30th January, 2018
Whether it’s to sing for our supper or to wow an audience, giving a presentation is a staple of professional life. It’s also something most of us struggle with.
Paula Smith, a Certified Speaking Professional and presentation expert for over 30 years, says she still sees presenters who lack preparation and hope for the best.
“It’s always evident,” she told The Pulse, “when people say ‘I do this all the time so I can just wing it’ that they actually can’t – you can tell when you’re watching someone with that attitude.
“They do things like not updating slides, they don’t know their audience well, they don’t make changes to suit their audience…those are all presentation sins.”
What other presentation sins should you avoid?
Smith said she saw a lot of presenters who put very little effort into their opening lines, meaning they risked losing their audience from the start.
“Saying ‘Hi, I’m here today to…’ is basically saying ‘let’s get through this’,” she said. “That opening just makes my skin crawl.”
Instead, Smith advises putting effort into opening lines – whether that’s a great statistic, a statement, or a startling story to grab people’s attention.
“Having a strong opening and closing are your power points,” she said.
On the flip side, Smith says people who tried to be different for the sake of being different risked alienating their audiences immediately.
“Difference needs to be authentic rather than difference for the sake of a tactic. It’s got to have purpose as well,” she said.
“When I’m talking about [purposeful difference], it might be because you have a different story or different way of thinking about a problem.”
The worst thing a presenter can do is Google ‘presentation template’ and hope that gets them through.
“That’s pretty much the worst thing they can do – they confuse template for structure,” said Smith.
“There are structures to follow, but the good ones don’t tie you into doing the same thing every single presentation. It helps you as a guide only.”
At its heart, Smith said, a presentation is more of a guided conversation rather than a one-way exchange or open forum.
“People say ‘open your presentation with a question’, but [this is risky] because you don’t know what the response is going to be. [If you’re going to do that], make sure you ask a rhetorical question,” she said.
“Also, never finish with a Q&A. Instead, have question time embedded within your presentation.”
Ever been in a presentation with 60 slides and reams of text up on screen? That’s not fun – or productive.
“People think slides are an excuse to put a document up on screen so it ends up being a bit data dump – but nobody can see the numbers anyway let alone remember any of them,” said Smith.
Instead, slides can be very effective as visual stimuli to keep people engaged – so while you should use them sparingly you shouldn’t ditch them altogether.
If you do need to present a whole bunch of numbers, consider a printout at the end of the presentation (on recycled paper, of course) or a digital pack that you can transfer to participants.
A lot of people assume the point of presenting is to convey information, but Smith sees it differently.
“All presentations should lead to change in some way, otherwise you’re merely an entertainer,” said Smith.
When you start from that point, then you’ll start thinking about what messages you need to impart to make that change.
“Will that be slides? Will that be writing on a flip chart? Will that just be sharing engaging stories? Will it be audience participation?” asked Smith.
“Too many people just go onto their computer and start working on slides without thinking about it. That’s preparing slides, not a presentation.”
But how do you know you’ve made a difference if you don’t check in down the track?
“If you’re doing a sales presentation and the purpose is to increase sales, then sales need to increase to prove it was an effective presentation,” said Smith.
“Evaluation processes also aren’t about a handout sheet at the end of the presentation either – that just measures the reaction at the time.
“Evaluation needs to be continual. Try going back a week or even six months later and asking whether people are doing things differently.”