Improve your presentation skills: learn to use silence and always be prepared

Don't expect an overview of beautiful presentation templates or audience grounding techniques in this article. As a presenter, you need to be prepared for the fact that neither life nor presenting is fair — at least, that's how Karel Novotný, who has given over 2000 presentations to clients and has 20 years of experience in advertising agencies, sees it. Pride and strength are key, advises Tomas Hauptvogel, a former successful TV presenter who now works as a media consultant and conducts media training for companies and celebrities.

Stop worrying about PowerPoint templates

Karel Novotny is about to disappoint many a lover of fonts and PowerPoint templates: "Everyone is obsessed with form, as though form is the key to perfect presenting. But form is no good without content. It's similar to skiing: when you're learning to ski, you're only thinking about form — how to get your arms and legs right — but after a few days you start thinking about the content — if you're enjoying it, how to go faster, and how to improve your turns. In the same way, with each presentation you move from form to content," explains Novotný.

No mumbling!

Once you have good content, then you need to work on your presentation skills. Talk yourself up before you get in front of an audience — confidence is key. Practise speaking clearly and projecting your voice – mumbling and poor enunciation is not an effective way to capture and keep your audience’s attention, whether you're presenting to classmates or going on TV.

Me, them and context

Consider the "me vs. them" distinction — "me" is you, the presenter, and "them" is your audience.

When presenting, put yourself in your audience’s shoes –  can you improve their conditions, for example by opening a window when it's hot? "Be aware of how you feel and how the people you are presenting to feel," explains Novotny. For example, you might compliment the audience on their patience in listening to so many presentations before lunch.

But the concept of “me” and “them” isn't the only thing to think about. What connects the presenter and their audience is the context, which is the content of your presentation. So think about what your goal is — you need to know what you want to convey with your presentation and what you want people to take away from it. 

Who cares?

"Never forget who you're presenting to," adds Tomas Hauptvogel.  "Always ask, 'Who cares?'"  Novotny agrees: "Before each presentation, think about who your target audience is and tailor the story to them. There's a big difference between doing a school presentation for parents and making a presentation to corporate executives. Because in the latter case, your adversaries are sitting across from you, and they’ll notice every mistake," And make sure to convey emotion. Whether you're in front of ten people or millions on TV, you should always tell a story, and look enthusiastic — just don't overdo it.

Avoid nervous pacing and hand waving

"Your enthusiasm will reduce negation in the audience by fifty percent" (Tomas Hauptvogel)

Preparing on the spot? Forget it

Forget taking a relaxing few minutes at the beginning of your presentation to consider the technical possibilities, connect your computer to the projector and check the sharpness of the image. "The presentation starts when you enter the room. The people present are watching you every moment —  including as you put the flash drive into the computer and struggle with technical problems. It's not fair, but it's the way it is," explains Novotný.  
Good preparation is the beginning and end of presenting. You have to know absolutely everything about the subject — no question can throw you off, so make a list of anticipated questions and prepare answers to them. 

Get ahead of criticism

Do you have a tough debate or meeting coming up where someone may confront you with tricky questions? "Pull your own skeletons out of the closet before they can, and head off the criticism before it comes," explains Tomas Hauptvogel, who, among other things, works as a media and communications consultant. You must always know more than your challengers and anticipate how potential conflict could arise and develop. Don't get cornered in challenging situations. 

Check that everything works

Always prepare your presentation:

  • on the computer,
  • *and* on a flash drive.

Have your presentation in multiple formats. This will save you in a situation where your computer won't connect to the projector and you’re forced to use someone else's computer only to find that your presentation looks like a haphazard jumble of letters — fortunately, you also have a PDF version.

Pride and Power

If you come to a presentation looking down, or low on energy, no one will hear your message, but project confidence, and you'll have their attention from the first. You could try imagining that you're playing a role: "Every time I had to go into a big debate, for example with Miloš Zeman, I was reminded of the famous scene from Cool Runnings, when Jul Brenner puts Junior, who doesn't believe in himself, in front of a mirror and asks him: 'Look in the mirror and tell me what you see.' He answers: 'Junior', but Jul says: 'I see pride and strength', and then makes Junior repeat it. Finally he says the famous line: 'But it's about what I see. It's about what you see'. And that is the secret to delivering a successful presentation or debate," smiles Tomas.

You only have five minutes (even if you prepared for twenty)

Even if you originally agreed to prepare a twenty-minute presentation, you may be told on the spot to cut it down to five minutes because the person ahead of you overran.  Make sure you know which parts of your presentation are essential, and which are “nice-to-haves” so you’re prepared to cut it down at the last minute.

The presentation killers: cell phones, fatigue and bad moods

Aim to get your audience on your side at the start. But that's not always easy, because there will be plenty of distractions that take away your audience's attention: 

  • fatigue after a marathon presentation-watching session,
  • mobile phones or computers
  • coughing and sniffling,
  • what's going on outside the window
  • a discussion with a seat-neighbour 

Prepare for three model behavioural situations

People on the panel are unlikely to sit quietly and listen to you. Novotny outlined three model audience behaviour situations:
Listeners are slightly distracted, so the presenter may feel they are talking themself. However, it’s relatively easy to direct and calm the audience.
Listeners loudly express disapproval, are rude and arrogant. It is difficult to respond to attacks and irrelevant comments and to calm the audience.
Listeners show enthusiasm, are jovial, praise the presenter and loudly express satisfaction.

In these situations, there are several things a presenter can do to improve the situation:

  • Find out what is going on. Infiltrate the hostile camp and by engaging them, asking if they have a follow-up question or if they didn't understand something. In this way you’ll confirm they have understood what you’ve said, and gently admonish them at the same time.
  • Take a two-second break. It is not the presenter's job to talk relentlessly during their allotted time. See what happens if you pause for a moment to exhale and let the audience digest the information you just gave them.
  • Don't let them get carried away. Initially it might feel like positive energy in the room is the best thing that could happen, but it can still be rather distracting.
  • Adopt a losing strategy: It's not exactly a solution, but if an audience is behaving aggressively, attacking your character, intelligence, or insulting you, it's best to end the presentation and walk away.
  • "I have found myself in situations where I would rather end a presentation than continue to humiliate myself. When you know you can't win an argument with, say, the CEO of a company, it's better to adopt a lose-lose strategy and end it with honour," says Novotny.

FINAL TIP: Don't be rude. Shouting "SILENCE!" is a last resort — it might work, but you won’t have got your audience on your side by putting yourself in the role of a scolding elementary school teacher speaking to unruly students.