, when in fact they should be taken with a grain of salt. These rules actually value how well you prepared yourself to deliver a pitch, and not how well the audience actually received your message.


In fact, this approach to presenting so often taught in schools has led to three common but highly ineffective presenter types: the Dutiful Student, the Entertainer and the Nervous Perfectionist.







DELIVERING A GREAT PRESENTATION

Just about everyone has at some point (whether forced or voluntarily) carried out a presentation in front of an audience. And almost everyone who has tried has, at least once, failed to capture the audience’s attention and interest.

There are indeed quite a few pitfalls that you should seek to avoid if you’re hoping to make a successful presentation – and that’s exactly what this article will tackle.

A GREAT PRESENTATION IS A CONVERSATION, NOT A PERFORMANCE

At one point or another, most of us will find ourselves in front of an audience, giving a presentation. But whether it’s a sales pitch or a project overview, there’s a big difference between a presentation and a performance.

A performance is much like a speech in that it’s scripted and pre-written. It’s carefully put together, rehearsed and totally controlled by the performer. For instance, when an actor gives a performance, he detaches his world from that of his audience, essentially putting up a wall that distinguishes between the performance and the real world.


So, while the last scene of Romeo and Juliet might be utterly convincing, the audience feels no cause for alarm when the actress playing Juliet commits suicide. And just like an actor, when a person gives a speech, he’s performing; his words are scripted and prepared, and the audience is well aware of this.

On the other hand, a presentation is unpredictable as there is a constant exchange between the presenter and his audience. In fact, this interplay is essential to bringing the presentation to life, capturing the interest of the audience and fostering a learning environment. There can’t be any wall between the presenter and the audience; as such, a presentation is less like a performance and more like a conversation.


But it’s not just any conversation. A presentation is an orderly conversation, because conversations can easily get off topic and stray in unproductive directions. So, for a presentation to stay on topic it needs some structure – a framework it can follow while maintaining some spontaneity.

This is a bit tricky because it means that as a presenter, you have to speak with a plan in mind, while also responding to changes and adapting to the uncertain trajectory of your presentation.

THE RIGID CRITERIA OF SCHOOL PRESENTATIONS CAN TRAP PRESENTERS IN BAD HABITS

Looking back on your school years, were you taught how to give a good presentation? Can you remember how your teachers evaluated your presentation performance?

Most students learn how to give presentations and are evaluated according to set criteria, but this method has its flaws. Students tend to be judged on how well they deliver their presentations, based on things like tone of voice, speed, diction and eye contact.


The idea behind this kind of checklist is that it helps the teacher grade all the students fairly. Unfortunately, these same criteria get stuck in people’s heads as the golden rules of presenting, when in fact they should be taken with a grain of salt. These rules actually value how well you prepared yourself to deliver a pitch, and not how well the audience actually received your message.

In fact, this approach to presenting so often taught in schools has led to three common but highly ineffective presenter types: the Dutiful Student, the Entertainer and the Nervous Perfectionist.


The Dutiful Student is far too focused on the classic rules of presentation. This preoccupation makes him concentrate on how his presentation looks instead of on the effect it has. As a result, he becomes disconnected from the moment.


The Entertainer is great at controlling her voice and body language and feels right at home in front of an audience. But since she’ll do just about anything to make the presentation exciting, the actual content might not come across so clearly.


Finally, the Nervous Perfectionist will rehearse, memorize and utilize every technique he can to prevent himself from getting nervous. But his excessive rehearsing will backfire by preventing the audience from joining the conversation. What’s more, if his presentation changes based on audience participation, which it hopefully will, the Nervous Perfectionist will become increasingly nervous as the conversation veers off its rehearsed track.


So, regardless of what you learned in school, presenting isn’t about how you look or sound. It’s about how you bring your audience into a conversation while building your confidence and shedding your anxiety, which is exactly what we’ll explore next.


EYE CONTACT AND INTENTIONAL PAUSES ARE ESSENTIAL TO ENGAGING YOUR AUDIENCE AND RETURNING TO THE MOMENT


Imagine you’re presenting in front of a group and suddenly become extremely nervous. You start talking quickly, your words get jumbled and your heart beats faster and faster.


In this kind of situation, the last thing you should do is focus on yourself. Thinking about yourself will only make things worse, leaving your audience unimpressed.


But when you begin a presentation, it’s easy to get so caught up with yourself that you entirely forget about your audience. And, unfortunately, the more you think about yourself, the more nervous you’ll get and the less connected you’ll be to the group.


The authors compare this process to a funhouse. When you enter a funhouse, you encounter tilted floors and strange mirrors that disorient you. As you walk further in, you become even more disoriented and eventually can barely stand on your own two feet, much less think clearly. It’s precisely this disorientation and loss of control that occurs when you focus on yourself during a presentation.


So, how can you get out of the funhouse? By engaging your audience – and that means eye contact.


When you begin a presentation, be sure to focus on individuals in the audience. Consider what you want to tell them and how you’ll grab their attention. Gather the courage to look them in the eyes and speak just as you would if you were having a normal one-on-one conversation.


This works especially well because eye contact helps you respond to the audience as you present, which in turn keeps you focused on the conversation.


But engaging your audience also requires some strategic pausing. While eye contact will help you connect to the group, pausing will give you time to gather your thoughts. So, if you feel like your audience isn’t entirely engaged, just take a moment and consider what you intend to communicate.



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