becoming a better presenter

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Jerry Seinfeld once said, “Speaking in front of a crowd is the number one fear of the average person. Number two is death. This means to the average person, if you’re at a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than the one doing the eulogy.”

Having worked in Advertising and Public Relations for 34 years, I have spent countless hours training CEOs how to speak in front of an audience. What surprises me is how so little attention seems to be given on training individuals how to become better presenters. Presenting is a huge part of business. And it’s not just in front of large crowds; most presentations are in front of 2-10 people, who can see you up close and personal.

I’ve seen very average ideas presented and selected because the presenters knocked the ball right out of the park. I’ve also seen genuinely good ideas left for dead because the presenters butchered the delivery. Being able to clearly convey information is important. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or a fresh intern, everyone can improve.

Practice. Practice. Practice.

I’ve found no substitute. Know exactly what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. If the nature of your presentation is less rote, be familiar enough with your material that you can answer anything. Ideally though, you should be able to give your presentation in your sleep—literally.

A USA Olympic coach used to tell his gymnasts that when they went to bed, they needed to imagine themselves doing their routines. Visualization is the first step to realization. In the heat of the moment, things can and will change. If you suddenly get stage fright, it helps to know you can go on autopilot. If nothing else, practicing will restore confidence and trigger your mind, like muscle memory. So practice, practice, practice.

Talk. Don’t Speak.

An audience member interacts with a single individual. It’s a one-to-one relationship. There may be other people in the room, but you are only engaging with one person: the presenter. As a speaker, you need to do the same. Speak as if you are only speaking to an individual—because in reality, you are. A crowd is nothing more than a group of individuals. Speak to just one of them. It doesn’t really matter which one, but pick one and talk to them as if you are having a conversation. (But look at everyone.)

Use humor.

Few things put a presenter more at ease than seeing a chuckle from a crowd. I’m not saying do a comedy bit, but if you can think of a something clever or funny that’s relevant to your material, by all means share it. Tell a quick story—but KEEP IT RELEVANT. Share it toward the beginning of your presentation, if possible. There is power in laughter. It breaks down walls both for you and for them. If the audience likes you, they will naturally be more receptive to say. They’ll also be more forgiving if you happen to stumble up a bit later in the presentation. Never underestimate the power of laughter.

Be whoever you want.

I hired a young man a little over a year ago who had an associate’s degree in theatrical arts. What I found unusual was he was quiet, reserved and never the center of attention. When I asked him how he ever got onto a stage and performed, he told me he got into acting because he was such an introvert.

In high school, he gave a speech and fainted at the end of it. He said he was so embarrassed he went home determined that was never going to happen again. He started taking acting classes and realized that on a stage, he could pretend to be someone he wasn’t. He told me, “There’s a reason the drama symbol is a couple of masks. No one, even when they are themselves, are themselves, on a stage. Acting is a means of hiding. Public speaking is terrifying, not because you’re speaking, but because you are exposing. You are asking to be judged. So why be yourself?”

You may just be a lonely analyst, giving numbers to a board of directors. Give it to them, like you’re Steve Jobs introducing magic to the world.

By tim brown
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