Rowena Crosbie, an Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) member from Iowa, is president of Tero International, Inc., a premier interpersonal skills research and corporate training company. We asked for her thoughts on presentations and how you can perfect your next one.
For thousands of men and women, speaking in front of a group is an experience that is feared. More than a fear of heights, spiders or even dying, if you can believe it! The statistics indeed support Jerry Seinfeld's humorous claim that most people at a funeral would rather be the corpse than the person delivering the eulogy. But, it is the ability to communicate effectively with individuals and groups that is cited as the primary factor contributing to the success of the highest-paid managers. So it's definitely a fear worth overcoming and a skill worth nurturing.
Like overcoming any fear, the solution lies in education, understanding and repetition. Here are some of the common myths surrounding presentation skills and the reality behind them:
Myth #1: Start out with a joke-- it gets the audience warmed up.
Reality: Although it's certainly true that the release of adrenaline and endorphins into the system heightens learning and interest, a joke is seldom, if ever, appropriate. Too many speakers confuse comedy with humor. Humor is the relating of funny, relevant and non-offensive stories, cartoons or anecdotes to support the message. When they fail in their purpose, you don't. Leave the comedy to the professional comedians.
Myth #2: Write your speech out so the most powerful words are used.
Reality: Written communication and spoken communication are two distinctly different mediums. Taking one mode of communication (written) and translating it directly to another (spoken) without any modification is dangerous. The words, phrases and stories we all enjoy reading in our favorite novels are too windy when communicated word for word in a presentation.
Myth #3: Put your hands in your pockets. It will make you feel relaxed and makes the atmosphere casual.
Reality: Studies have shown the critical importance of the visual element in presentations. This includes eye contact, attire, stance, grooming and gestures. When a speaker's hands are buried in their pockets (or behind their back), effectively one-third of the ability to communicate is eliminated. Supportive gestures enhance the message and facilitate learning.
Myth #4: Scan your audience; everyone will think you're looking at them. That's important.
Reality: Our brains take in information through our eyes in the form of movement, shape, light and color. Our brain has to process information very quickly when the eyes are scanning the room, allowing little time for thinking about this important presentation. Talk to one person at a time, holding your focus for several seconds and slowing the input to your already very busy brain cells.
Myth #5: An alcoholic beverage prior to presenting will relax you and make you sharper-- just one!
Reality: Alcohol dulls the senses. Aren't you glad your airline pilot or surgeon doesn't have just one to relax them before they approach their job? Other no-no's in the food and beverage category prior to presenting include caffeine, dairy products, drugs and over-eating.
Myth #6: It doesn't matter if you run a few minutes long in your presentation. The topic is an interesting one, and after all, they invited you to speak.
Reality: People dislike a speaker running over their time. Even if the presentation is very interesting, it's not appropriate to run long. In fact, it's better to not even finish on time. Plan to finish early-- five minutes early.
Myth #7: Share all of the background information and factors affecting the topic. It's very technical but necessary.
Reality: Your audience only needs to know enough to understand your premise. Allow for a Q&A period at the end of your talk to answer those questions the audience is most interested in. Provide detailed information in a handout.
Myth #8: You're there to inform the audience of progress--not persuade them--so why worry about presentation techniques?
Reality: Many people say there are two types of presentations; one to inform and one to persuade. Wrong. There is only one type of presentation-- the one to persuade. Whether you're selling a product, a service, an idea or your own credibility, you're persuading, and you need to know how people are persuaded.
Myth #9: Take questions during your presentation to be certain everyone is with you at all times.
Reality: Unless your presentation is several hours long or modular, this practice can be deadly. Questions from the audience can be hostile, get you off track or, at best, be time-consuming. Allow time at the end of the presentation for questions.
Myth #10: Practice makes perfect.
Reality: Practice makes permanent. Practicing the wrong techniques makes for bad habits that are difficult to break. Learn the techniques that work and practice those.
Myth #11: Use the techniques you've seen used by the late-night talk-show hosts. It's effective for them, so it must be right.
Reality: Many factors affect our success in a presentation. I wouldn't want to assume my audience attaches the credibility and charisma to me that they do to the accomplished entertainer. Neither should you. Learn the techniques that work and then use them.
Myth #12: Don't worry about using visual aids. They distract the audience.
Reality: When you use visual aids, you are perceived as more professional, more credible, more persuasive and better prepared. In addition, research on the subject shows that when you support your presentation with relevant, interesting, colorful and multi-sensory visuals, learning is improved by 200%, retention by 38% and the time to explain complex subjects is reduced by 25% to 40%.
Myth #13: If you use the latest and greatest presentation technologies, you won't have to worry about your presentation skills.
Reality: A quick recipe for disaster is to be lulled into thinking that all you need is the latest technology and your problems are over. That idea is unfortunately becoming more prevalent with the introduction of more and more innovative methods of incorporating visuals into presentations. Your visual aids are just that-- aids. They are intended to enhance your presentation, not make it for you. Presenters must remember to focus on the human side. Regardless of how flashy or impressive your visuals may be, you are still the most important visual for your listeners.
Myth #14: If you don't speak to groups often, don't waste time and money attending a development program on the subject.
Reality: The skills for effectively speaking to groups are the same skills effective for speaking one on one. If you speak to anyone during the day--your clients, boss, co-workers, employees, spouse, kids--you need to develop these important skills.