Thursday 13 October 2011
Powerful Presentations: How to give exceptional presentations every time
Museum of London, London
Steve McDermott is a fearless speaker. He blunders around the stage with reckless abandon. In any other profession, he'd probably be a liability. But, as he repeatedly tells his audiences, it's how you deal with slip-ups, and not the slip-ups themselves, that matters. And besides, it's actually very difficult to cock up a speech seriously unless you say something downright offensive.
In this presentation on presentations, McDermott began, logically enough, by emphasising the importance of beginnings. One of the most effective ways to build immediate rapport with an audience, he suggested, is to ask them a question. So, for example, the Compère at the Comedy Store club in London will always begin an evening performance by asking everyone, "Who's been to the Comedy Story before?" and "Who's never been?" A simple type of engagement like this will warm up the audience, relax everyone and focus attention upon you.
In particular, McDermott said, your initial questions should be designed to get a unanimous "yes". This way, you'll be more likely to get the same response to more difficult questions later on - questions that promote your most complex advice and views.
Beyond this, you need only give your audience a handful of points to take away, McDermott argued. Research shows that, on average, people will only remember three or four key points from an hour-long presentation. So, you should aim to follow the guiding principle of advertising creatives and be "single-minded". You should decide in advance which key points you want the audience to remember, because if you don't, "they'll pick something else."
People assume that for public speaking to be good, it has to come off perfectly, McDermott said. But the reality is that everyone makes mistakes, and often a speaker will encounter problems through no fault of his own. "When things happen you can either ignore them or use them. I think it's better to stop and use them." He explained our fear of public speaking is rooted in the idea that we may lose control and thereby embarrass ourselves. So, to mitigate this fear, we must plan for the worst, working out how we would regain control under different circumstances.
You should brainstorm all the stuff that could go wrong and how you would handle each situation, he suggested. For example, how would you react if the computer running your PowerPoint presentation broke down? Or if someone arrived late and disturbed everyone else? Or if you forgot what you were about to say? "I have strategies for each and every one of those," McDermott said. "So, I can look forward to them." Indeed, he said, "I pray for a mobile phone to go off, I pray for people to turn up late."
When McDermott asked how many of us used Microsoft PowerPoint to create presentations, most of the audience raised their hands. Ubiquity is therefore a key problem with the application, he argued - if you're pitching to someone who has already seen a dozen other PowerPoint presentations the same day, they're not going to be impressed. Equally, we tend to try to use all the features of PowerPoint in a single presentation simply because we can. It's rather like putting 13,000 tracks onto an iPod simply because it has the capacity.
Yet these bells and whistles tend to be more intrusive than useful. To demonstrate the point, McDermott projected a PowerPoint slide onto the screen behind him that was packed with information about the application itself, illustrated with bland, generic images from fictional business meetings. "We've always got to have an arsey bit of clip-art [like] that bloke with the exclamation mark over his head!" McDermott said. "I want to kill myself already." You have to remember that PowerPoint is just like any other visual aid - a complement to your speech. Besides, he said, there's no harm in telling the audience that you've forgotten what you were talking about. It's yet another way to prove that you're human and get them on your side.
Having said that, he added, there's a surefire way to avoid memory-loss and, simultaneously, strengthen your bond with the audience: story-telling. "You need to become a great story-teller, particularly of your own stories," McDermott said. By sharing information with the audience in the form of a personal narrative, "you don't have to worry about the memory bit [and you can] reveal lots about who you are." It's significant that no one else can tell your stories for you - by delivering information anecdotally, you personalise it, make it more memorable and connect with the audience on an emotional level.
McDermott's way of tugging at our heartstrings was to incorporate his children into the presentation, complete with cute photographs of his daughter. In preparation for the event, he had asked Meg and Finlay, how they would deal with the fear of public performance. For Meg, a fan of Stars In Their Eyes, the key advice was to "hold your head high and smile." For Finlay, an aspiring magician, it was, "I'm never going to see them again, so I don't care what they think."
In their way, both children had touched upon another crucial element of any successful presentation: a positive attitude. There's a fine line, McDermott said, between being in the right state and "a right state". So you have to manage your mood. Imagine you're a radio DJ, he suggested. Most of us carry the same dread into presentations that they do into graveyard shifts. But to be a successful speaker you have to imagine you're doing the "Christmas morning shift," with all the enthusiasm that entails, every time you pick up the mic.
Provided you devise and practise the right safeguards then you can't fail to become a better speaker, he concluded. "There is no failure, only feedback."