Often people with subject matter expertise have great difficulty in presenting to a group, even though with friends they may be upbeat and entertaining. The most common mistakes include:
1. can’t manage anxiety;
2. don’t relate to audience;
3. it’s all one-way; or
4. it’s boring!
Develop these nine skills so you avoid these mistakes.
1. Create a positive mindset
Prepare yourself psychologically and with a strong structure and interesting content. Be early to the location and ensure the room is set as you need it. Give yourself positive scripts:
I will give a good quality presentation
I can manage my nerves with breathing
I will be calm and enjoy this
I’ve got relevant anecdotes and examples to bring this to life
I’ve prepared a handout so I don’t need to overload with details.
I will smile … because I will do a good job and soon it will be over!
2. Learn about the audience
Find out what do they already know about the topic, what they are expecting from the presentation, and any particular concerns, problems or issues they want dealt with. Use some quick questions and answers, or a show of hands. For example, ask “How many of you here know …?”
3. Give an overview of the presentation
Give the audience an idea of what you plan to cover, as well as the key areas or the goal you hope to achieve, as this gives them direction and keeps you on track.
4. Make it interesting and relevant
Aim to be someone who is a pleasure to listen to by:
• Giving an example, such as a case, a diagram, a hypothetical, or an anecdote—people engage with these and often want to know more;
• Using interesting visuals, such as a short, relevant video clip, some relevant slides, whiteboard notes, models and handouts. Make sure they are not too cluttered;
• Surprising the group with the latest research, unusual applications, or best practice in another company or industry;
• Referring to current world news and relating it to the topic; or
• Showing the links between the topic and the people in the audience.
5. Involve the audience and stimulate discussion
Audience attention and retention drops off after a few minutes of straight talking or lecturing, with no involvement. Get people’s attention and energise them by:
• Asking questions;
• Inviting questions;
• Doing activities—for example, brainstorming or using paired discussions and small groups;
• Conducting a “write down” activity followed by sharing ideas; or
• Trying a role play—in some situations you can ask for volunteers to try something out.
When any sort of behavioural or attitudinal change is required, brainstorming ideas and writing them up on a screen or board can personalise this process by pushing individuals in the audience to actually identify what they will do different for themselves.
6. Manage questions and answers professionally
Set ground rules at start. Explain when questions are to be asked (for example, at any time during your presentation, after each main section, or at the end of your presentation) and remember the following tips:
• You can ask them questions throughout if you choose;
• Show interest in their questions and their answers—make eye contact, face the person, nod your head, say ‘uh-huh’, use appropriate facial gestures like smiling, frowning, or looking surprised;
• Ask a question and then use silence to wait for the answer. Don’t be afraid of a few second’s silence—don’t assume the question has ‘flopped’. Don’t rush to answer your own question or move onto another question;
• Don’t react negatively (especially non-verbally) to any question. Show respect no matter how ‘stupid’ the question appears to you;
• Before answering a question, you may need to restate the question to clarify and ensure everyone heard it—this can also give you time to develop your answer;
• Sometimes it may be appropriate not to give the answer yourself, but instead ‘throw it back’ to the group for discussion. This is particularly useful in the case where there is no simple answer, or where the answer is something the audience would know. If, having thrown the question back to the audience, no answer emerges, make sure you supply the answer yourself;
• If you don’t know the answer, don’t guess. Your credibility generally increases when you admit you do not have the answer to a question. Ask the group or offer to find out and get back to the person later; and
If you have invited questions, but no-one has any, you can:
• Move onto the next point of the presentation or wind up;
• Rephrase the question. For example, “How many of you have experienced this problem?”; or
• Pose a situation or scenario to the group and ask them how they would handle it.
7. Control the discussion
Managing group dynamics is often challenging. The degree of control you exercise will depend on the group, the topic, the amount of time available and the value of the discussion. “Any” discussion is not the goal, it should be relevant discussion that engages everyone, is relevant and moves the topic forward.
Take control and be professional:
• If they talk over each other, or keep interrupting, politely ask one person to wait while another finishes his or her point;
• Wind up a discussion between two and throw the point open to others;
• Terminate one discussion topic, summarise and move on to another issue;
• Don’t let one person dominate questioning. When asking, “Any questions?”, look away from the dominating person, showing non-verbally you want to hear from others in the group. If necessary, say to the dominator, “Suzi, before I take your question, does anyone else want to raise any issues?”; and
• Control irrelevant or tangential comments and questions, especially if short of time. Respectfully offer to discuss the question with the person after the presentation is over. For example, say: “Marco, I’d rather not deal with this issue right now as we have fairly limited time. Maybe you and I could talk during the break. Is that okay?”
8. Read the group
Look at the group’s body language; never ignore it. If someone is yawning, looking glazed or distracted they may have switched off. A good presenter looks for visual cues from the audience to evaluate engagement. Is the group bored or confused? Are they restless or enthralled?
If they are bored do not ignore it! Change gear! Throw in a question or divert to an activity. If they appear confused, clarify and ensure understanding.
If someone tells you the presentation is too theoretical, or too boring, or too complex or simple (or whatever), check with the full group and negotiate some changes. Don’t be stuck on your prepared railway tracks. Your audience will appreciate your flexibility.
9. Deliver an action ending
A powerful closer is very motivating. Ask the audience to commit to an action, make a decision, or change the way things are done. Ask, “How will you use this technique in your own work?”, or “How can we implement these changes?”
If actions have emerged during the presentation, summarise them and ensure a written version is circulated.
Always seek feedback and encourage honest criticism from attendees. That’s how you grow and improve your presentation skills.