Making presentations is today an indispensable part of business communication. Unlike written reports, presentations carry with them the personality of the speaker. Product launch, customer survey, marketing and advertising are contexts in which presentations have a central place. In recruitment of personnel, presentations are used to judge a job seeker’s competence and suitability for the job.
Presentations are usually a mix of oral delivery and visual support. The proportion may vary, and nowadays, the audio-visual component has a predominant place in presentations.
The successful presenter will follow the three Ps: prepare, practice and present. At each of these stages presenters have to watch out for pitfalls that can trip them up.
One common practice is to drag the preparation stage to the last minute. Not content with what they have prepared, some speakers try to add to or amend their script till the start of the presentation. You should complete the preparation stage well before the presentation day. Adding new stuff will only disturb your plan and time allotment.
Also Read V.R. Narayanaswami’s earlier columns
A second pitfall is failure to know the audience you have to address. Audience analysis is important. How many people will attend? Try to get an idea of their age, education and level of knowledge in the topic. Why are they attending this presentation? You should ensure that you deliver the right speech to the right audience.
Once you have your content ready and feel comfortable with it, you should think of the actual event. Your preparation should cover not only the material or content, but also the environment at the venue of the presentation.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
As part of preparing for the presentation, you should go to the room and check that all the equipment is in order. If possible, get someone to run a couple of your slides. Equipment failure has forced presenters to abandon their prepared material, and improvise while presenting. Such a situation can embarrass the speaker and the organizers. You should be ready for the unexpected. Have your material stored in the hard drive of your laptop, and keep the laptop connected to the mains supply. Have handouts ready as backup. All this is particularly important if your presentation is heavily dependent on audio-visual support.
The second stage of practice is a continuing process from presentation to presentation. In the early stages, you can practice before a mirror, or before friends who can give you feedback. Tape your presentation and replay it to find out where you appear weak and where you are strong. Simulate what you actually will do on the day of the presentation. You may need notes during practice, but try to reduce your dependence on notes before the actual event. With experience comes confidence, and your practice sessions become less rigorous and more creative.
The single rule that should guide you in the actual presentation is “Trust yourself”. If you have a sense of commitment to the topic, and can speak with enthusiasm about it, half the battle is won. Create a good first impression by starting slowly and deliberately till you build confidence in yourself. The introductory comments should be brief, and you should get to the topic within minutes. A dragging, rambling introduction can bore the audience.
As you deliver your speech, remember that the audience will judge you by what they see and what they hear. Consult your organizers about any dress code to be observed. To go in casual wear to a meeting where the other participants are formally dressed can create a bad first impression.
As in all communication, eye contact is most important. Some speakers tend to look over the heads of the audience at the wall behind them. Some just look at their notes and occasionally at someone seated on the stage. Eye contact with members of the audience will make them feel that you are personally interested in communicating with them. Let your glance move across the room, pausing for a few seconds at individual members. Present a smiling face to them and they will respond positively.
If the material you have is simple, brief and logically sequenced, you will find it easy to recall your ideas as you speak, without losing the thread of your argument. Use your voice to the best advantage: change its volume, pace and pitch. Speak naturally, not as though you are reciting memorized text. Use appropriate gestures for emphasis. Don’t hide behind the podium; face the audience directly. Your articulation and your body language should together convey to the audience your belief in the topic and your conviction that the material you have is valuable to the audience.
In every presentation, there will be a Q and A segment. Opinions differ about how to manage it. If you are a novice, you can announce in the beginning that questions will be taken up at the end of the presentation. Questions that are raised during the presentation can lead to responses from different members of the audience, and that can distract you from your goal. You may lose control and you may run out of time before finishing. The other view is that every presentation should be interactive, and members in the audience should be free to raise questions at any time, and the speaker should respond. This can be adopted if you are confident that you can be in control of the presentation and stay on track.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org