Lecturer Graduate School of Business, Stanford University
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Your definitive guide to giving superb presentations

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5th Oct 2015
Lecturer Graduate School of Business, Stanford University
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My experience in listening to thousands of presentations as a communication professor and coach has taught me that having an engaged audience makes all of the difference in the world.  Yet, getting your audience involved can be very challenging.

Your audience expects you to both invite and help them to participate. This post will illuminate two best practices for facilitating audience participation:

  1. Managing your anxiety prior to speaking, so that you will be calm and confident when it’s time to engage your audience.
  2. Facilitating the participation while it’s happening, such as how you call for and answer questions.

No matter whether you are presenting in a virtual or in-person environment, your presentations will benefit from audience participation and interaction. 

Managing your anxiety

The best way to foster a collaborative environment with your audience is to reduce your speaking anxiety. A great way to do this is to reframe the speaking situation in your own mind, before you ever set foot on stage. 

There are three ways to reduce your nervousness through simple cognitive action.

Reducing anxiety - technique #1

The first involves reframing the physical, emotional, and mental anxiety you experience prior to speaking as typical and natural. After all, these sensations do not show anything beyond your body’s normal response to something that is potentially threatening.

Avoid giving these natural responses special significance. Or, even better, you can greet these reactions by saying to yourself: “Here are those anxiety feelings again. It makes sense that I feel nervous; I am about to speak in front of people.” This type of acknowledgement is an empowering acceptance that dampens your anxiety, rather than allowing it to make you even more stressed.

Reducing anxiety - technique #2

Another reframing effort involves seeing a presentation as a conversation, rather than a performance. In performing, you place a tremendous amount of pressure on yourself “to get it right.” But a conversation feels less stressful, and more engaging.

How do you reframe presenting as conversational? First, when you practice, don't stand up and deliver in front of a mirror or camera. Practice by sitting at a coffee table or at a coffee shop with friends or family to talk through your speech.

When you practice, don't stand up and deliver in front of a mirror or camera.

Second, include the word “you” frequently when speaking. “You” provides a direct, verbal connection with your audience and leads to a more conversational tone and approach. You can also use audience members’ names, if you know them, since you connect with people through using their names when you converse.

Reducing anxiety - technique #3

The final reframing technique changes the relationship you envision having with your audience. You will likely start preparing a presentation by thinking “here’s what I need to tell my audience,” and then proceed to develop and ultimately deliver your thoughts and ideas.

A better, more thorough approach to your presentation is to begin by asking the question: “What does my audience need to hear?” This may sound similar to “here’s what I need to tell my audience,” but actually the difference is striking.

By embracing an audience-focused approach you will not only engage your audience more, since you’re focused on giving them what they need, but you will also take the spotlight – and stress – off of yourself.

Facilitating the participation while it’s happening

Once you have your anxiety managed, you need to facilitate the interaction smoothly to continue their willingness to be involved and maximize the benefit. While there are many participative activities that can be employed during a presentation – such as brainstorming, decision-making, polling – the most prevalent one is the Q&A session. 

What makes an effective Q&A session?

To facilitate an effective Q&A session online or in-person, you first need to consider when to take questions from your audience. If you are a nervous speaker, my advice is to take your questions at the end of your presentation. This compartmentalization allows you to stay focused on the task at hand – whether presenting or answering questions – without concern for switching back and forth.

To facilitate an effective Q&A session online or in-person, you first need to consider when to take questions from your audience.

If you are a more seasoned speaker, or have content that is very complex, you should consider taking questions throughout your presentation at designated times that you announce to your audience at the beginning of your presentation.

How do you solicit questions effectively?

When it comes time to ask your audience for their questions, you need to solicit their queries in a way that maintains your credibility and authority while being humble, open, and responsive. This transition to an actual conversation with your audience can be tricky, but it can be made easier by the expectations you establish when you call for questions.

Too often, presenters open Q&A sessions with generic invitations like “Are there any questions?”

Too often, presenters open Q&A sessions with generic invitations like “Are there any questions?” But broad, limitless invitations make it difficult for audience members to come up with focused, concrete questions.

Instead, try setting parameters and asking for the exact type of questions that you desire to answer. For example, “I would like to spend 5 to 10 minutes answering questions about the solution that I provided.”  This more restrictive opening establishes you as being in control, helps your audience know what types of questions to ask, and leads to questions that you are prepared to answer.

Mutual anxiety in the Q&A session

It is important to understand that there is anxiety involved in the Q&A session not just for you, but for the audience, too. While you have had a chance to warm up and become comfortable speaking in your environment, audience members do not have that advantage.

Further, they may be facing several additional pressures: fear that their questions may make them look foolish, sensitivity to power dynamics (e.g., the boss being present) or societal norms (e.g., it is disrespectful to question a distinguished speaker), and, finally, reluctance to put you on the spot and make you look bad.

Unfortunately, as a presenter who desires good, interactive questions, you must take on the added burden of helping your audience get their questions to you. 

How to answer a question

When answering questions, start your answer by paraphrasing the question asked. In terms of your delivery, remember to address your answer to the entire audience and give your answers in the same speaking style – cadence, vocal variation, etc. – as you used during your presentation. You want to avoid seeming like a different speaker.

And when presenting online, do your Q&A with video conferencing.

Remember to address your answer to the entire audience and give your answers in the same speaking style – cadence, vocal variation, etc. – as you used during your presentation. 

This allows your non-verbal communication to engage your audience, plus being able to see a speaker increases audience trust and familiarity, leading to better conversation.

Further, to keep your audience connected, when delivering your answer, link their questions to what you previously said and/or questions other audience members have asked.

This facilitation tool of linking ideas and concepts helps your audience stay on topic and rewards their contributions by including them. 

For even greater connection in online presentations, consider sending through the chat panel links to articles related to the Q&A topics discussed.

All of these facilitation techniques will not only encourage participation from your audience, but will also sustain it. 

Get started!

These techniques, when employed, will help you have more interactive and engaging presentations which will lead to greater audience retention of the material and more fun for you.

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Image of Jasmine Gartner
By Jasmine Gartner
06th Oct 2015 10:39

Thanks, Matt, good article.

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