What Aspiring Speakers Want to Know


Becoming a competent and confident presenter takes practice, preparation, and persistence, but the effort is worth it in terms of the resulting credibility, clout, and career development potential. In this column, Naomi Karten addresses three of the questions she's often asked by people seeking to improve their presentation skills.

Although I've been a professional speaker for more than twenty years, I still remember what it was like to panic about speaking publicly. As a result, I enjoy helping people who want to improve their presentation skills. Here, I present three questions from a group I worked with recently on public speaking, followed by my responses.

1. My greatest anxiety about presenting is handling questions from the audience. What advice can you offer?

This is a common source of presentation anxiety, especially among less-experienced presenters. Fortunately, the fear of answering questions is usually worse than the reality; most presenters do just fine answering questions.

Start by thinking about questions audience members might have. Brainstorm likely questions with colleagues. If possible, talk to a few people who will be in your audience and find out what questions they have. Then, formulate responses to these questions and practice presenting them so that you can respond articulately if they come up during the presentation.

When someone asks a question, you can buy time by repeating the question to ensure everyone in the audience heard it, or ask clarifying questions. These few moments give your brain a chance to start working on your response.

If you don't know the answer, say so. You can't succeed in the long run by pretending to know what you don't know. If appropriate, say you'll look into it and get back to the questioner, or invite audience members to offer answers. Often, the person asking just wants the answer and doesn't care who provides it. After your presentation, document the questions that came up (or have a colleague capture them for you) and use them as a guide in preparing for your next presentation.

However you respond, do so with a tone of confidence. This is especially important if you're presenting to your higher-ups, such as a presentation to senior management about why your project is running late. Stand tall (or sit tall if you're seated), even if company leaders challenge you. Your ability to withstand a barrage of tough questions could turn into a career-enhancing opportunity.

Just as giving presentations becomes easier with practice and experience, so, too, does answering questions.

2. What are signs that you're losing your audience?

Be alert. Watch for fidgeting or yawning. Notice if people are on their iPhones, BlackBerrys, or other choice of addiction, or are doing Soduko or whispering among themselves. Monitor the energy level in the room, such as a gradual drop in the level of interaction.

Also notice if people start putting on or removing sweaters. If the room is frigid or sweltering, they won't be able to pay attention. I once gave a presentation in a room that (I learned afterwards) was freezing. I was moving around, gesticulating, comfortable, and oblivious to my audience. Still, when people are freezing, you can usually tell. They shiver. They scrunch up to conserve warmth. They put on extra layers. If I'd stayed alert, I would have noticed people attempting to cope with the frosty conditions. Lesson learned.

Be careful about drawing conclusions about audience members' attentiveness from their facial expressions. Few people grin while listening, and a blank stare may indicate blinding boredom—or thoughtful listening. I recall a presentation I gave for a client company in which one woman stared at me with an "I'm trapped and can't get out" expression. Afterwards, she came up to me and told me it was the best presentation she had ever attended. Now, when I see someone stare at me with piercing eyes, I (choose to) conclude the person is deliriously happy with the presentation.

The adult attention span is on the order of minutes, not hours, and younger generations have a shorter attention span than older folks. Help people stay engaged by incorporating discussion, activities, and Q&A. The more audience members are actively involved—participants, in other words, rather than merely listeners—the less likely it is that you'll lose them.
3. Is there a recommended number of slides for different types of presentations?

This is a familiar question, but it's the wrong question. Ten slides might be too few if they omit essential information that people can't grasp strictly from listening. But ten slides might be too many if each one is densely packed with a headache's worth of tiny text.

At the other extreme, one hundred slides are usually excessive for, say, a one-hour presentation, but not always. In one presentation I attended, every one of the nearly one hundred slides was a photograph of an amusing scene or sign that supported the speaker's key points. The speaker brilliantly synchronized his slides with his patter, resulting in a first-rate presentation.

So the right question is (assuming you've decided that slides are essential to the success of your presentation): "How can I design slides that will help me achieve the goals of this presentation?" From that question, the right number of slides evolves.

Keep in mind that gazing at slide after slide of text is an eye-straining, mind-numbing experience for the audience. Therefore, use as few text-filled slides as possible. Instead, strive for slides that feature images, such as photos, drawings, cartoons, or clip art, and little or no text.

When the information you're presenting justifies the use of bullet items, refrain from squeezing too many bullet items onto each slide. Instead, spread them across multiple slides. For example, in one of my presentations, I divide eight bullet items into four slides—two bullet items per slide—with cartoons on each slide that support and emphasize the message on that slide. Yes, I used four slides instead of one since jamming all eight bullet items onto a single slide would be unkind to the audience.

And please, please remember that listeners can't read the text on your slides and listen to you at the same time. When you present bullet items, pause and let your audience read them before you continue. My own preference is to use animation and display each bullet item only when I'm ready to talk about it.

Some people advocate avoiding text altogether (or nearly so) and limiting slides to visual images. That's fine for a presentation on your trip to the Galapagos, but for most professional presentations, I don't agree, especially if they entail technical information. Many people—myself included—take in information more effectively in text form than via spoken words or images. A little bit of text can go a long way in helping us absorb and retain information.

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