22 Jun Pitch Perfect – Presentation Skills and Solutions
If you are in business the chances are that you will have to do a presentation at some stage. They’re hard to avoid. From relatively low-key pitches in front of small groups, through to all-singing and all-dancing keynote speeches in front of hundreds of people, giving presentations is a fact of business life.
You might think that giving a good presentation relies on the aids you use – whether it’s software solutions like PowerPoint or Keynote, or it’s a presentation binder, or it’s physical props and samples.
And yes, those things used wisely can enhance a presentation… but they don’t make it.
The heart of any good presentation is the presenter. That means it’s about what you say and how you say it. The very thought of this may get your heart racing with adrenaline, but don’t panic. It’s a lot easier than you think.
There’s a quick and easy step-by-step guide to presenting outlined below.
But first a story
In my first ‘proper’ job I found myself having to give over 40 presentations a year. I did that every year for 12 years and it’s fair to say that I got pretty used to talking to big groups of people (the audience sizes typically varied between 50 and around 300, but I also had to do a bunch of intense and complex pitches to smaller groups of financiers and executive boards). By the end of those 12 years I had chalked up around 500 presentations. Since then I have had another five years of practice, presenting to groups of all shapes and sizes made up of colleagues, customers, suppliers… the variety is endless!
That’s a lot of practice and I like to think that somewhere along the way I got quite good at it. I certainly got a lot more confident.
But it wasn’t always the case.
I can still remember the first time I had to speak in front of people. I had written out what I wanted to say in a script, and I had it on a lectern in front of me. It was all of, I don’t know, maybe 500 words? Barely enough to keep me on stage for five minutes.
I remember it felt like the longest five minutes of my life was stretching out in front of me.
So, I had my head down, not daring to make eye contact with anyone in the audience. My knuckles were gripping that lectern like it was the grab-bar on a roller coaster ride. I read that script out, completely verbatim, at something approaching Warp Factor Nine and then screeched to an ungainly halt at the end, panting and out of breath. The allotted five minutes was probably four minutes more than I needed, I spoke so damn quickly.
In other words, it was a total train wreck. I can honestly say that the worst presentation I have ever attended was one that I gave; that first one.
So, take heart. If I can do it anyone can!
Use Common Sense
There are a few things that I have picked up over the last 17 years of standing up and giving presentations to people. None of it is rocket science. In fact, all of it is common sense.
The very best piece of advice I was ever given is simple – stick to what you know. Don’t make stuff up or extemporise too much. If you don’t know something, admit it. Nothing undermines you more than getting caught out.
The other thing that people always say to you when you’re starting out with your first presentations is ‘be yourself’.
This is kind of a glib thing to say and so, if you’re anything like me, you will find it a bit irritating. But if you take it to mean that you should be the best version of yourself, and try to project a positive and outgoing version of your day-to-day personality then it isn’t a bad piece of advice.
One of the more important elements of ‘being yourself’ is never, ever, try to show off how smart you are by using lots of long words that you don’t really understand. Only try to be as smart as you actually are and never try to be something you’re not.
Here’s a little example of how not to do it
I remember inwardly cringing once upon a time as I witnessed a relatively senior executive, someone in my team, presenting to the board. He used the word ‘incumbent’ three times in his presentation, but each time he used it to refer to an incoming (new) employee, not an existing employee. I can only imagine that he thought that because ‘incumbent’ sounds a little bit like ‘incoming’, that perhaps that is what it means.
Needless to say, it doesn’t. He made himself look like a bit of an idiot.
So, here’s a Quick Step-by-Step Guide to Presenting
- Prepare – honestly, it seems obvious but this one cannot be stressed enough. Preparation time is essential; even if you are a seasoned veteran and wholly at home getting up and talking in front of other people, having a clear idea of what you want to say and how you want to say it is essential.
- Rehearse – this may be a luxury that you don’t get to indulge in with every single presentation but it can be helpful, in particular if you are going to be presenting somewhere unfamiliar and to a larger audience. It is a great idea to get into the space in which you are going to be presenting. Have a quick run through what you are going to say. Even if you don’t have the opportunity to do a full rehearsal, getting yourself comfortable with the environment can pay dividends later in your confidence levels.
- Excitement – for most of us, getting up in front of other people gets the blood pumping… it’s nervous energy and stage fright can be a real problem. An old trick from Neuro Linguistic Programming is to tell yourself that it’s excitement, not fear, that has caused all that adrenaline to be coursing through your veins!
- Socialise – it’s a good idea to mingle with a few members of the audience beforehand. Having a chat with people before you get up and talk to them makes you seem more likeable and relatable when you are up on stage, and if you make sure that you ask them a few questions and listen to the answers you are given you might even get a couple of golden nuggets that you can weave into the presentation, making your talk seem more personal and more spontaneous.
- Entertain and engage – there is nothing worse than a dull presentation. If you want your audience to be engaged with what you are saying, try to be a entertaining. You don’t have to be a stand-up comedian, but a couple of jokes or slightly humorous asides really won’t hurt. Keep your content concise and well-structured so the presentation flows well and doesn’t get tedious. Make sure you invite feedback to keep your audience actively involved – don’t just talk at them – your content will land a lot more effectively if your audience feels like it is participating. This doesn’t have to be anything complicated – just asking for a show of hands on something or inviting a couple of questions from the floor is all it takes.
- Natural speaking – not too quick! The biggest mistake most rooky presenters make is gabbling; talking so quickly that they become unintelligible. The worst thing about this mistake is it is so easy to spiral out of control – just like my first time on stage I have seen other presenters so overcome with nerves that their mouths start going like a runaway train, building up increasing speed as the nerves ramp up higher and higher until the dry mouth kicks in, and the inevitable train crash happens. The best thing about this mistake, though, is it is so easy to deal with. Just stop talking. Shut up. A two second pause on stage may feel like a lifetime to you but to the audience it feels like… well, a two second pause. And those two seconds allow the audience a chance to consider what you have just said, whilst you sip some water and remind them (and yourself) that you are in total control of the situation and of what you are talking about.
- Take questions – when you get to the end of what you wanted to talk about give your audience the chance to ask a few questions. George Bernard Shaw once famously said that the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place. If you don’t invite feedback at the end of the presentation you are missing your best, perhaps only, opportunity to nail down any misunderstandings or confusion.
And Now You Are Ready…
…to start thinking about the peripheral stuff. That means you can now think about PowerPoint slides, the props and any other paraphernalia that you might want to use to augment what you are saying.
Remember, make the presentation about what you are saying and how you are saying it; don’t use the peripheral stuff as a crutch to lean on.
Thanks for reading, and if you think that this information will be of use to someone else you know, please don’t hesitate to click on the link below to share it.