Sitting in a meeting room or conference room and watching a bad presentation can be hard to experience. But while it’s uncomfortable to listen to on a personal level, the pain that a presentation can inflict on a business’s bottom line or a conference’s productivity is equally real.
There are a number of reasons why presentations go wrong. The first and most obvious one—which so many of us struggle with—is that the anxiety we feel about speaking in public can seriously affect our delivery.
But even those who don’t feel too anxious about giving presentations need to be aware of the quality of their public speaking. Perhaps even more so. Sometimes a presentation goes on way past its expiration date because the speaker quite enjoys hearing the sound of their own voice.
Whatever the reason, public speaking is skill we can all continually improve on.
In this article, we offer some insights from psychology about how to improve public speaking skills and to deliver better presentations when conferencing or just doing day-to-day meetings.
The First Step: Beating the Anxiety
Although we often feel acutely alone when speaking at conferences or in meetings, the irony is that this anxiety is one shared by most of us. Experts have estimated that up to 77% of the population experience anxiety from public speaking. The other 23%? Most likely sociopaths.
The mental anguish is so common it actually has a name: Glossophobia.
So what’s happening in the brain that makes us feel this way about getting up in front of even very small groups of people, and what does this say about how we can fix it?
We store our memories in the pre-frontal lobes of our brain. A curiosity of our evolution is that, when we start to feel any form of anxiety, some parts of our brain become more active and some parts become a lot less active. The kicker is that our pre-frontal lobes are some of the first battle stations to shut down when we feel anxious.
This is because, when our fight or flight mechanism kicks in, the brain decides that there’s just no time to waste on rational cognitive processes. It’s time to act!
As a consequence, we stop being able to think properly about what we are doing. Information stops flowing and our speech becomes broken and often incoherent. Most of us just want to get out of there, and perhaps a smaller number want to engage in mortal combat with everyone in the audience.
The real issue with the anxiety of public speaking is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy every time we feel it. If we worry about giving a bad presentation, those pre-frontal lobes start to shut down and the odds of us struggling to retrieve the information we need to give a good presentation start to rise dramatically. So how do we fight against this?
Simple: treat the anxiety itself and brain function will improve.
Since the mental process of glossophobia is intrinsically circular, you need to beat the anxiety by introducing a circuit-breaker. This is most effective when implemented before we even start to speak. So, here are some known psychological circuit-breakers:
The Second Step: Prepare Well
At the end of the day, a good presentation at a conference or meeting will be made or broken by the preparation. There are two aspects to this: knowing your stuff and knowing how to say it.
Knowing your stuff is relatively straightforward. You need to spend the time getting to know your materials. A good idea is to write out a speech that details exactly what you want it to say.
But, of course, we all know that reading from a script is a bad way to communicate. So, the next step is to get so familiar with your content that you don’t need the detailed speech anymore.
Read your presentation out to yourself over and over again. This will serve two purposes. First, you are going to commit the information to memory so that you are less reliant on your typed-out speech. Second, you will get a lot more familiar with the optimal rhythm of your speech. Here are some questions you can answer for yourself when doing this:
So, the idea is that by practising thoroughly you can improve both the content and delivery of your speech at the same time.
The Third Step: Stimulate the Eyes
Now that your speech itself is looking the goods, you want to make it even better by complementing it with stimulating visuals. We’ve all heard about how a good presentation needs to engage the audience visually. But there are misconceptions about how to carry this out.
Slides are not the be-all and end-all.
Firstly, the slides cannot be text-heavy. One word may be more effective than three bullet points.
Secondly, a presentation can’t go too far in the other direction and be overloaded with visuals. A new picture on the screen every ten seconds? You’re most likely going to make your audience forget about what you’re saying and just start looking out for the new picture on the screen. The idea is to make your speech sound better, not to replace it with something else.
Thirdly, you may not even need slides at all. There are other ways to engage your audience visually. An age-old method that is perhaps even more effective than presentation slides is bodily movement.
The human brain is an instrument that has been finely tuned by millennia of evolution to pick up on and respond strongly to body language (particularly since this is all we had to respond to before real language came along).
For instance, controlling and modulating your facial expressions can cause instinctive emotional responses in your audience. Likewise, eye contact has an evolutionary role in radically stimulating interest.
But even walking a few steps can cue your audience members’ brains to stop all their other thoughts and become alert. When the human species used to all live out on the savannah, we needed to be very watchful of movement. As a result, we have become hyper-attuned to the difference between someone staying still and someone moving. A small movement in the grass might have been the only signal we received that a lion was hunting us.
So, to make your audience alert to your message, get moving.