HAVE YOU EVER WALKED into a presentation to see a sea of uninspired faces gazing back at you? The Practice Manager is looking repeatedly at her watch, one GP has already rushed in and out of the door twice, and everyone else is staring longingly at the sandwiches – knowing that they will have to sit through your presentation before they are given a few precious minutes to eat?
Faced with the adversities of diverse audiences and strict time limits, you may feel uncertain or anxious before you start your presentation. So it is important that you send out the right signals when you begin, in order to create a friendly environment that allows you to build rapport with your audience.
Remember: You are your best audio and visual aid. Your audience pick up signals from how you present yourself, your voice and your body language. You need to project yourself in a positive way in order to influence them. Although some people are naturally good communicators, everyone can learn communication skills and use them to their advantage.
Command with your voice
Most people rarely use the voice to its full potential as a means of communication. When they start to make more use of the voice, they are surprised at how empowering this feels in helping them to influence and engage with their audience.
The starting point for anyone working on their voice is to create a relaxed physical state, since any tension in the body inhibits vocal power. Before starting your presentation, take a couple of deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. As you breathe out, think of releasing tensions with the breath. This simple breathing technique will also encourage you to slow down – which is very helpful at the start of a presentation, when your nerves can easily make you go too fast.
Your voice should command your audience as soon as you say the first words. To provide your voice with support, it is important that your posture is strong. Always check that you are standing with both feet firmly on the ground – or if you are sitting, that the small of your back is firmly supported by the back of the chair.
A complaint I often hear from medical sales representatives is that they are always fighting against the clock. They struggle with the strict time limits imposed on them, especially when lunch has to be included in the time slot. So there may be a tendency to speed up in order to get all the information across. But this is counter-productive. Too much information given too fast can overwhelm your audience, resulting in a complete ‘switch-off’. Restrict the amount of information the audience have to take in: limit your presentation to no more than three key messages.
Keep the pace of your delivery steady by inserting pauses into your presentation. Pauses act as a brake pedal to stop you ‘free-wheeling’. Try to pause for three seconds after your first sentence to help you control your pace at the start. You will be less likely to speed up as you continue speaking.
Enhance your messages
Another challenge is holding everyone’s attention and interest for all of the time. It is important that you speak with passion, even if you have delivered the presentation many times before.
When you speak, emphasise your most powerful words to help you sound more convincing and have greater influence over your audience. Emphasise the first word of your sentence to grab their attention, and emphasise the last word to help you avoid trailing off and losing energy. If you feel that someone has ‘switched off’, try emphasising your next word while looking at them. This will help to regain their attention and make them feel more included. Our moods are expressed through our tone of voice. You may be giving a presentation late on a Friday afternoon, when you are tired – and your voice will sound flat, dull and lifeless. You need to put more energy into your voice, so that it sounds enthusiastic and is more likely to inspire the listener. One way to help influence your tone of voice is to adopt a role. For example, a highly successful approach is to take on the role of a storyteller and imagine that your message is an exciting story. This will help to ‘lift’ your voice and create greater energy and variety in your tone. Finally, always remember to smile: when you smile, your voice smiles! This is always a good way to build rapport with your audience.
Look good, feel good
Body language is important to consider when you want to send out the right signals. We all subconsciously read the body language of others – their posture, facial expressions, gestures and eye contact – and react accordingly. If you slouch, avoid eye contact and speak with an impassive or stern face, your audience may conclude that you are unmotivated or impatient, and be unlikely to receive your presentation with any enthusiasm.
You want to aim for a relaxed but professional image. To achieve this, make sure that your posture is strong without being tense. Share your eye contact around the audience to help you connect with them. A useful rule is to give three seconds to each person at any one time. This will allow you to engage with individuals and keep them all involved in the presentation. Try to use gestures while you are speaking: this helps to create a stronger presence, and enhances your voice. When you use a strong gesture with a powerful word, you cannot help putting greater emphasis into your voice.
Polish the practicalities
You also need to think about practicalities in order to ensure a polished, professional performance. Five key points to consider are:
1. Clearly state your schedule at the start. It will help you to control your audience if they know how long the presentation and the following lunch break will be. You must then stick to your times in order to keep their attention.
2. Be conversational with your audience – ask them a few questions at the start to ‘open them up’ and find out more about them. This will help to create a more personal, relaxed environment, and you will be able to pitch your presentation more effectively to those present.
3. Make it clear at the start what you hope your audience will gain from the presentation. Ask yourself Why should my audience listen to me? What are the key benefits to them?
4. Ensure that you are properly set up before you start – don’t waste precious presentation time setting up equipment while your audience are waiting
5. Try to walk around the presentation space before your audience arrive.
This will help you to feel more familiar with the space, and to look as though you have ownership of it.
Finally, enjoy your presentation. A presenter who looks as if they are going to enjoy the meeting will send out the right signals. And if you enjoy it, your audience are more likely to do the same!
Skillstudio Limited is a specialist communication training consultancy that uses a highly effective combination of proven theatrical techniques with a pragmatic, business-focused approach to help develop clients’ presentation and communication skills. You can find further information on all Skillstudio courses on their website at www.skillstudio.co.uk or call +44 (0) 8456 444 150