I’m not a body language expert, but I have sat through enough presentations, coached enough nervous presenters and trained enough sales reps to know when body language works and when it doesn’t. Here are my thoughts...
As with many things in life, when you’re presenting, getting started is often the most challenging part. Often, once people get into the flow on a particular slide, they are fine. But starting off strongly, pulling together the first few words or phrases once you’ve clicked on to a blank new slide is typically something that people struggle with. Here are a few handy tips to keep up your sleeve for those mind-blank moments.
There’s pressure in the moment. You’re opening on a given slide needs to do a number of things: You need to effectively frame the point you’re going to make; you need to set the scene as to how this point fits into your wider message; you also need to somehow link this content into the previous point to make sure the narrative flows. At the same time, you want to be engaging and articulate, entertaining yet professional. Yet as you stare at the slide title and blank screen, your mind goes well and truly blank.
There are a few failsafe techniques you can use to get yourself out of this pickle. And while I don’t recommend you write and learn a script each time you present, it always makes sense to have a few of these ideas up your sleeve in case you find yourself short of words.
In truth, all you need to do in these moments is to give yourself a bit of thinking time. However, instead of standing there ermmmmming your way to your next point – you’d like to maintain your composure, professionalism and polish.
What you shouldn’t do is simply read out the slide title – the audience can read any text on your slides themselves, so repeating it is just redundant language. When presenting, it’s not a good idea to duplicate any of the content that’s on the slide; embellish it, expand upon it or contextualise it, but don’t simply repeat it.
Why not use a rhetorical question?
A really powerful way to start a slide is to open with a rhetorical question. ‘So, how do you increase productivity whilst maintaining control of your costs?’, ‘What’s the best way to deliver ROI without compromising flexibility?’, or ‘Why should you choose a partner with a global footprint?’. These questions could simply be a rephrasing of the slide title, but by turning the language around and directing it out towards the audience, you’re able to draw them into the discussion, and engage with them more closely. The idea here isn’t to open up a Q&A session, in fact, it’s you, not the audience who will answer the question. However, it gives you a bit of thinking time and a clear route to follow as you explain how your offering addresses the point you raised.
Try to stay on topic with your questions. Generic, filler questions like: ‘Who wants to know more?’ and ‘Does that makes sense to you?’ are fine, and can work well to give the audience a breather between your points. However, as you move on to a new point or topic, it’s best if you somehow cue it for the audience, so a question more directly related to what’s coming next works best.
Rhetorical questions are great, but linking statements unlock even greater opportunities
Another technique to get you going on a given slide is to link your point with the last you made. So instead of starting afresh on each slide, think about simply carrying on with your train of thought – rounding off your last point as you move onto your next. A small shift it might be, but people often find this is enough to get them going. ‘Cost-savings are important, but you want to make sure that the quality of your service doesn’t drop’, or ‘A smooth transition is vital to get you up and running, but needs to be rolled out with a comprehensive communication strategy’.
This approach does two things – it can give you a powerful opening to a slide, but also helps guide your audience through your presentation as a whole – allowing them to understand the relationship between two potentially disparate points. A presentation only works if the audience can clearly follow the presenter through their narrative and understand how one point fits into the next, building an impression of value. Turn your difficulty into an opportunity to enhance your message.
[Pause for effect]
If you find yourself in dire need of thinking time, while your brain desperately tries to come up with something for you to say, don’t worry about pausing. It can seem awkward and uncomfortable, but it’s often useful to help your audience digest a point, before you move on. One of the most common problems we see is a presenter rushing through content, leaving the audience bewildered by the myriad of information. Taking time to pause isn’t a bad thing, and can do you a lot of favours – if it’s done right.
A few pointers: firstly, don’t pause for too long. A couple of beats, while you gather your thoughts is as much as you can spare, otherwise people will start to suspect you’ve lost your train of thought. Secondly, make sure you make it look intentional. Think about your expression, your body language and your demeanour (if you want more body language tips, take a look at this article). Make it look like you’re still in control and maintain an air of calm and authority. Finally, think about your timing. Generally, this tip works best if you pause at the end of a slide, rather than at the beginning of one. For example – a couple of beats rest on a complete slide works much better than silence on top of a blank screen. Again, it’s all part of making the pause look intentional, so give the audience something to contemplate while you’re catching up.
If all else fails, be honest. Apologise and explain that you’ve lost your place. Take a couple of moments to gather your thoughts, look at your notes or whatever you need to do, and then proceed. It makes more sense to be open, then recover quickly, than it does to try to conceal your difficulties and take longer to get back on track. Generally, people will forgive a mistake – but they won’t look so kindly upon timewasting. Address the issue, solve it, then move on.
Obviously this approach takes courage and a certain level of confidence. And of course, you need to judge your audience – how well do you know them? How well can you accurately judge their response? Are they likely to be understanding and forgiving? It takes a brave presenter to admit a mistake, but if the only alternative is that you flounder or give up altogether, it’s definitely worth considering.
Bear in mind the ultimate aim here – you want to keep your audience engaged throughout your presentation, so that they have the very best chance of understanding and being persuaded by your message. Stumbling, mind-blanks and hesitation are all barriers to that goal, so any techniques you can employ to remove them are handy to have up your sleeve. It’s easy to falter – everyone does it. What’s important is that you have a recovery strategy in place and ready to deploy. Done well, this kind of recovery can not only get you back on track, but can also help enhance your message and your audience’s understanding. That little hiccup might just be the opportunity that clinches you the sale.
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Managing consultantView Kieran Chadha's profile
Hand-outs and leave-behinds are a great resource in giving your audience a tangible reminder of you and the company you represent. The problem is that they're oft-neglected and oft-ignored. So how do we create hand-outs that not only accurately represent our content, but look great and don't take a fortnight to create?
I did not think it was possible for an external team to get our message so quickly and accurately. You got our messages better than we did, and delivered presentations that were slick and really effective.Guy Shepherd Bouygues