Friday, 8 May 2009

How to present effectively (Part 1!)

I’ve been asked recently about how to present effectively and it occurred to me that this is a skill that most people would like to enhance. However, this is a very big topic and I know you are all busy, so in this blog I will talk about 1 aspect of presentation skills, and suitably enough that aspect is timing!

Timing a presentation is a vital aspect of presenting well which is why I’ve chosen to focus on it first. After all if you have a room full of colleagues they need to get back to work at some point! Or it may be that you are presenting just one section of a training, so if you overrun you may be setting others back as well.

And most importantly – if you talk for too long you will not only lose your listeners attention but also waste your own valuable time!

So how long should a seminar or talk be? Well that does depend very much on your subject matter and on the time allowed, it’s fairly easy to keep an audience’s attention for 15 minutes of a lecture but then often the minds will wonder, if your presentation needs to be longer than this you need to be in charge of where that attention wonders! You can do this by asking questions or setting exercises, and I’ll deal with this more thoroughly in another blog.

But now let’s focus on another aspect of timing and that is the timing of your words.

What I mean by this is how quickly you speak. I’ve been thinking about this the past week after hearing two contrasting pieces of information on the same day. The first I heard when I was listening to somebody speak on this same topic as I am now and this highly respected public speaker was pointing out how the pace at which you speak can enthuse or bore your listeners.

He was suggesting that in order for your enthusiasm to transmit itself to your audience you need to speak as if you are excited! Your words should be racy and dynamic, the tone of your voice should be light not heavy and you should encourage your listeners to sit on the edge of their chairs avidly listening to you to keep up with what you are saying.

Conversely the same day I heard a snippet of information on the radio. The speaker – apologies I forget who it was, was stating that the reason why Winston Churchill and John F Kennedy were such powerful orators was because they did precisely the opposite. Both of these great men spoke at a rate of approximately 150 words per minute. It is interesting to note that most other politicians speak at a rate of 200 words per minute.

So how fast should we speak to give the greatest impact to our talks?

Although I agree that it is necessary to keep the listener excited I believe there are other and better ways to do this and galloping through the presentation. For example you can vary the tone and expression of your voice or use the suspenseful pause, both of which I shall come to in a moment.

I have also observed from my own experience that talking slowly CAN become boring for the listener, as I mentioned, the great orators are known to speak at approximately 150 words per minute, there are 60 seconds in a minute so saying one - word - per –second – will – quickly – drive – your – listeners – to – distraction!

So if you keep to an approximate pace of 2 words per second you will be hitting just the right pace.

But how do we do this? To begin with you need to be aware of how many words you are writing to fit the time allotted. So when you are writing your speech, bear in mind that 1500 words will equal approximately 10 minutes of pure speech, as you are likely to be including pauses, varying the rate of speech and even asking your audience questions from time to time it is better to aim for 1250 words per 10 minutes instead.

Practice however, as with any skill, really is the key. When I first began teaching this many years ago I would hand out kids story books – MR Men ones to be precise, and get my group to practice reading them out loud to each other as if they were reading to kids, this is a great way to start and even better with a real child! If you don’t have one then offer to babysit a friends occasionally – I’m sure they’d be grateful!

Another way – if you have the time is to model great orators, did you know you can download the transcripts of Barack Obama’s speeches? And watch them on YouTube? Why not print the words and try to match your pacing to his?

One last quick tip on this – breath control is very important; a lovely way to practise breathing smoothly and deeply is to buy a tub of bubble mixture and aim to blow big slow bubbles.

I come now to tone and expression, if a monotone is used whether you are speaking too quickly, too slowly or at just the right pace, your listener will find it hard to differentiate the words and their meanings and so lose interest.

So you must vary the tone of your words, but the expression is also important. What is expression? What does it mean? Well expression is the emphasis – or lack of, that you put on certain words. It is using your voice to show that you are asking a question, or expressing surprise, or feeling sad or maybe pondering a mystery.

Talking of mysteries I now come back to something I mentioned earlier that so many people seem to think of as a completely unfathomable mystery. The Pause.

You all know what the pause is, and how useful it can be in so many ways, but I have had people ask me how to do it. It sounds very flippant to say just be quiet – and it really isn’t all that easy to do as when we are nervous we will rush to fill any silence with a sound to distract the audience and make us appear more confident. But this doesn’t work; in fact it makes us look more nervous!

So now I will let you all into a little secret I was taught many years ago.

When you first start adding pauses into your speeches, the easiest way to do this is to count to 2!

As soon as you get to the place you want to pause, take a breath and in your head count 1 (elephant) 2(elephant) then begin to speak again. The reason I am asking you to add thinking the word ‘elephant’ into the equation is because it takes an entire second to think the word, therefore you won’t rush the counting and end up with no pause still!

Depending on your speech or presentation you may want to experiment with this and use longer pauses from time to time. For example, if you have asked your audience a question, it will usually take them at least 4 seconds to respond so don’t rush the pause here. However a 2 second pause is usually just the right length.

I hope you’ve found this useful, there’s a lot more information to come and I’d love to hear your comments and feedback on this and what you’d like me to write about in the future too!