Whether you’re delivering positive news about earnings or trying to justify your budget for the upcoming year, giving presentations in the workplace can be a stressful experience.
Experienced as well as aspiring leaders are often called on to give presentations, and as responsibilities increase, the ability to communicate ideas and information in a clear and compelling manner takes on greater importance.
Melissa Thompson, the director of talent development for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and who has taught public speaking to students and professionals for a decade, says these are skills that absolutely can be improved over time with the proper approach. “It just takes a lot of practice,” she says.
These six approaches will help you craft and deliver better presentations.
Understand the Purpose of the Talk
When developing your presentation, Thompson says you should take some time to understand who the audience is, what they know and what type of language you should use to connect with them. It’s also vital to focus on the true purpose of your talk: communicating the information your audience needs from you.
“While you’re the one giving it and you’re the one doing all the work, the presentation is not about you,” Thompson says. “It’s about what your audience what your audience needs and wants to hear and learn.”
Once you understand your audience and their needs, take a moment to consider the most important information you want the audience to learn through your presentation, then center your writing efforts around that concept.
Don’t Get Stuck on a Catchy Opener
Thompson says one of the most common mistakes she sees presenters make is getting bogged down on writing an opening statement. “That attention-getter is really hard to come up with,” she says. “Instead, skip down to some type of guiding statement or thesis statement.”
Once you have a clear understanding of your guiding statement and your audience, the next step is to turn to the structure of your talk. Thompson suggests starting with an introduction, a body with three main points and a conclusion.
Starting with a rigid structure “may feel like it’s taking your creative freedom away, but it’s not about taking something away from you,” Thompson says. “It’s about giving the structure to your audience so they can follow and understand.”
Once you have a basic foundation and structure for your talk, you can turn to crafting a catchy opener that will grab your audience’s attention.
Create Your Visuals Last
When preparing a presentation, Thompson says too many professionals reflexively start the process by clicking on the PowerPoint icon.
“Really PowerPoint should be the last thing you touch before you start to practice,” she says. “Because it doesn’t matter how pretty your slides are. If you’re not prepared, they’re not going to save you.”
Concentrate instead on writing an effective talk that flows in a logical manner and allows you to connect with your audience. Only then should you start working on visuals.
Don’t Overuse PowerPoint
When teaching college students how to give presentations, Thompson says she forces them to limit their visuals to three high-resolution images that cover the entire screen and don’t include any text. Workplace presentations may require more slides, but presenters should still be careful not to use them as a crutch, she says. “Really we are the teller of our own story and the visuals are just supporting that story,” she says.
Thompson says audience members are either going to listen to what you’re saying as a speaker or they’re going to read the slides — they likely won’t do both.
“It takes more practice to not have that stuff on the screen, but that’s the whole point of practicing,” she says. “You’re going to be a much more effective communicator, get your point across, make people believe you or buy your product if you’re able to sell it yourself with just a few images behind you.”
Work On Your Nonverbals
When crafting and giving your presentation, Thompson says it’s important to focus as much on your nonverbal communication as on the actual text of your talk. Pacing back and forth, swaying, leaning over the podium and other nervous or distracting behaviors can take away from the message you’re trying to deliver.
Thompson suggests videoing yourself practicing your speech ahead of time and watching the playback with an eye on any nonverbal or unconscious communication that can be improved or eliminated. “There’s nothing I can do that’s as effective as you seeing it for yourself,” she says.
Internalize, Don’t Memorize
Thompson says that once she’s finished crafting a presentation, she reads through the text several times, then says the entire speech aloud multiple times. For high-stakes presentations, she recommends saying it aloud to another person if possible, or recording yourself giving the talk and reviewing the audio or video to improve your delivery.
“Read through it, then read it out loud, then start to internalize it — not memorize it,” she says. “When you memorize something and you get off, it can throw you off completely.” But if you internalize the material and know it inside and out, you can use different language to describe the same concepts.
“But the essence of what you’re trying to say, the point you’re trying to get across, the argument you’re trying to make is still there,” she says. “That’s where practicing over and over and internalizing the information can help.”
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