Monday, June 14, 2010

Presentations for Dummies: 7 Tips for professional speaking

The original intent of this blog was to discuss my lessons learned along the way in my career and share wisdom where I think I have something to offer. It is in this vein I write up this post and I feel it would be remiss for me not to talk about some recent lessons I've learned on public speaking. Now I love to talk (I think anyone with a blog does really) but I put my hand up to do some presenting because:

     a) I think I'm terrible at public speaking but I want to get better at it.
     b) I think fear or nerves is no reason to not attempt something.

Sure I get a bit nervous, but its the same nerves I used to get before going into a tournament. Jittery. Adrenalin. A bit of excitement. I want to get it on and get it on now (or in this case, over and done with!).

Now, I've done some public speaking stuff before - mostly small forums and groups but this past week saw me do three presentations on the same topic in the same number of days, across different states. So in the spirit of this blog, I had to share what I've learned - the things I did right to the things I did wrong. This post is as much a reminder for myself next time as it is to anyone reading.

1. Drink plenty of water
Now I've done a lot of weight lifting and martial arts training over the years, sometimes 2-3 hours or more of hard training back to back. You'd think I'd be aware of the importance of hydration. Apparently I'd forgotten. :(

Talking for 60min or more gets you dehydrated MIGHTY fast. That one glass of water on the table next to the podium isn't going to cut the mustard. That's there incase you get parched (or need to slow down your talk to buy time). Loading up on the caffeine before hand to wake you up may sound like a great idea to give you some GO power if you're running on vapour, but it is a bad idea if it isn't followed up with at least a two glasses of water for each cup of coffee you consume. If you're presenting during a breakfast slot, start your day with a litre of water before you hit the caffeine. Then follow it up with water. That way you can still have your go juice without stalling.

2. Consider The Logistics
One of the places I presented in was a very, very narrow hall. I was positioned at a podium that had about two feet of clearance from the projector screen and I barely had the room to stand in the one spot - certainly not enough to pace around (I would have had to cut infront or behind the screen). To make matters worse, I was stuck directly under a heating duct where the temperature rose by 10 degrees relative to the rest of the room (I imagine being under a headlight would have a similar impact).

I had never even considered this aspect while presenting. My prior prep focused on timings, content, rehearsals, dry runs, etc. Not this. As a result of this (and  #1), I choked during one of these presentation at least two, perhaps on three occasions. Not due to nerves but I couldn't think! I was dehydrated, hot and my tongue getting tied. This had never happened to me before. I wasn't prepared for it. I got through my content but the feedback afterwards reflected the performance (although the content seemed to be valuable to everyone).

So, the takeaway lessons there - get to your presentation venue early. Assess your speaking area. Ensure you do not have an uncomfortable presentation area, that you have room to walk around, that you have a clicker for moving through slides as well.  Don't be afraid to change the environment to better suit you (as much as you can). If you can, provide feedback to the organisers afterwards what you didn't like about the presentation environment.

3. Preparation
This is something I think I do well (and according to some, I overbake). But of course it is pretty bloody obvious to anyone that you need to prepare. But I don't think there is such a thing as overbaking when it comes to presenting. Know your content - inside and out so you can then justify sweeping statements or otherwise be clear on the exceptions. Be familiar with your timing and delivery of your content.

This time round was the longest presentation I have ever done. Due to specific circumstances relating to my content, I had to produce additional content that wound up with me effectively doubling the number of slides. After cutting this down by 25%, I still had a LOT of content to hammer through. Being thorough with my timing was all that kept it on track.

Takeaway lesson - know the content, rehearse it, rehearse it, rehearse it. On your own or with others. If you don't like it, change it.

4. Content & Flow
For this presentation I produced the content originally for a technical audience. I then had to re-engineer it for a business audience as well and then try to find a middle ground between the two. This is not a good way to prepare a presentation.
As a result of this activity, I had too much content. I also felt it missed the mark for both audiences (but again the feedback here was positive so I have to take that onboard). But during the initial prep, it got to a point I had so much content I had to ask myself "what the hell am I trying to say??".

I literally went back to the drawing board. I put up on a whiteboard all my key points and how I would like to structure them. I then moved slides around, moving some content to my presenter notes and then with despair in my heart, gutting slides that weren't consistent with the messages I was trying to convey. Even then, the final product was much clunkier than other presentations I've done in the past. I didn't like the flow and again, this was reflected in some of the feedback.

To be fair , I would never deliver a presentation in this manner normally. Typically I would START with the message I am trying to convey, distill that message down into several key pointers and build a presentation around those pointers. Next time I will stay true to this and start from scratch.

Key lesson here - start with the message first, less slides doesn't mean you have less to talk about. 

5. Pacing
Closely related to the last two point, I feel I learned a lot on the importance of pacing. My original presentation was around 114 slides with approximately 70min speaking time. That works out to 1 slide every 45 seconds. That works great when some slides are intended to be rapidly flicked through - but what about those slides that aren't?

This is where presenter view becomes critical for note taking, marking in your timings as a reminder as well as dry runs to ensure you're familiarity with the delivery of the content AND the timings.

In the end I got it to a sum total of 80 slides, only 77 of which I had to present. This, with my 'skim through' slides, worked out to roughly 1 minute of talking per slide, which flowed much, much better. I still had too much content in retrospect, but hey, at least the flow was greatly improved.

If you are building your presentations from scratch for one intended purpose and do not have to retrofit it as I did, I suspect you won't have the same problems I did.

Lesson - do your rehearsals. They help identify pacing issues. Also, mind your talking speed. Don't talk too fast!

6. If You're Travelling, Check-In Where You Are Presenting
On the advice of my manager, I actually wound up checking myself in at the various hotels where I was due to present. This was a brilliant idea and I was so grateful for doing this.  I flew to my destinations during the day, arriving at my hotel around dinner time, leaving me plenty of time to eat, rest up and rehearse.

This meant the next morning I didn't have to wake up extra early, book a cab and race to where I was going to present and dodge traffic. I wound up having breakfast with my co-presenter and we had ample time to not just discuss the approach but relax.

If travelling, always stay where you are presenting (if you can).

7. Be Prepared
If you're travelling, fly a day in advance and give yourself time to adjust to any new timezones. Bring business cards. Anticipate the sorts of questions you're going to be asked. Bring your customers. Be able to cite your references (audiences LOVE supplementary reading material). Ensure your content is made available online afterwards (e.g. PDF on a website). Bring your own clicker.

I did all this except the last one. Well, I brought one with me but I didn't test it before hand, it was busted and I couldn't get it to work (fail). I've decided now that they are worth their weight in gold. I will always have one from now on.

Anyway, I hope this helps you all as much as it has helped me. If anyone has any tips of their own, throw them up here. Next time I'll refer back to this post just to remind myself.

- J.


jody said...

good tips jarrod

one very good tip I learned from a PR/media training course I attended was this one:

less dot points, more pictures.

if your presentation is full of words, the audience will read the entire slide immediately and then be bored with whatever you have to say about it.

The best slide is a single image with perhaps a subtitle, which acts as a mnemonic device for the presenter, and brings the focus of the audience on to the presenter for the next minute or so.

Also the B key blanks the screen.

At certain points during the presentation you can blank the screen which brings total audience attention onto your words. You can use this to add dramatic emphasis at key points in the presentation :)

Jarrod said...

I'm trying to get on one of those courses at DiData, but they come pretty infrequently. They also have a Toastmasters in NSW I think but I'm not sure they have one in VIC. These things are gold and I'd like to get involved in one.

To your point however, I tried to do that on this slide pack, taking notes from Haroon Meer's talk at Black Hat '09. My final result is not something I'm that proud of. I've seen some people pull it off - I clearly need practise.

I really like your idea for using the blank screen. I will definitely try that!


- J.