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How to be a confident presenter – essential tips

If you need to deliver presentations to your clients as part of your job, but find the whole prospect of public speaking daunting, try these essential tips from Paul Carroll of Toastmasters International on how to gain confidence as a presenter.

Confidence Presentation Skills

Know your material

In my experience the best aid to confidence when making a presentation is knowledge. Knowledge is power, and when you’ve mastered the material for your presentation that’s something nobody can take away from you. If you’re comfortable with your material, you can be confident in sharing it with your audience.

Besides having slides as prompts (and they’re prompts, not a script to be read out) it’s a good idea to have in your laptop a folder of details for ready-reference. Even if you never refer to this folder, knowing that it’s there for you is very reassuring.

When I moved from banking into financial training, I was giving a workshop and one nit-picker fixed on one point of a graph for detailed questioning. It was not related to what we were discussing at the time, and I said so. But I didn’t know the answers and he wouldn’t let it go. Since it was two-day class I looked it up at night and gave him an explanation the next day. Now I keep in my file details I’m likely to forget because they’re marginal to the charts but which might pop-up.

The great fear for many presenters is the unanswerable question. Besides a ready-access file, you should look into the FAQs for your industry and—to the extent possible—to the specific part of the industry covered in your presentation. Since there might not be FAQs available for the specifics of your presentation, try to anticipate them. This may require the aid of a colleague. Ask him to fire questions at you in a practice session. If a colleague asks questions when it’s just the two of you, you’ll have gained experience answering questions in a low stress, low-risk environment.

Running out of time in a presentation produces a rush…of panic. We often misgauge how long something will take in delivery when (1) We know the material (so of course we think A,B,C won’t need time for explaining) and (2) if we read it through or run through it in our heads. We think faster than we speak, especially when thinking about something we know well.

Know your audience

The first time I presented to colleagues (on financing the bank’s inventory of mortgage-backed securities) I assembled too many details for a seven minute talk, I hadn’t gauged the time and I bored them with information they didn’t need. l was thinking “What do l consider the most important aspects of the job l do for them?” rather than: “What’s important to them to learn from this talk?” What was important to them were financing rates and volatility in those rates, rather than how many different things I did in a day.

Empathise with your audience. Put yourself in their position and consider:

  1. What they need to take from this presentation
  2. What is the clearest way to deliver it

First, what kind of audience is it? A large, general audience? A large audience drawn from the same profession or interest-group? A small, highly-specialized audience?

If you’re briefing colleagues or other people you know, you probably know what they need and you have an idea what they know about the subject. My finance workshop attendees are a small, highly-specialised audience. Preliminary questionnaires let me assess their level of knowledge and I tailor my presentations accordingly.

If they’re strangers and potential clients, you’ll have to do more investigation. Since we’re discussing confidence here, remember that the more you know about your material and your audience the more confident you’ll feel.

Know your limits

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know” – Donald Rumsfeld.

You want to know your stuff but you can’t know everything. Still, I’m reminded of a cautionary tale. I met an inventor-entrepreneur who went on Dragons Den. He knew his gizmos, he knew how they assisted people, he even had a plausible sounding idea of market potential. But when a dragon asked about his current cash-flow, he didn’t know accounting details of his own business. To be sure, Dragons Den is more about entertainment than investing in creative ideas, so they made a show of humiliating him to entertain the TV audience. But the truth is; he was badly caught out.

Knowing your cash-flow is basic. Nobody reasonable expects you to know everything. Sometimes we think “I’ll be more confident delivering this presentation when it’s fool-proof and perfect.” That’s not going to happen. Confusing achievements and goals with perfection (psychologists call this the “perfectionist trap”) is a sure-fire way to undermine confidence. Learning to live with mistakes and imperfections is part of the road to confidence.

Your research and experience might enable you to make an educated-guess in response to a question. You can say “l think X is likely or possible answer but I’ll get back to you.” Do emphasise that it’s an educated guess based on research and experience and DO GET BACK with a follow-up email.

Nobody wants to look bad and nobody likes saying “I don’t know”. But it’s OK to say that you don’t know when you don’t. In fact, it’s crucial. Nothing builds suspicion in an audience more than trying to fob them off with an inadequate, insincere answer when you don’t know. Making something up may feel like saving face, but it’s a ticking time-bomb, ready to go off when your questioner either (1) comes back with a follow-up or (2) discovers the answer later and then never trusts you again in future presentations. It’s better in the long run to admit you don’t know. It shows your honesty and it doesn’t detract from what you do know.

We learn from experience. Here’s what I’ve learned: the more you know your material, the more you understand your audience and the more you appreciate your limits, the better you’ll sleep the night before your presentation.

Further Information

Paul Carroll is from Toastmasters International, a nonprofit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people of all backgrounds become more confident in front of an audience. There are nearly 300 clubs in the UK and Ireland with over 7000 members. For Toastmasters in the UK, visit www.toastmasters.org.uk.

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