While sitting in yet another technical conference, I was utterly bored. As an engineering grad student, lucky enough to have an adviser who understood the importance of sending his students to technical conferences, I should have been fascinated by the presentation in front of me, since it was directly related to my research. Instead I felt confused and bored. I wondered if I was the only one.
Looking around the room, I saw that out of about 50 attendees, 10 were glued to their laptop screens, another 10 were checking their Blackberries, 15 were leafing through their conference programs, 5 were sound asleep (a few were even snoring), and only about 10 people were actually listening.
During most of the technical presentations I’ve attended over the years, I too have spent much of the time leafing through the conference program in an attempt to find the next “must-see” talk (which I would attend, only to leaf through the program in order to find the next “must-see” talk…). Could you blame me, or any of the other engineers being forced to sit through bad presentations? The worst part is that, in most cases, the information being presented was important, interesting, and relevant to the audience. Unfortunately, that information was largely obscured by the awful manner in which it was presented.
It is widely understood that IT and engineering professionals have much lower standards for presentation skills than, say, lawyers or sales people. We are taught to work with computers rather than with people. Ironically, most professionals in technical and research fields think that their presentation skills are just fine or good enough. If that is your own opinion as well, answer the following:
- Have you ever given a presentation to your company management, only to notice that the CEO was dozing off and the Marketing Manager was playing solitaire on his iPhone?
- Have you ever presented important technical information to your peers, who you felt should be eager to hear about your findings, only to notice that a few of them were leafing through the SQL Server magazine under the table, while the others were yawning, or transfixed on your slides with a glazed-over stare?
- Have you ever started off your talk with “I’m going to make this as short as possible, so I’ll not take up to much of your time”, only to apologize an hour later with “Looks like I’m running over my time, but I’ll just quickly show you the rest of the results…“? Have you seen desperation spread across the faces of your audience in response?
- Do you hate presenting in public?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above, you need to seriously focus on your presentation skills.
Excuses, and Why You Can’t Use Them
I’ve heard a number of excuses over the years as to why engineers, programmers, and technical professionals in general have such low standards for public speaking skills. And all of them are just that: excuses. Below are some of the most common ‘justifications’, along with the reasons why you should not be letting them prevent you from improving your public speaking skills.
1) I am a knowledgeable technical professional. If my audience can’t see my point, it’s their problem.
If your audience cannot understand what you are explaining, it is your problem. Not only are you wasting your time giving the presentation, you’re also projecting an image of someone who cannot clearly explain things, and thus does not fully understand the topic. If you want to advance in your career, you need to start caring about what others think of you (see The Art of Dealing with People). In case of a presentation, those “others” are your audience, and by observing your audience during your presentation, you can pick up clear signs that tell you how the room is responding to what you are saying. Learn to read those signs and adjust your presentation accordingly (I’ll say more about how to actually do this in my next article, “Presentation Skills 101”).
Here is an analogy that might help you understand why the opinion of your audience is so important. Think of yourself and your knowledge as a product and you presentation skills as marketing for that product. I am sure that you are a wonderful, amazing product that can solve all kinds of problems in your organization; unfortunately, bad marketing can kill almost any product, no matter how great it may be.
To use a recent example, a number of business experts argue that it was horrible marketing that lead to the downfall of the American Car. GM, Ford, and Chrysler spent more than $6 billion a year on advertising, but because they didn’t care about the consumer response to their marketing or their product, they ended up with an awful reputation, begging for a government bailout.
On the other hand, Apple’s stellar marketing program has helped propel a company that had very little chance of competing with Microsoft into the position of being a viable competitor that bit off 91% of USA market share for $1,000+ PCs by the end of 2009.
You want your presentation skills to help move you forward in your technical profession, not hinder you. To do that, you have to start caring about what your audience thinks.
2) I still don’t care what my audience thinks. The smart ones will understand what I am saying. Besides, I like listening to myself speak.
Speaking only for the sake of hearing yourself will not get you far in any organization. Have you ever heard a truly great technical speaker? The kind who keeps your interest from start of the presentation till the very end? The kind who doesn’t make your eyes glaze over and your mind wonder to your to-do list (or the conference program)?
A great presenter speaks for the sake of his audience. He makes sure that his presentation is clear and understandable, and if the audience is getting distracted, a great speaker changes his delivery to re-capture the room’s attention.
The next time your manager has to choose someone to present results to the CEO, do you think they’ll pick someone who cares about the CEO’s understanding of the subject, or someone who only cares about how smart they are?
3) I am terrified of presentations! My palms sweat, my legs shake and I just want to get through the darn thing without fainting.
Luckily, this is a very fixable problem. In college I was terrified of speaking in front of people. I got a grade of C- in my oral communications course, the worst grade in my entire engineering career, and that was only because the instructor felt bad and was kind enough not to fail me. Once I started attending and presenting at more and more conferences, I quickly had to get over the fear of talking in front of people.
First of all, it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s completely normal to be anxious. Even seasoned presenters get a little edgy before they go in front of a crowd. The best way to avoid that, and get over your fear, is to write out your talk, practice it 4-10 times beforehand, and take every opportunity to speak or present in front of people. It works! Now, I barely get nervous, whether I speak in front of 5 or 200 people.
4) No one taught me how to give a good presentation. Where do I start?
Now that you are convinced that your public speaking skills can use some serious help, where do you start? To start with, the next time you give a talk or a presentation, pay attention to your audience and how’ they’re reacting to you. What percentage is alert and listening? What percentage is sleeping? Do you tend to loose your audience on certain slides?
Once you start to become better at reading your audience’s signs, you can start adjusting your presentation skills in a way that engages more of your listeners and helps them understand your presentation from start to finish. This is naturally just the beginning, but as it’s a skill that is easy to learn and hard to master, it will take you a little while to develop your audience-reading abilities to their fullest potential. I will discuss how to do this in more detail in my next article, “Presentation Skills 101.”