A few years ago I wrote this paragraph for the Reference Guide we distribute to all the participants in our Presentation Skills workshops:
One of the first questions we ask before a workshop begins is, “If you had to choose one thing to take away from this class, what would it be?” When we started asking this question, I was surprised to learn that the answer was almost always the same. People wanted to be more comfortable. They wanted the image they project as “presenter” to be the same as the image they project the rest of the time. They didn’t want to become someone flashy or unusual. They wanted to be themselves when they were presenting, just without the loss of control and the nagging belief that they weren’t quite succeeding. They were confident that they would be effective and persuasive once comfort was achieved.
I’m in the process of writing a new version of the Reference Guide now. I’m excited about it because it will include some new ways of thinking about and improving presentations. One thing that won’t change, though, is the idea that presenters want to be comfortable, to “be themselves.” This goal has become so central to our approach that it’s part of our new tag line. Find your focus. Be yourself. Only better.
What this means for training
Life in the presentation skills classroom would be so easy if we could say to participants, “OK, I’d like you to deliver your presentation now, and don’t worry about making it fancy or anything, just be yourself.” But, it doesn’t work that way. A lot of things happen to your “self” when you walk to the front of the room to deliver a presentation. Nervousness gets in the way, affecting the way you look and sound. Sometimes your mind goes blank or your thoughts start racing ahead . You may speed up, speak too quietly, freeze in place or forget to look at people. The pressure you feel also affects what you say. For example, the drive to be clear and accurate might lead you to say more than you need to. Or you may go off on a tangent and forget to use your slides.
These reactions, and all the others you may have experienced, are manageable.
First, you need to know what is happening to you. This isn’t as easy as you might think. Your everyday self-awareness is often taken over by uncomfortable self-consciousness when you’re presenting.
Second, you need to know what to do to engage your listeners in a genuine, conversation.
If there’s a secret to being yourself at the front of the room it’s engagement. Here’s how it works.
Find your focus.
Finding your focus means knowing what to do to get engaged. For most people it comes down to two skills: eye contact or pausing (or a combination of the two). These skills work differently for everyone, so our job in the training room is to help people experiment and discover what works best for them.
Once presenters are engaged, they feel comfortable. They’re aware of their listeners, but not distracted by them. Their thoughts settle down, and they can think on their feet. When this happens, their personalities and natural communication skills emerge.
When presenters are comfortable and engaged, they’re able to respond appropriately to the presentation environment. They’re aware of their position in the room and are free to move about comfortably. They’re free to focus on their listeners, slides and message. They know instinctively what they need to say or do to get their ideas across. Further, they’ve tamed any habits or delivery distractions that may have plagued them in the past.
In short, when presenters focus on engaging their listeners, they feel and look comfortable, project the confidence that’s within them and take control of the unpredictable, spontaneous process of presenting.
They have found their focus. They are themselves. Only better.