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Monday, February 1, 2010 - 09:11

Delivering a winning presentation is an essential skill. The thing is, put the basics in place and it isn't really such a big deal. By Karalyn Brown.

Imagine: Clammy hands; you can barely breathe; your mind goes blank; you're scared. So, where are you; poised at the edge of a cliff or standing in front of an audience? It seems many people would rather die than present in public. Why do we fear it so much? There are many things you can do to improve your presentation skills. Here, two experts share some ideas on delivering winning presentations.

Elizabeth Carter, a registered psychologist and proprietor of Bravo Communication, says we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to presenting. We build anxiety instead of recognising that presenting is just another task and thinking positively about it.

She recommends a cognitive behavioural approach. Employ some positive techniques in your preparation. If you find yourself saying "I'm no good at presenting" or "I forget what I am going to say", you need to challenge why you think that way.

You may have very little actual evidence that you are bad at it. Look for evidence where you have succeeded. "If, for example, you think you are worried you may lose your place, have some notes. These techniques help to diminish such feelings of fear," says Carter.

Carter also recommends relaxation, and advises you find a relaxation technique that works for you. This could be anything from positive mental imagery to meditation or breathing exercises. It's up to you.

"If you do not prepare, you will not succeed," says Brendan Hocking, a training consultant and course facilitator for Australian Institute of Management. Hocking says that you must understand the topic, break it down into sub-topics, research thoroughly, rehearse aloud, and anticipate questions that may come up.

When Hocking prepares for a presentation, he talks through his delivery up to seven times. Carter also says to talk through your presentation, "People do not realise the spoken word is different from the written word."

Hocking recommends that you do a run-through in the room. "It makes you feel like you've been there before." To clear his head he does not look at his notes for 15 minutes before he starts. This removes the temptation to change the presentation.

If, despite the preparation, you do find yourself freezing mid-presentation, Hocking suggests good old- fashioned deep breathing. This brings oxygen back to the brain, the flow stops when you panic.

The skills needed:

  • To present with impact you need to connect with the audience. Think about what you want the audience to walk away with. "When you write a presentation remember that people will come away remembering how the presentation made them feel, more than the words you have spoken," says Carter. "If you are passionate about a topic, put that passion into what you are saying."
  • Words can only say so much. Focus on your voice to convey enthusiasm, passion, believability, calmness and control. "Be mindful of your tone, pitch, pace, clarity, projection and use of pause," says Hocking. "If you want people to believe you, it comes from the tone of voice as well as the body. People will not believe you if you use a flat tone."
  • Why is body language so important? "A good presenter will try to create a picture in people's minds," says Hocking. "People see it better if it is a picture." Examples include using your hands to show shapes and size and fingers to highlight numbers or points that you have made.
  • Clearly define the purpose of your presentation. You should be able to state the purpose of the presentation in an easy sentence. This will then help you structure a speech and decide which content to include. If your purpose is to inform a group, be mindful of how much they can take in, suggest both Hocking and Carter: "Tell the audience what you are going to tell them; then tell them; then tell them what you have just said."
    For a sales presentation you may start with a rhetorical question. If you want to keep the audience in suspense or tell a story to entertain, give them a snippet, then build to the punchline.

PowerPoint how-to
Yes, both Hocking and Carter are fans of PowerPoint if the presenter uses it properly. "As the presenter, never forget that you are the most important visual aid," says Hocking. "Sometimes you just need a graphic. In that case, PowerPoint is fantastic," adds Carter.

"Death by PowerPoint does exist," says Hocking. "You should be able to understand a slide within 30 seconds." Talk around PowerPoint not to it and if you have a complicated slide, acknowledge it, step back, and allow people time to read it.

And, finally, how can you tell if you've won over the crowd? "You can see it in the body language," says Hocking. "They look interested. They lean forward. They ask questions. It's easy to see."

Tips and tricks

  • Your opening is critical. If you can win people with an opening, then you've built up a bank of credibility. You're likely to be forgiven if you forget part of your presentation.
  • If you forget part of your presentation, do not stress. You are the only person who knows what's coming next.
  • Don't tell people if you are lost. It does not look professional. Use tricks such as large fonts and colouring your notes to keep you on track.
  • Give something of yourself. If you give a real-life example it helps connect with the audience; just as it helps the audience relate to what you say.
  • Make sure you get feedback. Not many of us are self-aware. You could be being hard on yourself.
  • Trust yourself. If you've done your preparation, then go for it. Don't worry about getting it right word for word. You may be too hung up on what you have written rather than checking to see if the audience understands you.