I’ve been giving presentations for as long as I can remember. Yes, really. I was that child in school who was unafraid to read aloud, who always volunteered to present their answer, spoke on behalf of the team when nobody else wanted to, who put themselves forward to be class representative, took a job presenting to students and educators on digital literacy and delivered the keynote speech at the World Economic Forum building in Vietnam to close off our AIESEC internship experience. I’m chatty. I like talking to people. I like hearing and sharing stories. And, while I do get nervous from time to time, presentations don’t make me anxious in the same way almost every other kind of social interaction does.
As university years went by, my classmates would come to me in bits before presentations. When I worked as a brand ambassador for a global consultancy, we received training on presentation skills with many in the room admitting they were too nervous speak without coaching despite their technical know-how. As I started working full-time I saw the fear of public speaking deepen. Thoughts around “messing up”, “saying the wrong thing”, “looking stupid” were pervasive.
Part of this anxiety, I think, comes from a fear of failure. A fear I resonate with highly. I hate exams for this reason. I’ve often dampened my accomplishments to others and ignored my successes in hesitation that it would all come crashing down and it would be my (non-existent) hubris that did it. As someone who suffered with perfectionism, I had to ‘unlearn’ this fear. It was built into my subconscious actions, thoughts. But, curiously, presentations still don’t often give me the stomach knot or cancellation trigger.
In 2017, upon graduating, I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to learn one of the best presenters I’ve met, first-hand, everyday. My former boss: Bobby Duffy. Working on his book (The Perils of Perception – Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything) I traveled with him to many a conference room and listened into weekly webinars in admiration of how he made data interesting to everyone – even those who’d usually be prone to checking their socials mid-way through or unsure if they could stomach a talk on numbers (see an example of his style in his TEDx on Fake News).
It was then I realised it wasn’t about getting over nerves, it was about telling a story. Whether you’re relaying a technical concept, your career journey, or talking on a panel. It’s about getting the crowd to buy into your narrative, you.
I understand, for some, that thought might make presentations seem more daunting – but when I learned this, I was more confident, the feedback I received from clients and colleagues glowed, and I even took the leap into speaking professionally on one of the most vulnerable topics in my life: my mental health.
I’ve pulled together all my learning on storytelling with the hope it’ll inspire some of you to take the leap into public speaking. Whether they help you deliver a presentation company-wide, to an interview panel or speak openly about an interest close to your heart – these tips will make giving presentations easier and, crucially, more fun! I promise.
Know your audience
We’ve all read books we don’t like, watched TV shows we found boring, attended presentations that made us switch off. When you begin to think of presentations as storytelling, you think of your audience as viewers, readers, listeners and it forces you to consider how your story will be heard (and if it should be told) over how you look or what you find most interesting. Recently, I delivered a presentation to my colleagues on my #30DayChallenge learning. It was a (virtual) room full of experienced coders. Going through my Computer Science course or daily tasks in detail would’ve bored them. So instead I took them on a journey of how the 30 days felt and where I would go next. Some of my earliest client presentations I ran out of time presenting findings as I hadn’t anticipated methodological questions. I assumed they wouldn’t be interested. I didn’t think about their backgrounds, expertise, I simply thought about the task. Next time, I prepared a technical Annex and slides on our data sources which they later circulated across the department and grant recipients.
Know your topic and frame your story
This might seem simple, but I don’t present on topics I don’t know or stories I don’t want to tell. If you’re tasked with this, as we all are at some point in our education and careers, find your narrative. This does not mean becoming an expert overnight, but research, learn as much as you can and find your connection to the topic. The most compelling presentations I’ve watched took the audience on an informed journey. Equally, admit where you’re not an expert. I speak frequently on mental health. However, I preface every talk that I am speaking from lived experience, training and personal research but I am not a medical professional – specifically not a therapist, professor or GP. Set boundaries to your knowledge and your narrative. Tell people “I’m going to take you this far…”. We are more willing to listen (and learn) when our expectations are managed.
Visuals: less is more
Nothing is more distracting than a slide of tables, text and transitions galore. Whether it’s slides, lighting, videos or a backdrop – visual aids are there to help you tell your story. When working in consulting we would often have two slide packs. One for the presentation itself and another for clients to take away and review in their own time. The second would be far longer and more detailed, the first with key images, data and headlines to help convey our message. When giving presentations on my mental health or career journeys I stick to a 10 slides maximum rule. Often with a single image or phrase that my audience will associate with my topic to help keep them engaged, but without distracting from my words.
Take up physical space
This is my absolute favourite tip and I would love to demo this for all of you, but instead I’ll let Bruce Willis’ iconic Friends scene do it instead:
Before every presentation, whether virtual or in-person, I make myself physically “big”. Stretch my arms out, jump around, walk up and down stage stairs, all whilst repeating positive affirmations. I learned this when attending training on emotional intelligence early in my career. This method sounds silly, but it helps you relieve tension, relaxes nerves, and avoids fidgeting or stiffness during your talk. And, it gives you the confidence to move around the room, engage more closely with your audience rather than worrying about where your hands are placed. If online, make sure your background is simple and non-distracting and try to use natural hand gestures. Feel free to stand too. I’m often more comfortable standing to deliver presentations, and if you’re physically at ease, your audience will be too.
Pick an outfit you’re comfortable in
I always wear my favourite outfits for presentations. Even if virtual. It helps me feel confident in my appearance and avoids me thinking about that bra strap sticking out or my shirt sleeve being too short when I’m trying to focus. Don’t wear clothes that are uncomfortable just because they look good. I have one pair of heels I’ll wear to present in, everything else is flats and trainers. Your body language will be weird if you’re in pain and people will start to focus on your sore feet hop over your words. Those who know me know I love a power blazer (shout out to all the women in tech pushing back on that ‘never trust a coder in a suit’ tweet…) but pick whatever outfit suits you and your message.
Finally, rehearse what you’re going to say
Even if you’re a natural speaker and you don’t plan every word (and I’d actually advise against over-planning your words): know what you’re going to say. Write down your structure, headlines, a few bullet points, multiple times. Anticipate audience questions to avoid getting flustered. Rehearse these and try them out in front of others, if possible, so they can give you feedback on how the narrative sounds and what questions they’d have. Take the time to reflect on your message before putting it out into the world.
If you’d like to talk about speaking events and workshops please get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org or hit the socials below. I have with experience working to de-stigmatise mental health conversations in the workplace and speak on a variety of topics related to careers, mental health, workplace wellbeing and confidence.