We all know the statistic that giving a public presentation is up in the top 3 stress producers alongside moving house and bereavement. I have long wanted to work on my presentation skills and therefore jumped at the opportunity of having some sessions with renowned trainer, Richard Tierney in return for publishing my story of the experience.
I hope when you read this you will be able to take the plunge like me and get some training in this most essential of training skills.
In our first session Richard started by giving me very practical advice. “Even by assuming that you know your subject very well, there is still not one right way to present it,” he said first. Two people can watch you having a talk and form completely different opinions on your performance. Therefore, finding the style that works for you is key. This is a self-discovery exercise that takes time.
Secondly, “authenticity is very important,” stressed Richard. We are used to reading different human behaviours and we can spot easily when a person cares, knows her subject well and speaks the truth, as well as when she uses ‘natural’ rather than mechanical gestures. Authenticity is necessary to create credibility and helps to instil trust in our audience. Richard pointed out the fact that we know how to do this, as we speak authentically every day in different relaxed situations (e.g. with friends, colleagues at work, or family members). However, when we are under stress-related circumstances such as public speaking, we tend to forget.
In a sense that was reassuring to me. What I took from these two pieces of advice is that every one of us can potentially learn to be a good public presenter. It starts from respect both for ourselves and for our audience in a professional way. But indeed, we have to do our own homework, and practise, practise, practise.
In fact, form is paramount to convey messages and communicate in a meaningful and valuable way. So, it is crucial to build your presence by working on framing your content within a structure, managing your body language, as well as paying attention to speech effects.
For example, Richard highlighted the importance for me to work on the introduction. “It is like when you write your articles Gloria. You need to find a suitable way to begin your presentation.”
He explained me that the beginning of any talk has to be constructed in a way that will:
• Grab my audience’s attention (he called it ‘the grabber’)
• Tell them why they should pay attention (give people the reason for listening)
• Tell them why they should pay attention to me (what value am I bringing to them? This could be for example my personal knowledge on a subject relevant to them).
“These points can be combined, but unless all three are addressed an audience will rarely stay with you,” Richard made this very clear. As well as the introduction, the conclusions need to be crafted well. These have to be concrete. “To find the conclusion, look for the call to action. What do you want your audience to do as a result of your presentation?” Having a clear conclusion in mind will also give the presenter focus and direction during the entire speech. In some circumstances emotions – which are common human traits – can distract even the most experienced speakers. “However, knowing exactly where you are heading will help you to find light in those dark moments, and therefore get back on track,” emphasised Richard.
During the first session we also touched the importance of breathing. Although it is very common sense to breath – and of course, I constantly breathe! – I was not totally aware of how I was doing it while speaking. Richard’s help was particularly relevant for me to understand how this can dramatically impact on the way I communicate and present. Tips from using more deep breathing (e.g. marked by the expansion of the chest), to the relevance of posing at particular stages of the speech, to the difference between diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing and belly breathing were also very useful to manage my posture.
Second and third sessions
I have never been coached until I met with Richard for our second and third sessions the following weeks. At this stage he gave more guidance – rather than instructions – as I was going through the learning process. These were reflective moments when he asked me many questions and offered opportunities that challenged me to find answers from within.
“When I speak, how does my mind visualise the content of my speech?”, “What is the best way for me to condense the information and make the subject become mine?”, “What and how do I think when I am in front of people?,” “How about my predisposition to rehearsing?”, “What do I need to do to arrive at the day of the speech with energy and positivity?”
This helped me to discover new ways of presenting based on my values and preferences. Meanwhile, Richard continued to provide me with positive support, feedback and advice to improve my personal effectiveness. This type of work was invaluable, and linked back to one of the very first things that Richard taught me when we first met: the need to find “your own style.”
After three meetings with Richard I feel totally grateful to him for his great help. Surely, this is not the end, but rather just the very beginning of the ever-going and learning journey in public presentations.
By Richard Tierney
I’m sitting on a delayed train in to Baker Street. I’m a bit nervous because I don’t like this bit.
I am heading in to coach simply-communicate’s Gloria Lombardi. Normally my coaching is strictly confidential. The pact we have made is that we will both write an article about the experience. I know Gloria has entered into this pact willingly, but it still feels a little strange “doing it” in public. Still – onward, I must be ruthlessly honest.
Gloria is charming. She has a presentation to give this afternoon. My normal way of working is to arrange three sessions in the 14 days leading up to the presentation, and now I have to combine that into the first session. Still one of the things I like about this work is that it’s never the same twice. So here we go.
One of the techniques I use is to discuss the various aspects of a presentation and then watch what the body language is telling me. Gloria knew her material. In the three times we ran through the presentation in this first session she uses different parts of her material each time and only looks at her notes a few times. So she needs just to focus on those parts which are the most compelling elements of her story.
However, in preparing her information she made two common errors. Strangely these two common faults are more frequent the more highly knowledgeable the presenter. Luckily the solutions are easily remembered and easily implemented.
First, having a concrete conclusion to the presentation. As often happens in the first draft it just stops at the end. To find the conclusion, she needs to look for the call to action. What does she want her audience to do as a result of her presentation?
Second, having a well crafted opening.
Primacy and Latency are the most powerful components of any presentation, how you start and how you end. At the beginning of any presentation there are three jobs to be done:
- Grab the audience’s attention
- Tell them why they must pay attention
- Tell them why they must pay attention to you
So we ended our first session. Compared to my usual work this is a bit of a rush, but then there is no normal.
One week later we met for the second session, and I discovered that Gloria’s presentation had been postponed. So, we now had another session to work on it, this time we concentrated on stagecraft.
Gloria had clearly rehearsed a lot in seven days. She was “off the book” and able to express herself clearly. The nerves were receding and her passion for her subject was coming through. It was a great session where my role was to encourage and coach rather than pure instruction. My work varies from instruction to coaching, the more time I spend at the coaching end of that spectrum the better the result and the more permanent the learning.
We ended positively and I looked forward to our next session, which is a kind of post-script to the actual presentation and embedding the techniques for the future. In my experience most of the real learning takes place after the final session when we’ve passed the bunny-in-the-headlights phase and entered a more reflective moment.
One week later and I asked Gloria how it went. Gloria had given her presentation, which went very well. But, another surprise: she had another one to do at very short notice. She got through it but without the same satisfaction and pleasure of the first one. Gloria’s experience was incredibly common; it gets easier each time but this is a slow process and particular to each person.
Having worked through what worked and what didn’t, I then set a date to coach Gloria for her next presentation!
About Richard Tierney
Richard Tierney is a Presentation Coach with over 30 years experience in live events and video production.
Business Mentor to the Prince’s Trust and a coach to the TED Fellows programme.