Presentation Skills

- 7 mins

Through our careers as software engineers, our experience would grow as we practice our craft. There’s a saying that one does not really know a topic well enough until they can teach it. This knowledge sharing opens up what we know for critique, and solidifies what we know. There are many ways o share knowledge. This post focuses on presentations.

You never really know something until you can teach it.

~ Unknown

Presentations can sometimes be daunting; standing on a [make-shift] stage, looking at everyone, them looking back. Sometimes, you get nervous. Sometimes, you will swallow your words. Presentations, like software programming, is a skill which can be learned and mastered.

The mode and manner of your presentation is as important as your content. Do not prioritize one at the expense of the other. Most times, our expertise takes care of the content aspect. But nothing takes care of how the presentation is done. Here, I would share some tips I have used over the years.

Know Your Content

When presenting any content, it is pertinent you are conversant with the topic you choose to present. When we create a presentation out of experience, the topic picks itself. When we have to pick a topic to present, we need to research that topic thoroughly. You may not be an expert in the topic, but you must be an expert in what you know. This should also come with a pinch of humility. There may be some people in your audience who may know your topic more than you do. Remember your presentation is also a way for you to learn.

Pick a topic you are passionate about. This passion would drive your research. A topic you are not interest in would grow boring as you prepare for the presentation. This may lead to burnout; specifically “detachment” from your subject matter.

Calm Down

Let’s face it: when you stand in front of a crows to give a speech, you will feel nervous. If you do not feel nervous when walking up the stage, it will come with you look into the eyes of the crowd. I get most nervous when the audience goes silent because I’m thinking “They actually want to listen. What if…?” At this point, I try to calm down. What is the worst that could happen?

Before every presentation, I mentally go through the presentation in practice. I try to mimic the feelings of the day, try to practice facing the audience. This helps me prepare my nerves not to break at the first impact of nervousness when it hits. Practice this with a friend. If you have more fears, open up to a friend about them. This would help you think through your fears from an objective standpoint.

Think positive. Remember the first sentence which drives me into nervousness? “They actually want to listen.” This is true for every audience who have come — regardless of the travel — to listen to what you have to say. Your audience is proof that there are people who believe in you. You have to believe in yourself. Positive thoughts go a long way. My practice with this is thus: Try not to use the word “not” when speaking about your presentation. In any sentence, you think to utter about your presentation, if it has the word “not” in it, try to reword that sentence to remove the “not”. If you cannot find an alternate sentence which removed “not” but keeps the message you want to pass across, it’s best to be silent.

For positive thought, try speaking without “not” in your sentences.

Do this as a zen practice

Exercise. Yes, I mean it. Workout before the presentation. This also helps you calm your nerves on stage. How? When your body goes through controlled stress, it builds its resilience. When a built resilience meets stress levels below the ones which build it, the propensity to panic is greatly reduced. Speaking during presentations is a physical act. It takes a toll on your breathing. Exercises (especially cardio) would build your stamina, allowing you to talk for longer without getting tired. Exercising the morning of your presentation helps get your blood flowing, makes you more alert.

Another culprit which makes presenters more susceptible to a nervous breakdown is lack of sleep. I cannot stress this enough. We all need sleep. Try to get a good 8 hours of sleep the night before your presentation. If you can get more, please do. Insufficient sleep makes our bodies react in weird ways.

Be Enthusiastic

If you cannot be calm, best to channel all that energy into enthusiasm for your presentation.

Speak Audibly

Measure Your Speech

When the nerves are high, there is a tendenty to speak faster than your natural cadence. This is normal. If you find yourself speaking faster than you usually do, pause at some point. The only person who knows your content inside out is you. A pause does not count poorly to your performance. It is an integral part of your presentation.

Presentations are built to have pauses; this is why each slide is a separate entity. It is better to consciously design your presentation to have pause points within it. A good way to do this is to ask the audience a question. Throwing control back to the audience for a few seconds could help in allowing you gather your thoughts and composure.

Remember that the audience has gathered to listen to you. You are in control of the presentation.

Understand Presentation Techniques

On presentation day, dress smart; or dress in a way which augments your presentation. If your audience percieves you as someone capable of giving the presentation, they would be more open to your content. If you are presenting to a panel of business men on the details of a business, best to dress like a businessman.

The general rule of thumb is to dress smart. Sometimes, you may dress differently depending on your research on your audience, and the knowledhe of your topic. If I am presenting on fire hazards and safety peocedures in such situations, I would dress like a fire marshall; maybe not the whole costume shindig; but a nice clean T-shirt with sharp jeans, and rugged shoes would do.

All in all, make sure you’re comfirtable in yoru clothing. You would be standing in front of an audience, talking for quite some time.

Know Your Environment and Audience

Through this article, I have touched on some bits where you have to be aware of your audience. It pays to understand the demographic you’re speaking to: this would help guide the language you use in delivering your content.

Akin to the audience, it is also imperative to understand the enditonment you would be presenting in. Try to visit the venue for your presentation a day before. Get on stage with no one there and practice walking around. Get familiar with the size of the room, and how your voice bounces off the walls when you speak. This would create some familiarity with your space. During the presentation, you would feel more comfortable walking around and interacting with your envitonment.

Conclusion

There is never a master of presentations. The skill is built over a lifetime. Every new presentation is a chance to learn something new; the audience is unique, the time the presentation is given has its unique properties. When approaching a presentation, even if it is on a topic which you have presented on before, treat it with the same respect and humility as a first time presentation.

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