Presentation Skills - The Seven Laws

presentation skills

Presentation Skills - The Seven Laws

Many of us are now required to make presentations as a part of our job.

Indeed for some people, it will limit their career prospects if they are seen to be reluctant to make a presentation.

For the lucky few it doesn't seem to be a problem.

They seem to have always been able to do it and thrive on it.

For the rest of us, however, presentation skills are something we learn.

Given that it can be a daunting and even frightening area of learning for most of us, it would seem sensible to use an approach that seeks to make it easy and enjoyable rather than one that makes it even more difficult.

The difficult presentation skills path is the one where you learn to get it right first time, to be flawless in your delivery and to make no mistakes. This is "how to" learning.

Learning what to do and what not do.

The easier path is the one where you learn how presentation skills work and develop a style, which includes your idiosyncrasies and quirks (this way you don't have to learn to behave differently when you present).

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Most presenters are concerned about their body language when presenting, and rightly so: what you do matters as much as what you say. So you have a choice.

You can learn the rules for what you are not allowed to do and apply them. For instance, as a presenter, you shouldn't cross your arms, put your hands in your pockets, touch your ear or nose (apparently this means you're lying), sway from side to side The list is a long one and fortunately, you don't need it. You can take the easy route.

The Second Law of Presentation Skills

(the first law will be along later)

2. Repetition is Death

When you understand how presenting works you discover that all these things only look wrong if they are repeated. A gesture used over and over again becomes at first irritating and then all-consuming; your audience won't be able to pay attention to anything else.

The easy presentation skills route then is to do all the things people will tell you are "wrong" one after the other. This has the magical effect of freeing up your body language and, very quickly, your hands will start working in concert with your words. Incidentally, the reason we feel so self-conscious when presenting is perfectly rational. You are stood in front of a group of people who are looking at you, judging you, trying to interpret and understand you. It is important that you are aware of what you are doing.

Your options, however, are not to start using different body language. No, your options are how much to use, or feature, your present body language. So, in place of all those 'don't do' rules, you can just have the second law - no repetition.

The Third Law of Presentation Skills

3. Feelings are a Poor Indicator of How you are Doing

An area of presentation skills that seems rarely to be addressed is how we feel about ourselves when we are presenting. This is the area of self-image and confidence. Here, there is also a hard route and an easy one. The hard route is to do everything yourself. To be your own critic and to monitor your own performance. This means that you have to learn to be objective about yourself. For any type of performer, this takes years of dedicated work. The problem is that we are always the worst person to give ourselves advice about how we are doing.

For instance. You're stood in front of a group of your peers talking through an idea you've had. You lose your train of thought, somebody interrupts with a question about an aspect you haven't thought through, you struggle to regain your composure, limp through to the end and sit down mortified (worst case scenario here). Now, how do you think you've done? Chances are you will base your assessment on how you feel and the little voices in your head (you know, the ones that tell you how stupid, useless, silly etc. you are).

However, ask some of your colleagues how you did and they will say things like. "I'm always impressed by the way she brings new ideas to the team " or "She handled Charley well. He's always so negative about new ideas".

People don't see everything that's going on inside us. They just see what they see. This means that the best information you need about how you are doing lives in other people. You remember that old saying "Perception is reality"? Well, this is it in action.

The point of making a presentation is to communicate ideas and concepts to other people. If they clearly get your message it makes no difference that you feel you didn't express it clearly. It would be nice if you felt good, but that can be just as deceptive! You can be having a great time banging on about something with a group of people who don't care and aren't interested.

The good news in this is that you don't have to do any of the "how am I doing?" presentation skills work. They do it all for you. All you have to do is watch. If they are smiling, you must be saying amusing things. If they are not paying attention, you're obviously not being very stimulating. If they are arguing, you must be challenging them.

So exactly how does presenting work and what's the point of it all?

The Fourth Law of Presentation Skills

4. The Presenters job is to get them to Want More of What You've Got

Presentation works if you impact your audience in some way. They can even be impacted in a way you don't want and didn't choose and the act of presentation is still working. Not as you'd like, but it is still working. The point of a presentation is to get the audience to want what you've got.

This is important to grasp. The hard way to present is to gather all the information you have, put it together in a faultless presentation and deliver it impeccably. The mistake here is to think that a presentation is a good medium for delivering information. The easy way to present is to put together the bits that will appeal to the people you are speaking to and to use them to entice your audience into wanting to know more. Once you've got there you can stop. Your job is done. They will get the information for themselves. The difference here is rather like getting someone to read a book. You don't do it by reading the book to them; you do it by reading the dust jacket blurb.

The First Law of Presentation Skills

(told you)

1. Audiences Sleep!

While we're on the subject of audiences, there is only one thing you really need to know about audiences, audience interaction, handling questions or anything else involving them. They sleep!

That is their function. All presentation dynamics are set up to encourage this. They sit, you stand. You speak, they listen. Often the lighting and heating are soporific.

It follows then, that your bottom-line function is not to present well, but to keep waking them up! Every one of us has slept through some pretty good presentations because the presenter wasn't following the first law of presenting. If they are not awake, stop what you are doing and do something different. Most people are sent to sleep by a breaking of the second law. Repetition can also be not moving (repetition of stillness); it can even be vocal tone (monotony).

The Fifth Law of Presentation Skills

5. When you're Making a Presentation You're in Charge

Now we come to one of my personal favourites. When you are presenting you are in charge. In charge of everything. This is the way that the agreement about presenting works. When people accept the role of audience they effectively say, "Ok, over to you. What have you got?" This means you are put in a very powerful position. It may not feel that way.

The feeling we usually start out with is it's just little old me and all of them. The journey we make from there is one of 'ownership'. It is effectively a claiming of territory that most audiences will willingly give up. When you begin to work from a position of being in charge or responsible for everything, you start to realise that you are responsible for what your audience thinks and feels for the duration of the presentation. If they are excited it's your fault. If they are bored, it's your fault. If they can't keep up, it's your fault.

At first glance, this may seem more, rather than less difficult. But if you look again you can see that it brings with it a liberation from the straitjacket of just doing what you've already prepared (the Blue Peter approach to presenting). If you can see that they haven't understood and it's your fault, then the obvious thing to do is to depart from the script until everyone's up to speed. This can bring a gloriously refreshing approach to the preparation of a presentation, where you begin to look at a grab bag of possible routes you may take and possible things you may bring into your presentation.

The Sixth Law of Presentation Skills

6. In any Presentation, There is Always a Message

I said we'd look at easy ways of approaching presentation skills, so here's an idea that is quite complex to grasp, but once grasped, frighteningly simple in its effectiveness. Everything we do communicates. The experts who study the way communication works will tell you that in your typical face to face presentation situation, the words you say are actually a very small part of the communication. How you say them will often convey more meaning than the words themselves.

For example, the phrase "It's very quiet today", takes on a different meaning if you say "It's VERY quiet today". It is possible to make the most innocent phrase vicious with hidden meaning by the way you say it. However, these same experts will also tell you that it is possible that what you do and how you behave can carry more "message" than the combination of what you say and how you say it.

Another example is to take a look at politicians who are delivering the 'party line' or are put on the spot about something. How do you know that they are not telling you everything? It seems that if our spirit is not in line with what we are saying, our body will give us away, no matter what's coming out of our mouths.

There are two important factors at work here. The first is this: a strong message is conveyed by words, vocal force and demeanour. This means that a clearly defined message doesn't necessarily reside in the text or words you choose to say. Indeed, the most powerful messages are the unspoken ones. You can think of a strong message in soundbite terms. For instance "I want everyone to feel that I know what I'm talking about". I may never say outright "Listen, I know what I'm talking about", but if I make that the central message of my presentation, that is what most people will go away thinking.

Incidentally, if we haven't chosen a clear message we don't stop communicating, we just give a message by accident. We communicate that we're tired, or we've had a row with the wife, or anything else that happens to be hanging around. So if you haven't got a message - get one.

The second factor at work here is conviction, think belief, think passion. Think of it however you like, but it is that essential ingredient that makes what you say live. If you feel strongly about something, it will affect the way you speak about it. Passion communicates.

The Seventh Law of Presentation Skills

7. For all Presentations Passion is Mandatory

This is easier than it sounds. If you have to present something you have no real feeling for, then you need to find something you do have some feeling for and relate it to the subject you are presenting. The fit doesn't even have to be a very good one. You can start off by speaking about last night's football game because it excites you, and then make a deliberate segue into talking about widget production. The effect of the excitement in your body lasts for quite a while and will flow over into widget production. If it suits you, you could even make bad puns and poor analogies part of your style.

The reason I say passion is mandatory is simple. You can get everything else perfect, but if it doesn't have a sense of your commitment behind it, it will be dead. If it's dead, I can ignore it.

The final unwritten law of presentation skills is by now somewhat self-evident. Everything we have been talking about is to do with keeping presentation alive and powerful. Keeping it in the moment so that no one can sleep through it. Keeping it so that no one quite knows what's coming next. Making it something that people can't switch off to. Making it interactive as opposed to a repetition of a rehearsed and fixed programme.

So the Unwritten Law of Presentation Skills?

It's Presentation Not Television

To recap here, we're looking for an understanding of the way presentation works that will make it easier and more enjoyable for us to do. These seven presentation skills laws should help.

The Seven Laws of Presentation Skills

  1. Audiences sleep!
  2. Repetition is death!
  3. Feelings are a poor indicator of how you are doing!
  4. The job is to get them to want more of what you've got!
  5. When you're on, you're in charge!
  6. There is always a message!
  7. Passion is mandatory!

And remember - It's Presentation Not Television!


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