If you are a budding entrepreneur, live presentations are great ways to test your content, build relationships and get to know the needs of your target audience. You can start very small, with a handful of neighbors in your living room, or if you are more experienced, in a larger setting such as a regional conference.
If it is all new to you, it can be very intimidating. So here are some tips to help you get a running start:
- Involve your audience in the planning stages
In general, you have one main point of contact for a presentation which will either be a coordinator, or in many corporate settings, the manager of the group you will present to. They may make assumptions about the content that their group would find interesting, without checking with any participants. Don’t make the same mistake. Ask if you could talk with 2-3 people who will be in attendance to get some specific input. This will help you shape the content for your talk, and provides solid credibility when you can say as you start your talk “And as Rick and I were discussing last week,” (while you make eye contact with Rick as he is nodding his head) “your company’s approach to marketing to high tech customers in the Boston area is radically different than your competitors.”
- Never forget, it is about them, not you
Everything about your presentation is about your audience. They don’t know you, and probably don’t care much about you. But they care deeply about the problems they face on a daily basis and are very eager to learn new things and discover solutions. If you ensure that your focus is on them and their needs the entire planning, delivery and follow up stages, you will avoid the plague which my sales mentor Skip Miller used to call “spray and pray.” This happens when you attempt to share everything you know in one gigantic breath and leave people covered in spittle, overwhelmed, uninterested and running for the doors. Even if you present on the same topic to five different groups, change your presentation to reflect each group’s needs and interests.
- Create a ritual to get yourself “in the zone” and ease jitters
I have a 3-pronged approach for psyching myself up for a presentation that never fails to calm my nerves and put me in a positive state of mind.
- The night before, I ensure that all my materials are packed and ready to go by the door. Then, I take a nice hot bath to relax and get rid of any tension from preparing and practicing.
- The morning of, I listen to energizing music, most often Tina Turner. I figure that if she could muster up the courage to leave a scary bastard like Ike, I can face my audience.
- Finally, my best friend Desiree, who I call when I have an important presentation, leaves me a voicemail to listen to once I got to the location. She says something unbiased like “You are the greatest presenter to ever live Pam, and will leave them screaming on their feet with a standing ovation.” Even though I realize that the entire message is contrived and bogus, it always puts a smile on my face to hear one of my greatest personal supporters give me a vote of confidence.
- Create a crisp personal introduction that establishes credibility but doesn’t bore
The first 15 seconds of your presentation are often the most nerve-racking since you feel the physical symptoms of your anxiety most acutely, and you have zero rapport established with your audience. Some people, especially newbie presenters, try to get through this awkward stage by launching into a 10-minute recap of their qualifications and resume. This will turn off and bore your audience. Instead, choose a few salient facts about yourself that establish credibility with your particular audience like “I have been a computer programmer since 1974” or “I have worked with senior executives like Steve Jobs, Carly Fiorini and Larry Ellison” or “I was the national ju-jitsu champion for 3 years running.” Focus on a few qualification facts that are directly important to your audience. If they are all Harvard grads, definitely mention that you are too. You want to walk a line of credibility (I am worth listening to) and humility (I am here to help and serve you, and promise not to be a boring gasbag)
- Amplify your true personality, don’t change it
We all have favorite presenters or presentation styles that we want to emulate for impact and effect. But if you are quiet and unassuming and try to make yourself into Tony Robbins when you present, you will look and feel like an idiot. (Consequently, I wasn’t aware Tony was so fond of profanity … his recent TED talk was quite racy. Perhaps he was following this piece of advice and letting his true, inner sailor come out.) The best way to get your true personality across is to accent your strengths, such as humor, attention to detail, physicality or storytelling, and snuff out your weaknesses such as “ums and ahs,” low voice volume or nervous hand-wringing. If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend that you participate in a presentation skills training class such as Decker, or join your local Toastmasters .
- Keep your message simple
You could probably talk about your business ideas and area of expertise for four hours straight. Don’t. Choose a central message, support it with no more than 3 sub points, and spend your time creating very clear, compelling stories and examples to illustrate your point. If you get stuck knowing how to trim down the tremendous amount of content available, refer back to “Never forget, it is about them, not you.” (Update: and here is a great post on types of stories to use, from Guy Kawasaki’s recap of Lois Kelly’s book Beyond Buzz: The next generation of word-of-mouth marketing)
- Arrive early to meet and greet
Your presentation starts as soon as someone sees you. This could be in the parking lot as you unload your materials, or in the room when you are setting up. Make sure you have plenty of time to both set up the technical aspects of your talk as well as talk with a few participants. This will greatly reduce your anxiety and when you stand up to talk for the first time, you will have some friendly, familiar faces to look at first. (I wrote lots of detail about preparing for presentations here)
- Ensure your visuals support your talk, not dominate it
We have all witnessed the evil powers of PowerPoint and vowed never to inflict them on our audience. But if you have been raised in a corporate setting where more PowerPoint = a happier boss, you may be tempted to create 60 slides for a 60 minute presentation. Don’t. Follow Guy’s 10-20-30 Rule, or better yet, if it is an informal talk, skip them altogether.
- Present in a full-body mode
Your body language is an exceptionally important part of your talk. Research from the UCLA Graduate School of Communication says that it contributes to 70% of your credibility as a speaker (followed by 20% content and 10% tone of voice). This doesn’t mean that content isn’t important; rather that if you do not project confidence and strength in your body language, people will either not listen to or not believe what you say. So practice key elements of strong body language like eye contact, gestures, effective breathing and natural movement.
- Plan open ended questions at various intervals in your talk
It is easy to get on a roll and forget to ask for questions and feedback. I always aim for the one third / two thirds rule in presentations that are meant to be interactive. I like to talk for 1/3 of the time, and spend the rest in dialogue with the audience. This will get them engaged and keep you from feeling hot on the spot. A very effective technique is to ask a simple open-ended question of your group at the beginning of the presentation to test their interest in your topic. You can say something like “I was brought here to talk about small business finance. Could I get a handful of your specific questions on this topic so that I make sure to allocate my time appropriately?” Then write their questions down on a whiteboard or flipchart. The nice thing about this is that you can refer back to the list at the end of the talk and show how you addressed their particular needs. And what if their questions have nothing to do with your planned remarks? Either scramble and revise on the spot (in your own mind), or let them know what you are likely to cover and what you are not.
- Don’t “vend” your services
You may hear some magic questions during your presentation that send a string of dollar sign symbols to your brain such as “What services do you offer?” or “What does your company do?” Resist the temptation to launch into an excruciating sales pitch such as “My company offers three main consulting packages, all with a money back guarantee …” and answer the question quickly and expeditiously. Unless the purpose of the presentation is expressly for them to understand your services (which is highly unlikely), keep things brief and on target. Offer to follow up immediately after the presentation, and do so. “Yes, John, I definitely offer coaching services. I would be happy to talk with you about it after the presentation, or if you give me your card, I’ll email the link to my website.”
- End with a call to action
If you have done your homework right, you defined a learning objective for the audience that specifies exactly what you want them to know, say or do as a result of your time together. If you are doing presentations to market your business, you also have an objective: get your audience interested in finding out more about your company. Do not launch into a sales pitch at this point. Rather offer a valuable piece of information such as “I have a detailed report that provides information about what we talked about today: if you are interested, leave your card in the box by the door and I would be happy to email it to you.” If you have provided effective, interesting information that solves their problems and created a friendly rapport with your audience, they will want to continue talking with you.
Good luck, and remember practice makes perfect!