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Presentations: some thoughts about the performance aspects

Here are some suggestions for performing well in presentations. I originally wrote them after criticising a student for lack of ‘presence’ in a presentation, who then asked me “how do you do ‘presence’ then?” Good question, and Pete Posthlethwaite, the master of riveting screen presence, isn’t around to ask any more. So I went away and thought about it , and asked my son the Drama graduate, and put together some suggestions. I thought they might be worth repeating here.

Approach: The ideal line to take is “I’ve got something interesting to say, and I’d like people to hear me say it, and I really would like them to get the point of what I’m saying” – but you may find it difficult to feel like that.
Someone in a previous round of presentations said “it’s good to have a handout, because then people will look at it, and not at you”, which is logical enough, but the wrong way round. To present effectively, your manner has to say “look at ME! pay attention to ME!”, and that’s not easy if you’re really thinking “don’t look at me”. OK, you’re not that kind of person, but see it as an acting job: you have to pretend to be a show-off for five minutes. Most people can act to that extent.
Similarly, you may know that you’re only talking about your topic because you have to say something in the presentation, and you want to get through it as fast as possible and get off stage and relax. It’s not good if that comes through. Pretend that you’ve got something interesting and important to tell to the audience, and that it’s important that they understand it. If you were asked to do that with a shopping list or a telephone directory as an acting exercise, you could do it: so you could do the same thing with research findings.

Reading: don’t do it. If you try reading a presentation and video it (good practice, and with a webcam, or a book to prop your phone up, you can video yourself any time you like), you may be surprised at how wooden and unnatural you look and sound when you read. Also, if you’ve tried reading a presentation, you may have been surprised how many mistakes you made, and how easy it was to lose your place. This is not because you are stupid or incompetent: there is a good psychological reason for it. You need to be highly skilled to do several tasks at the same time. You can probably walk and chew gum at the same time, but reading (which imposes a significant cognitive load), and thinking about the content, and thinking about getting through to the audience, is just too much for most people, especially if you’re anxious. If you know about the Yerkes-Dodson graph of how arousal affects performance, you’ll know that it’s just these kinds of complex tasks which are messed up by moderate levels of arousal.

Of course, what I’ve just said may not apply to you. There are some people who can read material, make it sound sensible, and sound natural and connect with their audience at the same time. You may be one of these people. If so, don’t waste your time on a psychology degree; become a radio or TV continuity announcer. If you’re very good-looking, you could even be a presenter. It’s better-paid than being a psychologist, and probably easy work if you’re one of the very few people who can do it well. You might also consider politics, though not all politicians have this skill. Blair was OK, Clinton was brilliant, Bush is useless at it, Obama is great in big meetings, not so good straight to the screen. Bartlet is pretty good, as long as he’s not having one of his funny turns.

Visual aids: PowerPoint can be useful for getting information over to the audience – though if it’s used thoughtlessly it can be useless or insulting – but it can also be useful to the presenter. You can use it instead of the note cards to prompt you for the next point; you can put quotes up on the screen rather than having to read them out (remember that if you know that all your audience have normal vision and can read – don’t automatically assume that’s the case – you don’t have to read out what’s on the Powerpoint for them, and it’s a bit insulting if you do), and having something on the screen to point at is a good reason for purposeful movement. Purposeful movement is a good way of freeing up frozen, withdrawn body language, which lots of people suffer from, and giving you more stage presence, and it’s also a way of controlling too much aimless movement and irritating mannerisms, which some other people suffer from. Thinking of other things to do which require you to move is a good idea.
Think carefully about the content of the slides: what are they there for (showing things you can’t describe well in words, reminding the audience what the main points are, prompting you what to say next, whatever..)? Once you’ve decided what the purpose of the slides is, does the content you’re planning to put on them actually support that purpose?
You can do some fancy things with PowerPoint (don’t do fancy things unless there’s some point), but most stuff can be done just as well with OHP slides, and there’s nothing wrong with taking the non-data-projector route.
Everyone should view Don McMillan on PowerPoint:


Structure, changeovers and choreography: if it’s a group presentation, you will probably be changing presenters. Match the changeovers with the structure of your story, signal them well, and think about where people are (out of the way, and with somewhere comfortable to stand/sit if they’re not presenting, appearing in the right place with the right materials when they do take over, and moving gracefully out of the spotlight when they’ve finished). Watch how they do it on Channel Four news at 7pm – where they have more changes than necessary, I think, but they handle them well.

Endings: you have to make it clear to the audience when and why you’re getting to the end – of your section, or of the presentation as a whole. Some groups had to say ‘…and that’s the end’ before the audience realised it was the end – it should be absolutely clear, without you having to say it.

Professional guidance
I talked to someone I know who has done a lot of performing, and has some professional experience directing plays and training actors, about presenting in general, and maintaining some level of ‘stage presence’ in particular. Here are his suggestions.

The first suggestion was a typical professional one – quite right, but maybe impractical in a class presentation: warm up. Get your voice working, stretch, all that stuff. Fine if you can do it, but whoever’s presenting before you won’t appreciate you doing it at the back while they’re on.

A bit more practical (sometimes) is to take some exercise – run up and down a couple of flights of stairs. Not so much as to leave you out of breath, but enough to increase your heartrate and make you warmer (if you know about some of the psychological research on the emotion/self-attribution stuff, you might be able to supply psychological reasons why this would be beneficial).

More practically, find opportunities to move as you present. Gesture at the screen, point out crucial bits, even walk over to it to emphasise fine details. Getting your body moving is good for keeping people’s attention on you, and this gives you a way of doing it which seems natural, and more importantly, can feel natural to you, so you don’t really have to think about what you’re doing: you can just do it.

Think of your presentation as a story, or a joke. There’s the scene-setting, the business, and the pay-off or punchline. This gives it a shape, a change of pace, an excuse to get animated, and natural places to pause and to emphasise things. It may not always be obvious to you just where to add emphasis, but with a bit of thought and experimentation you can usually find sensible places. A definite place to add emphasis is where you’re bringing in an important new point.
My advisor also pointed out that people usually find it easy to remember jokes and stories, so you might find the content easier to hold in your mind that way (again, good psychological reasons for this). This helps, because it’s easier to be animated if you know what you’re going to say next than if you’re striving to remember it. In a longer presentation, you might split it up into more than one story. Identify the key points in the narrative, and emphasise them as you get to them.

Look at the audience: people generally remember to do this a bit, but he pointed out that you train actors to look just over the heads of the audience, but you train presenters to actively catch people’s eye and make a direct personal contact. If you do it on a sufficiently strong and unarguable point, you may even be able to get a nod out of them, which is very encouraging for the presenter.

Be prepared to pause: one of the techniques of ‘stage presence’ is to make the audience wait just very slightly longer than they expect to for whatever you’re going to do next. If you’ve got something striking to say, you can pause just after saying it, to let it sink in. You can also do an anticipatory pause. Also, if you’re moving on to a new section, you can pause before you start it, which emphasises the shift, and also refocuses attention on you as people have to wait to see what you’re going to say next. (These are only very slight pauses, of course, but you can be more melodramatic if you’ve just told us or shown us something particularly shocking or horrible).

The last recommendation is the paradoxical one: don’t think about doing any of this. If you’re following a ‘body script’, you can seem just as stilted and limited in your movements as when you’re standing still. In fact, it might be best to practice doing it several different ways, then you will know that there are several ways you can do it, and just use whichever style seems more natural at the time.


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