The Ultimate Presentation Season Survival Guide

by Viel
MEd, Adult Education & Community Development

It’s Presentation Season!

It’s that feeling of “fight or flight” when you first step into the spotlight…your body recognizes that your audience, or rather the judgement that will ensue, is a threat to your overall well-being. That’s why public speaking is regarded as one of the biggest phobias where 75% of individuals suffer from this fear. But don’t worry, there’s hope. I used to be part of that 75%, but I learned how to reluctantly overcome this fear. I found that when I became a Student Ambassador at UofT Mississauga, it really pushed me to come out of my comfort zone, since one of the main responsibilities was to give tours around campus to prospective students and their parents. My presentation skills were further cultivated during my undergrad and especially when I went to teacher’s college at OISE, as there were so many opportunities where I had to push my limits—with every interaction, every presentation, and every group project, and every teaching moment—I was forced to take risks, to refine my speaking skills, and most importantly, I learned how to be OK with making mistakes in front of people.

Once I started grad school, there was more of a group/class discussion and presentation element to all of my classes. My courses have required me to take part in both individual and group presentations, which is something that I had expected before I got here. You need to remember that your presentation skills are just as important in both your academic life and your professional life. The best opportunity for self-reflection and self-assessment for your public speaking skills is through your classes—your professors really look at how you present in front of the class, and not just the content of your slides or your research. So, think about your grad school presentations like a free “Toast Masters” Class! If you really think about it, in the future, you may consider pursuing your doctorate or find a job that requires public speaking, so this is where you really need to have the skill to present, to facilitate discussions, to ask questions, and most importantly, to learn how to persuade your audience. Presenting is a both essential and a dynamic tool for you—so take the opportunity to practice, practice, practice!

To help you “beef” up those presenting skills, I’ve compiled a couple of things that you may want to consider when you start thinking about presentations:

1) Eye contact. Remember when your teacher/your classmates coached you to look at the back wall to completely avoid the anxiety that comes when people are looking at you? Well, believe it or not, this “tactic” is not a good way to connect with people during your presentation. In both formal and informal settings, you need eye contact to make connections and to ensure that people are actually listening to you. One of the best pieces of advice that I got was from professional speakers who said that the best way to solve this eye contact conundrum is to actually just scan the foreheads of people. That way, if you’re a little bit hesitant about looking at people, just look at their foreheads! They said that it gives the illusion that you’re looking at everyone without having to make any eye contact. Obviously eye contact doesn’t hurt once in a while—again, you still need to establish that connection! So maybe you want to balance scanning foreheads and making eye contact, and then, when you’re confidence grows, make eye contact a habit!

2) Keep it short and simple. This point is especially relevant to your PowerPoint slides and even when you are elaborating on a point. You do not want to lose your train of thought and go on a different tangent, something that I struggle with from time to time. So just make sure that you don’t lose your focus and just keep it straight to the point, while making some personal and relevant touches to your speaking points. If you keep trying to find things to talk about for each point, you might lose what you actually want to say.

3) Organization is key. My Adult Education professor first told our class that as an adult educator, you must always have to organize your space. So take the time to organize yourself before your presentation and set out your essential presentation tools. Also make sure that you have your slides organized in a way that shows both the beginning, the middle, and the end. Your organization skills are important, so that your presentation goes smoothly and you’ll be able to look like you are knowledgeable about your topic.

4) Rehearse, but keep it natural. If you do not rehearse or prepare yourself for this presentation, and you just solely rely on the notion of “winging it”…be prepared to discover that this may not be the best idea. We’ve all been there before—where you struggle to get your point across, because you may have missed one of your points. Practicing for presentations is a key tool to avoid making mistakes, but you also want to make sure that you don’t want to appear to be too rehearsed to the point where you look unnatural and sound almost robotic. Again, connecting with your audience really gets people to engage with your presentation! This will also help in situations where technology fails you and you cannot show your slides—you’ll be able to handle those technical errors like a pro!

5) Pace yourself. You may have good points, but they might become lost in the blur that is your presentation. Sometimes, you find yourself speaking too fast to the point where no one can understand you. Always take a deep breath before you speak and in between those transitions. This will even help you to avoid those “uhs” and “ums” that fill those moments of silence! Make this your mantra of presentations: Breathe in confidence, breathe out knowledge!

6) Use humor. Obviously, you would like to keep things professional, but it doesn’t hurt to add a little bit of humor into your presentation—again, engaging and connecting to your audience is the goal! You also want to make your audience feel that you’re comfortable with them and that you’re confident and knowledgeable about your topic. Laughing a little won’t hurt, it’s something some of the greatest public speakers use to ease that tension between them and the audience!

7) Take advantage of the cloud. Backup is super important when it comes to presentations, whether it’s a PowerPoint, a Prezi, or a video—making sure that you have a backup space to put them on will allow you to avoid those technical blunders. Print out your slides, bring a USB, and always create a Plan B when you are presenting, this will enable to get that presentation done and over with, without having to cause any delays! Again, if you practice and know your slides, you don’t even have to look at your notes or your slides–making you look even better!

8) Be heard. You also need to learn how to speak loud and clear. You want to make sure that your speech is natural and not robotic too! If you’re a soft-spoken person like me, sometimes I find it hard to speak up—but again with practice, you’ll be able to overcome that shy voice! I always remind myself to find that “teacher voice” within.

9) Assess Yourself. A great way to get better at presentations is to self-reflect, which will help to assess how you present and what you can to do better for future presentations. Don’t be too critical of yourself, but just be open-minded about giving yourself that room for improvement. A good way to assess yourself is to record a video of you presenting—it’s probably the weirdest feeling to watch yourself actually presenting, but it also helps you to see if you’re lacking eye contact or emotion in your voice, and maybe you speak too much with your hands! You really need to see what will make a good speaker and see how you can apply that with your own presentation skills.

10) Participate. One of my professors during my undergrad always told me that sitting at the front of the class will help you to not become conscious of what people think about you when you are participating in class. Participating in class will definitely alleviate those feelings of anxiety when you present—you’ll also become comfortable with your future audience and it’ll just keep pushing you out of your comfort zone. So go ahead and participate!

Remember, presentations aren’t easy. It may come naturally to people, but for the majority of us, it takes a great deal of practice. Don’t be afraid to take risks and make those mistakes, because it’s the only way you can learn and enhance your skills. One more thing, before you start your presentation—never forget to introduce yourself! After following these recommendations on enhancing your presentation skills, people will probably want to know who you are! So don’t forget to take time to tell your audience your name!

Do you have any tips on surviving presentations? Comment below!

Questions? Email me oise.ambassador@utoronto.ca

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