Giving the Presentation

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Effective Presentations – Giving the Presentation

At this point you've carefully prepared your slides and are ready to present to the audience. There are a number of issues to address here.

Stage Fright

Probably the only presentation experience you've had so far in your life is "show and tell" in grade school. You probably felt it was an ordeal to be completed as quickly as possible.

Although technical professionals will give many presentations during their careers, it's unlikely that they'll be doing it every day. Therefore, they'll be exercising a skill that they don't use that often. Since there are a number of other skills they use all the time, they're uncomfortable.

In addition, when you're giving a presentation there are frequently people in the audience that you don't see all the time. Everybody likes being in their "comfort zone" among people they know well, and the presence of strangers can be unnerving.

Finally, some of those strangers can be higher levels of management, and suddenly you feel like you're being subjected to a very probing oral examination.

All this is typical human nature. Having said that, it's important to get over these feelings. Put yourself in the audience's place. If you're listening to a presentation where the speaker is confident and well prepared, it's likely that you're going to treat what they have to say with respect and be persuaded by them. On the other hand, if the speaker appears to be uncertain, nervous, and defensive, you're less likely to put much weight on what they're presenting. Therefore, it's important that you display a good image of yourself.

There are a number of things to keep in mind to overcome stage fright. First, have confidence in yourself. You've prepared this presentation, and you know this material. There may be other technically knowledgeable people in the room, but there's probably nobody in the room who knows as much about the specific material you're going to present. Second, keep in mind that these people came to hear what you're going to say. They want you to be a success – otherwise they're wasting their own time. Strangers are not a threat – they're an opportunity to help publicize your point of view. Third, if higher management is in the room, they're not sitting in judgment of you – they're here to hear what you have to say. This is not a threat, it's an opportunity to be recognized for the work you did. Also, every member of upper management started out their career the same way you are, so you can expect them to be sympathetic – they've been there too.

Loud and Slow

It's important to keep the attention of your audience by making it easy for them to listen to you. This means that it has to be easy for them to understand what you're saying, so it's important for you to speak loudly enough to be easily heard, and slowly enough that they can make out the words.

Since you're probably not used to speaking to large groups, speaking loud enough can be a real problem. We're used to talking to people who are very nearby, and talking to people who might be 50 or even 100 feet away can be daunting. However, this is not a hard skill to learn. Actors who are on the stage do it all the time. The trick is to sound natural while you're practically shouting.

It's easy to know when you're speaking loud enough. If you can plainly hear your own voice echoing off the back of the room, you're speaking loud enough. If you can't, you'll have to speak louder. A second thing you can do is have another member of your team stand at the very back of the room and see if they can plainly hear you. Remember that many people do not have hearing that is as good as yours, so it's important to make sure everybody can easily hear you.

The second problem that you'll have is that you're speaking loudly enough, but are speaking too quickly. Most rooms have echoes, and if you speak too quickly the words you're saying to mix with the echoes, making it very difficult to understand what you're saying. Most young technical professionals are used to speaking very quickly. It's important that you break this habit and learn to speak slowly. An easy example you can use is any movie. For example, see how long it takes Sir Alec Guinness play Obi Wan Kenobi and say "Trust the force, Luke." Time it, and then say it yourself. You'll probably find out that you're saying it about three times faster than he is. As a veteran actor, he knows enough to have his words resonate through the theatre, and to speak slowly. Use him as an example. Of course, if you want to choose a different path, you can mimic James Earl Jones, the voice of Darth Vader. He speaks just as slowly, and with the same authority.

When we're speaking, we make many errors. If the audience easily understands what we say, they'll overlook the errors, and fill in the correct information themselves. On the other hand, if we're speaking softly, quickly, or just plain mumbling, the audience will be straining to hear every word, and mistakes will be noticed much more easily. If you want to get away with mistakes, remember to speak loudly and slowly.

English as a Second Language

For many of you, English may not be your primary language. This creates some additional challenges, but they can be overcome.

First, it will be comfortable for you to continue to use your primary language with your family and friends. You should try to avoid this. The more you use English, the more proficient you will become. If you can, speak English with your friends, and encourage them to do so too. Even listening to English-speaking stations on television and radio will be helpful. Expose yourself to English as much as possible, and you'll be surprised at the progress you make. On the other hand, hiding from English will only make the problem worse. Your family came to the United States for a better life, and because they had a sense of adventure. Consider learning to speak English well to be an adventure, and you'll find it enjoyable.

Second, when you're giving a presentation, you will be tempted to hide any shortcomings you might have by trying to speak softly. Sometimes it will seem like you're hoping the audience won't notice that you're talking. Actually the opposite will happen, as described in the preceding section. The audience will be straining to hear you, and any mistakes you make are more likely to be noticed. Speak loudly and confidently, and you will win your audience over.

As an example of this, a number of years ago I was working in Korea. I was sent there on short notice, and did not have time to learn Korean before I left the United States. After I arrived, I tried to learn at least some Korean as quickly as I could. It was very tempting to hide with other Americans and speak English, but I felt a great sense of isolation. I spoke Korean as often as possible, and listened all the time. I was lucky because technical terms are the same all over the world, so even if I didn't understand a sentence, there was frequently enough for me to figure it out anyway. Overall, I was making progress. Suddenly, I was informed that I had to give a speech in Korean several days later. My knowledge of Korean was not even remotely sufficient to do this, so I memorized the entire speech phonetically (by sound). I had no idea what I was saying. I gave the speech to my Korean audience in what was probably the worst Korean they had ever heard. At the end the audience was obviously appreciative of my efforts, and seemed to understand what I said. After the audience left, I told my host that I was very grateful that the audience did not act insulted by my poor performance. My host replied with two parts: (1) my Korean was not as bad as I thought; (2) the audience knew that Korean was not my primary language, and appreciated my efforts to struggle though the speech. There is a lesson here for you as well: (1) your English is probably not as bad as you think; (2) your audience will appreciate your effort.

Engaging the Audience

It's important that you keep the attention of the audience. Suppose you were talking to somebody and they turned their back on you while they were talking. First, you'd probably be insulted. Second, you would lose interest in the conversation fairly quickly.

The same thing is true for presentations. You want to give the audience the impression that you're talking to them and interested in them. This means that while you're giving the presentation you should face the audience at all times.

Since many presenters have at least a little stage fright, it's very tempting to turn around, face the screen, and look at the slides. First, this allows you to not see the huge crowd you're facing. Second, you ant to make sure you cover all the points on the slide and don't make any mistakes. Third, the presentation is a "security blanket." You prepared the presentation, and want to stay as close to it as you can, much as a drowning person clutches a life preserver. What does it look like to the audience? First, you really don't care about them – you don't even care if they're there. Second, you're obviously unprepared or you wouldn't have to read the slide as you're giving the presentation, giving them obvious disrespect. Third, you show a lack of confidence that makes it hard for them to believe what you're saying.

What you need to do is make sure the audience knows that you respect and care about them. Facing the audience is a good start. Before you give the presentation you should practice it over and over again. If you do this, you'll know the contents of the slide so well that you won't have to look at the slide. Also, it's OK for you to take short looks at the slide to make sure you know where you are. However, these quick looks should just be a way to make sure the right slide is on the screen and that you're covering your points. Practicing a presentation makes you appear to be well-prepared and confident, helping the audience believe what you're saying and trusting you.

As you get more experienced at giving presentations, a skill you should develop is to sweep the audience with your eyes. That way everybody in the audience will think you're talking to them alone, and will listen to what you have to say. You don't have to look at every person, you just have to look in their direction. Make it a habit to scan the entire audience such that every area is covered about every 30 seconds and it will help you immensely.

Mistakes

As you give the presentation, you're going to make mistakes. You're going to miss words, mispronounce them, or use a wrong word. There are two major things to do here: (1) don't worry about it; (2) keep moving on in the presentation. A good analogy here is an Olympic performance. Athletes frequently make mistakes while they compete. All they can do is continue on from where the mistake happened and make as good a performance as they can. You should do likewise.

In the event of a really bad mistake, you might get so flustered that you can't continue. This can also happen if you're talking about something very personal to you, and start to feel your emotions overcome you. In this case, the best thing to do is stop, get yourself under control, and then continue. The audience will appreciate that you're having difficulty, and will be anxious to help you. You'll probably be well aware of the silence in the room during this time, but it will be much less time than you think. The audience will be happy to wait.

In extreme cases, the speaker becomes so overcome that they need more than a few seconds to recover. I saw this when a speaker was talking about an emotional trauma they had experienced. The speaker finally stopped to try to regain composure. After a few seconds, the audience spontaneously started to applaud. The appreciated the effort the speaker was making in sharing their experiences, and wanted to show they were on the speaker's side. After the applause was over, the speaker was in control again, and gave one of the best speeches I have ever heard.

The most frequent way a speaker feels that their speech is getting out of control is when they're speaking too quickly. When we present, our brain is typically preparing about 2-3 seconds in the future. By speaking slowly, you'll give your brain a good chance to stay ahead and think about what it wants you to say. If you're speaking too quickly, your mouth catches up to your brain, and it is no longer thinking in the future, leading to confusion. Speaking slowly is always the best thing you can do, and it helps the audience understand what you're saying as well.

The main idea to remember here is that the audience wants to hear what you have to say. They are not sitting in judgment of you. They're usually on your side. Take advantage of this and don't magnify mistakes unnecessarily.

Be on time

Nothing is worse than having a room full of people waiting for the speaker to show up. The speaker should be one of the first people to arrive, or at least be there on time. This is one reason why EG1003 insists that you be on time for your presentation.

An audience that's been waiting for a speaker gets into a bad mood, and now it's up to the presenter to win them back, putting the presenter at a disadvantage. Don't get into this situation.

Stay in the time budget

Most presentations are part of a larger agenda, and has been given a fixed amount of time. You should know the time budget for your presentation, and stick to it. Your initial reaction will probably be to wonder how you could possibly fill the time. However, experience has shown that the opposite problem is much more prevalent. Speakers fequenctly run over their time budget, sometimes by vast amounts. Remember that the audience has to sit through all these presentations, and prolonging the agony by overrunning your time budget is a sign of disrespect to them.

In extreme cases, the person in charge will tell you that you're out of time and end the presentation in the middle. This not only makes you look unprepared, but also prevents you from making the points you wanted to make and persuading the audience. Don't get into this situation.

The easiest way to avoid time budget problems is to practice your presentation. Use a clock and notice what time you started and what time you stopped. If you have a digital wristwatch, it might have a stopwatch function, and you can use that instead. Practice will not only make your presentation look better, but it will avoid time budget problems as well.

When you're giving a technical presentation in industry, you should leave time for questions. When you get your time budget, you should ask whether or not questions will be permitted and if so, whether the question period should be included in the time budget. If it is, you should probably allow about 25% of the time budget for questions after your presentation is done. If there are only a few questions and you are finished early, breathe a sigh of relief and sit down. Nobody will be unhappy that you finished early. If you get more questions than you expected, answer as many as you can until your allotted time is used up. Then offer to meet people later to answer their questions. As you approach the end of the time budget, it's a good idea to announce "I'll take one last question." That way the audience knows that time is up.

Be prepared

When you're giving a presentation, lots of things can go wrong, and you should be prepared to deal with unforeseen disasters. Your first line of defense here is to make sure you don't make yourself disaster-prone.

The first thing is making sure that your presentation will be available to you. If possible, bring your own laptop with your presentation on it. Make sure the laptop is compatible with the video projector by showing your title slide before your presentation starts. In addition, keep a copy of your presentation on some sort of computer media such as a CD, DVD, or "key ring hard drive" so that you can use somebody else's laptop if necessary.

For extremely important presentations, many people bring two laptops so that if one doesn't work they still have another. Others will print out the PowerPoint slides onto transparencies so that they can give the presentation the old-fashioned way if necessary.

In any case, think ahead of time about what could go wrong, and prepare for it.

Be comfortable

We've discussed a number of issues you face during a presentation. We've also discussed one major defense against these issues: practicing the presentation. There are also other things you can do.

One technique that's helped many presenters is to get to the room where the presentation will be held, and inspect the room. For example, you can walk around the perimeter of the room so you get used to it. That way, while you're presenting, the room will be somewhat familiar to you. You can also check out the sight lines of the audience to see the screen, and have a better idea where to stand. You can check out the public address facilities, if any. If there are none, you can do part of your presentation and have a friend stand in the back of the room to insure that you can be heard. If you do this, keep in mind that when the room is full, your voice will not carry as well as when the room is empty.

In general, becoming familiar with the room and what support you have with your presentation will help you feel more comfortable and act more confident.

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