At least once a day some words of wisdom (often nicely packaged in a list) turn up in my social media streams on how to be a better presenter. My advice: ignore all other advice.
This post is going to anger professional trainers, speaking coaches and presentation gurus, but I honestly believe that the mountain of dos and don’ts, tips and tricks, and words from the wise out there, do more harm then good.
Let’s face it, the vast majority of “presenters” stand in front of an audience a handful of times a year, if that. This is a post for you. If you are a regular speaker and want to improve your presence, you might as well stop reading now.
In the interest of full disclosure I should confess that I used to “teach” presentation technique. But it was from the gut, based on hours upon countless hours listening to terrible presentations, rather than the same amount of time in lecture halls. To put my credentials into perspective I once told a “class” that pathos, ethos and logos (I just looked it up online to be sure) was Latin, not Greek!
This is what you REALLY need to know about giving a presentation.
No one wants to see you fail
Unless you are a comedian, or your audience is particularly evil, no one turns up to a presentation with the secret desire to see you fall off the stage, forget your lines or break out in hives.
The person at the back of the room is not silently chanting “fail, fail, fail, fail.” Don’t believe me? Think of the person you least like in your company. Now remember a day they have stood up to talk. What was your reaction? You were more likely daydreaming about summer vacation or checking your watch to see when lunch would start, than applying your skills in telepathy to make your nemesis start stuttering.
At the worse people will walk away bemoaning the time could have been spent clearing their inbox.
Even Steve Jobs started somewhere
Job’s Stanford commencement speech will be forever enshrined as a masterpiece in public speaking. And it deserves to be. But before you tear your hair out in despair at ever matching his confidence and poise remember Jobs was 50 at the time, with a couple of decades of increasingly high profile appearances behind him.
Like everything, presenting requires practice, in front of people, in a pressure situation, not just in front of a mirror or the back of your kids heads. You have to stumble a bit before you can expect to get better.
When analysing your performance, it’s pointless comparing apples with oranges. Measure your success against your last performance, not someone else’s.
Be yourself and focus
Ignore everything you have heard about body language, intonation and attention grabbers. Ditto to story telling, use of props and being personal (presentation coaches are sharpening their knives now).
In my experience, infrequent speakers spend so much time and energy working on the perfect sweeping hand gesture and practicing changing their speaking pitch and speed, they forget the content.
Stick to a delivery that feels right to you. I’m not saying be boring and monotonous but speak as you would to friends. Don’t create a persona – your audience will see through it in a heart beat making you far less credible.
In other words, forget the stage craft, focus on why you are giving the presentation in the first place, say what needs to be said and shut up.
If none of this convinces you, take comfort in the oft-quoted statistics that your audience remembers less than 20 per cent of what you say anyway.
DISCLAIMER: Sometime in the future, when I start to run out of ideas for this blog, or just plain forget I wrote this, I will undoubtedly provide my own top 7 tips for being a better speaker. When that happens, ignore this advice: future me is probably smarter than present me.