By Susan deBruyn
Presentations can be hard. It’s almost impossible to imagine presenting without filler words like “uh” or “oh.” Read below to see how you can improve your presentation skills.
“The success of your presentation will be judged not by the knowledge you send but by what the listener receives.”
Lilly Walters, Author
A few years ago, I was on a panel, interviewing a job applicant. As I listened to the candidate speak, I noticed something different. She was not using any filler words. No “uh” or “so” at all. It was fascinating. I thought surely she’d eventually slip one of these words or phrases into our conversation; after all, everyone does it, however unintentionally. But no, the interview lasted about an hour and not once did I hear a single “um.”
I’ve thought of her often when I become aware of someone speaking in a meeting or giving a presentation who is saying “um” way too frequently. At a certain point, it becomes hard not to notice. Often, we aren’t ready to say what we’re thinking, so we use one of these crutch words. It’s a compulsion to begin speaking even though we may not be ready to express ourselves in an intelligent manner. Or perhaps we are uncomfortable with silence. Nevertheless, eliminating filler words from presentations and speeches or even during a phone call makes your message smoother and easier to listen to.
Which brings us to how to enhance your overall presentation skills so your audience wants to listen to you, whether you’re interviewing with a panel, leading a meeting, instructing a class, addressing a group with a specific message or providing instructional information on a typically dry topic.
Keep Your Audience Engaged
I’ve listened to many presentations including all-day classes about interesting topics and very dry trainings where I’ve struggled to stay awake. I’ve listened to job applicants being interviewed and to keynote speakers presenting a speech or lecture. Presentation skills take some practice. That may seem obvious, but they don’t come naturally to everyone. As a long-time audience member of numerous presentations, I’ve identified some practices that enhance engagement, focus attention and contribute to the overall positive experience of the presentation:
- Jump right in and get to the heart of the matter with a story or something relevant to the topic. Refrain from starting off with information the audience may already know or can figure out themselves, such as where the restrooms are or parking details. Entrepreneur.com advises to let people know up front how they’ll benefit from what you have to say. Make the housekeeping announcements, if necessary, a little later.
- Incorporating some movement in your speech provides variety for the audience and helps keep their attention, but don’t pace! When you walk to one side of the room or the other, plant your feet and stay still for a few minutes and always start and end the speech in the center position. One of the best instructors I ever had did this. I wanted to watch him, where he was going next, and see what he was up to. If I started getting drowsy, having to watch the presenter helped keep me engaged. Ted Talks is an example of this tactic.
- Engage the audience with a low-key activity before the official start time. Participants may join in as they enter the venue, if they choose, but they aren’t obligated to participate if they’re not comfortable doing so. One idea is to pose questions on big whiteboards and invite participants to answer and add their responses. Another idea is to place a trivia quiz at each participant’s seat that encourages interaction with other participants.
- Smile often, employ an upbeat delivery without speaking too quickly and make eye contact with individual audience members. Speaking with a “smile in your voice” and drawing in audience members with eye contact encourages engagement and keeps people off their phones and laptops. In addition, it’s important to pause often in what you are saying so it doesn’t sound like you’re reading from a script. Pace your words; if your listeners have to work too hard to keep up with what you’re saying, they’re going to check out.
- Don’t read the PowerPoint slides to your audience. People can take the information in more quickly than you can speak. Give the audience a few moments to digest the information on the slide while you elaborate further on the points, if needed.
- Distribute something tangible to the audience. Documents or samples pertaining to the subject at hand that are examples. Alternatively, fidget toys, such as stress balls or putty are tactile items that can help keep participants alert in all-day classes.
- Tell stories and provide examples throughout the presentation or class. Everyone likes a good story, which helps tie the whole presentation together into a neat bundle, making the core message more meaningful and memorable. I may not remember all the data, but I do remember the idea behind the story.
Even though online meeting participants are staring at a two-dimensional image on a flat screen, the tips are very similar to presenting in person. The degree to which you pull off the skills below will determine the effectiveness of your presentation.
Tips for more effective online presentations
- Choose a simple, appropriate background that doesn’t distract from you as the speaker, and soft natural lighting. During this time of virtual meetings, I’ve seen more than one meeting participant’s bedroom quite clearly while they were speaking! If this location is your only option, at least blur your background or use an alternative background scene.
- Dress professionally, even if you won’t be on camera as much. It can help you, as the speaker, feel more confident.
- Smile, even if you’re not on screen and it’s not your normal style. Smiling will transfer over to what you say. You want to come across as personable and approachable.
- Display visual aids or props to keep your audience engaged. I attended an online workshop where the speaker occasionally held up small signs. One sign consisted of a heart she’d show instead of saying thank you, and another had a thumbs up indicating a positive point she was making. These are easy to customize for your presentation.
- Invite the participants to answer an online survey or poll and post the results for all to see. My favorite book club does this for online events.
- Show a variety of different photos, graphics or videos.
- Share data that people aren’t expecting or details the participants most likely don’t know.
- Enable online chat amongst the participants.
- Encourage discussions and questions.
Make the Closing Memorable
The presentation’s closing is equally important. In her book The Art of Gathering, How We Meet and Why It Matters*, author Priya Parker counsels to avoid an ending of any kind of gathering be it an interview, a class or a speech without an “intentional closing” first, signifying the event is winding down. Don’t let it come to an abrupt halt. Parker says participants need to be prepared for the end in order to remember their experience and what they can take away from it.
She also advises not to thank people as the last thing; it can be next to last if you must, but end on a more powerful note with something memorable like a handout containing valuable information, thoughtful gesture, or inspiring short story. I’ve attended events that closed by asking the participants a question requiring a short, sometimes one-word answer. Or the speaker can summarize what was presented, after first giving notice time is almost up, or distribute hand-outs that support the purpose of the event.
In conclusion, rather than thanking you for reading to the end of this post, I’ll leave you with a thought to reflect on, attributed to the American author, poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.
Susan deBruyn recently retired from The University of Texas at Austin as a Senior Human Resource Coordinator after working more than 16 years in the professional and continuing education field for adult learners.
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