Presentation Tips

Listen Up! Your Most Important Presentation Tools

While in conversation, you find yourself unconsciously looking around the room, or checking your watch. Maybe while the other person is in mid-sentence, you interrupt with a thought. Are you listening? Instead, what if you were nodding your head in agreement, using the phrase "uh-huh", or the classic — making good eye contact? Are you listening now? What is it about listening that we find so important but so elusive?

Separate out the visual cues that typically suggest "listening". Visual cues are important, but they don't necessarily mean genuine listening is taking place. Think about the times you found yourself nodding in apparent agreement but had no clue what the other person was saying or didn't care.

Is listening different if you attempt to paraphrase someone's comment? To paraphrase, you hear the other person's words, privately interpret their meaning, then use your own words to convey it back to them. In either case (head-nodding or paraphrasing), what is the measure of being a good listener? Simple. The speaker feels heard. As the listener, you demonstrate that the point got through to you.

Imagine a conversation where you're apparently listening and before the other person even finishes their thought, you're privately rehearsing your reply. Person pauses for half a second and you jump in like a wild animal. I think you can slot that in the poor listening category.

What does any of this have to do with presentation skills? Just everything.

Consider for a moment that your challenge is not public speaking, but public listening. We're sold on the idea that being a good communicator means projecting ones voice, making eye contact, the list goes on. How about at the heart of presentation skills is listening, not speaking. Sort of turns the whole thing on its head. Think about it. What are the major complaints about meetings, presentations, and lectures? That we are not reaching our audience. Translation: we are not listening!

The problem is that when we publicly speak, our personal measure of success is the quality of our ideas or how well we deliver, not necessarily how it's heard. It's just a bonus if we connect with an audience. Listen up! The quality of your presentation is first and foremost how well you connect with a group, and connecting means listening; watching body language, facial expressions, extracting comments; anything that reveals how the group is feeling and what they are thinking.

How do we shift to be a better listener? Start by becoming keenly aware how difficult it is to just listen. No agenda, no quick replies, just get what the other person is saying. Consider this possibility; The people in your life who command authority when they speak are first and foremost excellent listeners, not excellent speakers. Their secret is that they speak when there is something of value to share. They don't talk for talking sake.

Here are a couple of simple exercises:

  1. The next time you're in a dialogue, observe when you are listening versus waiting to speak. Attempt to paraphrase someone's comments before providing a reply.
  2. In a meeting, plan to make NO points. Just listen. Take notes. Be prepared to summarize the key points made by the group. You may discover something profound: There is more power in genuine listening than speaking. While everyone else is fighting for the right to be heard, you're listening for the big picture. You may even end up getting asked what you think, and contribute something of value to everyone.
  3. Be more patient in dialogue. Patience is not just a virtue; it's the ticket to being an effective listener and in turn, public speaker. There you go. Now read this again and paraphrase it to someone else.

Five Steps To Effectively Facilitating A Group

Webster's defines facilitation as "To make easy and less difficult" or "Help bring about".

I would define the facilitation experience as "The act of taking people through a group process with clearly defined outcomes, while encouraging participation and a group commitment to meaningful results." What are five elements that impact the quality of the facilitation experience?

  • Understand your audience — Too often meetings are convened without any knowledge of what expectations people bring to the discussion. The impact is that there is too much focus on the agenda rather than what would be an effective use of the group's time. Shifting your focus to the groups concerns will increase the chance that people will participate more fully, be interested in the topic, and get value from the dialogue. One simple way to learn about your group is to send out an email with your proposed agenda and ask what concerns are they bringing to the discussion.
  • Clearly articulate your purpose and intended outcomes — A very important shift in your planning is to articulate a purpose statement and intended outcomes for the discussion. You should be able to tell the group: "Our purpose today is … and this is what I hope to accomplish." This requires stepping back from what you often think is the purpose (getting through your agenda) and identify more of an umbrella statement that reflects outcomes you hope to achieve.
  • Balance your role — Ideally, you'll engage everyone just enough and at the right points so the group can self-generate a dialogue. The challenge is to continually balance when to stir things up and when to quietly observe. You keep this focus by remembering where the real value lies, that is; what your group has to say is more important than what you know.
  • When you engage the group, think of yourself as a translator — Put yourself in one of your department meetings. If you looked behind the dialogue, you would discover that most people are not listening to each other. Everyone's looking for the right moment to share his or her own ideas. While one person is speaking, others are privately rehearsing their response or preparing a new comment. Add personal stakes, politics and emotion to the mix, and you might as well be observing an international meeting of countries. As facilitator, you are the means for people to take a moment and consider other points of view. Performed successfully, you will find yourself in a position to accomplish the final element.
  • Summarize the dialogue, draw conclusions, and identify next steps — Summarizing is like a break in the action, where everyone takes a moment to reflect on the value of what just happened. This ultimately gives meaning to a dialogue. As facilitator, you are in the position to make this summarizing possible. End the discussion by asking what next steps should be taken and who should take ownership of the different tasks. Assigning tasks to individuals can be enough to keep a process moving forward. At the heart of why meetings are considered a waste of time is leaving out this last step.

Improving your facilitation skills or utilizing an experienced facilitator will elevate what people can expect from a group dialogue. When applied thoughtfully, the purpose of your meetings will be clearer, your audience will participate more fully, and your gatherings will be viewed as a valuable use of people's time.

Presentation Tip: Three Contributors to an Effective Speech
Research your audience and identify what concerns they bring to your talk. Keep your message to three things and reiterate them throughout the speech. If you practice nothing else, practice your introduction. People decide within 15 seconds whether you are worth listening to.

Five Tips to Connect with Your Audience

For those of you who have had to give presentations, you're well aware of the challenges. How do you distill the details of your talk into sound bytes that people can digest? Too much information and people go south, too little information and they leave unsatisfied and expecting more. What's the right balance of disseminating information and making an impact on your audience? Here are some tips to keep you focused on maintaining this balance:

1. Less is more.
Rather than stuffing five topics in a thirty-minute talk, pick three and make time for comments and feedback. There's nothing worse than sitting through a presentation with five minutes remaining and the presenter rushes through the last ten slides. Picking fewer topics forces you as the presenter to ask "What's my core message?" With less content to cover, you'll have additional time to interact with the group. You can then focus on how the message is playing with your audience, rather than apologizing for going too fast.

2. Don't just tell your audience WHAT you're going to do, tell them WHY.
The most frequent mistake I've seen presenters make is assuming the audience understands your goals in speaking. You've probably heard the phrase "Tell them what you're going to do, do it, then tell them what you did." This is a good start but take it one step further. What you're going to do sets expectations for what people will hear. Why you're doing it reveals what your group should take away. When everything is said and done, what really matters is what people remember, learn or do differently as a result of your presentation. Asking yourself why you're speaking on a topic will force you to identify the CONTEXT behind your CONTENT. To assist you in identifying this, put yourself in your audience's seat and ask "why is the presenter telling me this?" Know the answer before you get up to speak.

3. Practice your first five minutes three times.
I have read numerous studies that suggest you have fifteen seconds to make a positive impression on your audience. Although no one needs this kind of pressure, practicing your introduction will set the tone for the entire talk. Delivering a good introduction conveys the following about you to your audience:

  • You're in control
  • You're credible
  • You're comfortable with yourself

4. You don't have to answer every question.
Believe it or not, your most difficult, outspoken participant probably just wants to be heard. You unnecessarily sabotage your presentation by defending your point of view against every challenge or hostile comment. Allow your participants to express themselves, without necessarily having to change their minds or prove that you're right and they're wrong. This takes self-restraint, but it allows you to stay focused on your objectives and avoid unnecessary battles.

5. Make time for group reflection.
Webster's defines reflecting as To make apparent; express or manifest. If you accept the premise that the value in a presentation resides with what the listener takes away and not what you're doing, group reflection becomes a critical step. Simply put, make time for people to verbalize what they heard or their reactions to your topics. Do they agree with your premise? Is your message clear? What will your audience do differently as a result of going through the presentation? These questions are examples of how you can help your audience uncover value. In a matter of minutes, the simple act of asking people to reflect on a topic can transform a seemingly bored group into an engaged, interested audience.

Traditional presentation coaching focuses on clarity and being dynamic, both important skills. At the same time, the heart of a great presentation is not what the presenter does, but what the listener takes away. If you focus on these tips, you'll observe a noticeable change in your presentation skills; not because you're clear or dynamic, but because your group will walk away saying they got value.

And isn't this where it counts most?

Practice Makes Perfect Sense

As a professional presenter and coach, I am often asked; what's the key to giving an effective presentation? I start out by saying what is not — proper posture, voice projection, clean appearance or any of the other qualities we associate with good speakers. Like the real estate slogan "location, location, location", my motto is "practice, practice, practice".

Practice is probably the most overlooked preparation technique but the most powerful one for improving the quality of your talk. At the end of the day, not practicing is your biggest risk, not the lack of flashy PowerPoint graphics.

Like a sport, your presentation will have inherent weaknesses, even potential land mines — an incomplete idea, poor sequencing of a topic or too much detail about a subject. Practice helps identify those weaknesses when nothing is at risk, that is, when you are not under the spotlight of your audience. Here are some techniques to uncover these presentation land mines:

  • Technique 1: Find an empty room in your office or home. Stand up and picture your audience waiting for you to begin speaking. Verbally introduce yourself to your imaginary audience, describing what you're going to talk about. Now here's the important part - As you speak, listen for your own clarity and understanding of the topic. When you find yourself unclear about anything, stop and ask yourself, "Why am I speaking about this?" Speak that part again, setting a better context for the topic.
  • Technique 2: Invite someone you trust to listen to your practice session. This will have a very positive impact on your comfort level when you finally do the actual talk. Ask for feedback on anything they found confusing or unclear. Let them know about the audience you will be speaking to and ask them to listen from that point of view.
  • Technique 3: After you've successfully practiced it once, do it one more time. This one extra run- through can make the difference between being comfortable and just getting through it.

A good backhand looks easy. What you don't see is the practice performed to get there. And once you observe the benefit derived from practicing your talk, you will never go back to being completely unrehearsed.

Practice makes perfect sense. Try it out.

Presentation Tip: Dealing With Falling Behind

No matter how good you are, you will run out of time in your presentation. Too often, I have heard presenters say to a group "we've fallen behind, so we need to, etc." This commentary adds no value to your presentation. On the contrary, it unnecessarily flags a problem where there was none.

Alternative: Privately adjust your agenda to make up for lost time (translation-cut stuff out!) and proceed as if this were your plan all along.

There Is No "Right Solution"

What makes for a great solution?  First, understand that there are real alternatives to solving a problem.  Teams at all levels in an organization fall into "analysis paralysis" because they fear making the wrong choices.  Instead, focus your team to find the best solution that takes into account the following factors...

  1. What is the urgency? The greater the urgency, the more willing your team should be to act.
  2. Are the problems understood sufficiently to make a sound recommendation? Again, this is not turning over every stone, but making sure there is a consistent enough understanding by the entire group to come to a sound decision.
  3. Does the solution address the problem? Once a decision has been made on how to solve the problem, teams have already spent way too much time discussing the issue.  There is a "fatigue factor" that comes into play, with the collective group losing focus whether the solution still lines up with the problem.

To combat this fatigue, get to a solution with as little process and brainstorming as necessary.  With a reserve of energy still in people's battery, validate the solution against the defined issues.  Tweak the solution and check again.  Treating this as an iterative exercise will yield greater results than spending too much time hashing over the issues.  With this approach, you will end up with a better solution in half the time.