Delivering your presentation

6 pieces of tomfoolery that some public speaking coaches tell you… and why they're wrong

Philip Larkin, late, lonely, lovely English poet, wrote a short and bitter little thing that leads us into why so much rubbish is spouted to us by people who really should know better.  ‘This be the Verse’…

They F*** you up your Mum and Dad’
They do not mean to but they do,
They fill you up with all their troubles,
Then throw a few in extra just for you.

But they were f***ed up in their turn,
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern,
And half at one another’s throats,

Man hands on misery to man,
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as quickly as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Hmmm.  Larkin didn’t have any kids and he died friendless and alone, so let’s not use him as too much of a role model.  But it makes me think that we’ve all been taught things by people who, were doing what they thought was best for us, with the tools at their disposal, at the time.  Hindsight is the human being’s greatest gift, isn’t it?

Obviously a lot of what we’ve been told is valid but some, we come to realise, is just plain useless. I look round the great presentation skills blogs by my colleagues across the world (I’ll tell you who they are as we go on) and all of us seem to have a collected a few of the presenting  ‘myths’ to dispel, so here are 6 things that I was taught on my journey; by trainers who meant well; but that I’ve found to be fool’s gold as I’ve grown.

  1. Don’t speak too quickly- What a lot of tosh.  Some people speak more quickly than others, and they should because it reflects them, their culture and their personality.  It’s never how quickly you speak that affects whether you’re understood.  It’s how well. Ever seen the ‘Quick Shakespeare Company’ who can do ‘Hamlet’ in 4 minutes?  They speak at a rate of hundreds of words a minute and are easily understood.  Why?  Because their articulation is perfect and they honour the punctuation in the piece.
  2. Don’t say ‘Umm’ or ‘Errrr’- Why not and who cares? If it’s a natural, human sound you make occasionally when you’re thinking, then I think people don’t notice.  But if it’s the sound you make at the end of every sentence while you think of what to say next, it probably means you’re not prepared and you should be whipped for it.
  3. Don’t use notes-Why not? What they often mean is ‘pretend you don’t need notes’ and you end up using your slides, or a surreptitously hidden piece of paper, that looks poor and makes you nervous.  Notes, cue cards, scripts are all fine and rather like wigs (toupees, hairpieces, whatever they’re called where you live), they should be used unapologetically and well.
  4. Don’t get nervous?- Why not?  Surely it’s nervous excitement that delivers real performance.  You should get nervous, throw-up if it helps, but learn to use the adrenaline and manage the effects so that you’re really ‘switched on’ when you perform.  Most audiences like to see a little sign of nervous energy at the start.  It tends to mean that the speaker is taking us, and her subject seriously.
  5. Don’t wave your hands about- Again, what are the other options?  Handcuffs? Pockets? Behind your back?  No.  Use your hands, gleefully, joyfully (and all those other words from ‘The Logical Song’ by Supertramp) naturally.  It’s what human beings do when they talk, and it helps you to express, emote and, errr, think.
  6. Don’t get in the way of the projecter- OK so why not? Surely you have to if you want to engage with your visuals, and direct your audience’s attention to where it’s best for them. What’s the alternative? Stand next to it, stiff as a board, looking like a lemon? Just do it deliberately and love it.

Where do most of these myths come from?  American political pollsters who look at politicians and how they ‘work’ on TV.  Their results, over time are then passed on to political advisers, who work with their politicians on very specific issues to do with the way they come over on camera. And guess what? All of the things I’ve listed above do look terrible on TV because there’s that really powerful, small frame, close-up, magnifying effect that TV has.

From Nixon vs Kennedy in the 60’s (we’re back to old style hats and coats) to McCain v Obama right now, the US election is a battle that’s won on the news networks, so it’s really important that candidates know the rules.

That’s where all this stuff comes from.  It’s all valid for TV and totally, completely, ludicrously irrelevant for us in the real world of work.



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