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How to Give a Presentation Part I: It's Not About You

The bottom line in successful presenting: It's not about you.

This post is in response to
Presentation Skills for Introverts: Full Tilt Boogie


I teach psychology, with classes sometimes ranging up to several hundred students. I sometimes lecture six to eight times a week. Althought that's a lot of what professors do, it's something I got absolutely no training for when I was in graduate school.

Everything I learned about giving presentations I learned as an interior design student. We gave formal or informal presentations to professors and peers at least once a week for the four years I was an undergraduate at Cornell. Why? Because as an interior designer, a big chunk of your job is presenting to clients. They knew that a large part of our professional success would rely on our ability to clearly and succintly talk about our ideas. And they also knew that practice makes perfect.

In reading the post Presentation Skills for Introverts, I was reminded of the presentation I give every summer for Oberlin's mentoring program for students in the sciences and humanities. This is the first section of my handout.

The bottom line is: It's not about you - it's about your audience. Keep that in mind, and you will be less nervous and your audience will be much happier.

How to Give (Or Not Give) A Presentation

The form of your presentation is determined by your goals.

There are many situations where you will be asked to give presentations. These situations come up in a number of ways: you’re asked to run a meeting or lead a discussion of a reading for a seminar. You might be asked to teach a class on a specific topic, like performing an analysis of variance or walking on stilts. If you undertake a major project, you are often asked to make a formal presentation of your ideas. This might take the form of explaining how you arrived at a particular interpretation of an art work or historical event, or it might be that you are asked to explain a scientific project that you’ve completed.

The scenarios I’ve laid out differ in two important aspects that determine their form and their goals.

First, they differ in the extent to which the focus is on the group rather than the presenter. For example, the goal of a meeting is that we all come to understand one another (i.e., the goal is for the group to share their ideas). In contrast, the goal of a formal presentation is for the group to come to understand your ideas.

Second, the scenarios differ in the extent to which their progress towards that goal is best served by proceeding in a linear fashion. When leading a discussion of a shared reading, for example, your goal may be to explore different ideas inherent in the piece, make links to different aspects of other ideas, critique the major arguments, and come to a new understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the piece or change your understanding of the field. To reach this goal, there may be clear stepping stones along the way. For example, you might organize your discussion by asking:

  • What is the main purpose of the piece?
  • How does the author try to accomplish that and what major ideas are expressed?
  • How does each idea link to other material?
  • Are the arguments internally consistent?
  • What can we take from this piece?

Because the goal of a discussion is to have everyone share their ideas and introduce different perspectives, your process and discussion may be relatively non-linear as the group explores different threads along the way to its destination.

A scientific talk, on the other hand, lends itself to a very linear organization:

  • What is the question I tried to answer?
  • Why is it important?
  • How did I answer it?
  • What did I learn?
  • How does it fit into what we know more generally about the topic?
  • Where should we go next?

Depending on your goals, the structure, content, and form of your presentation will differ dramatically.

It’s not about you.

Although presentations vary widely, they all have two things in common.

  • First, the focus of a good presentation is on the needs of the audience.
  • Second, your role as a presenter is to shape the group experience to make sure you meet those needs.

Your success as a presenter will be judged by how good you are at meeting the needs. You’ve run a good discussion when everyone feels they’ve shared and explored their ideas and comes to a different understanding of a piece they read alone. You’ve taught a good class when everyone has a clear understanding of the topic and had their questions answered. You’ve given a good scientific talk when people know what you’ve done, why you did it, and why they should be excited by it. If you’ve done that well, people will also think you’re a good leader, intelligent, and possibly charming, witty, or attractive, but that is entirely a byproduct of how good you’ve made them feel about what the group has accomplished.

How to Approach the Task

There are five main components to pulling together a good presentation:

  1. Choose a goal;
  2. Find a storyline that will help the group reach that goal;
  3. Develop a series of activities or a method of presentation that allows you to develop your storyline. Don’t let your media determine your storyline!
  4. Remember that your role is to facilitate the group reaching its shared goal. This is your primary responsibility!
  5. Remember that it’s not about you. All that matters is the experience of the other people in the room.

Avoiding Pitfalls

The best way to undermine your presentation is to communicate your nervousness and discomfort to the audience so they spend so much time feeling bad for you that they can’t focus on what you’ve got to say. Every sensible person is nervous when they present. They’ve just taken on the responsibility of the well-being of a whole group of people for some duration of time, plus they’ve just been given the opportunity to look like an idiot to boot. But just because you feel nervous doesn’t mean you have to look nervous. All of these things will help still your nerves:

  • Have something to say. Focusing on what you’re going to do, rather than what you’re feeling, is wonderfully distracting.
  • Plan and practice. Always have a clear idea of where you think the group should be going. If it is a participatory presentation or there will be questions, anticipate them, so you can integrate them and use them to move towards you goal. Say things out loud so your mouth knows what to do when you are too nervous to think straight.
  • Control your physiology. A racing heart, rapid breathing, and sweaty palms will make you feel nervous even if you know exactly what you’re going to do. Control them. Slow, deep, calming breaths will slow down your heart and help you to focus. Before a presentation (or a test!) I often wash my hands and run warm water over my wrists, because it slows down my heart and helps me to still my mind.
  • Focus on making everyone else comfortable. Your job as presenter is to facilitate the experience of everyone else. Remember, it’s not about you. Focus on communicating your ideas and bringing everyone into the room together for a common purpose. If you focus on making them feel comfortable, you’ll worry less about yourself.

Nerves focus the attention of the group on you and your emotional state. Less obvious ways of undermining your presentation by making it all about you are to dress in ways that takes the focus off your ideas or to indulge in mannerisms that distract your audience. When getting ready for a presentation:

Choose clothes that complement your presentation, but don’t draw attention to themselves. For example, when you’re discussing the fine points of educational policy at your local school board, you don’t want people in the audience to be wondering whether your navel ring is going to catch in your belt buckle. Similarly, your Got Beer? t-shirt might not help you establish the kind of authority you want to convey when discussing the year-long study you did of mollusk population densities.

Use ties, jewelry, makeup, or scarves strategically. Just like your clothing, your jewelry or makeup shouldn’t draw attention to themselves. This probably is not the time for the big dangly earrings or the bright green eyeliner. On the other hand, if you are leading a large group, makeup, jewelry, or scarves can help highlight your face to help you stand out against a busy background. One of the reasons that men often wear suits and ties is that the triangular shirt framed by the dark suit brings your eye up to the face and mouth. The linear tie draws the eye upwards and facilitates that. If you’re presenting to a large group and a suit isn’t appropriate, look at your wardrobe and find an outfit that will function similarly.

Avoid annoying mannerisms. Flicking your hair over your shoulder, saying ‘um’ or ‘like’, or picking your ears all take away from the group’s focus on the ideas.

In sum, your appearance should function as wallpaper - it provides a nice background, but shouldn’t be noticeable. You want them to remember your ideas, not your fashion sense or how sexy you are. Your ideas are important. You aren’t.

By focusing on what other people need and how you can meet those needs, you stop thinking about yourself and your nerves and start thing about them.

And that's the first step towards success.

For information on the how to of telling your story and do's and don'ts for PowerPoints, see:

Followup Post: How To Give a Presentation Part II: Tell A Good Story

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