Some Thoughts on "Never Try to Teach a Pig to Sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig."
October 7, 2014
Public Speaking Hacks and How to Make a Presentation Worth the Attention of the Audience
October 11, 2014
Today I was at a conference which gathered a lot of IT professionals who were invited to share their experience and inspire people who have just gotten into the IT sector, possibly hoping to become as fulfilled in life as the speakers. Even though all the presenters had what to say to the audience, some of the presentations couldn't take students' attention for more than 5 minutes and the remaining 35 were torture for all. Therefore, I decided to write an article and to share some experience about public speaking, which I have gained in the last 15 years when I was speaking at conferences and events, hoping it would be of some help to the reader.
The first most important principle for me is that I should highly value the audience of the event in order to accept to speak to it. It may sound a bit too proud but the truth is absolutely opposite. Valuing the audience goes in its basics to understanding what people don't know, accepting the fact that they want to learn, which itself deserves respect and being thankful that these people are giving you some of their precious lifetime to listen to your presentation becasue they trust you as a speaker and accept your knowledge, experience or authority. Therefore, you have no right to let those people down. That is, just as your presentation can insipre them, so can it disappoint them aand they may lose their respect for you. The speaker should really care which of the two outcomes the presentation will have. To be honest, I also always feel this way everytime I write something on my blogs and try to be as clear as concise as possible.
The second most important rule for me is to have what to share with the audience. Sometimes you are a real expert in what you do, you are invited to speak but you really can't contribute much to the topic. Again, value your audience's time and don't just speak nonesence. It is much better to discuss a topic change or to kindly explain that you cannot make a worthy presentation on the subject, instead of showing to people and either changing the subject on the spot or speaking about tedious unlrelated issues.
Which brings me to the next point and it is: be short and concise! You know the principle of redundancy in statistics, which says that you should have the least possible correlation between the independable variables so that you can explain the dependable variable with the simplest model possible? Same story here. Do not repeat yourself in the presentation too much because people will be left with the impression that you don't have a point. If you want to emphasize something, just say it. The audience will really notice if you say: "The single most important point of the presentation is..." or "If there is one thing that I really want to be remembered from my presentation, that would be it" and will reallize that it is something important and remember it. This will work way better than to constantly repeat the same words as if you don't know what else to say.
This also implies the principle of honesty: be honest with your audience. If you don't know something, say it! Don't make up! It is perfectly fine to say: "I should further research on this question and I will get back to you". I myself had a problem adopting this principle because I am used to speaking and teaching subjects I'm an expert at but we are all humans and the lack of knowledge shouldn't disturb us that much and shouldn't feel as a failure. No one knows everything and no one should expect you to know everything. This rule also refers to showing emotions and your human side. The times when the presenter was expected to be a flawless machine are long gone. Today it is perfectly fine to say something along the lines of: "I am very grateful to be with you today. It is a great pleasure for me to speak to so many people and surprisingly even for me, I feel a bit nervous about the presentation today because I really value your opinion and I hope you will find the information useful and interesting." Honesty always creates a connection with the audience and removes all barriers on both sides.
Then comes the actual moment of presenting. Have a realistic self-assesment about your level of presentation skills and allocate time for preparation. Right now, I sometimes have presentations that I prepare about 10 minutes before I start speaking because I know just exactly what I want to say and how I will structure it. However, if you need more time (which is normal, most people do, I also do when I have to speak to a new type of audience or subject), then spend more time!
Sometimes it is good to prepare a multimedia presentation, which I will soon speak about in another post but don't overdo it. Presentations can destract attention in some cases so carefuly think about what you want the audience to focus on. Along the same lines: don't dress provokatively or inadequately! It is also rarely a good idea to give long handouts with a lot of paragraphs before the presentation. Some people get tempted to do that as a way to show how prepared they are. If you want to give some handouts, make them as useful as possible because they should serve a purpose much different than to show off with your prepareness so it is better to give them at the end. This way you won't discourage people to listen, take notes and participate. Moreover, don't reveal your intentions to give the slides after the presentation (if you have such intention, of course).
And the last, but really important rule is to make the tone of the presentation appropriate. We have a separate workshop about how to control your voice during presentations and it is important because people should feel as relaxed as possible during the presentation so that they can focus on what you are saying. If your voice trumbles and you sound unconfident, this will make them feel the tention and will simply want the presentation to be over as soon as possible. In addition, the presenter should use appropriate and respectful language. All statements should be as impartial as possible and you should make a clear distinction of the facts from the opinions. State the facts and allow for the audience to form an opinion. Respect it if it is contraty to yours and support your position with facts. No arguments should happen and you shouldn't get emotional irrespective of the reactions of the people in the audience because a bad tone will make the whole presentation sound unprofessional.
In short these are the presenation hacks that I have come up with after years of public speaking. I hope they were useful and I am looking forward to your comments and suggestions to improve!