Presentation Skills

By Neil Harris

Whatever your job, sooner or later you will be asked to make a presentation. As a teacher or lecturer, you are making presentations much of the time but there are many other situations in which these skills are important. In a research role it is essential that you can present your findings to a range of audiences, often internationally. In consultancies there is a need to convince potential clients of your expertise when pitching for work. These presentations are known as 'beauty parades' because you are competing with other suppliers. You may also be required to report back on your findings. Recruiters go round the universities during the winter presenting the mouth watering details of opportunities within their organisation to students as potential employees.

Any middle or senior manager, whether in education or elsewhere, must present details of their proposed schemes to their own bosses and members of their department or team. In the sales and marketing function these skills are also of paramount importance.

Putting your case, pitching for business, addressing staff meetings, chairing committees are all activities that require good presentation.

Presenting encompasses a vast range of skills:

  • Researching your topic
  • Organising the material
  • Proficiency with visual aids equipment
  • Putting yourself in the audience's shoes
  • Articulating and persuading
  • Aligning your body language with your message
  • Answering questions
  • Managing your time

So where do you start? Here are eleven steps to a successful presentation.

Research your subject

You must know at least as much about your topic as most of your audience. The more inexperienced you are the more research and preparation you will need to do. Don't just recite what has happened in the past but also consider developments that might potentially happen in the future.

Know your audience?

What do they expect to get out of your presentation? Talking to a conference of professionals in your field is very different to lecturing to first year undergraduates or potential users of your product. How knowledgeable are your audience? At what level will you pitch your discussion and what kind of language will you use? Think hard about what will motivate your audience to listen.

What do you want to achieve?

Be clear in your mind what you want to achieve from your presentation. What do you want your audience to do as a result? Are you uncertain, or muddled in your thoughts? If so this will come across. If you don't have a clear idea of the message you are attempting to impart don't expect that the audience can.

Check the environment

Visit the place where you are going to give the presentation, if you possibly can. How much will you need to project your voice? Where are all the light switches? What do you need to know about the equipment?

Write your speech

Arrange the points you need to make into a logical sequence. Think how you will get the audience's attention and keep it. Don't simply tell them the message; give them something to think about. Ask questions as well as answering them.

Break down your subject into bite sized sections and decide how long you will spend on each. Think how you will introduce and conclude your remarks after completing the main body of what you have to say.

Few will listen attentively to a lecture for very long. Break up your presentation, if you can, by introducing new items, changing the pace, tone or topic at regular intervals.

Avoid jargon or overloading your audience with too many facts and figures.

Visual aids

People have different learning styles. Some prefer diagrams and pictures, others are happy reading slides or listening to a lecture. If using visual aids don't cram too much information onto one slide and be sure that the words are big enough to be readable from the back of the audience. Remember the saying 'a picture is worth a thousand words'. If the listener can visualise the ideas you are trying to get across they will remember it better.

Practice

Practice your presentation, ideally with the equipment you will use. Distil what you have to say into bullet points and use cue cards to remind you of what comes next. Use a mirror, video or a friend to discover repetitive gesticulations, which your audience will find distracting or so amusing that they detract from your discourse. Don't read your speech. That way you first lose eye contact and then the attention of your audience.

Do it!

Get eye contact with your audience and keep scanning every section of the participants for signs of boredom. Talk loudly enough to be heard at the very back. Pace your delivery and articulate your words so that nothing is missed. Undulate your voice. Use short sentences, never including more than one topic each. Start with your feet in a position that faces your audience but avoid either being rooted to the spot or pacing up and down like an animal in a cage.

Underline your message with your body language. Smile. Use you hands, eyes, eyebrows and movements of the head to enhance your expression. Don't fold your arms, or appear bored. Never come across as lacking confidence or, worst of all, not believing in what you are saying.

Answering questions

Decide at the outset whether you are prepared to be interrupted. If you are a novice interruptions could disrupt your line of thought and overall plan. They are best avoided. Yet experienced presenters can use them to develop their theme. If you don't know the answers to some questions admit it. But tell the questioner that you will find it out.

If you're one speaker of many

When you are one in a line of speakers, don't feel confined because the previous speaker over-ran. Your contribution is just as significant as theirs. Keep to your plan, even if late, but don't go over your allotted time.

Experienced?

You may be, but complacency is a bad thing when presenting. There are so many things that can catch you out that if you fail to prepare you might have to prepare to fail.

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