Presentation Skills Tips You Should Ignore (And What To Do Instead)
The world is full of people giving advice, often on subjects in which they have no real expertise. I’ve taken to ‘collecting’ some of the more misleading, ill-informed and downright bizarre presentation skills tips I’ve come across over the years.
They range from hoary old chestnuts along the lines of ‘imagine your audience is naked’ and the stubbornly persistent myth that ‘93% of communication is body language and vocal tone’ all the way through to more colourful takes on the genre such as ‘holding a bottle of water when presenting will make you look powerful and confident’ as a Russian client of mine was once told. (It won’t.)
Now, I’m not in the business of running down the competition, but however well-meaning it’s intended to be, such advice often comes from poorly researched articles or self-proclaimed ‘experts’ who are anything but. Let’s take a look at a few of the common culprits and see what DOES work instead.
They Say: ‘If you’re nervous, take a deep breath’
Telling someone to breathe deeply is not, strictly speaking, bad advice. However, a lot of people mistake a ‘deep’ breath for a ‘big’ breath and that can make a big difference.
When we’re nervous, we tend to breathe shallowly into the upper chest. If someone tries to take a ‘deep’ breath in this state they are likely to just take bigger breaths into the upper chest, which will intensify rather than relieve the problem. Not to mention that taking too many big breaths can cause hyperventilation.
I Say: ‘Focus on the out-breath’
Instead, focus on breathing out. A helpful trick is to imagine you’re blowing out through a straw, releasing the breath slowly and evenly in a long steady stream. If you blow your breath all the way out, as far as it will go, then close your lips and allow the in-breath to enter through the nose, your in-breath is more likely to ‘drop in’ to your centre rather than filling the upper chest. Doing this a few times will not only centre your breath, it will also gradually decrease your heart rate, leaving you feeling calmer and more relaxed.
They Say: ‘Speak from the diaphragm’
I’ve heard this a lot and, as a voice coach, it’s the sort of comment that makes me grind my teeth in irritation. It’s complete nonsense. It’s true that the voice needs breath support to work effectively and, yes, the diaphragm is involved in breathing. But it’s an internal muscle that few people know the location of and, even if they did, they couldn’t speak from it.
I Say: ‘Feel your abdominal support’
Try placing your hand on your stomach above the belly button and making a sharp, energised ‘Sh’ sound. You should feel the abdominal muscles engage (it feels like a bouncing sensation). Then call out ‘Ha! Ha!’ with energy. Again, you should feel the abdominal muscles ‘bounce’. As long as your breath is centred (as in the previous tip) when you go to project your voice, the abdominal muscles with engage to ‘support’ the out-breath and the breath will power the voice. You’ll have the right level of energy and will sound confident rather than strained.
They Say: ‘Speak slowly’
Is it just me, or does the idea of someone speaking slowly for the duration of a presentation sound quite boring? Also… define slowly. Slowly to someone from Glasgow or New Jersey is quite different from slowly to someone from Somerset or New Orleans.
Of course you need to speak at a pace that is understandable to your audience, but that’s not necessarily slowly. And you certainly don’t want to speak slowly all the way through a presentation. Your pace will vary depending on the importance of the content. For me, ‘speak slowly’ is one of the biggest offenders in the list of misleading presentation skills tips.
I Say: ‘Pause between thoughts’
When we finish a sentence, we naturally pause to take a breath before we speak the next thought. Pausing more often breaks up the flow of speech, making it easier to take each piece of information in, and creates more variety of melody and rhythm.
If you watch Steve Job’s iPhone launch, you’ll notice the frequency of his pauses, not just between sentences but often between phrases. He serves up his content in bite-size pieces. This is called information chunking and it helps the audience to digest the content more easily.
They Say: ‘Be conversational’
Another one of those common presentation skills tips that should be banned! A presentation is not the same as an ordinary conversation. Some people mumble in conversation. Some lose their train of thought. Some never stop talking. None of this works in a presentation.
So while you want to sound as if you’re having a conversation with the audience, it needs to be a highly energised, razor focused, well prepared conversation where you strip out the filler, highlight important points and, ideally, control exactly where and when people interject.
I say: ‘Share the sense’
When we are telling a great story we emphasise key words, slow down in important parts and change tone to align with the underlying intention of our thoughts. In other words, we ‘share the sense’ with the listener.
This is what you should be doing when you’re presenting, only slightly more consciously. Ask yourself: Which words are important and need to be stressed? Which messages need to be slowed down on so they will stand out? What mood or atmosphere am I trying to create?
They Say: ‘You’re the star of the show’
Sometimes when presenters turn to their slides too often or stand too far away from the audience, they’re told ’Don’t forget, you’re the star of the show’. If you’ve ever heard that, please don’t listen!
Why? Well, for a start, some people don’t like being the star of the show – it makes them uncomfortable (and no one needs to feel more uncomfortable about presenting). But it’s also bad advice for those who do enjoy attention. Some of the worst presenters I’ve known are ones who love the limelight. They treat a presentation as an opportunity to show how clever and interesting they are instead of thinking about what the audience needs or wants. Your presentation is not about you, it’s about your audience.
I Say: ‘You’re not a star, you’re a guide’
In Nancy Duarte’s The Secret Structure Of Great Talks she compares the structure of a presentation to the plot of a movie, specifically Star Wars. In the presentation ‘movie’ you’re not Luke Skywalker – you’re Yoda.
In other words, try to approach your presentation as if you are the audience’s mentor. Your job is to offer your listeners some sort of insight, to show them the way or help them make a decision. Even when you’re telling a personal story, it should create a lightbulb moment and deliver a message rather than simply make you look good.
So, the next time you have to give a presentation remember to breathe out, pause frequently and, above all, think of yourself as a small, green humanoid alien. Go on – it’s got to be better than imagining your audience naked.
At BeSpoke we offer advice and coaching to suit every kind of presentation, from keynote speeches to client presentations and investor pitches. Find out more about our Presentation Skills workshops or drop us a line at email@example.com