Pre­sen­ta­tion prob­lems? Here’s what to do

Most peo­ple’s big­gest fear is freez­ing like a rab­bit in the head­lights or go­ing into a blind panic – but a back-up plan negates this risk

The Irish Times - Business - - WORLD OF WORK - Olive Keogh

Sudha Mani is a tech en­tre­pre­neur and man­age­ment con­sul­tant who has sat through and made many pre­sen­ta­tions dur­ing her ca­reer. Not all have gone well, in­clud­ing the time she found her­self on the wrong end of a tech­nol­ogy glitch at a cru­cial fund­ing pitch. “I was re­ly­ing on vis­ual ma­te­rial to ex­plain my prod­uct, and when that didn’t work, it was very dif­fi­cult to get in­vestors to un­der­stand what I was talk­ing about,” she says.

The irony of be­ing stymied by tech­nol­ogy wasn’t lost on Mani. She recog­nised that, while she was well able to talk tech, she was less good at sto­ry­telling. Had she been able to wax lyri­cal about her vi­sion for her busi­ness, it might have saved the day. De­ter­mined not to get caught out again, Mani joined Toast­mas­ters In­ter­na­tional to im­prove her pre­sen­ta­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills and is an ac­tive mem­ber of the Bri­tish and Ir­ish district, which has more than 400 clubs and 10,000 mem­bers.

‘Be­yond what I was ex­pect­ing’

“I ac­quired skills at Toast­mas­ters that went way be­yond what I was ex­pect­ing,” she says. “You learn so much about how to present your­self, to be suc­cinct, to tell and use sto­ries and how to ‘read’ an au­di­ence.”

Mani’s main piece of ad­vice for any­one speak­ing in pub­lic to an au­di­ence big or small is to have a plan B ready to kick in if there’s a prob­lem.

Hitches can in­clude an AV that doesn’t work, an un­ruly mem­ber of an au­di­ence, for­got­ten prompt cards, or a col­league de­ter­mined to score points by in­ter­rupt­ing or ask­ing un­set­tling ques­tions.

Prepa­ra­tion, and check­ing that ev­ery­thing is work­ing be­fore you start, are givens. But if Mur­phy’s Law does strike, most peo­ple’s big­gest fears are that they will freeze like a rab­bit in the head­lights or go into a blind panic. One way of avoid­ing both is to have a sim­ple cop­ing strat­egy al­ready mapped out that you can pull off the shelf at any time.

“Have a glass of wa­ter nearby and take a sip, as it seems to set­tle the nerves bet­ter than try­ing to re­mem­ber to take deep breaths,” Mani says. “If you have writ­ten a

Have a glass of wa­ter nearby and take a sip, as it seems to set­tle the nerves bet­ter than try­ing to re­mem­ber to take deep breaths

script, bring it with you in hard copy and you can speak from it if the slides don’t work, for ex­am­ple. If you’ve for­got­ten to do that but have brought a handout for peo­ple, use that in­stead to give you di­rec­tion.

Make a lit­tle joke

“Above all, re­mem­ber that you know your sub­ject. You have a lot of knowl­edge and, once you can steady your nerves, you can re­lax and use it. If you can, make a lit­tle joke about the prob­lem to put the au­di­ence at ease and then try to carry on as if noth­ing has hap­pened.”

Mani says one tech­nique she has used while re­group­ing is to throw a ques­tion at the au­di­ence to stop any rest­less­ness and to get them in­volved.

She also has prac­ti­cal ad­vice for deal­ing with un­ruly ques­tions from the floor or a dif­fi­cult col­league in com­pany set­tings. “I don’t fin­ish on the Q&A, I al­ways stop it about 10 min­utes be­fore the end so I have the op­por­tu­nity to set­tle things down and make my clos­ing state­ment,” she says. “If some­one is be­ing par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing or per­sis­tent, I in­vite them to talk to me af­ter­wards or to send me an email.”

In Mani’s ex­pe­ri­ence if the dis­rupter has an an­swer, they will usu­ally come up to her. If they don’t, they gen­er­ally dis­ap­pear. She says their ques­tions are of­ten more about flex­ing their author­ity (or their ego) than about a gen­uine in­ter­est in the sub­ject mat­ter.

“You don’t see this type of in­di­vid­ual very of­ten in pub­lic sem­i­nars, but you may ex­pe­ri­ence them in busi­ness meet­ings,” she says.

“They at­tend the meet­ing and are pas­sive-ag­gres­sive or ask in­ap­pro­pri­ate ques­tions. They may do this es­pe­cially when their peers (or man­agers) are around to show what they know. Han­dle these peo­ple very care­fully. They may be de­ci­sion-mak­ers or in­di­vid­u­als with author­ity who can make or break a deal or dam­age your cred­i­bil­ity.”

Pitch of your voice

Even with the best-laid plans, there may be times when a pre­sen­ta­tion gets hi­jacked by cross­fire be­tween oth­ers. Should this hap­pen, don’t let your­self get dragged into the con­fronta­tion. Drop the pitch of your voice and speak qui­etly so peo­ple have to stop to lis­ten. Then pull the con­ver­sa­tion back to the topic and ei­ther fin­ish the meet­ing and/or sug­gest the is­sue is re­turned to at an­other time.

If you are ner­vous about han­dling an au­di­ence, es­pe­cially if there is likely to be hos­til­ity, it’s use­ful to have some ques­tions pre­pared to buy time and breath­ing space. An ex­am­ple would be to ask the per­son to elab­o­rate on the point they are mak­ing.

Dif­fi­cult mo­ments can also be dif­fused by ac­knowl­edg­ing some­one’s idea but say­ing you see it dif­fer­ently and us­ing a neu­tral phrase such as “May I ex­plain why?” to get things back on mes­sage.

It may also be use­ful to clar­ify an is­sue by go­ing over what you’ve heard the per­son say but kick­ing off your sen­tence with a non-con­fronta­tional com­ment such as “what I’m tak­ing away from what you just said is... ”

One of the clas­sic googlies that un­set­tles pre­sen­ters is be­ing asked a ques­tion they don’t know the an­swer to. This is where it pays div­i­dends to prac­tise the phrase “let me get back to you on that” un­til you can say it and move seam­lessly on with­out miss­ing a beat.

Even with the best-laid plans, there may be times when a pre­sen­ta­tion gets hi­jacked by cross­fire be­tween oth­ers. Should this hap­pen, don’t let your­self get dragged into the con­fronta­tion.

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