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Essential Soft Skills for the Workplace - Presentation Skills

12 Oct 2017

Presentation skills are fantastically important in the workplace. Knowing how to present your ideas, to a group or an individual, in a way which is both informative and persuasive, is the best tool in your arsenal for success and career advancement.

Your presentation skills depend on a number of things and can be heavily influenced by your nationality, education, experience, childhood, and, simply, how much practice you've had. Some primary and secondary schools, for example, focus heavily on their students' abilities to present and speak well. Other schools, such as those in more deprived areas, may be more focused on academic study, and less on the honing of conversational and presentational skills. This doesn't mean that those without that head start can't excel, however. Like all skills, with dedication and time, it can be learnt. This is reassuring because according to a 2014 Prezi survey, 70% of employed Americans agree that presentation skills are critical to their success at work.

Developing these skills is, therefore, essential to succeeding in the workplace and the business world in general. No matter your job role, you'll most likely be required to give presentations, whether that be to clients, your own team or auditoriums of people. We spoke to public speaking professional, Hugh Barnett of betterpublicspeaking.co.uk, for advice on perfecting your skills.

1. Conquer your nerves
Around 75% of people have some form of public speaking anxiety, so it is by no means an uncommon worry. Dealing with nerves can seem difficult, but there are many tried and tested coping methods. Try breathing in and out slowly, adding up numbers in your head (which tricks your brain into understanding you're in no danger), or telling yourself that you're excited about the presentation (a trick proven to improve performance in those suffering from anxiety).

Mild discomfort can be overcome with practice. For anything more severe than that, consider speaking to a doctor: they'll be able to recommend a form of cognitive behavior therapy or a therapist to get to the route of your problems and get past them.

For dealing with stage-fright, Barnett suggests imagining that your audience is composed of old friends, rather than the much-repeated underwear trick: "Smile, make eye contact, breathe deeply and take your time. Maybe have a lucky charm or a memento from someone you love in your pocket, this will help you feel safe."

He also warns against letting stage-fright put you off presenting: "Anyone can become a proficient public speaker. Some find it easier than others, but anyone can learn essential techniques to help them present themselves more effectively. Your individuality is your greatest asset! With any activity that's difficult, the more practice you do, the better you become. Be prepared to fail a bit too: Making mistakes can be the best way of learning to become better."

2. Preparation is key
"Prepare and organize yourself meticulously." Barnett recommends, and: "Make sure all your resources (laptop, smart-board and PowerPoint) work. Make friends with the technical staff!"

Doing your homework is more important now than it was at school ¡V winging a presentation is not a ticket to success. Not only should you research your topic thoroughly, to ensure you're prepared for any impromptu questions, but you should also run through the structure and timing to make sure you're ready for anything. For particularly significant presentations, and for those who struggle with public speaking, running through them with a friend beforehand is a great way to understand any flaws.

3. Be careful with visual materials
Presentation slides and visual aids are not the same as notes. Do not just write everything down and read it off to your audience. Visual aids are there to add to a presentation, not replace it. Use it to reinforce your points with graphics or images, but not to repeat your words.

"Visual aids are great, but don't present the speech to the visual aid." Barnett advises, "Make sure you don't turn your back on the audience when demonstrating with the aid. Make sure the visual aids work long before the presentation starts and have a contingency plan if they stop working."

4. Know your audience
Are you presenting to your work colleagues or a buyer to whom you're trying to sell? Your audience plays the largest role in your presentation and how you should structure it. Research your audience thoroughly and think about why they're listening to you, then give them what they're looking for. Know your numbers and know the correct presentational style. Work out if jokes will help and if you do intend to use humor, make sure it's well placed and not risqué ¡V you're not Chris Rock.

5. Be careful about language
Make sure that the language you're using is appropriate for the situation. Being too, or not sufficiently, verbose suggests that you aren't good at reading situations or haven't prepared correctly. Make sure your presentation is clear and use jargon only when you know your audience will understand it. Questions at the end are a good sign: as long as they're exploring your presentation, not asking you to explain it.

6. Don't be too dry
As a presenter, your job is to keep your audience interested in what you're saying. Presentations which are too dry or dull will result in spectators who are barely listening and just counting the seconds until you finally stop talking. Try to present in a way which is interesting to your audience. A good method for this is to include story-telling elements (proven to be much more engaging that facts alone). If this method isn't possible, then simply split up your presentation into sections and keep it short and punchy.

On the prospect of memorizing a speech by heart, Barnett warns that: "If something goes wrong, you run the risk of being less flexible when trying to recover your composure." Despite this, there are benefits: "The advantage of memorizing a speech is that you can be very precise and ensure that you use suitable vocabulary."

7. Bounce back from mistakes
Making a mistake might seem world-ending, but Barnett suggests it's not the mistake itself that's the issue:

"Mistakes aren't the problem. It's how you recover from them. I would start by taking a deep breath, then decide whether the audience noticed. If not, I would carry on. If the audience did notice. I would apologize, keep taking deep breaths and try to calmly rectify it. An audience often gains more by seeing a speaker recover well from a mistake than by listening to a speaker who is being too perfect and slick. Mistakes will only make you seem more human and a good recovery will bring you respect from the audience."

Presentations with a question and answer section can be among the nerve-wracking, with the ever-present threat of not knowing the answer weighing over you. Barnett recommends not worrying too much about this:

"First of all, compliment the audience member on their excellent question, take a few deep breaths, buy some time and if you still can't think of the answer tell them that you will go and research the issue straight after the presentation and forward the answer to all the delegates present."

If this is a significant worry, consider your personal experiences. How many times did a teacher get the wrong answer at school? Or an actor miss his line in a play? Or a lecturer get stuck for a response to a question? It happens, people are human. If you deal with it well, no one will remember it.


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