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Deliver the perfect presentation


Whether giving presentations is your biggest fear, or just another day at the office, it's a skill that can always be improved. Dawn Smith gathers tips and advice from public speaking gurus on how to overcome stage-fright, engage the audience and make your presentations shine.

The New York Times famously reported in 1984 that speaking in public was most people's biggest fear, ranking higher than death.

If you are a trainer, presenting to delegates is likely to be daily bread. However, even those experienced at talking to groups can choke when faced with an unfamiliar scenario. "Most people are capable of presenting one-to-one, or even one-to-ten, but various things can conspire to make them nervous," says Gavin Ingham, a speaker and author who also teaches 'Powerful Presenting' courses for Britain in Business. The fear-inducing factor may be how important the event is, how many people will be there, who else will be listening, whether it's being recorded, or even (gulp) televised.

Whatever sets the nerves jangling, getting over them is the key to successful presentations, says Ingham. "70 to 80 per cent of giving a good presentation is down to mindset," he says. "Get that right, and you can make the most of the communication skills you already have."

Power of the mindset

The reason state of mind is so important is fairly obvious – a nervous presenter is likely to flunk the delivery, and that's going to be fatal for the message. "Poor delivery equals poor retention and little action," says Elizabeth Clark, founder of presentation skills training company Rapport Unlimited. She believes presenters should work on the entertainment value of their sessions. "Imagine your presentation is a TV programme," she says. "Would you want to watch it?"

Knowing that your nerves are getting in the way of a powerful performance can pile up the pressure even higher, so how do you break the vicious circle?

"70 to 80 per cent of giving a good presentation is down to mindset. Get that right, and you can make the most of the communication skills you already have."

Gavin Ingham, speaker and author

Of course, practising the real thing is the best way to boost confidence and improve performance: our gurus are agreed on that. "There is no substitute for flying hours," says Khalid Aziz, chairman of executive training company The Aziz Corporation, and author of Presenting to Win. But until the hours have been built up, anxiety busting-tactics could be called for.

Visualise success: Stephen Palmer and Cary Cooper, in their book How to Deal with Stress, point out that "prior to stressful events people tend to have negative images or pictures in the mind's eye about how they are going to cope – or, to be more accurate, not going to cope." This imagery can be replaced with something more positive. The trick is to think about the aspects of the situation you're most worried about, decide on ways to deal with them (for example, how you're going to handle difficult questions) and then "slowly picture yourself coping with each anticipated difficulty as it arises". Then keep practising that positive imagery prior to the event.

Rehearse the scary bits: Practise walking up and standing in the space that you'll present from, until you feel easy about it, says Ingham. In his training courses, he asks people to stand in front of an imaginary audience, and then stand in front of a real group of people – but without saying anything. "A lot of people are not comfortable with that," he says. "It's important to hold them there until they are comfortable – because that's the worst thing that can happen: getting up there and not having any words."

Breathe: Slowing your breathing combats the physical symptoms of nerves. There's a deep breathing exercise for warming up before presentations on The Aziz Corporation's website. (See 'useful links', below).

Making the message stick

Nerves are not the only barrier to a powerful delivery. Even confident presenters can fluff the message if they ignore some key realities about presentations – and human nature.

Know your objective: Decide from the start what you want the audience to do after hearing you, says Andy Bounds, who coaches and trains on presentation skills. Prepare your talk around this objective, leaving out every point that doesn't help towards your goal, and keep it in mind during the event.

Give the audience what they need: All our gurus agreed that you need to know where the audience are coming from. "You need to do a 180 and look at the subject – and perhaps also yourself – from their point of view," says Aziz. "If it doesn't pass the audience's 'so what' test, the chances are it won't be a successful presentation," he says.

"Imagine you're sitting in the audience yourself," advises Peter Roper, co-author of networking and public speaking guide, And Death Came Third! . "What would make you think that sitting still for this presentation had been really worth it?"

"If it doesn't pass the audience's 'so what' test, the chances are it won't be a successful presentation."

Khalid Aziz, chairman, The Aziz Corporation

Bounds adds that it's especially important to keep the message audience-focused at the start. "If you're talking about Excel, don't mention Excel in the first few minutes," he says. "Say 'I'll show you how to save time". Then, when you’ve got their attention, you can talk about Excel as much as you like."

Andy Bradbury, author of Successful Presentation Skills, says a common mistake of presenters is to get carried away and "forget to ensure that the audience is still with them." So keep the audience's needs in mind throughout the event.

Be yourself… and sell that to the audience: "Be naturally yourself, whether it's a one-to-one presentation or one-to-10,000," says Roper. "People will 'buy' you first and only listen to your message if you've sold yourself well." Selling yourself means building a rapport with the audience, he says, and one of the easiest ways to do it is to ask a relevant and thought-provoking question at the start.

Reinforce, reinforce, reinforce: "The audience is only going to remember 10 per cent 24 hours later, so make sure they remember the right 10 per cent and what they're supposed to act on," says Clark. People have the best retention of what's said at the beginning and end of a presentation, says Bounds. They also remember things that are repeated and any outstanding points: so make sure you say each of your key points in each of the four different ways.

Use visuals… but avoid death by PowerPoint: People remember more of what they hear and see, compared to what they only hear, says Bradbury, so do whatever you can to graphically illustrate your talk. But don't fill your visuals with words. "Have images without words, or just very brief points."

One of the worst mistakes presenters make is putting everything into their PowerPoint slides or course packs, comments Bounds. "If people are reading what you are saying, they will want one of you to shut up. So write some words but not all of them. Leave answers to questions blank, so they're waiting for you to tell them. Think of you and your PowerPoint slides as the Two Ronnies. You shouldn't both be saying the same thing at the same time."

Keep it short: "People have a limited attention span, so don’t go on too long," says Bradbury. That means doing some planning in advance. "The more experienced you are at presenting, the more tempting it is to think that you can just wing it," he says. "But if you don't plan, it's easy to put too much in." Roper makes the point that over-running is plain bad manners – and the audience will take a dim view of it. "For every second you go past the allotted time, you are fast disappearing in the interest of the audience," he says.

Don’t worry…: "Presenters worry and focus so much on remembering the content, that the delivery suffers," says Clark. "The other problem with focusing on the content of your presentation is that your body language suffers and becomes unnatural or poor, thus making your message less believable. The audience isn't checking your presentation against a script, you won't be hounded out for not getting it word perfect, so concentrate on the delivery, not the precise words."

"Think of you and your PowerPoint slides as the Two Ronnies. You shouldn't both be saying the same thing at the same time."

Andy Bounds, coacher and trainer

…Be happy: Aziz advises thinking of something happy before stepping up to the lectern. "Virtually all communication is selling," he comments. "People tend to buy from happy people, not miserable ones."

Dealing with questions

One of the aspects of public speaking that strikes fear into many hearts is the prospect of difficult questions. Bradbury suggests honestly admitting if you don't know the answer, then saying that you will find out by a certain time in the future.

A different strategy suggested by several experts is to turn the question around and ask if anyone in the audience knows the answer – which also has the advantage of involving them. (Though Bradbury cautions that if you don't know the answer yourself, then you've no way of knowing if the answer you get from the audience is correct).

Ingham comments that when people ask him 'what do I do with…?' questions, he replies, 'what would you do without them?' He points out: "The worst thing is standing there for 20 minutes talking and nobody saying anything. Questions are a good thing. Great presenters get the audience involved straight away. Nervous presenters just talk for 20 minutes – and that's harder."

And remember: the audience is on your side

"People actually want you to do a good presentation," says Ingham. "They might expect it to be bad because they've seen so many bad ones, but they want it to be good. If you engage with them right at the start, and give them a few good things to hold onto, they will be with you all the way."

Useful links:

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