How to Properly Kill Your Next Presentation
The 4 phases of a presentation and how to deliver your best one so far
Disclaimer: you don’t have to be a singer (or a rockstar) to follow these tips.
In the summer of two years ago, I gave one of the shittiest design presentations I could ever give.
I got nervous, I didn’t know what to say, I hated it, and I thought I was about to die. I understand that’s a bit of a stretch, but if I really knew what dying feels like, that was it. I’m not at all surprised that public speaking is something people fear more than death.
A little bit of context for you:
This was my first “real” presentation. I joined the company just a couple of months prior and up until then, coming from a freelance background, I had only presented my work to one or two people max. So there was no speaking in front of 30 people involved in doing that. Ever. Also, English is not my first language, so I’ve also always preferred written communication over speaking and presenting.
Luckily, I didn’t have to present anything at this time, my teammate would take care of it, or so I thought. The CEO was in the room, simply taking notes. However, at one point he asked my colleague to go through the pages that our team had built, and explain the thinking behind some design choices.
My colleague turned to me (the designer), smiled and said: “Rick, do you want to do it?”
Of course, that was the last thing I wanted to hear. A big “f**k no!” resounded in my head. So I looked at him, smiled and said: “Of course!”
As I stood up, my heart was racing, there were now about 30 people looking at me, half of which I didn’t have the chance to meet yet. I didn’t know where to start to explain my rationale, I didn’t prepare for this, and I sure didn’t expect a callout! So my presentation went like this:
I looked away from the CEO, precisely at the big screen in the room, and proceeded to explain every insignificant design detail of the homepage. After that, I thought it would be a good idea to do exactly the same thing for the five remaining pages of the website. Not great.
I’d lost the CEO way before I even realised. Once I finished, he thanked me while clearly holding a yawn, and I shuffled back to my seat in embarrassment.
After that experience, I realised I needed to step my game up and learn from my mistakes. Not only I needed to give my presentation a structure, but I also needed to think of better ways to convey my message too.
Skill #2 of The 10 Skills to Learn to Shine in the Future is social intelligence, and since a big part of it is communication, I thought I’d dive deeper into the phases that are involved in the presentation process and how to best approach them. This is how to properly kill your next presentation:
Phase 1: The preparation
You should always aim to prepare for your presentation if you really want to knock it out of the park. Most things come better with preparation and practice, and the more you do both, the better you’ll get. It’s that simple.
But that doesn’t mean you should memorise your presentation or simply report your findings. Here a few things that can make everything more interesting:
Understand your story
Really, even if you think that your research findings are bound to turn your presentation into a snoozefest, you’ll have to find what makes this interesting and the reason why that is.
This is about focusing on how to make our own story interesting enough for those that are present. If people are invested in what you’re saying, you can guide them through understanding the bigger picture, rather than focusing purely on what is on your slides.
Matt Dicks, author of the book Storyworthy, said
“Storytelling is not theatre. It is not poetry. It should be a slightly more crafted version of the story you would tell your buddies over beers.”
Even in business, this is a very relevant way to help you craft a story. When you manage to put your ideas out, instead of simply reporting your findings, people will be more interested and invested in what you have to say.
Your presentation should always come with a takeaway, some kind of result or change that you learned along the way, and mastering storytelling will be the best way to do that.
Believe it or not, the people attending your presentation will be looking for an excuse to be interested in what you’re saying. You just have to give them a good ‘why’.
Rely on your memory
I believe it’s always good to have a plan, knowing exactly what you’re going to tackle in your presentation. But memorising and reading off a screen are two easy ways to screw your work.
There is a difference between knowing what you’re talking about, and memorising your whole presentation from start to finish. People can tell when you’re “reciting”, and they definitely don’t need you to do the reading for them.
I think it’s fine to have notes to read from when you’re at the beginner level, but there is an even more powerful thing than notes: your memory.
Using your memory will help you to engrain the knowledge in your brain and become an even better presenter.
If you’re worried about forgetting everything because of your nervousness, learn the main points of your talk by using a memory technique like the memory palace. This will help you to not get lost and easily find your way back, instead of panicking your way through your notes.
Jim Kwik, learning expert and keynote speaker, explains the memory palace technique in this clip:
Phase 2: Right before you speak
It’s about to go down. This is when your confidence in your preparation might get a little shaken. Because, between us, when someone says they don’t get nervous before a presentation is either lying or a straight psychopath.
Reality is that you should expect to get nervous and a little (sometimes a lot) anxious, it’s the use you make of it that makes all the difference. This simple tip should help you with that:
Make friends with anxiety
Easier said than done, right? Your heart rate goes up, your mouth gets dry, your breathing gets a little shallower and heavier, and you experience some trembling too.
Does any of this sound familiar to you?
This is your body’s mechanism to protect you from danger — also known as fight or flight response — and it’s telling you to get the f**k out of that situation.
Here’s the thing: there’s no way in hell that you will shut anxiety down by fearing it or trying to fight it with all your might. You’re dealing with an adrenaline response, thinking it away won’t change your situation in the slightest.
Good news is, there’s no real danger. And you still have the power to calm your body down to use that adrenaline to your advantage.
Paulo Coelho, renowned lyricist and novelist, said about anxiety:
“Anxiety was born in the very same moment as mankind. And since we will never be able to master it, we will have to learn to live with it — just as we have learned to live with storms.”
To make friends with anxiety, you need to recognise that it’s something that shows up at certain times and that there are steps you can take to reverse it.
There is practice called the 2:1 breathing ratio (also called the 2x breathing), and according to a recent study, it’s a great technique for calming your nervous system down. It consists of inhaling for a number of seconds (usually two) and doubling the time for the exhale. Here’s how to do it:
1: Sit down or stand up, and inhale through your nose for 2 seconds.
2: Exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds.
3: Do it for at least 1 minute (4 or 5 is optimal).
4: Increase the number of seconds to 3–4–5 for each one-minute cycle.
These slow, deep breaths trigger a relaxation response, slow your heart rate, and make you feel more grounded. The cool thing about this is that you could do it at your desk if you wanted to.
Phase 3: The presentation
At this stage, you’ll have to face your fear. But what if you face it through your positive emotions instead of being a victim of it?
Just like the moments that precede the presentation, the use you make of anxiety determines your mental state, and your mental state determines how well you’ll do. In this case, your way to face fear is quite literal in that it has to do with your body language. Here’s how you can change that:
Address your audience
Picture some of the best communicators of the modern era: Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams or Martin Luther King, Jr. just to mention a few. Do they look aloof or stuck up in your picture?
Now think about how much more comfortable you are when you speak to a friend or a colleague. You are most likely to look at them in the eyes when you interact with them, correct?
In my shitty presentation, I did neither. I looked away from people and recited what I saw on screen. There was no interaction or passion in what I was saying.
Interacting with people is the base of what we’re trying to do with presentations or public speaking. Communication is essential and connecting with your audience is too.
Christopher Voss, CEO and former FBI hostage negotiator says:
“Body language and tone of voice — not words — are our most powerful assessment tools.”
When you address your body language, look at people in the eyes, and speak directly to them, two things happen:
- You stop talking to yourself and start talking to others (thus not feeding your self-doubt).
- You gauge people’s reactions and understand if what you’re saying works or not (so that you can get instant feedback).
Speaking to others with intention allows you to read the room and adjust your aim a little bit. If you look away from people, you won’t know what is going on and you will get even more fearful.
So choose one or two people in the room, best if you know them to be positive and smiling, and talk to them as if it’s just you having that conversation.
These students from Stanford Graduate School of Business explain body language in a great way:
Phase 4: After you speak
Sometimes, after your presentation, it’s easy to fall into the trap of judging yourself too harshly. We all have a tendency to see what went wrong instead of what went well.
My take on this, being a positive thinker myself, is to only look at the negative if I have a will to learn from it. If I don’t, I won’t allow myself to waste my time and energy on it. Whatever your reaction, there is one approach that will keep you from beating yourself up:
Try to get better a little bit every time
If you asked Tony Robbins what the secret to happiness was, he’d say that it would be enclosed in just one word: progress. And the first step to take is that “you must keep growing”.
Trying to get better at what you do a little bit at a time should be your mission for everything you do.
By looking at the interactions, the feelings you’ve had throughout the whole experience, from preparation through to presentation, you’ll always have a chance to learn from your mistakes.
Nelson Mandela was a huge promoter of this type of thinking, he said:
“I never lose. I either win or I learn.”
Adopt the win or learn mentality and you’ll never see failure from the same point of view again. Just try to make your next presentation a little bit better than the last one.
With a little bit of research on the subject, and a will to improve myself, I was able to take the few points I needed to address and improve my presentation skills.
Does that mean that I am great at presenting today? Absolutely not. Am I better than I was two years ago? Of course I am!
Learn from your experiences, sharpen your skills, and next time you’re about to give a presentation, try to go through these tips and see how many you can apply.
Remember: it’s all about the little improvements, you just need to start with simple steps and keep practising!
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