It’s a given. Few people relish the prospect of public speaking in general. Add a couple of unfortunate circumstances, and the fear becomes positively phobic. But there is an antidote — and it begins with careful preparation.
Effective presentations to an involved audience require more than just pulling together a sequence of PowerPoint slides with catchy graphics and charts and clever headings. In fact, an overdependence on the technology contributes to clumsy interactions between the presenter and the technology.
On Wednesday, July 12, and Thursday, July 13, Elizabeth Ann Myers presents a two-day workshop on presentation skills for the Learning Key, a corporate training company at 1093 General Washington Memorial Boulevard in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania. Cost is $475. For information or to register, call 215-493-9641.
Myers says that her approach to making presentations goes way back in her own personal history, to the time when she was a child actor in Chicago. That training stood her in good stead when she became a high school teacher of English and communications after receiving a bachelor’s degree in English education from Purdue University in 1971.
Standing in front of a business audience came later. She was first exposed to that world when she got a master’s degree at night in American studies from Northeastern Illinois University while she taught during the day. She focused on 20th-century business culture. “It prepared me to understand the ways people communicate in business and through the media,” she says.
With the new degree in hand, her career took another tack at Edelman Public Relations, still in Chicago, where she coached people for media interviews. “We taught them how to work with the teleprompter, and how to express a very succinct message and tell it with anecdotal pizzazz and verve,” she says.
From her varied experience, Myers offers suggestions for effectively preparing presentations that maintain the interest of audiences all the way through:
Develop flexible, organized content. One of the challenges in today’s fast-moving business world is that you can prepare a great half-hour presentation only to find when you arrive at the meeting that the boss has to leave in 10 minutes. “What am I supposed to do then,” asks Myers, “talk fast?”
As an alternative, she suggests instead an “accordion method,” which allows speakers to expand or contract a presentation according to the time available and still communicate effectively. The first step is to design the core content.
An example she uses is a presentation on making a quick Italian dinner. The core content would include an interest getter — “Would you like to learn how to make a healthy meal in 10 minutes with things you already have in your pantry?” This could be followed by a “bare bones” presentation of the basic content — what type of pasta, canned tomatoes, and herbs you will use. From there, swing right into a conclusion.
These are the basics, and can be presented quickly. Next come the details you want to share — if you have enough time. In this example it could be the advantages of different shapes of pasta and whether you want to use dried or fresh.
With this type of planning, says Myers, “if you run out of time, you can streamline.”
Plan your transitions ahead of time. When speakers are not sure where they are going next, they tend to get mired in details — after all, they’re experts, and they usually know a lot about the subject matter. “The problem,” says Myers, “is that people go on and on about details and start to lose the audience. They don’t know when to stop talking.”
To avoid this verbal wandering, which is usually due to increased anxiety, Myers tells people to plan their transitions ahead of time.
Myers shares an experience with a biologist who was talking about an experiment he had designed. First he supplied background information, and all was well. But then he launched into great detail about the different types of agar that could be used to grow a culture.
Afterward she asked him, “Did you want to go into all that detail about the agar?” His response: “No. I couldn’t stop. I just kept going because I knew about this stuff.” Myers’ take on the biologist’s problem: “If you don’t have a constructed presentation, with transitions built in, you can meander and go down roads that lead nowhere.”
Visualize the presentation. Myers points out that the design stage is where intellectual activity is involved, and the oral delivery is primarily physical. The challenge, she says, is how to use gestures to release energy to the audience. She suggests visualization — for a batter this may mean imagining how to hit a ball in a certain way, a technique that research suggests can improve performance.
For the public speaker this involves visualizing an upcoming presentation, picturing how he will move appropriately to use the equipment and handle the size of the room, and how the audience will nod to show their understanding of the concepts.
Move with confidence. Myers teaches what she calls a “triangle of control” to use when planning how to stand and move during a PowerPoint presentation. Find three spots where you can stand, one next to the computer, one two steps to the side so that the audience can view the screen, and a third two steps toward the screen where it may be necessary to point out a small detail.
With this technique, says Myers, “you can move with confidence and purpose.” Otherwise presenters often disperse their extra energy through meaningless or repetitive gestures, like moving their hands up and down, jangling change in their pockets, or pacing back and forth. Myers urges preplanning “so that gestures and walking are done with meaning. This allows the audience to see a dynamic, confident, and purposeful presenter.”
Bring in the human element. “We are finding that people enjoy listening to a presentation that has some kind of pizzazz or interest,” says Myers. Consequently, she encourages presenters to bring in a metaphor for the content which comes out of their own life experience.
A pharmaceutical executive who likes to hike, for example, was addressing a meeting about a new product launch. He talked about taking a difficult hike with his children, how they set goals, what special preparations had to be made because the children were involved, and how they thought on the way that they’d never make it.
He likened this experience to the current product launch, which he said would be different and would require unique arrangements. “This helped enliven his presentation and make him appear human,” says Myers. “People expect the PowerPoint and the computer, which is high tech, but because you are presenting to people, you need to combine high tech with ‘high touch’ to become an effective communicator.”
Don’t depend too much on PowerPoint. The power should be in the presenter — not the software. If you have substantive content, Myers suggests that it is often better to hand out an article, memo, or position paper so that people will be able to read and understand the details.
“The speaker can hit the high points and either persuade the audience or hit them with what they need to take action,” she says.
Sometimes the audience prefers to be active along with the speaker, and not just sit and watch. A mechanical engineer at Princeton University once told Myers that after spending two years putting his lectures on PowerPoint, he got feedback from the students that they preferred to have him write formulas on the chalk board so that they could write them down at the same time. “We thought that was high tech way to do it,” he told her, “but it’s not human.”
Another problem with PowerPoint is that its structure encourages a hierarchy — a broad point followed by subpoints. But there are many other formats for expressing complex ideas, says Myers. You may need a more horizontal, linear approach, or you may have a wide chart that requires a foldout paper given as a handout. When people talk about visual aids, that’s exactly what they are meant to be — to aid your message, not deliver your entire message. Placing content verbatim on a PowerPoint slide can be distracting to the audience and prevent the listeners from really learning and taking in the information the way you had hoped.
Myers moved to Princeton in the late 1970s when her father was ill. He worked at Firmenich, where his last job was vice president of flavor sales. Her mother was a volunteer and raised five children, of which Myers is the eldest.
Myers is a member of the National Speakers Association, the American Society for Training and Development, and the National Society for Performance and Instruction. She has served on the executive board of the Mid-New Jersey ASTD, the board of trustees of the United Way-Princeton Area Communities, and the Education Committee of the Chamber of Commerce of the Princeton Area.
Myers founded her own company, the MYERS Method, in 1981, and she works as a business partner with the Learning Key, a training, design, and consulting company that focuses on technology-based organizations. The Learning Key was founded 15 years ago by a nuclear chemist, Elizabeth Treher, who recognized the need for technical professionals to develop communication and business skills and to learn about their organizations.
People at the workshop will be actively giving presentations, which will be taped, and receiving feedback. “It’s hands on and a lot of fun,” says Myers. “People come in being nervous and quickly realize that they’re all in the same boat.”