Dr Kate Blackford Speaks
The Art of Presenting
In most occupations we will, at some point, be required to present information – be that in a meeting, a conference or when training colleagues. For some, this is a daunting prospect and can result in anxiety and even avoidance behaviours that can stall one’s career.
Feeling anxious about having to stand up and talk to a group of people can affect our work performance, self-confidence and our sense of well-being. At some point or another, all of us have been subject to the nervous presenter and have found ourselves sat in the audience feeling uncomfortable for them. These experiences can come back to haunt us if we lack the confidence and skills to present in an engaging way.
I remember having to present at a school event at the age of 14. I was gawky, awkward and terrified! Even today, I don’t remember what I was speaking about because all I remember is my knocking knees, shaking hands and fear that the audience were seeing this. A few years later I went into consultancy and had to learn to present at conferences, to Boards of Directors and run training courses. The first course I ever ran solo I got the delegates settled and strode across the room to close the door and start the course. I was wearing a trouser suit and heels and on the way back to the centre of the room to begin, my heel caught in my hem and I did a comedy windmill style stumble across the room. Everyone fell silent, waiting to see what my reaction would be… I sat on the floor and laughed until I cried and the group nicknamed me ‘Calamity Kate’, a nickname that has stuck with me ever since. A few years previously I would have been mortified at this event and it would have affected the rest of the course negatively. Nowadays I remember it fondly and it serves as a great ice breaker! It really is all about perspective.
So why is good presentation style so important? When we are required to present we are seeking to share knowledge and information. It is reasonable to assume that we would not have been asked to speak to the audience if the information we have to share is not going to serve some purpose for them, so getting the style, tone and content right is essential in passing on the knowledge we have. Ideally we also want the audience to feel engaged with what we have to say so that the key messages / information stick when they leave the room.
The good news for the nervous speakers out there is that there are ways to overcome presentation anxiety – both practically and psychologically. Practical skills training in how to structure your presentation and any accompanying slides can help you to feel more confident in what you have to say and practice is undoubtedly key – whether this is with friends, or in front of the mirror. Being familiar with your subject allows you to present with confidence and to focus on engaging your audience rather than focusing solely on your cue cards and mumbling at the floor. Eventually you will get to the point that you no longer even need the cue cards, then you are in the enviable position of being able to stand tall, converse with your audience and respond flexibly to questions along the way.
At the psychological level your mindset is key. The Greek Stoic Philosopher Epictetus (55-135 AD) said “what the thinker thinks, the prover proves” meaning that if you think you can do a great presentation, you will and if you think you can’t well…. Getting in this mindset can be easier said than done however, so here are a few tips to help with focusing your mind:
When facing your audience look for people who are encouraging in their expression and take heart from this.
Visualise yourself holding your head high, projecting your voice and speaking passionately about your subject.
Remember that the people in the audience are there to hear what you have to say, they have something to learn from you.
You also have things to learn from your audience – what they respond well to, suggestions, questions and ideas they voice.
If presenting is creating anxiety for you, it is worth seeking some coaching or therapy as it may well link to other areas where you lack self-confidence and overcoming this can open doors for you in all areas of your life. So, if you think you can – you can.