Look Before You Leap in Front of an Audience

You have to give a product training presentation to a large number of potential new customers within the next few weeks. What’s your plan? Is your audience large or small? What do they already know about the product? Are you trying to educate, to inform and/or to help them grow revenue?

Stay aware and actively ‘LOOK’ as you plan, execute, and ultimately learn from your presentation.

Look at Your Plan:
Your presentation’s plan should be simple and straightforward.

  • What are the benefits of the new product?
  • What are the features and functionality?
  • How does this product differ from the former product?
  • What will you tell customers about this new product?

As always, leave plenty of time for questions. And don’t be afraid to repeat, repeat, repeat. The more you reiterate a specific benefit or feature, the more likely it will stay with your audience.

No matter how much it is indoctrinated at your workplace, PowerPoint is not always the best approach to deliver a message to an audience. The problem with PowerPoint is that the program draws too much attention to itself. Professionals often claim to be PowerPoint experts, capable of spinning, zooming and window-shading a myriad of shapes and sizes onto a presentation. But doing so draws focus to the slides and away from the audience. Instead of telling the audience about the various features and functionality in the new service, why not try showing them the new product live? If you must use slides, use them as supplementary material and keep the words to a minimum. One of the best PowerPoint presentations I have seen relied heavily on pictures, images and charts. Surprisingly, the visual presentation contained very few words.

If you use PowerPoint sparingly (my recommendation) or not at all, you may want to consider interactive exercises or breakout sessions that involve the audience in your presentation.

Look at Your Setup:
Once arriving at the destination for your presentation, be sure to check for some key setup particulars.

Technology: You want to LOOK prepared. Arrive at least 30 minutes before your presentation begins so you can check the complete technology setup. Check your computer, including cables, connections, projector and mouse. Bring extra batteries for your laptop and an extra extension cord in case none are available. Be ready to give your presentation technology-free if there is a major glitch at the facility. A presentation that stumbles out of the gate because of a technology or technical issue will have a long uphill climb to credibility. Your audience will undoubtedly remember your awkward start more than the actual point you were trying to make.

Room configuration: You have requested a certain room configuration, but upon arriving at your destination, you find something completely different. This happens more often than you might think. But you are prepared. You’ve arrived early enough that you can help reconfigure the room to your liking, or even move the entire setup to a different room. You will want to check for appropriate lighting, table and chair setup. Remember that slides are not the focus; the audience is. Your room arrangement should encourage dialogue, interaction and discussion.

How will the session end? Your setup analysis should include plans for “how people will leave your session.” What message do you want each attendee to take home? A handout summarizing key points may help reinforce the covered topics. (You may need an additional table to house the handouts.)

Collecting business cards, although cliché, can serve as a simple way to ensure quick follow-up with all attendees. Attendees will always have questions afterward, and you may not have time to answer them all during the session. Consider distributing your contact information after the session so that each attendee can contact you with unanswered questions. Better yet, you follow up with each attendee by providing a special offer or discount on the new product, or a list of tips on why this product will positively impact his or her business. Keep your message top of mind even after the presentation. 

Look at Your Audience:
Without your audience, you are speaking to an empty room, so treat them well. Your message should be catered to them:

Look into their eyes. This is not difficult. If you are intimidated by direct eye contact with strangers, get comfortable practicing eye contact with those you know (significant other, parents, friends, dog). If you are alone, practice your speech in the mirror and work on your eye contact. If you stay riveted to something other than your audience during your presentation, (the floor, the walls, your PowerPoint slides) you will lose your connection to your audience.

Look at their body language. If you’ve made solid eye contact throughout the room, yet you feel as if you’ve lost the audience, check their body language. Do they have their arms crossed? (Hint: They’re disinterested.) Are their hands on their hips? (They’re impatient.) Are they leaning away from you rather than toward you? (They’re detached from your message.) If someone in the audience is exhibiting any or all of those characteristics, check a few things:

  • Your tone – Is your voice too loud or too soft? Vary your voice tone consistently to keep listeners interested. You don’t want to sound monotonous. Think of that 6th grade math teacher who put you to sleep. People don’t want to strain to hear you, nor do they want to cringe if your voice is too boisterous or abrasive.
  • Your gestures – Get your body into it. Your message will come across smoothly if your gestures match your words. Think of the last great play or movie you saw. Was the lead actor or actress dull or lacking any body or arm movement? No! The actor or actress jumped into the part, using his or her whole being to embrace the character.
  • Your message – You certainly don’t want your talk memorized. Be prepared to make adaptations in mid-stream depending on audience reaction. Depending on the time of your talk, you may catch your audience at the end of a very long day. Your long-winded, informative talk may need to freestyle into a punchy, action-oriented summary. Read your audience. Your success or failure is riding on their shoulders.

It is a rarity, but sometimes your audience will want to hear more from you. Make sure you have material that will cover the allotted time and then some. Give your audience time to breathe and give yourself time to analyze their status by doing something that scares even veteran speakers – stop talking. Take five seconds during a good transition point in your presentation and scan the audience. How many people are paying attention? Trust me. These five seconds will pay huge dividends in how the rest of your presentation will go.

Look at Your Performance:
You’ve completed your presentation. You take a deep breath. “It’s over,” you say. Not true. This is where the real work begins. There will be a ‘next’ speech, so why not get ready for it now?

Survey. Your audience members want you to succeed. They want you to give a credible, informative even exceptional presentation, so use them to your advantage. A survey is a great way to get specific feedback from your listeners. If you have the resources, distribute a survey immediately after your talk and offer an incentive to each person who fills it out completely. Or e-mail an evaluation form to each participant shortly after the presentation. You want your presentation fresh in the minds of your audience when they take the survey.

Ask Your Audience. After the conclusion of your presentation, get out there and mingle with your audience members. They hold the keys to that one part of the presentation that didn’t quite flow, or the one PowerPoint slide that contained too much text. Specifically ask for their thoughts on your performance and encourage them to be as candid as possible. This spur-of-the-moment feedback will go a long way toward improving your effectiveness for that next presentation. Always thank each audience member for attending, and especially thank those individuals who provide specific feedback on your performance. You will make mistakes in your presentation; this is a given. The key, however, is recognizing what those mistakes are so you can minimize them for next time.

Check yourself. After your presentation is over, and you’ve talked with audience members, how do you feel? Your hunch is usually right on more often than not. If you think you sounded monotonous, you probably were. Did your gestures feel stiff and restricted? You nailed it.

As these thoughts come to you, write them down in an “improvement journal.” This journal should contain all of your internal talk immediately after a presentation. Next time you are preparing for an important presentation, consult your journal. You can probably avoid some typical mistakes by learning from your past performances. A great presentation today happens when you learn and adapt from the mistakes that you made in the past.

It is now time for you to act. If you follow my four simple points, you will be on your way to solid presentations:

  • Look at your plan
  • Look at your set-up
  • Look at your audience
  • Look at your performance

 You can be a superb presenter. All it takes is preparation and ongoing reflection.

Dan Naden, CTM, is a member of the Balcones Toastmasters in Austin, Texas. Reach him at dnaden@yahoo.com.