Chapter 11 Presentation Skills
Many people have very limiting beliefs about presentations and their own abilities to give one. Examining your skills, fears, and preferences is your first step in opening yourself up to reaching your full potential as a presenter.
Your voice is a powerful communication tool, and how you use it can make or break your presentation. In this chapter you will learn about how you use verbal elements of presentation by examining techniques like pitch, volume, and pronunciation, among others.
Your non-verbal cues like gestures, facial expressions, and posture can punctuate and strengthen your message or do the opposite. You will learn about these non-verbal elements and have a chance to see how you use them in conjunction with your verbal cues by recording and examining a practice presentation.
After combining all of these elements, you will have a better understanding of who you are as a presenter and what you can bring to the table to develop your presentation strategy in the next chapter.
What Makes a Successful Speech or Presentation?
It’s important to remember that a successful speech or presentation depends on a number of factors. For our purposes we can boil them down to three main factors: the environment, the presenter, and the audience. The presenter is key to a successful presentation. The speaker must have planned the presentation to be engaging and easy to follow, and then must deliver it well to be clearly understood. Often people forget about the other two aspects. The audience is important to consider as well. How much do they already know? What is their interest in the subject? Do you want them to ask questions and be involved in the presentation? Finally, the environment is the third aspect to consider when planning a presentation. Speeches and presentations usually take place in controlled environments, so the environment aspect is often overlooked. But everything from technology failure to a room being too hot or too cold can thwart a presentation’s success. Using a room next to a noisy construction site can ruin even the most beautifully planned presentation. The environment affects both the speaker and the audience. You can’t have a successful speech or presentation without considering all three aspects: the presenter or speaker, the audience, and the environment.
According to longtime Toastmasters member Bob Kienzle, there are a few key elements that tend to make a successful speaker:
- Voice—Can the person be easily understood?
- Body Language—Does their body support what they’re saying? Are they confident?
- Coherent Structure—Does what they’re presenting make sense? Is it logical?
- Enthusiasm—Do they care about what they’re presenting?
- Expertise—Do they know what they’re talking about? Are they credible?
- Practice—If they haven’t practised or sufficiently prepared, it will likely show up in one or more of the above.
A successful speaker can be inspired by other speeches or speakers but may fall flat if they try to copy someone else. Authenticity and passion can resonate so much with an audience that it can outweigh elements otherwise considered pitfalls. The techniques, tools, and best practices are a guideline, and it’s important to note there is no such thing as perfection in public speaking. Failure can happen in a myriad of ways, but it’s more helpful to see them as learning opportunities, or opportunities to make a stronger connection to your audience.
The biggest failure, according to Kienzle, is to pass up opportunities to practise your skills in presenting or public speaking.
One of the most anxiety-inducing areas of presenting or speech-making is being in front of the audience. Some people may feel more at ease with relatively small audiences of up to about 10 people. Others feel that 10 people is too intimate and actually feel more comfortable with impersonal numbers in the hundreds or thousands.
People often think of hostile audiences throwing tomatoes and yelling boos if the presenter makes the slightest mistake or slip of the tongue. But the truth is that most audiences desperately want you to succeed. They are overwhelmingly on your side. This means that in most situations they are very forgiving; they know being up there can be tough. If you make a mistake, you can apologize or laugh it off and keep going.
The audience is at least as involved in your presentation as you are. Awareness of yourself and awareness of them is key. If you are so preoccupied with your fear of the audience that you hide your head behind the podium while reading a boring list of facts your audience could read themselves, you will lose them. If you’re not interested, they’re not interested. If you are so frightened of your audience that you never look at them, you will not be able to get cues about their involvement in your presentation.
What you bring to the audience affects what they get from your presentation or speech. For that reason, it is tremendously important to develop enough self-awareness so that you can be present for your audience and have the confidence to make adjustments to keep them on your side and involved in your presentation.
Sometimes you have no control over your environment. When you are asked to make a presentation for a class, you are likely confined to the course classroom. But there are usually some factors you will have control over. Regardless, it is a good idea to check out the space where you will be presenting to decide where things will happen.
Some things to check out if possible:
- Room temperature. If the audience is too hot or too cold they can be very distracted. See if you can make sure the temperature is comfortable before starting, and feel free to get feedback from your audience if they look uncomfortable. Your acknowledgement of their discomfort and efforts to do something about it (e.g. send someone to the office to try to fix the problem) goes a long way towards bringing the audience on side.
- Distracting noises. Are there fans, outside noises, or busy adjacent classrooms? If so, try to work around those things. If a noisy first aid class meets every morning from 9-11, and you can hear them through the wall shouting medical instructions in their mock emergency scenarios, this is not a good time to schedule your presentation.
- The lay of the land. Decide where you will stand ahead of time. Decide where your projection screen will be, where your projector will be, and where you want your audience to sit. If you decide on this ahead of time, you’ll avoid mistakes like people not being able to see properly because of an obstruction, the projector not displaying a large enough screen, and the audience being too far away or too spread out. It’s a good idea to move desks around so they are in a seating arrangement that is conducive to the presentation. Do you want them in a big U, or in small groups, or in traditional audience seating style?
Remember to consider all three aspects when planning your presentation: the presenter, the audience, and the environment. Let’s first concentrate on the presenter and the interpersonal skills required.
The Presenter: Your Strengths and Weaknesses
Are you aware of your strengths and weaknesses as a presenter? You may have some ideas already. For example, if you are very soft-spoken, you may consider that to be a weakness if you’re on a stage, especially without a microphone. Soft-spoken people also sometimes keep low-key in other ways; maybe they’re more plain in the way they dress or have less expressive mannerisms. Many people think that to be effective on stage you must be a rip-roaring extrovert. This is not true. No matter who you are, if you are aware of the qualities that make you a unique individual and you spend time getting to know your audience, you can convert perceived weaknesses into potential strengths. Conversely, if you are so overconfident about your abilities that it shows itself in poor preparation and lack of concern for your audience or environment, your strengths can quite quickly become weaknesses.
Your first step in helping define what makes you youself is to look at what you’re good at and what you enjoy doing. At the same time, this helps you distinguish what you’re not so good at and what you don’t enjoy. Make a list as you go through the next sections on your verbal and non-verbal communication techniques to get a reasonable prediction about how to focus your strategy as a presenter.
What Are My Verbal Communication Techniques?
Do you have a deep, low voice, or a high-pitched one? We all have a normal speaking pitch where we are most comfortable, but we can move our pitch up or down. Use pitch inflections to make your delivery more interesting and emphatic. If you don’t change pitch at all, your delivery will be monotone, which gets boring for the audience very quickly. Some people pitch their voices up at the end of sentences, making every statement sound like a question—avoid this common but distracting habit.
Do you speak softly or loudly? Adjust the volume of your voice to your environment and audience. If you’re in a large auditorium, speak up so that people in the back row can hear you. But if you’re in a small room with only a few people, you don’t want to alarm them by shouting! You may need to use volume to compensate for ambient noise like traffic or an air conditioner. You can use volume strategically to emphasize the most important points in your speech.
Stress certain words in your speech to add emphasis to them, that is, to indicate that they are particularly important. You may also use a visual aid to emphasize key points by using photographs or charts.
Make sure that you know the appropriate pronunciation of the words you choose. If you mispronounce a word, it could hurt your credibility or confuse your audience. Websites such as Wiktionary contain audio files that you can play to hear standard pronunciation of many words. Your pronunciation is also influenced by your accent. If your accent is quite different from the accent you expect most members of your audience to have, practise your speech in front of someone with the same accent that your audience members will have, to ensure you are pronouncing words in a clear, understandable way.
Avoid the use of “fillers” as placeholders for actual words (like, er, um, uh, etc.). You might get away with saying “um” two or three times in your speech before it becomes distracting, but the same cannot be said of “like”—a particularly troubling filler for many North American speakers. If you have a habit of using fillers, practise your speech thoroughly so that you remember what you want to say. This way, you are less likely to lose your place and let a filler word slip out.
Are you a fast or slow speaker? The pace that you speak at will influence how well the audience can understand you. Many people speak quickly when they are nervous. If this is a habit of yours, practice will help you here, too. Pause for breath naturally during your speech. Your speaking rate should be appropriate for your topic. A rapid, lively rate communicates enthusiasm, urgency, or humour. A slower, moderated rate conveys respect and seriousness. By varying your rate within a speech, you can emphasize your main points and keep your audience engaged.
What Non-Verbal Cues Do I Use?
A gesture is “a movement of part of the body, especially a hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning” (OxfordDictionaries.com, 2015). You can use these to channel nervous energy into an enhancement of your speech, reinforcing important points, but they can be distracting if overused. If the audience is busy watching your hands fly around, they will not be able to concentrate on your words.
Take a look at this article, titled “What to Do with Your Hands When Speaking in Public” (The Washington Post, 2015) for dos and don’ts of gesturing when you are speaking.
You might be unaware of how much your facial expressions say when you are speaking. Facial expression comes so naturally that we are not always in control of the story our face is telling. Rehearse your speech in front of a mirror to see what facial expressions come across. You might find that your face is saying something entirely different about your topic than your words are! Practise using facial expressions consciously. If you are speaking about an upbeat topic, smile! Conversely, if your topic is serious or solemn, avoid facial expressions that are overtly cheerful, because the audience will be confused by the mixed message.
In North American culture, the most important facial expression you can use is eye contact. Briefly catch the eye of audience members as you move through your speech. If you can’t look your audience members in the eye, they may view you as untrustworthy. Remember, though, that eye contact is a culturally sensitive gesture. In some cultures, there are certain accepted behaviours for males looking females in the eye, and vice-versa. You’ll want to avoid holding eye contact for too long with any one person, as too much can be unnerving.
It’s easy to let your posture slip when you’ve been talking for a while, but try to stay conscious of this and stand up straight. This gives the audience the perception that you are authoritative and take your position seriously. If you are slouching, hunched over, or leaning on something, this gives the impression that you are anxious, lacking in credibility, or not serious about your message. Speakers often assume a more casual posture as a presentation continues, but you only get one shot at making a first impression, so make sure you begin with a strong stance.
Silence is a powerful technique if used well, but it is often overlooked. Perhaps you had a teacher in high school who would stand sternly and silently at the front of the room, expectantly waiting for the chatter to die down. His silence and stance were unnerving, so students soon became quiet, didn’t they? And some of the best comedians use the well-timed pause for a powerful and hilarious—rather than serious—effect. Either way, pauses are useful for emphasis and dramatic effect when you are speaking.
Some speakers are reluctant to pause or use silence because they become uncomfortable with the dead air, but sometimes your audience needs a moment to process information and respond to you.
You can use your body movements to communicate positively with the audience. Leaning in or moving closer to the audience helps to bridge the space of separation. Moving from one side of the room to the other in a purposeful way that supports your content is a useful way to keep your audience engaged; their eyes will track your movements. Pacing rapidly with no purpose and no support to your message may quickly distract from your message, however. Standing still without movement when you are listening or responding to a question can show interest. However, standing still without any movement for the duration of your presentation could leave the audience bored. Balance is key, as is using your body as an extension of your content that suits the context of the environment and the audience.
Consider the factors presented in this section.
- Which factors do you consider are already personal strengths?
- Which factors do you feel are personal weaknesses?
- Which factors would you like to focus on in upcoming presentations?
This section helped you focus on getting to know your presentation style by understanding yourself better. You learned that elements of the environment, the audience, and the presenter have an impact on what makes for a good speech. You examined several issues related to self-awareness, including dealing with strengths and weaknesses. Finally, you learned about verbal and non-verbal elements of your presentation style. You should now be able to take what you have learned from this section into the next section as a foundation to build your presentation strategy.
- There are three aspects to consider for presentations: the presenter, the audience, and the environment.
- Voice, body language, coherent structure, enthusiasm, expertise, and practice are ingredients that can make a successful speech or presentation.
- The audience wants you to succeed.
- Making a recording of your verbal and non-verbal cues helps to identify your presentation style.
- Verbal elements such as pitch, volume, emphasis, pronunciation, fillers, and rate all impact the presentation.
- Non-verbal elements such as gestures, facial expressions, posture, silence, and movement all impact the presentation.
- Self-awareness of the presenter’s strengths and weaknesses will help to adjust verbal and non-verbal elements for the presentation and can impact the presenter’s planning strategy.
This chapter has been adapted from the following chapter: