What are the 7 Presentation Skills
Students frequently ask what are the seven top skills that a presenter should master or pay attention to.
Different Public Speakers will come up with different lists and certainly different orders of priority.
However here are 7 key areas to focus on, especially if you are preparing or a work presentation and intend to use slides to accompany your delivery.
I remember touring as a musician. We were travelling from city to city by coach. We would play at a venue, go back to the hotel and the following day we would travel two to three hours by coach to the next venue.
You probably think I am going to emphasise how important it is for a musician to practise. Not this time! On tour there is always enough going on without trying to find time to practise your instrument as well.
What struck me was what happened on the coach journeys between venues. I was part of a group of fairly straight faced classical musicians and we were touring as the string section in a ‘Big Band’ full of jazz musicians. A few minutes after getting on to the coach each morning, one of the jazz musicians would start to tell a joke. Then another one would join in and two hours would fly as we were entertained by an unofficial and hilarious ‘open mic’ session.
I have never been much of a joke teller and was in awe of their ability to hold an audience and smoothly deliver story after story. After a few days I began to realise why.
When some of us went back to our hotel rooms to watch TV or read or meet others in the bar or hotel lobby, some of the other musician went back to their rooms to rehearse their jokes. They would practise their delivery, work on the timing, consider the transitions and decide how best to handle interruptions, so that they could ‘perform’ the following morning on the bus. It felt to me as if for many of the musicians, performing well on the coach in front of their colleagues each day was more important to them than performing well on the stage at night. The truth is of course that these were top, top musicians and performance on stage to them was a ‘given’. They had been engaged because of their musical skills and their proven experience and playing the instrument had become almost second nature. The real fun and challenge was telling the jokes! In a similar way, a leading politician or regular public speaker can perform on stage, apparently without much preparation, because the real practice has been going on for years beforehand. It has all been thought through and spoken many times, so that when they seem to be thinking on their feet, like these musicians on stage, they are ‘riffing’ on themes they have played many times.
For most of us, as less frequent speakers we need to work hard on that level of freedom and ease of delivery and that only comes with practice!
- focus your practice on establishing your key message,
- go back and practise your opening words, so that they came out strongly, even when you are feeling nervous
- think about how you are going to transition from one section or slide to the next
- and rather than trying to memorise the content word for word, talk it through in your head or out loud, until you feel comfortable.
Is all this going to take time? Yes, it is. But one strong, well-delivered presentation can make a lasting impression on everyone around you and it will get you noticed!
I have just told you about musicians telling polished stories.
Presenters also are advised to prepare stories to help deliver their message.
So, what is the difference between an everyday story or a joke and a business presentation?
The presentation story has to have a point to it!
Comedians like Billy Connolly take you on an entertaining journey, and as they do they may add further funny sub-journeys to their stories to make them even more entertaining. And so eventually a joke that started off taking two minutes to deliver, can be built up to an involved fifteen minute performance.
And we love the journey. We enjoy all the detours, because we are there to be entertained.
A business presentation is all about the destination and the journey is only there to illustrate the point of the destination, therefore the quicker, neater and the clearer the journey the better.
Like the entertainers, top presenters are also telling stories, but their stories are streamlined to illustrate their point in the most efficient way and are delivered in a way that avoids any ambiguity and any possible confusion along the way. Many business presenters can be very funny; they tell entertaining stories and can make their audience laugh, but they never lose sight of the fact that their purpose is, first and foremost, to inform or to educate, and if they manage to entertain as well, that will always remain secondary to the principal purpose of the presentation.
A comedian’s job is to tell stories and sometimes as they do so they may make very a powerful point.
A presenter’s job is to make the point and only if it is the most effective, will they choose to tell an entertaining story.
Structure the presentation
Often the most simple story structure works very well for a full business presentation.
You don’t need to get too clever. Nancy Duarte, who teaches presentations in the USA and who contributed the graphics and format of Al Gove’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, says that all presentations can be reduced to a bouncing back and forth from:
‘this is where we are’ to ‘this is where we could be.’
And a brief analysis of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech bears this out:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
This is how it is now in Alabama and this is how it could be.
The aim of each presentation should be to end on the higher level (where we could be rather than where we are now)
So a simple story structure would start ‘somewhere’ and by leading us through some challenges, tensions, and maybe adding a little suspense, we end somewhere ‘better’.
This sort of structure will make the speaker feel more flexible and better able to respond to his or her audience.
Too many words written down and too many notes will make the presentation stiff and inflexible, whereas a structure that sets out where we are starting from and where we intend to finish allows the speaker the freedom to choose how to ‘tell his story’, leading to the ‘happy’ ending.
Less is more
If you were sending a child down to the shops to buy a long list of items, the chances are that some items will be forgotten and they could be the most important ones.
Therefore to make sure you are getting your message across you might either say:
‘Here is the list, but most important are bread and milk.’
Or to play really safe, you might say:
‘Bread and milk!’ That is all I want you to get.’
Avoid the temptation of trying to tell you audience too much. The chances are they will not be able to retain everything and the real danger is that you overwhelm them with so much information that they remember nothing!
So work out what your three top priorities are and try to focus exclusively on them.
And then your audience walks away with just three clear messages?
I would regard that as a pretty successful presentation!
You want your audience to engage with the content of your presentation.
That might mean that you welcome questions: either as you go through or at the end of the presentation.
But you might simply want them to interact in their own heads, rather than call out.
The best technique therefore is to sprinkle your presentation with lots of questions.
They might be: ‘Hands up if you agree’ questions
Or they might be reflective: ‘I want you to ask yourself’ questions
Or - as we are tying this in with our storytelling structure, a more indirect question like:
‘Imagine how you would feel if…’
and then tell a story or paint a picture for them to relate to.
The problems start when the communication process is only flowing in one direction.
At best the audience will become overloaded, at worst they will switch off altogether.
I will use the term ‘smile’ as a ‘catch-all’ for all aspects of a positive delivery style.
So that would mean:
- a strong stance to create a powerful visual anchor
- eye contact to keep engagement with the room
- expansive gestures that support the voice and the content of the presentation.
I presume it is understood that if you presentation is addressing some disaster or major concern, then grinning from ear to ear may not be appropriate!
‘Smile’ is simply meant as a symbol of a delivery style that suggests confidence, positivity, openness and engagement.
Most ‘top 7 presentation skills to stand out from the crowd’ will end with some reference to use of slides or other technical support, as for most people that is an integral part of their business presentation.
Talk used to be of the 10 : 20 : 30 rule
which stood for:
no more than 20 minutes presenting
using a font size of at least 30 or bigger (or some would say ‘no more than 30 words per slide’).
I think this rule was introduced at a time when most PowerPoint presentations were a gruesome endurance ordeal of too many words on too many slides, delivered by a flat monotone voice.
However as even a font size of 30 would still allow for 8 lines on most slide formats,
I would suggest that even that is still too much.
If we stay true to the first 6 top tips and opt more for a ‘storytelling’ approach to our presentation, then we should use our slides to display mostly pictures rather than words,
which then gives the presenter the freedom to comment, describe or define the significance of the image, which means he or she will not be reading in a monotone, rather creating the content as they speak,
which in turn will inspire a much more varied style of vocal delivery.
Therefore, to take away:
(i) if you have three key messages in the presentation, you may actually only need three slides.
(ii) If you still want your audience to have a lot of precise words and numbers to take away, consider giving them a detailed handout at the end that they can read through later. Don’t try to squeeze every word onto the slides.
(iii) think of your presentation more in terms of a story that starts, takes us on a journey in which we overcome our challenges and finish in a happier place than whence we started.