Being able to present your ideas effectively is a skill that's too important to ignore. In fact, 92% of people believe that presentation skills are critical to success at work.
Unluckily for me, I learned this the hard way. When I was in high school, I was doing great academically. This somehow made the school authorities think I would kick ass as a student leader.
But I had this intense fear of facing a group of students and saying even 2 words. Suffice to mention, I bore the brunt of their good intentions, and the result was embarrassing.
Whether you want to excel in college, get a job offer or promotion, get buy-in, raise funds, sell products or motivate your team members, you must know how to improve speaking skills to achieve your goals.
There are two broad steps to wooing your audience with a great company presentation. The first is creating the presentation in a way that it's useful, relevant and entertaining.
And the second step is delivering the material of your presentation effectively. Now, making a compelling presentation is a great topic that deserves a dedicated article or tutorial in itself, but this post is about the second step - the art of presenting.
Though not born with an effortless oratorship, I have been doing a lot of presenting in my career. I wish I could tell you learning how to improve speaking skills is easy, but it's not. I have made a lot of mistakes and learned many lessons.
Every time I do it, I get a little better from last time. I have also realized that most advice written and given on the subject of company presentations is flawed.
Before You Begin
Considering how daunting and frightening presentations are for many of us, it only makes sense to use an approach that makes the process simple and easy and reduces our anxiety.
But soak up any book, course or advice, what we get is the exact opposite:
Hey aspiring speaker, have this posture, wear this smile, make your voice like this, use your hands like this and make the audience laugh.
And while you’re at it, remember to maintain eye contact, avoid stuttering, eliminate filler words, use the full space and visualize your audience in a vulnerable position, like they’re peeing on the street without any clothes on.
My point is, we get a bunch of tricks and techniques which make the whole thing more complicated and lead us to be even more self-conscious.
The more rules and best practices you learn for delivering a great company presentation, then more anxious you are during the presentation, thinking about whether you are doing those things or not.
In fact, if you can just be comfortable and calm and natural, nothing can stop you from learning how to improve speaking skills and giving a kickass presentation. So let's see how in more detail.
Practice Several Times
Finding the time to practice can be difficult for those with tight schedules, but it's essential if you want to deliver a great presentation.
Can you learn to drive a car properly without practicing several times? No chance. In fact, if you’re like me, you can’t learn a new vehicle unless you crash it in the walls a few times.
The same goes for your presentation. Your success at the time of actual presentation isn't just determined by what you say and do then. But also by the practice and rehearsals you have been doing days before it's showtime.
Ideally, you'll want to practice in a room or venue similar to where you will be delivering the actual company presentation. But if that's not possible, any room will do fine.
Also keep an eye on your body movement. If you're someone who moves around a lot, practice staying still at key moments. If you stay at a single position for a long time, practice moving around a bit and making eye contact with people in the audience.
It'd also be great if you practice in front of a friend or colleague, while capturing a video recording of the presentation. You want to be calm, yet enthusiastic, while presenting. Watching yourself speak can help identify how to improve your speaking skills.
Get Inspiration From Others
Watching other presenters (in an appropriate way, of course) can help you identify the elements in their body language, voice and content which really enhance the overall delivery. Depending on your situation, you can also use those ideas in your presentation.
If you're going to give a company presentation at a conference with other speakers scheduled to speak before you, you must take the time to attend some of those presentations.
Not only is this good etiquette that shows respect for your peers, but also helps you get a vibe of the crowd and assess the context.
You can see if the other presentations are more tactical or strategic, and get a feel for the audience. Plus, you can also spin off something said by another speaker in your own presentation.
Arrive Early & Talk To Attendees
Arriving early helps you get more familiar with the space and get comfortable before the presentation. You’ll also get to know where the restrooms are, where you can go and cry your heart out if things didn’t go well.
Plus, there's usually a time lag between the time when you arrive at the venue and the time you start.
For example, some people may have arrived early like you, or the event organizer may be waiting for everyone to join in, or setting up the projector etc may be taking time. You can use this lull time to go around and talk to the people in the audience.
Greeting people and making small talk not only makes you seem more friendly and humble, but also helps you get in the zone and charge up for the company presentation.
Learning more about your listeners and their challenges can also help you add or remove something from your talk, and make it more useful for the audience.
Work On Your Voice
In order to implement any advice on how to improve speaking skills, you don't have to turn into an extra-loud and eloquent orator. You’re there to get your point across, not to make the audience sign up for 3rd world war.
But you want to make sure your volume is enough to be heard by the audience, and the speed at which you speak is convenient to understand.
If you end up getting nervous and taking too fast at certain moments, work on calming yourself down and saying each word clearly.
Slow down when you want to emphasize a word, and take pauses at key moments as if to allow for what you have just said to sync in with the audience.
Also make sure you're keeping yourself properly hydrated. Being anxious or speaking for a long time can result in a dry mouth and interfere with your voice.
Keep drinking water before and during your presentation. It's also a good idea to have a bottle of water at arm's reach throughout your presentation.
Avoid Techniques & Be Who You Are
There are a lot of books and presentation gurus out there who preach things like body language tricks, psychological techniques and other mumbo-jumbo to impress your audience.
Now, I am not saying techniques like smiling more or positive visualization don't work. They surely can, but it's far more important to be your real, normal self during the company presentation.
Think about how comfortable and normal you are when talking about something to a friend. Yet, most people, when they get on the stage to speak, they suddenly turn into Tyler Durden from The Fight Club.
They start pretending to be like someone they are not. They feel like how they naturally behave and speak isn't good enough.
So they become extra eloquent, authoritative and energetic and smiling and all. In short, they start using body language and exhibiting behaviors which are not a part of who they are.
This clearly comes across as fake and overly dramatic. The audience can sense that such a person is trying to deliver a performance instead of being real.
Flaws Are Your Friend
Similar to the point above, people who are the most anxious during a presentation are those who obsessively want to do it right. They want everything to be perfect. They want to be flawless in their delivery, without any mistakes.
But guess what? The very flaws and mistakes that you're trying to prevent are actually necessary for improving your speaking skills. The more you appear like a real human being during your presentation, the better you'll connect with your audience.
If there's a specific behavior or habit that you're doing too much, like touching your nose, crossing your arms or looking at the ceiling a lot, you'll obviously want to practice and work on improving.
But don't get bogged down too much by your quirks and things that are part of your nature.
Nothing is too wrong in a company presentation unless you're repeating it a lot. A gesture becomes annoying and distracting only when it's used over and over again. Be human. Don't be afraid to show your vulnerabilities.
If someone asks you a question which stumps you, admit that you don't have an answer or may need to look into it after the presentation. No matter how knowledgeable someone is, we're all learning and it's okay to not be a know-it-all.
Be A Toastmaster, With Caution
Toastmaster clubs are groups all over the world where local members meet once a week to practice delivering presentations in front of other members, who then share feedback with the presenter for his or her continuous improvement.
However, because most of the people giving you feedback are in the same boat and are not professional public speakers or coaches, you'll be better off taking the feedback with a grain of salt.
In many of these groups, I have seen the tendency in speakers (even those who have won many Toastmaster awards) to put on a performance and not act like a real human, as I discussed in the previous paragraphs.
Another problem I have with Toastmasters is the huge time commitment in exchange for what you're getting a return.
Only 10-20% of your time will be spent practicing speaking in front of an audience, while the remaining will consist of just sitting there and listening to other people speak on random topics and give feedback.
It's still a good idea to join and be regular as it's the only platform where you can consistently practice speaking in front of an audience. The more you present at these meetings, the better you will get.
Engage Your Audience
Given the nature of a company presentation, it can often seem like a one sided conversation that has the potential to put the audience to sleep. You are standing and speaking, while they are supposed to sit and listen.
Sure, sometimes it is the intention of the presenter to put the audience to sleep, so he can get away with something a careful listener could call him out on. Like when he falsified the numbers in a slide or spent thousands of company’s dollars into buying bean bags.
But I am assuming that’s not what you want. Most of us have slept through presentations with great content, only because we weren't engaged enough. But it doesn't have to be that way.
By improving your speaking skills, you can make your audience feel like a part of your presentation. Run polls, ask for a show of hands, use humor and invite opinions and questions throughout your presentation.
Another thing that really makes a difference is your passion for the subject. The more you can talk about things that excite you, the more engaged your audience will be.
Even if you're talking about a boring subject that doesn't interest you, try to find a way to relate the content of your presentation to the things you're passionate about. Even better if you can do it in advance when creating your presentation.
The moment you notice that the audience isn't taking interest, or going into sleep, wake them up with a jolt. Do something different than what you're doing to pull them back in.
However, keep in mind to not get carried away by the jokes. It's okay to occasionally entertain your audience, but you're not doing a stand-up routine.
Feel Fear, But Do It Anyway
If getting in front of people to speak causes anxiety, know that you’re not alone. It’s only natural to feel nervous when you have hundreds of eyes glaring at you.
The trick to overcome fear is to not try to overcome fear. Don't try to make it go away. Don't worry about it. Just accept it, embrace it and do the thing you fear anyway.
Most of the things that you worry about, like the audience sensing that you're shaking or sweating, never even happen. Unless you’re shaking like Shakira, they won’t even notice.
In fact, once you have delivered a presentation in front of a group, ask them about whether they noticed the moments where you think you messed up.
You'd be surprised to see that they didn't. In fact, many will say you handled that part very well. The audience cannot sense your anxiety and what's going on in your head to the same extent as you do.
Getting yourself worked up unnecessarily about your anxiety will only intensify your fear. People succeed at doing things they fear not because the fear goes away. They do things despite the fear, not in the absence of fear.
So, there was my take on delivering an effective presentation. Try these tips to see which ones you are already comfortable with and what needs improvement.
Remember, the most important thing is to feel comfortable while talking to your audience. The more relaxed you are, the better your presentation skills.
Know that the audience are generally on your side. They aren’t thinking of you as critically as you are. They want you to do well. So get on with it.
Did I miss anything? Did you try these tips? Do you have any questions or comments? Share your thoughts below in the comments section.