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Part 1: Art of Presentation

In part 1 of the blogs on presentation skills, I will focus a bit on art of presentation, essentially factors that I believe play a significant role in making or breaking it.

When I think back a few years, I can’t fail to remember the time when I would be dead scared going in front of audience, words would fail me and I would go weak in knees. Knowing the job requirements where I would have to do many presentations internal facing (trainings, knowledge sharing etc) and external (client facing), I consciously decided to improve on the presentation skills and that I personally believe is the first step in doing good presentations.

Scope for Improvement: Unless you accept that there is something to improve, you won’t. You can only pour more into a cup if it not already full. Over the years I have read various articles, watched industry leaders talk and pick up from that. Extension to this is ability to except feedback that will help you improve further. In past few months, through various forums, I have tried to provide opportunities to others in team to do internal presentations so that they get a platform to try and build on their skills and I share what I felt as an audience listening to them.

Identify role model: Once you decide to tread on the improvement path, it would be a good idea to pick up a role model that you feel is really great in this skill and learn from him/her. The role model help you to have a focused goal in your mind that you want to be like that person and that helps you remain motivated and committed towards improvement.

Confidence and Passion: There are definitely tips on content, duration etc for the presentation, but another key aspect is confidence. The more confidence you shown the better people will like it. Those who come to listen, obviously are there with an aim to learn (unless off course forced by their manages to attend J) and if they don’t get a sense of confidence from the speaker, they will not like it. Two people I have as my role model and who also exhibit great confidence in their speaking are Mr. Nandan and Mr. MD Pai. It is just amazing to listen to them talk.

Knowledge: While confidence is important and there are people who can possibly still confidently say that the earth is flat and make you believe it as well, but knowledge depth also plays an important role. If you have good knowledge, the confidence pretty much comes automatically. Ensure that you do your ground work on the topic before the session so that you can handle the content and the questions with ease.

Rehearse: This is one aspect missing in most people. Rehearsal not only helps you get familiar with the slides so that you aren’t surprised when presenting (I have seen people staring at slides for couple of minutes trying to make out what it says), but also gives you an idea of the time it will take and helps boost your own confidence.

Stick to time limit: Nothing puts off people more than apathy of the speaker towards their time. No one has all the time in the world and most likely people have commitments following your session. If you can’t respect their time, they will not respect you. Hence starting on time and ending on time is critical. Ending way ahead of time is also not good. It may create a perception that you either didn’t have enough content, or have skipped some sections which you probably were not comfortable with. It essentially puts your knowledge at question.

Spilling over obviously creates unrest and people start looking more at their watches that listening to you. It would be really great if you can upfront tell the audience that you will take so much time for the session. This also means that if you allow questions in between the session, ensure that you still stick to the schedule or ask people to keep their questions on hold to the end.

Finally, if someone is keeping time and prompts you for time out, you need to be able to do a quick exit without disrupting too much, in technical terms, do a graceful exit.

Gauge the pulse of the audience: Doing a check on comfort of the audience upfront is a good idea. This helps fine tune your presentation. There are cases when speakers come with a deck where they get into too much technical depth and the audience may be folks who don’t have much interest in technical depth. There are cases when you put too much of introduction and audience already knows basics and feel irritated on being told all of that again. The other side can also create problems where you expect some minimum competency but most from audience are novice in that area. Finding these out earlier by asking few questions can help set the context for you. Even while presenting, keep a watchful eye on how many people are still awake, what’s their body language and try and modulate accordingly.

Voice Modulation: Along with confidence, this is also an important aspect. Many speakers I have heard will have good content and are really experts in their area, but since they deliver their content in a monotone, it creates discomfort with audience.  Varying the speed and the pitch can help keep the interest alive and create excitement in the audience. During one of our trainings, we were doing short presentations on our introduction and there was this person, who introduced himself in a low dull voice (as if he wasn’t interested in being there) and said that he has two patents in his name. Wow ! That is just amazing!!! But the way he spoke it, half the people didn’t even register this aspect at all. Needless to say, you should not go overboard to the extent that every sentence has too many variations.

Eye Contact: Some of us get nervous looking at the audience in the eye, but it is important and shows that you in a way you connect with the audience and are comfortable. Looking up at the ceiling or down at the floor etc only gives signals to the audience that you don’t like being there and so why should be they like your presentation. Many of us on the other hand find some comfort zone by identifying 1-2 people on audience whom we know and then we deliver the entire session by looking at them. Believe me, it puts this person in spot and very soon, you will see him/her unpleasantly twisting and turning in their chair. And the other audience will feel left out. You need to constantly shift your eye contact across the room and from front to back so that everyone gets to feel that you have noticed him/her and are addressing him/her as well.

Body language: The earlier aspect on confidence to a large extent is communicated to the audience via your body language. If you are standing at ease and have a pleasing smile on your face (where possible), people will like it, as against if they need to constantly turn their neck around since you are pacing up and down or you keep wriggling your hands often. Some people I have noticed have a habit of covering their mouth while speaking with the pretext of cleaning their mouth or rubbing their noise etc. These not only impact the voice and make it difficult for people to hear, but also send signals that you are afraid.

Jargon: While there will be technical jargon that you can’t avoid especially if it is a technology specific session, use simple words otherwise, to communicate. Audience isn’t going to like it if they need to dig their brains to capture word meanings. They are there to listen on the specific topic and not your mastery over English language. Fluency is important, but not complex jargon. Also too much of that can create a divide with the audience where they may start to feel you are too superior and then it is more of person comparison than paying any attention to the content.

Analogies: Many times there can be difficult concepts to explain. There could also be case that since the audience has limited experience they may find things difficult to understand. Being able to explain concepts in layman’s terms by using every day examples can go a long way in making your presentation a success.

Word repetitions or pauses: Again a favorite with many of us is a usage of specific words multiple times in a sentence. Typically words like “like”, “generally” and “and stuff” etc are common in our daily communication. When doing presentations, you should consciously avoid these as this creates an unpleasant experience for the audience. Also some of us take too long or frequent pauses with “aaa” or “umm” and this can also irritate the audience. It also sends signal that either you as speaker aren’t comfortable with the topic or have not prepared much.

Accept when you don’t know: We aren’t super humans and hence we can’t know it all. When you don’t know the answer, it is better to accept it, say so and tell that you will get back, rather than trying to beat around the bush. Nothing can be more embarrassing than someone in audience saying that what you just answered is incorrect and the right answer is so and so.

Differentiator: Think is there a way you can make the presentation exciting? What is it that you can do different? I am not suggesting that you make an entry like Akshay Kumar by maybe jumping in from roof or something like that, but technologically what can do you? When I recently did a presentation on Introduction to Silverlight, I created the presentation in Silverlight itself. It helped me do the presentations and demos without having to switch between PPT and the application and overall it was a pleasant experience for people. Most people appreciated and it turned out to be a very effective way in itself to show the features of Silverlight.

Humor: Like the monotone point earlier, making the session very serious can also impact the acceptance. Some element of humor in form of anecdotes etc can help lighten the atmosphere and the audience more receptible. Needless to say that it should be related to the talk in some manner.

These are some of the key principals that I keep in mind when doing presentations. Appreciate your comments or further suggestions that will help all of us become better presenters.

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