I’ve just done a very brave thing. Well – not very brave, but still, it took some guts to do this, and I’ve never been brave enough to do it before. You may have already guessed that it’s something to do with presentation skills, and you’d be right – I just watched myself doing a presentation on camera. Like, probably, most people (everyone I’ve spoken to about it, anyway), I hate seeing or hearing recorded versions of myself. I never ever watched the DVDs they made of us doing our mock Spanish oral exams, because it would have just been unbearable. However, I watched this one. Why? Because I felt good giving this presentation. For possibly the first time ever, I felt relaxed and unpressured while talking, and I thought it’d be interesting to see what that looks like. Turns out it looks alright. I mean, it wasn’t perfect by a long shot, like, seriously, what was my hair doing?! And why can’t I stand upright properly? And I still went bright red. But the actual talking and giving people information bit, that was pretty good. And I think that’s partly down to the fact that we’d had a really good training the week before about giving good presentations, which I will now proceed to tell you about.
We turned up to the session having been told to bring a three-minute presentation about anything we wanted, and I’ll admit to being pretty nervous about this, because my preparation style is somewhat haphazard, and I’m a big fan of such concepts as “leaving things to the last minute” and “winging it”. So I had put some photos of tapas together on some slides the night before, done a rough scripty thing in my head, and just trusted myself that I’d remember who Alfonso the Wise was. When the time came for presenting to the group, we all did quite well, and gave each other some good feedback. I really enjoyed this part of the session as we’ve built up a good group atmosphere in our trainings that means we can feel comfortable with each other. It was really interesting watching everyone’s presentations and finding out about everyone’s specialist subjects, which ranged from Doctor Who to British cinema to Scarborough. The other interesting part was getting the feedback. It’s easy to be critical of yourself and so it was good to get other people’s perspectives. I was convinced I was speaking at about 100000 mph but everyone wrote that I was enthusiastic and energetic, so that made me feel better about being quite a “lively” speaker.
After this we had the theory part of the session, where we picked up some helpful tips from Paul the trainer, who seems to have had a hundred jobs and who knows a lot of useful people. Paul is a very engaging presenter, even once getting a room full of people excited about some old University buildings at our new staff induction session, so I think we all felt like we were getting some very reliable advice here. Paul had done some good research on what makes a good presenter, and according to him these qualities include competence, poise, commitment and dynamism. Apparently the more you like someone, the more receptive you will be to their message, so it’s important not to be a distant or closed-off presenter. We’ve all had those presentations where the speaker is talking to their shoes or the screen more than they’re engaging with you, and we all know how tedious and uncomfortable those presentations can get.
Paul’s tips for a good PowerPoint or similar presentation are: keep it simple. Clean text and not too much of it. A good rule is the 6×7 rule: no more than 6 lines per slide, and no more than 7 words per line. Make your visuals interesting – the “full bleed” picture option on PowerPoint is one of my new favourite things – and don’t go crazy with slide transitions.
As far as content goes, the lesson was that structure is very important. Have a beginning, middle and end. Use a “hook” and a “promise” at the beginning – the hook is something impactful, like a controversial statement, a statistic, or a question, followed by the promise, which has a handy acronym: INTRO. Interest your audience with the hook, then tell them why they Need to listen to you, give them a Title, outline the Range of key themes, and give them an Objective: “by the end of this presentation, …”. The key is to interest people with all types of learning styles, so you need to answer these four questions – Why am I here? What are you talking about? How will this work? What if…? This ensures that you’ve got planners, reflectors, and everyone else onside. The end of your presentation is the part that people will remember, so you’ve got to reinforce the message here. Revisit the promise and show how you’ve fulfilled it, then give the audience something like a summary statement or a “thank you” so that they know you’re finished.
The really interesting part of the session was when Paul shared the stuff he’d learned from teacher training and from a lecturer in acting. In teaching you are taught to stand by the door of the classroom to welcome the pupils in the morning, and this shows that you’re welcoming them into your environment. This is a technique you can use as a presenter – arrive early, and be in the room before the audience. Acknowledge them when they arrive so they know it’s your space they’re coming into. Moving a piece of furniture can show ownership of the space as well. A useful acting tip was on grounding yourself – a natural reaction to the pressure of presenting is for adrenaline to rush to your extremities (the fight or flight response), making you fidget with nervous energy. This can be distracting, so you should teach yourself to stay “grounded”, or rooted to the spot, by adopting a stance that is very balanced. Apparently actors stand on pencils to make themselves more aware of where their feet are!
There are loads of other things I could mention that we learned, but you get the general idea. The session was really informative and helpful, and we went away feeling a lot better about the next session, where we would be filmed giving another presentation. For this one I tried to take some of the lessons we’d learned on board, especially making the PowerPoint slides look pretty. Of course I didn’t do much more preparation than usual, but I did make sure I was informed enough to speak confidently about the topic (the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary, if you’re interested. It’s a really good story, especially the bits about William Chester Minor). Having now watched it back, I think I did a good job of it. I need to work on grounding myself still, and the ending was weak (this is definitely down to my off-the-cuff haven’t-thought-about-a-proper-ending preparation technique, which I’m willing to admit needs refining), but the speed and pacing were good, and I didn’t even sound like I was from the West Country (I’m not), unlike on my podcasts.
I’m really glad I got the chance to go to this training and to get some really great advice which I know will be indispensable in the future. My next go at presenting will be to real, live, actual students, when I get to team-teach a Library Induction session. I’m excited to present to strangers, as I haven’t done it much, and I love a challenge. Of course I’ll let you know how it goes!