Key tips to impress your audience and keep your nerves at bay, whether presenting to 1 person or 100.

Many people find that presenting in front of a large audience is one of the least pleasurable tasks in their working life. Some people even find it totally nerve-wracking.

This article will give you some tips regarding:
• How to be in the right state (as opposed to a right state).
• How to prepare for a presentation.
• How to structure a presentation so that it suits everyone in the audience.
• How to handle questions and even ‘hecklers’.

Much of what will be covered here comes from a field of study called Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). Some of the approaches may be different to those which you are familiar with, and I invite you to approach this with an open mind.

Being in The Right State

It is extremely useful to feel in a good state before and during a presentation. One way to get into a good state is by using an NLP technique known as ‘Anchoring’. Anchoring is a way for you to feel at your best at the click of your fingers. It involves finding between five and ten minutes, a few days before the presentation, to do the following exercise. I suggest you read through this once or twice so that you know exactly what to do, and then find a quiet space and do it.

The principles work like this. If you are in a particular state, for example, energised, and you apply a stimulus (such as pressing your index finger and thumb together) at the peak of the experience and releasing them once the peak has passed, the state and the stimulus become linked.

If you repeat it a few times they become strongly linked, so that when you repeat the stimulus you will experience the state.

Here is the process for you to follow. Steps one to seven take around 10-15 minutes in all.

1 Decide on how you would like to feel both before and during the presentation. For the purposes of this article I will assume that you want to feel confident, relaxed and energised. Pick relevant states for you, and think of two or three times you felt that way in the past.

2 Decide also on a physical movement that you can do and that you can easily replicate during the presentation. An example could be pressing your index finger and thumb of your non-writing hand together. Make sure that it is a unique and replicable movement, because you may be doing this movement before or during the presentation.

3 Then, think of two specific times when you felt extremely confident, relaxed and energised (six in all).

4 Pick one of the times from step 3 above. Go back to that time and relive it (see it, hear it and really feel it), and when the feeling is most intense, press your thumb and finger together (shown as ‘set anchor’ in the diagram), and keep pressing until the feeling has passed its peak, which typically lasts for 5-15 seconds.

5 Clear your mind and them repeat step 4 for the remaining five situations.

6 Clear your mind and then test that this has worked by doing the ‘anchor’ movement, and experience how good you feel.

7 To really cement this, do some mental rehearsal (all champion athletes do this). Imagine watching yourself on a TV screen making the presentation whilst you press your thumb and finger together. Watch different scenarios, for example quiet audience, noisy audience, lots of questions, no questions, and see yourself responding well and feeling confident, relaxed and energised each time. Then repeat this, except imagine it happening right now as opposed to watching yourself on the screen.

Top up your anchor every day, and whenever something great happens, so that you create a really strong ‘oak tree’ or ‘skyscraper’ of resources. Do the mental rehearsal daily for a few moments.

Once you have created your anchor, if you are feeling a little nervous (perhaps before the presentation) just press your thumb and finger together to feel great.

Preparing for a Presentation

There are some aspects that are key to preparing for a presentation. Firstly, it’s important to feel good about doing the presentation, which we covered above.

A second aspect is to decide on the topics and information that you would like to cover. When doing this, there are three key perspectives to consider:

1. What you would like to included, i.e. from your own perspective.
2. What the members of the audience would like, i.e. from their perspective.
3. What a neutral yet informed observer would suggest so that everyone gets value from the presentation.

This third perspective is often overlooked when preparing. Most of us have experienced situations when someone has asked our advice, and because we can be objective we can make really useful suggestions. The same principle applies here; if we can put ourselves in the mind-set of this third perspective, we can often have insights that we miss if we are too closely involved.

So how can you incorporate these three perspectives? One simple yet effective way is to create three separate spaces in a room, or, if you have the opportunity, go to the venue itself. In the first space (ideally the spot from where you’ll be presenting), be yourself, and ask yourself questions regarding what you want from the presentation and what you think should be covered. Clear your mind and then move to the second space (ideally where the audience will be sitting). In your mind ‘become’ the audience or someone from the audience, looking at the presenter ‘over there’ (i.e. you) in the first space. Ask yourself (as the audience member), ‘What do I want from the presentation and the presenter? What would be useful for me?’ Give yourself a few minutes to really consider this. Once you have done that, clear your mind and move to the third space, (perhaps to the side of the room), and become a neutral observer. Ask yourself questions such as, ‘What do I notice about the presenter and the audience? What do they both want? What advice would I give the presenter about how to put his/her point across?’ Again, give yourself a few minutes to answer.

Then take all the insights from the second and third space back into the first space to help you decide what to do. It will also help you to prepare for likely questions.

How to structure a presentation

Another important aspect of preparing from a presentation relates to how to structure it. People often say that presenting is simple: ‘tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them it and then tell them what you’ve told them.’ The first and last parts are relatively easy, taking probably a minute or two each. But what do you do in the middle part, the part that takes most of the time?

Here is a structure which is based on learning styles developed by Bernice McCarthy. Her theory, known as ‘4-MAT’, states that in order for people to learn and be engaged, four key areas must be covered: Why? What? How? What if?

The ‘Why’ relates to ‘What’s in it for me? Why should I listen to this information?’ It is important to grab the attention of the audience at the start by telling them, or even asking them, why this material will be so useful to them.

Once you have their attention and they are really eager to hear what you are going to say, then you can give them the ‘What’ information, which will usually form the bulk of the presentation. This is where topics such as the history, facts, statistics and how things work can be presented, and provided you make appropriate links back to the ‘Why’ points you made earlier, you will keep hold of their attention because they have a reason to listen to you and they understand the context of the material.

Given that people learn by doing, wherever possible give them a way to actively participate, in order to experience for themselves ‘How’ it works. Design brief activities that are relevant to the topic, even if it is simply discussing in pairs how they will use them material or challenges they foresee.

Once you have covered this part, it is useful to have a de-brief and a question and answer session, where people can discuss topics such as what they learned, the challenges they foresee, how they could use the information and some ‘What if’ scenarios.

A further element of presentations can be overlaid; this relates to whether people prefer to receive information visually, aurally, kinaesthetically or by reading/hearing facts, figures and researched evidence. Given that most people have a preference, and that in a group there will be different preferences, I recommend that you use a combination, for example:

• Graphs, diagrams, power-points/neat flipcharts (i.e. visual).
• Discuss, talk, ask questions (i.e. auditory).
• Allow people to experience or do activities (i.e. kinaesthetic).
• Give people facts, figures, evidence (i.e. for the more ‘logically-biased’ members of the audience).

Handling Questions and ‘Hecklers’

When coaching presentation skills, my clients often express a concern about people asking questions or challenging their ideas. If you know the answer, questions are easy, and this links back to the point made earlier about preparation. But what can you do if you don’t know the answer, or if someone challenges you? Whilst it is impractical to cover all angles in this brief article, here are some tips:

• Expect not to know everything, and accept it! You will learn for next time.
• Have some stock phrases to buy you time, such as: ‘that’s a really interesting question. Let me reflect for a moment.’, or, ‘Does anyone else in the audience have a view on this?’ or, ‘Thanks for asking that. I don’t know the answer but I’ll find out and get back to you within an hour – what’s the best way to contact you?’
• If someone challenges your opinion, welcome it and avoid appearing defensive. Being relaxed about it can often diffuse any possible feeling of challenge.”

Jeremy Lazarus is an Executive Coach and High Performance Sports Coach, and a Certified Master Trainer of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). He spent over 15 years in a business career which included senior management and director roles. In 1999 he ... (Read More)

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