Quoted below are the opening words of one of the greatest speeches of all time. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Standing before thousands of people Dr. Martin Luther King knew that his opening line was important.
“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. Five score years ago a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”
We have all seen and heard great presentations. Those that stay with us.
Presenting is something that many people fear and shy away from. Notwithstanding, it often forms an important part of our roles. Whilst we might not volunteer, nor need, to stand up and speak in front of hundreds (or indeed thousands) of people, we might need to present our conclusions to the management board or make a presentation to our team to get buy-in for a change of direction. Presentation skills matter.
Preparation is key to good presenting. However, preparation does not mean cramming on the subject matter or writing a script. Often preparation comes down to dealing with our fears.
Who do you think about when you think of great presenters?
You perhaps think about someone who has a presence. Someone who comes across as knowledgeable. Someone who can engage you. What attributes do they have? You might feel that you have some of those attributes. You might just feel that you are a long way away from being a great presenter.
Have another think about these attributes. Which of these do you think are within your control? Ok, we might not be able to transform into a comic genius, but the truth is that lots of the things that make people great presenters are things we can control.
Some of the things that you have on your list might relate to the content itself. For example, you might have thought “they are knowledgeable”, or “they are able to persuade”. There are things we can to do convey content in a more impactful way.
You might have said that they are confident.
Confidence is something that often stops us from presenting. Whilst we cannot wave a wand to take away stage fright, there are things that we can do to control it.
The more we come across as confident, the more we become it.
We are able to control our body language. Standing or sitting tall is something that we can do that makes us appear confident. However, it doesn’t stop there, studies have shown that it can actually make us feel more confident too.
Social scientist Amy Cuddy speaks about how, not only are others influenced by our non-verbals, but how we are also influenced by our own non-verbals. When we feel powerful, we open up. She calls these power poses. When we feel powerless, we close up. She calls these low power poses. Preparing for presentations by getting into a power pose (perhaps away from view!) for a few minutes before you go in can help increase your confidence.
Another thing that can help us to be more confident is to have confidence store that we can tap into. Close your eyes and think about a moment in time when you felt confident. What did that feel like? How did you act and how did it impact the way you stood, the way you spoke? Lock that feeling in. Before you go into a presentation, tap into that moment. Imagine feeling like that again.
Our appearance is something else that can change the audience’s perception of us and change how we feel. Think about your appearance. Are you dressed in a way that makes you feel more relaxed? Are you perhaps dressed in a way that makes you feel more able to face an audience? What is your style and how can you use your appearance when presenting?
Something that often comes to mind when we think of great presenters is their voice. We might think of someone who speaks clearly (a newsreader perhaps), or perhaps we might bring to mind someone who has a sing-song way of speaking (Michael McIntrye? Comedians tend to!).
The way that we speak forms an important part of how we come across when we present. Our voice can betray our nerves or, when we can control it, demonstrate our authority and confidence. A monotonous voice is perhaps the first thing we associate with bad presenters.
What can we do to train our voice?
Actors are trained to project their voice and engage an audience. There are some tricks that actors use to help you with your presentations. The first trick is to practice your opening and closing lines. This is particularly important if you are someone who suffers from nerves. The first sentence of a presentation will be the thing that draws your audience in. Make sure you have practiced this and can deliver it with impact. Starting your presentations well can help allay some of those nerves.
Before setting to the stage, or set, actors will do exercises to warm-up their voices. This is something that you can do before you go into a presentation. Now, this sounds daunting, but what we are talking about here are things to get our vocal cords engaged. You could recite a tongue twister or read a poem aloud.
Another tip is to video yourself presenting and evaluate your style. What do you do well? What could you improve on? Increasing self-awareness is a powerful exercise. Actors rehearse. This is not because they don’t know what they are doing, it is because they do! Many actors suffer from stage fright. However, they know what they are going to say and how they are going to deliver it before they get onto the stage, or in front of the camera. They direct their nerves into the performance.
If you have a big presentation to give, follow their lead and practice. You could even do a dress rehearsal!