When you spend a lot of time doing anything–even something others consider intimidating or scary–such as public speaking–it’s easy to overlook the skills you call upon so often. We tend to achieve, via “overlearning” or rehearsal, such a high degree of familiarity and comfort with that skill that we no longer can relate to others struggling with it. I have spent my entire career, both in IT and in change work, communicating. Both one on one and with groups of people. So I don’t find this in any way daunting. Why? Because I’m so brilliant? Not really. Go back to the first sentence above. I simply do it a lot.
Keep that in mind as you proceed on your own path toward improvement–however you define that. If you do it a lot, you will get better. That’s obvious. Sure, you may struggle at first, but in time it will be so effortless you won’t even consider the “how” of it. You just do it.
Yet I was asked recently to coach a sales professional in his presentation skills. Are you familiar with the expression, “Death by PowerPoint”? The idea is that a presenter substitutes their entire message with colorful, sometimes animated, slides, which they project for everyone to view. In place of their actually leading the talk. Now, can that still work? Sure. As the audience is focused on your slides, you can speak to their unconscious minds–they can’t consciously process both simultaneously. But what’s the challenge with that? Your slides have to be so interesting as to maintain their conscious focus as you speak to them. That would have to be one monotonous speaker to not compete with a slide show! But what if you are? What if you managed to keep the audience distracted with the slide show (or kitten video from Youtube, or whatever else), as you delivered your message? Any skilled hypnotist knows that this is an ideal formula–the conscious mind is engaged (read: distracted) and the skilled hypnotist begins talking to the audience’s unconscious mind. This can be effective, but you really have to know what you’re doing. We will learn that later on. But since every skill builds on its foundation, the learnings that came before, let’s nail this one first.
So, outside of a skilled hypnotist using the slide deck as a conscious diversion, giving him or her access to the audience’s unconscious minds, the slide show is not that effective. Another reason is that few presenters using presentation software (you didn’t think I would keep singling out MIcrosoft, did you?) can resist the urge to read the slides to their audience. But if they’re doing that, why show the slides at all? Surely, your audience can read the slides for themselves, right? It’s redundant at best.
Many presenters have substituted white-boarding as an alternative, as it tends to draw the audience in and engage them directly, turning it into a dialog, not a monolog.) This is certainly an improvement. Think about it. When you present a slide deck via a projector, the slides are obviously already created. You may have some slick animation to make them less predictable, but they are still static–the content is already finished and saved. They represent a monologue.
The white board or “Dry-erase” board invites the audience to participate in what you draw. You can ask questions, they can interact with you, then you capture it on the board. It’s a dialogue. Much better.
Plus, you can still use the drawing you do on the board as a diversion while you speak to their unconscious minds.
Now, to be fair, a white board isn’t a panacea. You can still use a white board and suck. I saw one presenter totally mess this up by having the white board completely filled before the attendees even filed into the room. He refused to make it a dialog! Of course, if I had asked, he could say, “Well you said to use a white board! I did!” Technically he was right, but he still found a way to do it wrong.
There is also the issue of presence. As we present, we command a space, and we compel our audience to offer their attention. They of course can decline and instead check email, play on their smartphones, talk with one another, anything they choose. It’s up to us to offer a compelling story, invite them into it, and. do so with enough charisma and enthusiasm, and hopefully skill, to engage their attention and keep it. The simplest thing, in the absence of already being a great speaker or presenter, is to be excited, yourself as you connect with your audience. Much of that will have to do with rapport, and anyone can learn to become a great presenter if they want that skill.
But the next time you watch a presentation and the speakers don’t even seem interested themselves, take note of what they do with the the subject matter. Do they offer Death by PowerPoint? Do they try to engage with a white board? Do they ask questions, invite participation? Do you see anything that you know you would never want to do in that situation? These are learning opportunities and for those who want to get better, we can dig deeper.