It has always struck me as strange, at the conferences I've attended, that so many of the presenters are so bad at it, even when they're visibly not shy people. They ramble, they get confused, they speak in the most soporific, soothing monotone that puts people directly to sleep.
It baffled me for a long time because starting in my freshman year of undergrad I was rigorously trained in presentation technique. At least twice a year I had to mock-interview and present my portfolio, from my first year of undergrad up through my third year of grad school (when I also had to present and defend my graduate thesis). I had to present in most classes, because as theatre professionals we'd be expected to talk a lot about process to our teammates. I was competing, in a sort of nobody-really-wins way, with actors and dancers, people who are very comfortable in front of others, so I had to hit at least a certain level of competence.
I'm not a happy person when you put me in front of a crowd. I hate presenting and will do almost anything to avoid it. But I am very good at it, because I had it more or less beaten into me.
And I know how much easier it is on the psyche to give a good presentation than to get up onstage and promptly start dying.
So I thought I would write about some techniques that have helped me become, if not a dynamic presenter, at least a competent one, because most of the books and articles I've read on this subject suck. Protip: if you ever read an article whose title ends "For Introverts" you can assume that a majority of the advice will boil down to "don't be an introvert". Presentation advice in particular usually begins and ends with "Do it until you're comfortable with it".
The hell with those assholes. I will never be comfortable presenting. So this is not for people who are inexperienced. It is for people who are terrified. Although it's okay if you're terrified and inexperienced.
(Most of my how-to articles start with "Books about this suck". I should look into whether I have an attitude problem or whether everyone else is just more willing to lie.)
Written by an inveterate introvert
The ideal presenter offers you a couple of things: interesting subject matter, a steady, comprehensible stream of information, and visible investment.
The very first step is to assume your subject matter is interesting, so we'll ignore that part. Take it as read. If you can't take it as read that what you're talking about is interesting, you need to do one of two things: find something you are interested in to talk about, or find more interesting things to say about what you're currently presenting on. Almost anything is interesting if you dig deep enough or have enough trivia amassed. Or even if you sell it well, but selling it's a lot easier if you're interested in it.
Steady, Comprehensible Information
Steady, comprehensible information doesn't mean constant or dense information. It means that you're offering a stream of knowledge to your listeners that they can follow without zoning out or getting confused. To do this, you need to know what you're saying and make sure you're not moving too fast or too slow and -- this is the kicker -- you're not contradicting yourself or confusing your listeners.
Most people, when they present, will be presenting with a "deck" -- a slideshow or powerpoint show. If you're not presenting with a deck that's visible to the audience, you should still have a series of notecards that look like a deck (and we'll talk about what an ideal deck looks like in a second). There are some cases this isn't possible, but those are minority, and you'll just have to get on with a mental bullet point list as best you can.
This is a radical concept and nobody is teaching it:
Your deck is not for your listeners. Screw them. Your deck is there for you.
Your deck is there to remind you what to talk about. The headings and bullet points are there to tell you where you're going. Even charts, graphs, and other visual images are there to give you something to point at as you talk or remind you what to talk about. You should never have more than two sentences in a row on a single subject in your deck, unless you're offering a quote, in which case it still shouldn't be more than three sentences long. Your deck isn't for you to read long paragraphs from, and it certainly isn't for your audience to read from, because then they get bored.
What should happen in an ideal presentation is that you bring up a heading in your deck, talk a little bit about what you'll be talking about, and then use the bulletpoints to cue you about what subject comes next. The ideal place for you to stand is off to the side of your presentation screen, so that you can turn to see when the bullet point comes up, but you should never be reading text off your deck and you should spend most of your time facing your listeners. Once that bullet point comes up, you can start moving -- pacing across the stage, spreading your arms to emphasize points, making gestures. We'll talk more about physicality later, so don't worry if the very idea of leaving a podium terrifies you. Just keep this in mind: don't read off your deck. Read the bullet point, and start talking.
This leads to the second important aspect of presenting: know your material.
How To Know Your Stuff
You don't have to memorize a speech. You don't even have to memorize your deck, though you should be familiar with it. Memorisation is way too stressful. What should happen when the bullet point comes up is that you see it, you know what it means, and you start talking extempore about the bullet point. You have to know your information to do this, of course, but if you're engaged in the topic you should be able to talk about it without resorting to pre-memorized speeches. That's what your deck is for.
You have to be familiar with your information, comfortable with it and in command of it. You have to know what you're talking about so that you can riff off your bullet points. If you're not comfortable with it, you can't generally engage your listeners.
So, know your stuff. In the course of building your presentation you should have become very familiar with the information, because building a presentation involves breaking your information down into bite-sized pieces that are organised in a sensible fashion. If you still don't feel like you know what you're doing, however, there are a couple of things you can do.
Talk about it constantly. Not even necessarily in physical space: blog about it, email friends about it, ask them to ask you questions. One of the most helpful things I did when preparing to defend my thesis on masked performance was to make a post saying "Ask me anything about masks". Not only did it reassure me that I knew the answers, but it let me know where my weak points were. And because it was the internet I didn't have to worry about response delays or anyone seeing me fidget as I talked.
If you can talk about it in physical space, you should. Find people you trust, tell them what you need, and have them listen to you or ask you questions. Talk about your subject matter in a place where you feel safe and comfortable, and you'll realise that you know it well enough to talk about it in a place where you don't feel comfortable. Make sure that whenever you answer a question, you try to categorise it under a heading in your deck -- figure out where it would go in your presentation. You don't have to make a mental note; just the act of figuring it out will reinforce your memory.
Often, repeating this process leads you into developing catchphrases. If you talk about the same stuff often enough, you get a patter down. I don't think rehearsing a presentation really does all that much good, but informal conversations are rehearsals where you're not stressed about trying to remember What Comes Next.
As an introvert, social engagement -- public speaking, networking, or just plain going out somwhere new -- is a lot about fear. Fear is paralysing, and it prevents people from being able to move forward. But if you are a shy person or have social anxiety, that's not actually your fault and there's a limited amount you can do about it, so don't let anyone tell you that you should be able to just get over it. Getting over it takes work, a lot of work, and isn't always possible.
One of the best tools is prepwork. I've talked about the best way to prepare to present; ideally you have time to do all the things I've talked about to get comfortable with the information. If you have genuinely been given limited time, or if your listeners don't know that you've had time and not used it as best you can, screw professionalism. What you do is you get up and say, "I'm going to be speaking to you today about this topic. Unfortunately my prep time has been limited, so this might get a little rough. I'd love to get feedback afterwards about any issues you may have encountered."
This does two things immediately: it makes the audience more sympathetic, less likely to stare or eyeroll or give up. It also creates a rapport between you and them, a sense that you guys are in this together, and that hopefully allows you to feel more at ease.
Your audience wants to like you. Unless you're making a presentation about how great the Red Sox are in a Yankees bar, you're generally not facing an actively hostile audience. I say this mainly to make the point that nobody is checking their Presentation Etiquette Handbook to see if you lose points for being honest, so you don't have to be afraid to be honest. Honesty is refreshing, and should happen in presentations way more often than it does.
So the ideal presentation begins with a lot of prepwork, and means that even if you're not comfortable onstage, you're comfortable talking about your subject. This is always about the information, not about the listeners; the more you can focus on your information, the easier it will be to give a dynamic presentation even when you're frightened.
Own Your Fear
Owning fear doesn't mean conquering it. If you're afraid to present, talk about it; complain, make dramatic gestures, spend the last few days or hours before your presentation being constantly terrified, constantly upset. One time before an interview I literally posted ten thousand fucks on my blog.
The reason to do this is that eventually even you will get tired of the drama. You'll still be afraid, but being afraid will be so boring that in those last few minutes before you go up, you'll have internalised it enough that it won't affect you once you're in front of your listeners.
Conclusion (Part the First)
I've talked a little bit about how to work with your deck already: get up, talk about what you're going to talk about, and then let bullet points, images, charts, graphs, or whatever guide you. And honestly, if you're comfortable with your deck and your subject, that's all you need. If you're engaged, your listeners will be engaged, and if you know what you're talking about you'll be able to provide a smooth, flowing stream of information. It sometimes takes practice, of course, but remember that you're not practicing in order to feel at ease onstage; that may never happen, and trying for it may do nothing more than frustrate and upset you.
You're practicing in order to strengthen your coping mechanisms for getting around the sheer terror of having to talk to a roomful of strangers.
So from here on out, we're talking about advanced stuff: ways to polish your presentations, simple things to remember to do or not do, and tips for people who have achieved enough fake-confidence onstage that they can level up.
Tips For Advanced Students
If you don't present very often or if your anxiety level is so high you can't deal with trying to alter your language or physicality, don't read this. Seriously. You don't need the angst. These are tips to remove some of the awkwardness of performance, but trying to alter language is stressful, and for a lot of people so is moving around, so don't worry about this yet if you don't think you can. I'm not going to think less of you.
Never repeat anything. If you hear yourself starting to repeat or restate a concept, finish it quickly and move on as fast as you can. Explaining a concept is one thing; repeating it just bores people. Identify times when you're most likely to repeat, and kill them.
Don't use placeholders. Placeholders are words we use to either confirm that we've completed a statement or give us time to think, like "um" and "Okay?" and "Anyway". Don't use them. Kill them from your vocabulary. Trust that your audience will understand and will be more appreciative than they would be if you started saying "anyway" every few sentences. If you're truly comfortable with your information, this shouldn't be too much of an issue, but the discomfort of being onstage can bring it back. If you hear yourself saying them during a presentation, try not to say them again.
Vary your vocal register. I picked this up working on a show where American students were being trained by a vocal coach to speak in English dialect; this essay isn't intended primarily for Americans, but it illustrates a point so I'm going to talk about it anyway. People from the US have a reputation for being very outwardly expressive, but if you actually listen to a statesider talking, and then listen to someone from Britain talking, you can hear that the British vary their vocal register much, much more often (it's even more evident with Australians). Statesiders are more likely to talk close to monotone -- they vary volume more. British voices -- I suspect European voices in general -- rise and fall in register more. I don't know why this is; the dialect coach gave the best suggestion I've heard, which is "The puritans left England. They came here."
Rising and falling register is interesting. If you can find ways to vary your register -- deepening your voice for serious topics, raising it in register but not volume for emphasis -- you can keep your listeners more engaged.
Keep high energy. This is not necessarily possible, and I get that, but one of the best things you can do is not give a fuck about your audience's opinion of you once you're on stage. Be enthusiastic, move around. The idea is to pretend that nobody's ever going to see you again after you present. Even if you're presenting to friends, the odds that they will remember you dying or fucking up are very low. But I know that this is a mindset it's not always easy to get into, so don't worry if you can't.
Don't elbow act. This is really common, and so annoying I cannot tell you. Elbow acting is where you move only with your forearms. You lift your arm, gesture from the elbow with the upper arm tucked against the body, and then let your hand fall. Never do this. If you're going to be physical, commit to it all the way. Don't let your elbows touch your body. Get the whole arm into it.
Pace. Moving back and forth across the stage gives people something to watch, and it gives you the chance to emphasise important points by stopping. If you're walking, and suddenly you stop, people know to pay attention. A side effect of moving while talking is that your brain has to pay attention to where you're going, and thus pays less attention to your fight-or-flight urges.
Smile. Like moving, smiling is hard to remember to do and distracts you from your nerves. It engages the audience because you look like you love what you're doing. You don't have to smile constantly, but it's hard enough to remember to do this that you probably won't anyway.
Jazz hands. Ironic jazz hands are awesome, but should never be used more than once in a presentation. I like to jazz-hands the conclusion, because people know you're as excited as they are to be talking about a) what all this means and b) the end of your presentation.
React back. If you say something and the audience reacts, react back. It's okay to do that, and it keeps the connection strong. If you say something and the audience laughs, grin and respond. If you get murmuring or gasps, and sometimes that will happen, take it seriously; react like you would react to a person. Acknowlege them, agree with them, move on.
Screw gimmicks. Lots of books and articles will tell you that opening a gimmick -- a joke, something unusual, something surprising -- can help warm the audience up. This is a brutal lie. Most audiences don't want to step outside their comfort zone, and if you're already uncomfortable, why take the risk? Get up, do you thing, go home and have a drink. I recently experienced a presentation where the presenter read us a children's book before she began. The universal reaction to this was What the actual hell? It wasted her time and ours and did nothing to make us respect her as an academic. You don't need to tell a joke, pull a stunt, or get our attention. You're onstage. You already have it.
Relatedly, don't talk about yourself. Don't tell stories as a lead-in to your subject matter unless they are really, really funny. You just come off as someone who is oversharing. There are points when it's good to talk about yourself because it creates a relationship, but they should be very few and very brief. You can say "I had a really hard time finding this information, because there aren't many sources for it" but only if you're going to be talking about why there aren't many sources and what information could still be uncovered. You can give an opinion, such as "I don't agree with this", but only if you're about to present some reasons you don't agree. Long personal anecdotes have zero place in presentations even when they're relevant.
Don't ask the audience. Don't make the audience respond to you unless they are responding spontaneously. It never goes well and all it will do is make you feel worse. (Remember, this is not advice for people who are okay presenting; people who love to present can get an audience to respond or blow it off if they don't. For those of us who need every shred of dignity and courage we possess, it's asking for trouble.)
Don't go over time. Everyone will think you're rude. But you don't have to freak out about going over time if you do it right.
Making sure your presentation is appropriate in length is important, but if you're worried, you can do a few simple things. The first is to set a timer on a watch or phone or laptop that will go off when you have about two minutes left. That will let you know whether you have time to finish, or whether you need to jump to your conclusion; you can spend the entirety of your presentation not worrying about this if you know you have an alarm.
It also helps to build some natural stopping-places into the second half of your deck -- places where you can say, okay, we're running over time so let's jump to the conclusion.
The most helpful thing is to make a short presentation. People would much rather hear a short presentation with a Q&A than a presentation that goes over. In school you're trained to give "A seven minute presentation" or a ten minute one or whatever; ditch that bullshit as soon as possible and make your presentation the length you're comfortable with, then open up the floor for questions or even let the person following you start early.
This is all a lot to remember, and there's no reason you should freak out trying to do everything I've said here. For one thing, it'll probably give you some kind of seizure.
The point, the ultimate crux of all of this, is that there's basically nothing you can do to stop being afraid. This isn't about not being afraid; I can talk for hours about how the audience is made up of people just like you and nobody's going to judge you for existing and you will probably never see these people again. All that is irrelevant, because fear is irrational. If fear were rational, we'd be way less afraid of public speaking and way more nervous every time we got in a car.
All of this is about giving a good presentation while afraid -- knowing the formulas, knowing the social boundaries, and understanding what makes a good presentation. In the end, as with most things in modern life, it's about the importance of information, and how that information is expressed.
And now, some words from the experts:
How not to Powerpoint
Chicken Chicken Chicken