How to train for presentations

Do you dread public speaking? One poll suggests most people think speaking to a large audience is scarier than death itself.

My experience

My first public speech was on a college sports field in China. I’d gone to Chengdu, in Sichuan, to teach English, and shortly after I arrived I was asked to sing an English song or maybe read some poetry to a crowd of over 2000 students and staff as part of the welcome concert. I looked for a suitable poem.

On the night my heart raced as I waited in the wings. I was introduced, then ushered on stage and the spotlights shone on me. I couldn’t see much, but read to cheers and applause and received bunches of flowers when I’d finished. Almost no-one understood what I’d said, but never mind, I’d survived.

British culture lecture in China

My weekly lectures on British culture were much harder to prepare for. They were supposed to last an hour and half.

The first one was nervy and probably boring. My words were not adapted to the audience, a lot of whom understood little English. I spent so much time writing my talk, yet it ended within an hour.

I needed to speak more slowly, use simpler language and be more engaging. It got better. I wrote and structured my talks properly, and introduced music, images and a quiz with a prize for the winner, as encouragement to listen. By the end of the term I’d stopped being nervous and even enjoyed it. I dare say some of the audience did too.

Which brings us to this week’s article. If presenting is a sport, then writing one well puts you on track to winning gold.

7 tactics for a great presentation

1. Get off to a good start

If you don’t start well, it’ll be hard to get back in contention.

So start with a bang by explaining why your audience needs to hear what you have to say. Find out in advance what concerns them. Address these ‘pain points’ and tell them why you can help.

You could say, “hands up anyone who…” or “have you ever…”. This will show you understand your audience. They’ll be more convinced you can help, and that they need to listen.

2. Remember it’s not a sprint

Don’t talk too fast as you’ll soon run out of material. We can get through a lot of words in a short time if we let ourselves.

And don’t cram everything you know into your presentation and end up having to whizz through it.

Instead, relax and keep a steady pace. Include pauses for your audience to digest what you’ve said.

3. Get your handovers right

After each slide recap what you’ve just covered, and tell them what’s coming next.

You might say “well that was how to identify keywords, so let’s see how to incorporate them into your site content”. This will help your audience understand your structure and how each part relates to the next.

4. Involve the audience

Treat a presentation more like a chat. Make it interesting. Set discussion points, ask questions, pose puzzles, even ask for volunteers to help with things. Your message will come to life and be more memorable. The crowd will feel more included and more engaged.

5. Prepare for the post-race interview

The audience gives a lot of value to the question and answer section. Yet these take up less time than the presentation, and most speakers spend little time preparing. So anticipate what they might ask.

Be quick with your responses if necessary. Not everyone in the audience is interested in detailed answers to every question.

Address difficult questions by removing concerns through the ECPC (easy-peasy) technique: empathise, clarify, propose, confirm. Don’t guess. If you don’t know the answer, admit it.

6. Use your apparatus properly

A lot of people base their presentation around their PowerPoint slides. It should be the other way around. Base your slides around your script.

It’s a visual aid. Use it to explain your message visually. Don’t use it for sentences and arguments, as you’re best at that. Go to PowerPoint last, not first.

Make sure you know these 5 PowerPoint shortcuts at least: start presentation (F5), next slide (right arrow), previous slide (left arrow), blackout (B) and whiteout (W).

7. Become lean

Lots of text and long lists on bloated slides are a pain to read. And it means your audience is reading one thing while listening to something else. The result is they absorb neither and suffer ‘death by PowerPoint’.

Instead, prioritise your points. Trim low priority ones if possible—you can still talk about them. Remove unimportant words as you don’t want the text to say the same as you. This will help the audience focus on what you’re saying, and your slides will better support your message.

Get rid of plain lists and make them more attractive using graphics. Don’t have too many slides. Ask yourself whether you need each one.

How about you? What’s your biggest difficulty with presenting? Do you have any tips? Comment below!

I run a workshop, Writing to Present. It guides you through a step-by-step process to quickly write great presentations, do have a look!

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