Most of us have one of two common, but quite opposite, reactions after making a presentation. We either think it went very well or we did a lousy job.
Such responses are certainly understandable since presentations are highly personal. When speaking before large or small groups, we put ourselves on the line — there’s no place to hide.
How many times have you heard someone say, “I should have done better, but I didn’t have enough time to prepare,” “I wasn’t feeling well,” “The dog ate my presentation,” “I’m just not good at this” or “My personal style is better in one-on-one situations.”
Then, there are those who never doubt their ability, believing they’re better presenters than they actually are. If they hear criticism, they quickly dismiss it: “That guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
There’s plenty of available advice on how to be a more effective presenter, but “telling” us what to do usually isn’t much help. A better approach is gaining insight by asking the right questions. Here are ten questions that can be helpful in preparing to present for almost any speaking occasion, from a large group to a one-on-one setting:
1. Why am I making this presentation?
Or, to say it another way, what do I want to accomplish? Most presentations fail because speakers lack a well-defined understanding of what they want their listeners to do. If this isn’t clear to the presenter, the participants will be confused, bored and feel they are wasting their time.
2. What does my audience want to hear?
Too many presenters find themselves in trouble (and don’t even know it) by focusing on what they want to say, almost to the exclusion of the participants.
Someone has said that a good presentation is a compromise between what the speaker wants to say and what the audience wants to hear. Viewing those who listen to us as our “customers” is critical. In effect, they’re the ones who judge the success or failure of a presentation.
This is a tough task, requiring considerable discipline. As presenters we’re often so intent on “delivering our message,” we lose sight of getting our message across to our “customers.”
3. How can I hold my listeners’ interest?
The best way is to use stories, stories, stories. A 93-year old family friend, Ruthie, tells of taking her seven-year old grandson to McDonalds on one occasion. She was surprised when he didn’t order French fries. “I thought you really liked them,” she said. “I did, but not since they put potatoes in them,” he replied. He knew them as “French fries,” not French fried potatoes. What a great story to help make the point that shortcuts often lead to unintended consequences.
While inexperienced presenters inundate their listeners with words, the pros tell stories.
4. How should I go about holding everyone’s attention?
The answer is to invite them to participate in your presentation, something that isn’t as risky as it may sound. You can let them know at the beginning that you want them to ask questions or make comments during the presentation by raising their hands. They need to know that they’ll not be interrupting you.
Yes, there may be a smart remark or two, an irrelevant comment or question, but it’s worth it to create an open atmosphere that lets everyone know that this is a “we” and not “me” event.
5. How can I avoid having a case of nerves?
It may seem a bit crazy, but nerves are normal. Whenever you put yourself on the line — from playing a sport to getting married to buying a home or making a presentation — it involves having “a case of nerves.”
Nerves are not only normal, but embracing them can improve your presentation. They send the message that we’re putting ourselves at risk and it’s time to rise to the occasion. Audiences feel this; they sense the energy. And as we start, we tend to come to an equilibrium that lets us take control and move forward.
6. How should I go about organizing my material?
There are a variety of “formats,” but “Problem-Solution” is one of the best because it works well in just about any situation.