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Presentation Basics

Updated on May 28, 2018

 Okay, kids. I hope you are all enjoying the weekend. I thought I would go a different direction today and talk about presentations. When I ask my classes who fears getting up in front of the class, there is inevitably a number of hands that go up. I get it; it's not easy to get up in front of people and speak. I hope I can provide some tips and techniques that I have learned over the years with you.

The most basic preparation all the texts on the topic will tell you is be prepared! This is your basic defense against presentation anxiety. I remember going into my undergraduate thesis defense. I was scared witless. I only had to speak in front of three of my instructors, all chosen by me, fortunately. Yet, I was terrified. What my lead advisor said to me before the defense has always stayed with me. She told me, "You know more on this topic than anyone here." She was right. I had spent months absorbed in my topic. I was ready.

Now, granted, I currently work with college students and presentations within a classroom. This is one level of presentation. Having to speak in front of large groups adds a whole other dimension to this that I will touch upon later. I have found that the basics here apply everywhere.

Being prepared involves truly knowing your topic. The more time you spend researching and pondering the subject, the better you will be. You may learn and know ideas that you will never touch upon in your presentation. This above and beyond persona will give you the self-confidence you need to do your best.

Part of your presentation is providing some type of visual for your audience. PowerPoints seem very common in presentations. A well-designed PowerPoint maintains the audience's interest in your topic. For your PowerPoint to be effective, heed these few tips.

Do not crowd any slide with too much information. There is a suggested 7 X 7 rule per slide. Essentially, this means having less than 50 words per slide. If you have seven words per line and only seven lines (or an approximate), your audience will take in what it needs and not be overwhelmed.

Never read every word on a PowerPoint! Simply reading from a PowerPoint is mind-numbingly boring for your audience. This is not to say that you cannot reference the words or even read some of them, but to read them all is to kill your credibility. PowerPoint has an option for you to create presenter's notes that you can see on a printout. These words, which do not appear of your slide show, can be read. Audiences seem to forgive this. Ultimately though, if you know your topic, you should be able to "wing it." You know the content. Put it in your own words.

I have often seen this line in books on the topic: Never let your PowerPoint be more exciting than you. The program has lots of "bells and whistles" that look impressive - sliding images, shadows, bells and other sounds - you get the idea. If the audience only seems to be paying attention to you when these things occur, you need to be more dramatic.

Dramatic does not mean over-the-top or showboating. What is means is to be lively.

Smile! Even if you'd rather be getting a root canal by a nervous intern, smile.

Let your voice be natural and upbeat. My voice sometimes has this embarrassing quality when it cracks for a moment. I make a joke about puberty or simply say the word. The audience laughs for a moment. When they laugh, I control my voice and continue on. While I'm here, if things go wrong, do not apologize. Address the mistake, certainly. Your audience will naturally forgive you. Also, before you get up there, do not admit that you're nervous. This just makes us nervous.

Look around the room as you speak. Find a few friendly faces and make them your focus points. People assume you're looking them in the eyes if your glance is anywhere on their face. If you do make eye contact, do not linger. It makes that person uncomfortable, no matter how well they might know you.

Do not stand rigidly behind the lectern or podium. You shouldn't hold onto it either. Uncontrolled nerves will move that sucker. Instead, allow yourself to move within a few feet or so of the furniture. I walk and pace all the time when I teach. It helps me think. I have learned to control it to the point where it is not a distraction. This movement tends to engage people more. Yes, you will always have those people who just want you to stand still, but you can't please them all.

As far as notes, I recommend printed out and stapled pages with a font big enough that you don't need to squint. Many people like index cards; I am not a fan. But, if you do, I have learned from one of my bosses to tape each index card accordion style on a manila folder. If you drop your folder, at least the cards will still be all in order.

Be prepared for your PowerPoint or other visual to not work! I see it happen all the time. Whether it's a formatting problem or just sheer bad luck, when a PowerPoint fails to show, the speaker gets even more nervous. (This is another reason to have a printout of your slides.) If you were presenting at a major conference, this is unlikely to happen. However, you should still personally rehearse your presentation with everything needed prior to the event. In bigger halls, have someone check the sound quality throughout the room as you practice.

Your friends and co-workers can help as well. They can give you legitimate tips on how to improve and offer compliments to boost your confidence. Thus, practice, practice, and when you get bored, practice one more time.

Here are some other random tips. As they come to me, I share.

Remind yourself of past successes before your presentation. Remember that you have conquered your fear before, and you will do it again.

Know that the audience is on your side. They came to hear you! Take this chance to shine.

Start with an introduction, a related anecdote, or a funny story before you begin. One of the best presenters I have ever seen kept his audience interested through several sessions by opening each session with funny cartoons he had collected about his topic. A word of warning here, well, maybe two words. Not everyone is funny. If you don't "do funny" well, a presentation is not the time to practice. Also, not everyone has the same sense of humor, so be careful what you present as an ice-breaker.

If you find yourself getting nervous, pause to ask if anyone has any questions. You will most likely know the answer or be able to talk on the subject. If you cannot respond, do not attempt to. Say you can find out that information and will get back to them. (Make sure you do so.) Having pre-planned moments to ask this question is effective as well. The average attention span seems to be about 10-15 minutes long, so this type of intervention is useful for long sessions.

Just like in good writing, transitions need to be done effectively to keep your audience with you. In speaking, verbal transitions include the following:

Previewing - "I will be discussing.... You will learn.... The ideas we will look at...."

Recap - "We have been discussing.... Now let's move on to...."

Closing your presentation is its own animal. I cringe when people get to the last slide and say, "That's it." Present some kind of closing thought or call to action. Show how the audience can take what they have learned and make some kind of change. Never say, "In conclusion." This may just be one of my pet peeves. However, I always picture a bored-to-death audience suddenly waking up when these words are uttered. A statement such as "one final point" or "the last thing to consider" is safe. It prepares your audience to know the end is coming, but it does not sound so rushed.

Always allow for questions after your presentation. You may or may not have any after. This is where your over-preparation comes back to help you. At the end of the Q&A session (even if it doesn't actually exist), thank your audience for their time.

Okay, kids. I'm sure there's more to say on this topic. But, for these hubs, I go against my own rules and just type what comes to mind. [In most of my other writing, I hand-write my drafts first.]

One final note that may seem inspiring. I suffer from social anxiety. Sometimes I am physically ill before beginning a new course. I get stage fright and uncontrolled nerves to the point where I cannot process people talking to me at that time. If I can do this, so can you.


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