Freelance life, Maslen on Marketing

Presentations? No sweat

A few years ago I was staying with some very good friends of mine and their neighbour called. She was hyperventilating. “There’s a…really…really…big…SPIDER!”

Down the road I went to dispatch the beast, armed only with a rolled up copy of Precision Marketing. Poor Kate was pale. Shaking. Sweaty palmed.

If you have to give presentations, you might recognise her symptoms: acute anxiety. But here’s the thing.

If you want to get on in business, you have to get over your fear of giving presentations. So let’s look at a few of the common problems and what to do about them.

I used to run in-house training courses on presentation skills. And I always started by asking people what they were most worried about. One of the common fears was not having enough to say. Here are a few of the others:

  • Looking stupid
  • Drying up altogether
  • Just doing it
  • Feeling too nervous to speak

Funnily enough, nobody ever seemed to worry that they might not actually achieve their goals. I suspect this is because for most people the idea of giving a presentation becomes so daunting that their primary, sometimes only, goal is ‘getting to the end without passing out’.

I covered using PowerPoint in MoM February 2005 so in this issue I want to talk about the physical aspects of presenting.

Ten easy steps to perfect presenting

1 How to start

It’s useful to know that adrenaline output peaks in the first couple of minutes of a presentation. Get through that and your nerves start to ease off and you can concentrate on making your case.

The best way to get a smooth start is to have a couple of sentences memorised. You want to stand up, fire off a neat, punchy intro and get into the meat of your presentation.

I tend to keep it very simple. “Hi. Welcome to this workshop on effective copywriting. My name’s Andy Maslen and today I’m going to share some of the tools and techniques that professional copywriters use every day in their work.”

2 Body language

A couple of ideas here.

First, stand still! Plant your feet about shoulder width apart and let all that nervous energy flow upwards and out of your arms and hands.

This has two great effects. One, it gives your audience the impression of a solid presenter. Two, it allows you to move your arms and hands naturally and use that energy for something positive.

Second, don’t grip your hands together. To begin with, let them hang naturally by your side. (In fact they won’t, because you’ll be making natural gestures that amplify and complement your talk.) I saw myself on video once and I had my left hand clamped around my throat. Almost as if I could hold my voice steady by force.

3 Walk, don’t walk

Some people view presenting as akin to a forced march. Perhaps that’s why they can’t keep still. These strollers wander about all over the place, distracting the audience by passing in front of more interesting things. You know, paintings, buff window cleaners swigging Pepsi, sales charts, that kind of thing.

So try to keep still, especially when you’re delivering a really important point.

4 Eye contact

You want each member of your audience to feel that you’re speaking to them. So coping with nerves by staring at the ceiling/floor/window just won’t cut it. But neither will locking on to one person and staring madly into their increasingly worried eyes for thirty minutes.

The best technique is to let your eyes engage individual audience members for a few seconds each. Just long enough to register the contact. Make sure you reach everyone or, if the audience it too big, every part of the room.

5 Your voice

Most people, under pressure, tend to speak too fast. I do. So make a conscious effort to speak slowly.

Low-toned voices are also usually rated as being more trustworthy, so if you have a naturally high voice think about and practise lowering it. Margaret Thatcher addressed this in her early years as Prime Minister.

6 The friendly face

A simple reassurance technique is to find a ‘friendly face’. There’s always at least one audience member who wants you to do well, likes you, or just is smiley by nature.

Identifying them and paying them a little extra attention at the beginning gets a positive response and makes you feel that it’s going well.

7 Fiddling

Do you jingle your change? Fiddle with your tie? Spin your fountain pen around your finger. Play with the laser pointer. One word. Stop!

This kind of monkey business is fatal to your presentation. At best you are distracting your audience from your message. At worst, you’ll have them giggling uncontrollably as you make an origami stork out of your tie – again.

8 Jokes

The best laughs come from unscripted remarks where you either fire off a one-liner or respond to what someone in your audience has asked you. Every joke I have ever prepared has flatlined.

Resist the temptation.

9 Visual aids

Nowadays, visual aids mean PowerPoint. But whatever system you’re using, remember this. You need to talk to your audience, not your visual aids. So if you turn to point to your visuals, turn BACK before speaking.

The same goes for using a flipchart. Don’t mumble into the paper as you scribble an illegible remark on the pad. Instead, write it up, then turn back and continue.

10 How to stop

At last! You’ve brought the ship into harbour and dropped anchor. In just a few moments you’ll be back on dry land. But this is where a lot of presenters really miss an opportunity. They tail off, uttering the deathly phrase, “Er, well, that’s it.”

The audience is left wondering what that was all about. So, go for the big finish and, why not, a round of applause. Here’s how.

Recap your main point. Thank your audience for taking part. (Even listening is taking part.) And end by saying “Thank you very much!” Punch the final sentence home by ending on a rising tone.

And my point is?

Presenting IS scary. You WILL be nervous. But so are Olympic athletes before competing. It’s what gives you your edge. And it’s not the thing to fret about. Instead, focus on your message and desired outcome and, above all, rehearse it.

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