How to deliver a killer presentation

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More about lions below…

The dust has finally settled after a very busy week of conferencing.  In the week that followed IATEFL, I had the opportunity to reflect on the content of some of the really useful talks I attended, (some of which have provided inspiration for future blog posts) and on the challenges that the presenters faced and overcame.  Presenting at IATEFL is a nerve-wracking experience.  It’s not just the potential for the technology to go wrong or for a well-informed member of the audience to ask you a difficult question, there’s also the challenge of compressing a great deal of detailed information into a short period of time and conveying it in an interesting, clear and innovative way.

You’d think that talking for fifteen minutes would be easy – a far less intimidating prospect than giving an hour long presentation, as I’ve done several times in the past.  But actually, I found it more challenging.  For one thing, summarizing the action research ‘journey’ and reporting key findings in a quarter of an hour is tricky.  You want to give a sense of depth to your research, even if you are only skimming the surface in your talk.  For example, I wanted to talk about the impact of graded extensive reading on language acquisition.  It was tempting to talk about Krashen’s comprehensible input theory, but there wasn’t time and arguably, it wouldn’t have made the explanations of my research findings any clearer.  Another challenge is that a short talk forces you to be succinct.  This is all very well in writing (even though I naturally have a tendency to use two words when one would do) but in speaking, particularly when one is trying to remember what the next point is, or is trying to calm one’s nerves, a certain amount of fillers and paraphrasing creeps in.

Luckily, a well-read colleague pointed me towards a piece in the Harvard Business Review written by Chris Anderson, curator of TED, that helped enormously.  The key takeaways from the article are listed below.

1 Frame your talk as a journey

‘We all know that humans are wired to listen to stories, and metaphors abound for the narrative structures that work best to engage people. When I think about compelling presentations, I think about taking an audience on a journey. A successful talk is a little miracle—people see the world differently afterward.’

2 But don’t spend too much time going into detail at the start

“The most engaging speakers do a superb job of very quickly introducing the topic, explaining why they care so deeply about it, and convincing the audience members that they should, too.”

3 Don’t try to cover too much ground

4 Don’t over-explain or painstakingly draw out all of the implications of the talk.  Remember that the people in the audience are intelligent and can draw their own conclusions.

5 Tell a ‘detective story’ that has an ‘aha’ moment.

6 Don’t read the talk directly off a script or a teleprompter: it’s too distancing

7 Memorize your talk, but only if you have sufficient time to do so.  Many of the best talks have been memorized word for word, but it’s dangerous to underestimate the amount of time and energy required to do this.  There’s a predictable learning curve, starting with the ‘valley of awkwardness':  that point when you haven’t quite memorized the talk.  If you give the talk when stuck in the valley, your words will sound recited.  This creates a distance between the presenter and the audience.

8 No time to memorize the talk sufficiently?  Go with bulleted points on note cards.  (I was relieved to see that even the esteemed David Crystal referred to notes, albeit very subtly.  I didn’t feel it diminished the interest value or the slickness of his talk one iota.)

9 Pay attention to your tone.  For the sake of credibility, you might want to come across as authoritative but it’s generally better to sound conversational.

10 Don’t move around too much.  It’s distracting.  Keep your lower body still and move your hands to emphasise points.

11 Make eye contact with a few members of the audience

12 Breathe deeply before you go on stage and then keep breathing

13 Plan the multimedia and keep it simple.  Don’t use slides unless you really need them.  BUT, consider whether a picture could convey a concept more succinctly and clearly than words.

‘Presentations rise or fall on the quality of the idea, the narrative, and the passion of the speaker.  It’s about substance, not speaking style or multimedia pyrotechnics.’

14 Make the talk your own and ensure that it is truly authentic to you.

I did my best to follow Anderson’s advice at IATEFL.  If you’ve read this far and have clicked on the link to the article, you’ll know where lions come in.  They’re not a metaphor for the bravery needed for public speaking.  Instead they were the subject of a TED talk given by a 12- year old Masai boy named Richard Turere.  Anderson mentions the talk because it is an excellent example of hard work paying off in presentations.  Richard had overcome painful shyness and language barriers to give such an engaging talk that it received a standing ovation.

Last week, I chose to use it as an example of an effectively delivered ‘problem-solution’ talk, with my younger EAL students, in order to teach them  presentation skills.  The lesson materials are posted below.  My lower intermediate students found the talk accessible and Richard’s story fascinating.  It inspired them to tell a story of a problem they had encountered.  The simple, clear structure of the talk helped them to organise their narratives logically.  

Materials for presenting skills

Presentation skills

All in all, it was a reasonably successful lesson.  However, if I get the chance to deliver it again, I’ll dedicate less time to the organisation of the presentation and more to the planning of it and to the delivery.  As Anderson’s article highlights, it’s not just what you say, it’s the way that you say it that makes a presentation successful.  


One Comment

  1. Very interesting article, really sorry I didn’t get to see you at IATEFL.

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