How were you at handling a knife and fork at the age of five? Unless you come from royalty or a family focused on honing precise fine dining skills from the moment you began consuming solid foods, we’ll guess that you did not handle cutlery at such a tender age with the skill you (hopefully) do now. It took practice, right? Each time you handled cutlery, you got just a teensy bit better at it until you could manage eating without (hopefully) embarrassing yourself or those dining with you. Progress may have been slow and messy, but it did happen.
It’s a similar thing when it comes to giving presentations—though we hope less messy. We understand that the prospect of presenting to a roomful of people can cause immediate paralysis (in some). But know this: natural born presenters are a rarity. Most people do not have the “built-in” ability to hold a room’s attention from start to finish. It takes practice—a lot of practice. But it's also worth the effort because there's probably no more effective way to share your great ideas with the world.
When it comes to public speaking, no one is more convinced than TED Curator, Chris Anderson that with a lot of practice, anyone can get better. In his article, “How to Give a Killer Presentation,” Anderson had this to say: “Since the first TED conference…speakers have run the gamut from political figures, musicians, and TV personalities…to lesser-known academics, scientists, and writers—some of whom feel deeply uncomfortable giving presentations. Over the years, we’ve sought to develop a process for helping inexperienced presenters to frame, practice, and deliver talks that people enjoy watching.” Blue prints are a good thing.
Coaching a diverse group of experts in the fine art of public speaking has led Anderson to one conclusion: “I’m convinced that giving a good talk is highly coachable. In a matter of hours, a speaker’s content and delivery can be transformed from muddled to mesmerizing.” Promising, right?
Anderson has some excellent tips to impart to anyone looking to be a better presenter. But you must keep in mind that they won’t do you any good if you don’t apply them and make them your own. They are designed to push you out of your comfort zone. By practicing them, you will learn how to work through your nervousness and establish your own style. It's only by trekking out to that nebulous region known as your “discomfort” zone (which feels as friendly as the arctic tundra) that you will experience the breakthroughs you need to sharpen your presentation style, and bolster your confidence at the same time.
“Frame Your Story”: “We all know that humans are wired to listen to stories,” says Anderson. “And metaphors abound for the narrative structures that work best to engage people. When I think about compelling presentations, I think about taking an audience on a journey. A successful talk is a little miracle—people see the world differently afterward.”
But before you start the journey, you have to give some very careful thought to where to start it and where to end it. You want to make your audience think about your topic in a way they’ve never done before, ever. Don’t spend too much time trying to second guess how much of your information is totally new: your way of telling the story will help them see the information in a new way. And, while you may have an impressive vocabulary, don’t reach into that treasure trove unless it’s going to help your audience reach a moment of illumination. Stick with being as clear, simple, and concise as possible and leave the “25 cent” words for another occasion, like a cutthroat game of Scrabble.
Here’s one final piece of advice Anderson gives on framing your story: “Much of the early feedback we give aims to correct the impulse to sweep too broadly. Instead, go deeper. Give more detail. Don’t tell us about your entire field of study—tell us about your unique contribution.”
“Plan Your Delivery”: This is about finding the delivery method that best suits you, and determining the tools that will help you to be relaxed and effective. As Anderson sees it, you’ve got three ways to deliver your presentation. You can: read from a word-for-word script; use an outline of the main talking points; or commit your entire presentation to memory. That said, Anderson is against the first option. “Don’t read it, and don’t use a teleprompter. It’s usually just too distancing—people will know you’re reading. Suddenly your intimate connection evaporates, and everything feels a lot more formal.” Also, Anderson gives a clear caveat about memorization. If you don’t reach the point where you can say the words in a natural way, then you will be stuck in what he calls the “valley of awkwardness.” The audience will catch on quickly, and your struggle to remember words and main talking points will only serve to create an ever-widening chasm between you and the audience. The answer may be a card with the main talking points that prompt you to stay on topic. Since you’re an expert in those talking points, allow the confidence in your knowledge to come through in a relaxed, conversational tone.
“Develop Stage Presence”: This is something Anderson says is a “big determinant of success or failure.” If you feel like 1,000 butterflies have hatched in your stomach at even the thought of standing before an audience, know this: “When it comes to stage presence, a little coaching can go a long way.” Phew! We need a coach to help us become mindful of the things we do without thinking as we are presenting. Some of us may wander around the podium (if there is one), rock back and forth on our heels, or engage in a myriad of other behaviors that those butterflies choreograph us to do. Anderson’s advice? Keep your legs planted in one spot, make eye contact with a handful of people in the audience the entire time the spotlight’s on, and—most importantly—take a few slow, deep breaths before going on stage. Once you’re on stage, own it.
“Plan the Multimedia”: Here’s a revelation from Anderson (and here’s hoping it’ll rub off in the business world): “Many of the best TED speakers don’t use slides at all, and many talks don’t require them. If you have photographs or illustrations that make the topic come alive, then yes, show them. If not, consider doing without, at least for some parts of the presentation. And if you’re going to use slides, it’s worth exploring alternatives to PowerPoint.” If you do use PowerPoint, do not read words directly off a slide, or repeat the information a slide conveys. That advice may seem very basic, but it often goes unheeded. Don’t be one of those people.
“Putting it Together”: The folks at TED Talks start preparing their speakers about six months prior to their speaking events. Clearly, the TED team has fine-tuned the process for coaching speakers in whatever areas they may need assistance. But what if you don’t have six months, or even six days to put together a presentation—and battle those ever-hatching butterflies? Before your blood pressure rockets into the stratosphere, keep Anderson’s advice in mind. “Presentations rise or fall on the quality of the idea, the narrative, and the passion of the speaker. It’s about substance, not speaking style or multimedia pyrotechnics. It’s fairly easy to “coach out” the problems in a talk, but there’s no way to “coach in” the basic story—the presenter has to have the raw material.” Genuine passion always wins the day.
Ultimately, effective presenting is about telling a good story. Think back to a time when you were with friends or family, and you told a story that provoked an emotion so strong in the people around you that you were thanked for sharing it. As you told your story, you likely spoke very naturally and matter-of-factly. There’s a good chance you weren’t accompanied by PowerPoint, music, or large visuals that displayed themselves brightly in the background. You were probably very genuine as you relayed your story, and spoke with passion and conviction, choosing only the most necessary words. And when you finished you may have realized that you hadn’t just told a story, you had shared a part of yourself publicly. Whether you are presenting in front of colleagues or strangers, remember the elements that made your storytelling compelling in the past because they will serve you—along with Anderson’s advice—in being the most memorable speaker you can be. And you won’t even have to wear a bib.