When I first started giving presentations professionally, I struggled to try and meet a level of professionalism in my delivery that I thought my audience would be looking for me to bring to the table. Keep in mind, I was young and without a degree, speaking to university professors. It was hard to pass myself as being a professional or expert to such a crowd. But I tried. I tried to be as stiff as my attire would allow, and tried to make sure all of my delivery and responses were equally stiff.
This was a mistake.
My audiences were generally left bored and uninterested.
It’s a performance, so break a leg
Truth be told, a presentation in its truest form is a performance. I didn’t realize that right away, but once I figured that out it became clear what I needed to do and why my audiences were not receiving me well. I’m a trained method actor, but playing a character would be inappropriate, and that’s not what I’m talking about here. You need to be yourself, but make sure you are absolutely true to yourself.
- I quit the necktie. It’s not my style. I love suits, but I absolutely hate neckties (and bowties, too). Why someone thought tying a knot around your neck would be cool is beyond me. So, if I wore a suit, it was something I was comfortable in. I tend to prefer the Jim Rockford style of formal (casual formal suit without tie)—rest in peace, James Garner.
- I also quit trying to sound professional, and just tried to be myself as much as possible. When I felt the presentation was going too long without a joke or some interaction, I’d insert some. I don’t want to stand there and lecture in a boring manor any more than I’d want to receive that.
The result? People finally started taking me seriously. Funny how that works. It turned out people just wanted me to be honest to myself and be comfortable.
Energy, interaction, and a good laugh
After all of this self-examination of my delivery, I turned my attentions to three things with my new presentations: energy, interaction and a good laugh.
- Energy. A presentation without energy is like drinking decaf coffee in the morning: you’re probably not going to get much out of it. Sure it may taste right, but you won’t remember it and it won’t energize you to do great things. Try to energize and pump yourself up before a presentation, and keep track of that energy while presenting, so if you feel yourself starting to drag you can pick yourself back up. The audience will ebb and flow with your energy, this is true of all live performances so make the most of that.
- Interaction. Being able to connect with your audience in an interactive way is priceless. At the start of every presentation try to find a way to connect and get to know your audience. Many presenters like to start with their bio, list of qualifications—gag me. Instead of starting by talking about yourself, start off by talking about your audience, and then merge your intro into this interaction. For example, at an educational conference you might ask if you have any teachers in the audience (get a show of hands), instructional designers (show of hands), administrative staff (show of hands), IT personnel and so on. And be sure to raise your hand when your title comes up. I always made a good joke by finishing with, “Are there any folks here who are instructional designers, but without the pay and degree?” and I’d raise my hand with a bunch of other folks in the room. This typically got a good laugh and cheer, because it showed that I understood the landscape and connected with them. I was one of them, and we were all laughing and the ice was broken. There are many other ways to start off with interaction, but just make sure you’re connecting. And if you establish this interaction first, the audience will typically continue to interact with you throughout the presentation because you’ve let them know that it’s OK and that you are comfortable with that interaction.
- A Good Laugh. I cannot stress humor enough. If you can’t laugh or take a joke during your presentation, there’s a huge potential to lose your audience for good. Now, not all presentations will warrant humor and humor may not be true to you. I get that. But everyone enjoys a good laugh, so be willing to share one with your crowd as much as you can, because you like it too. Do not, however, use humor as a means to poke fun at others unless you are willing to jab yourself. Always, always be willing to jab yourself period. One of the best presentations I’ve ever seen is author Andrew Solomon’s Depression, The Secret We Share. Solomon talks about depression, sharing his experiences and story, and when I watch it I laugh and cry. And then, I laugh and cry some more. Possibly the greatest Ted Talk ever, not that I’ve seen them all.
I believe these three things are a great mixture for finding a good delivery. You won’t necessarily have all three in every presentation you give. Sometimes that will be your doing, or it will be the doing of your audience. Sometimes an audience just isn’t receptive. If you’re energetic and funny, and trying to be interactive but no one wants to interact, that’s not your fault. Don’t force their hands on it. Just keep up the energy and move on. But focus on these things while prepping, right before, and during your presentation. Probably the most important thing outside of these three things is Adaptation. And, because of that, I’m giving it its own header.
As you deliver your presentation, learn to adapt. Adapt to your audience. If they aren’t laughing, stop telling jokes because you’re probably making it more awkward. If you find that you aren’t connecting with your audience in a certain area, move through it as quickly as possible without looking like you changed anything or made a mistake. Sometimes, I’ll deliberately ask my audience their knowledge depth of a topic on something before going into it, because if the room knows everything about it I don’t want to waste their time. But, if they need me to, I can spend a few quick moments expounding on the topic. The previous exercise of finding out who is in the room at the start of a presentation helps in this arena as well. Knowing that you may need to adapt, you can learn to foresee these moments and build in moments to adapt as necessary right into your presentation.
Knowing that you may need to adapt, you can learn to foresee these moments and build in moments to adapt as necessary right into your presentation.
And don’t apologize. Just push through and adapt. Most audiences don’t pick up on mistakes or cover ups. And when it comes to improvisation, most audiences enjoy watching a good improvisation. It shows you know what you’re talking about and that you are confident. Unless, of course, you fall on your face. But that being said, while I say don’t apologize, it’s always OK to jab yourself if you feel like you’re struggling through something. And that can be something as simple as saying, “Wow, that was awkward. Moving on.”
While we were mostly making applications to presentation delivery, this also applies to conversations. I’ve had to sit in on some meetings where some serious discussions were taking place, where I was not at the top of the food chain, and being able to keep energetic, interactive and good humored helped me drive some points home without losing face to those in the room. Sometimes people struggle to address certain topics, because they’re hot, and they feel like it has to be said in a serious tone. I’ve often found that if you can just call it what it is, and maybe keep people smiling when you do, that folks will listen and the discussion can progress. This isn’t always true, but it can make an impact on some.
Concluding, my challenge to you would be to examine yourself. Examine your delivery.
Are you delivering in a manner that is effective to most? Are you energetic, interactive, and do you have a good humor? Are you adapting to your audience? Are you being true to yourself? Does your audience get a sense of who you are when you speak?