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Talking on the Edge: Giving Presentations

Want some practical tips for public speaking?

You're at a funeral: would you rather be offering the eulogy or lying dead in the casket? According to Jerry Seinfeld-as well as statistical surveys-you'd prefer death to the prospect of speaking in front of people.

I've been thinking about public speaking and communications for a number of reasons.

It's that time of year: politicians on the hustings (what are hustings, anyway?!), profs and teachers headed back to lecturing. Closer to home, I've been giving workshops. And recently, I've been working with an author who's about to go on book tour.

Giving presentations is a quintessential performance moment, filled with the need to be articulate and to engage an audience...when there's only one shot at doing it just right, if not perfectly.

I was intrigued by an article I read about giving presentations. Although his (written) audience is psychologists in independent practice, Dr. David Verhaagen, offers advice that can apply to anyone giving a presentation. Here's a combination of what he has to say as well as some of my own thoughts and commentary.

The critically important moments are the beginning and the ending: you need to start strong and end strong. This is known as the primacy effect and the recency effect: depending on the situation, people are most likely to recall either the way that something started (primacy) or the way that something ended (recency). To cover all bases, make sure that both are strong. The rest-the actual content-well, you've got some leeway on that.

So how do you begin? Very simply, suggests Dr. Verhaagen: your name and affiliation, the topic and structure you're going to use, and a hook, something that will catch your audience's attention. It might be a brief story, an engaging question, a pithy quote or unexpected fact, an unusual visual.

What ties these "hooks" together is that they are unusual: they set up the audience to pay attention. Earnest dictionary definitions, lame jokes, or predictable cartoons don't cut it-people will tune you out before you start.

As for the ending: summarize some key points and then suggest something that the audience can actually do with the information. You want the audience-whether or not they actually take that action-to think at that moment: "Ah, I could/should/will do X!"

What about the in between parts? Although some people are very good at just telling stories (probably laced with a lot of language that gets you to picture aspects of the story), for most of us, actual visual elements will keep our audience focused and help them understand the material more completely. Powerpoint-type slides are certainly popular-and work well, if you keep the content simple, use fonts that are large enough that your audience can read the text, include a pictorial, and if you don't just read off the slide. (You don't need Alice Audience to think: "Why did I bother to come here? I could've just stayed home and read this to myself.")

Preparing slides also nudges you toward figuring out a logical sequence to what you want to say as well as a way of saying it without straightforward reading. Of course, practice, practice, practice will make the presentation of the content go more smoothly!

In some situations, electronics are out of the question. Maybe even newsprint and markers won't be available. One of my most successful visual moments engaged the audience quite directly: Working with some dance students, I wanted to draw a fairly complex graph. At the venue, I realized there were no visual aids in the room. What could I do?

I got two of the students to lie on the floor at right angles to each other, so that one represented a Y axis, and the other, the X. Walking in between them, I could step out the elements within the graph.

In addition to content, there is the all-important issue of process. How do you go about connecting with your audience? As choral conductors often comment, audiences hear with their eyes: your facial and bodily expressions will convey your meaning sometimes almost as much as the language that you use.

Where and how do you stand? How and when do you move? The best way may be whatever feels natural to you. By natural, I don't mean what feels least terrifying when you're in the "deer in the headlights" moment of a major presentation. Rather, are you naturally someone who tends toward large gesture or more casual movement? Can you move away from the podium? Can you get used to a microphone or learn to project your voice?

Being somewhat over-the-top is good-after all, this is not everyday conversation: it's a performance. At the same time, if you make yourself do something that is totally beyond your tolerable behavioral range, all that will happen is that your audience will pick up on how unnatural this feels to you. (My advice: forget the old "imagine you're speaking to a roomful of naked people." I know it's just an imagery exercise, but there's part of me that keeps taking it literally: it's always seemed to me that someone would feel embarrassed. It might be the audience members who realize that they're naked; perhaps it's you, the only one in the room who's wearing clothes.)

Eye contact? It's a good thing. It may mean picking out a few people throughout the room and speaking directly to them. It may mean speaking just to their right ear, if looking at them directly freaks you out. A slow sweep can work wonders.

And of course, yet again: practice, practice, practice.

Want more suggestions? One of my favorites is an oldie but goodie: the book Effective Presentation Skills by Steve Mandel.

Here's good speaking to you!