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This guest post is generously written by Susan Taylor of Imagine Productions.
Susan Taylor is the co-founder of Imagine Productions, a digital communication company in Portland, Oregon. After a long career in public television and radio in front of and behind the microphone, and as an administrator of nonprofits, she joined forces with Lucia DeLisa, an award-winning radio producer and editor, to help companies tell their stories in video and interactive formats. They have developed presentations, e-learning courses and videos for a number of Oregon companies including Freightliner, Adidas and Parr Lumber.
It has been sufficiently drilled into our heads that no presentation can be given without practice. But we suffer from sufficient fear-of-failure to motivate us to practice. But, how do you practice? There is practice and there is practice. What is effective practicing and what exactly should you practice in order to be properly prepared to deliver a brilliant presentation?
The very act of practicing a presentation can present some discomfort because, first of all, you have to talk to yourself, or rather listen to yourself. This up-close encounter with your own voice creates a moment of self-awareness that can be quite unsettling. And second, practice will bring you face-to-face with some of the real anxiety of speaking before an audience. But practice you must.
How do you practice? By mumbling under your breath an equivalent of what you might say? Or by putting in order the scraps of paper that contain your notes? Or perhaps you think that you can practice by thinking about how you might practice.
None of this, plain and simple, is practice.
Practice is actually giving your presentation: standing up, playing your slide deck on your computer transitions and all, looking out at where your audience will be, and speaking the words you wish to use in your speech.
You and your words are the golden heart of your presentation. The slides, while you’ve worked hard on them, are supporting players. So, you need to find and practice those words. And prepare yourself to deliver them effectively. Practice them. Not once. Not twice. Of course, the number of times you practice is dependent upon a number of factors: your general comfort level in front of an audience; how many times you’ve previously spoken on the topic or used these slides; how critical is the presentation is to your future. A presentation before a large and savvy audience, a keynote address, a pitch to a funder, a TED talk, all demand that you practice long and hard. It is said that Steve Jobs of Apple practiced for three days before one of his keynote speeches – and he was a excellent and experienced speaker and knew both his audience and the topic inside and out.
Even if you’ve given your presentation several times before, it is deadly to assume that you can come to it cold and succeed. Don’t let a feeling of expertise or complacency keep you from practicing. Even a presentation before a smallish audience requires that you give your talk a run through. After all you are representing your company, your brand or yourself and don’t need to have even one person in that audience tell others that you weren’t prepared or seemed ill at ease. So do the work.
It’s tough to find the time to practice, but better before than during. No one wants to look like unprepared, or hear you blaming subordinates for your mistakes. If you screw up, you’re the one who looks bad, even worse if you try to pass the buck. It’s you are naked in front of your audience. So don’t mess around with your reputation. Practice.
The first few dry run throughs hardly qualify as practice. But this is how you get started. You literally stand up with your notes or your presenter screen in front of you and begin from the beginning and work your way through to the end. Now is the time to make notes on how your transitions work, where you need to pause to set up a video, or lead your audience to try something out. But mostly now you watch for places that seem weak or overly long, where a slide is misplaced or there is a graphic that doesn’t really work, or an abrupt transition from topic to topic. Don’t worry if these rehearsals are very rough – just be thankful this wasn’t given in front of an audience. Now go back and clean up the things that you noticed were out of whack. Be sure that you are completely comfortable your decisions.
By the third or fourth run through you are ready to start really dealing with the content. If you are running long or short of your allotted time you will again need to make adjustments. And while you are at it, check to see if there are sections of your presentation that you can eliminate if you are inundated with questions or run afoul of technology and have to shorten your speech. Understand how to set your screen to black when a question is asked. How to back up a slide or two. How to jump to another slide out of sequence. You must be the master of your contents.
And now finally, you can actually begin to practice not only what you say, but how you say it. This process can be even more unsettling than standing up to listen to your own voice as you stumble through your first several dry runs. Because now you’ve got to listen and watch yourself. Yikes.
These next 3 practice ideas will get you on the road to excellent presentations
1. Stand in front of a mirror and speak. This can be freaky. There you are, no doubt looking uncomfortable, feeling silly. But force yourself to carry on. Watch for any odd facial expressions or body twitches or hitches. If you jingle the coins in your pocket, you will drive you audience nuts after a while. If you fuss with your hair, your audience will notice and be distracted. If these are ingrained behaviors, it will take a while to stop doing them. Watch your posture, too. As your mother told you, stand up straight. Keep your body open to the audience, not in a well-defended ball with your arms crossed over your chest. If you want to move around that’s fine, but pacing like a caged lion isn’t and will make it hard for your audience to look at you and the slides. Remember that your slides will mostly likely be behind you — make certain that you set your computer so that you can see what your audience sees without having to turn your back on them. You’d never, ever turn your back to your audience to read your slides, would you?
Listen for um, ahs, and catch phrases that you toss in when the going gets tough or nerves get the best of you – such as okay or like or you know. These physical and verbal tics are like tells in poker: an audience can read your anxiety in them. Quiet them down. Everyone is going to say “um”, especially in the opening moments of a presentation when you are at your most nervous. But practicing in a state of awareness will definitely help to lessen your use of them.
In this phase of your practice, don’t stop if something goes wrong. Try to correct the situation on the fly, and if you can’t, when you are finished make a plan for what you’ll do to get through such moments without a break down. You don’t want to involve your audience in your panic. So make a plan. Also, remember that you don’t need to be perfect. That’s an enormous burden. Just be real, authentic, and human. In short, as Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken”
2. A second practice technique is to record yourself on video or audio. This maybe painful but it will be incredibly instructive. You will learn more watching the playback of a video recording than you will in hours of practicing in a mirror. What you can overlook in the mirror becomes crystal clear on video. Run the tape a few times and things will begin to pop out at you.
3. The ultimate and very best way to practice is before a listener. Explain your expectations to your listener and pick him or her with care. If you can find an experienced speaker to help, great. Explain that you don’t want to be ripped to shreds. The listener’s job is to help with delivery and to make a note of your golden moments. His job is to help improve what works and to point out, kindly, what doesn’t.
The first thing your listener will likely notice is the speed of your delivery. Most people have a tendency to speak too fast when they present – a function of both fear, adrenalin and passion for the topic. For heaven’s sake don’t lose your passion, but use it to bring life and joy, not breakneck speed, to your talk. Remember most of your audience wants to learn from you, some are taking physical notes, others are taking mental notes. They are not going to be able to keep up with you if you rattle on while they are digesting and thinking about the information you’ve given them. Your audience is not going to resent it if you pause before moving to a new topic or during a complex explanation. A good listener will be able to tell you if they can keep up with you and if they ask that you slow down, do it. And remember, a moment of silence never hurt anyone.
But the most important thing that a listener can do for you is to catch your golden words. A good listener will jot down the great phrases or adjectives that you used that really made your message sing. A pause in the right place; a special word, a movement, a smile. This is stuff you need to know. Put this information in your presenter notes — you do use presenter notes don’t you? More on this failsafe device next time.
I’ll be leading a webinar on March 20th at 10am PT, 1pm ET on the fine art of preparing a presentation. Please join me to learn more about this critical phase of Advanced Rock Star Presentations:Prepare and Deliver. I’ll cover these ideas in greater depth and offer many suggestions and tactics for improving your confidence as a presenter. A bonus bundle will help you structure your practices and get moving from being a good presenter to becoming a rock star presenter.
Susan Taylor is a founding partner of Imagine Productions, a digital communication company in Portland, Oregon. After a long career in public television and radio in front of and behind the mic, she joined forces with Lucia DeLisa, an award-winning radio producer, to create a company to help companies tell their stories in video and interactive formats. Imagine was among the first to experiment with digital video to Portland and have continued to pioneer the use of new media. They have developed presentations, e-elearning courses and videos for a number of Oregon companies including Freightliner, Adidas, Parr Lumber, Educational Productions and ITI.
This 90-minute webinar will show you how to give a successful presentation and bring joy to yourself and your organization. You’ll learn techniques to help you prepare properly, skills to help you speak with self-assurance and methods to enable you to fully share your passion with your audience. Whether you’re a newbie or a pro there will be information here that you can put to use immediately to make you more effective, more confident and put you on the road to becoming a Rock Star Presenter. Buy now