How to improve presentation skills? Should we be more formal?
I was asked the question the other day by a Graduate at a top city firm in London. He’d just given a pretty good presentation, under great pressure in a business simulation in front of his boss, colleagues and other senior people in the firm.
One of the seniors had given him some interesting feedback about his presenting ‘style’ , thinking him too informal for some of the clients he’d be meeting later in his career.
Sam’s 23 years old. His natural presenting style is conversational, and his lack of wrinkles and cynicism may make that seem informal, but his courtesy and charm will win over most people who might prefer a more ‘formal’ approach. And in my experience, most audiences would choose courteous, intelligent and charming, over formal every time.
However, Sam asked me for some thoughts on how to improve his presentation skills, so here we are: and let’s just assume that the feedback was useful and relevant (it was an opinion, so not factual), if Sam did need to develop a more formal style then here’s a few tips.
- Know the client- personally and in terms of organization culture, the expectations they have for the presentation in terms of tone, content, style and language. If they ask for formal, ask them to define what they mean by it.
- Ask the client what’s expected- Check on the required content & tone before you start to prepare , and get some clear ideas as to what they want out of the session too. It’ll create a great impression on your audience before you’ve even met them, and most professional presenters don’t bother to ask.
- Understand the protocol- If it is an ultra-formal event then there’ll probably be protocol to follow that will define the ritual and structure of the event. It will also help you to decide on ‘Mr’ or ‘mate’, dress code, suit or jeans, expected structure- PowerPoint presentation or freewheeling discussion around a table.
- Choose your language- We have a default language as human beings of a certain age, from a certain place and time, and that ‘default’ is not everyone’s cup of tea. So simply choose your language and lexicon based on the prospective audience in the same way that you would be careful when talking to Grandma about a wild night out on the town, or a very senior client about the shortcomings in your recommendations.
- Choose your ‘verb’- focus on what you’re trying to ‘do’ to the audience. Explaining has a whole different set of words, actions and beliefs behind it than persuading, or justifying. And the careful, conscious choice of verb, is often all that we need to focus on for all of the rest of the presentation ‘stuff’ to fall neatly into place.
So in summary it’s everything you do before the event that will help you do the formal/informal bit most effectively. It would be impossible for the greatest performer in the world to change the style of a tragedy like ‘Macbeth’ into a light-comedy as he walked into the theatre ready to perform.
But honestly, I don’t think that Sam need worry too much. His existing level of skill and his innate social grace will serve him very well however formal the occasion, or fusty the crowd.