Developing Your Presentation Skills
As an IT professional, you’re probably very comfortable answering technical questions and explaining the ins and outs of an application to individuals on a one-on-one basis. But what if you had to give a presentation on those same topics to 100 of your co-workers or the company’s board of directors? As IT departments have become more integral to business planning and growth, so has the demand for IT professionals to present on a variety of technical topics —often to a non-technical crowd, which offers an additional challenge.
If the thought of public speaking causes you apprehension, you’re not alone. Few things provoke fear and anxiety like presenting to a large group. The good news is that there are steps you can take to increase your comfort level with public speaking.
Designing Your Presentation
- Clarify your goals. The primary consideration in patterning any presentation should be identifying the results you want to achieve. Are you trying to inform, persuade or sell something to your audience—or a combination of these objectives? If you’re trying to convince your company’s executives that a particular supply chain software is superior to the existing one, for instance, you’ll need to make a convincing case.
- Tie your information to their needs. If you’ve ever walked away from a speech wondering what you just learned, you know how important clarity is in a presentation. Design your messages to offer the audience members a tangible set of benefits—this is particularly important if you’re presenting to a non-technical audience. Using the preceding supply chain example, one benefit might be, “The new software will reduce distribution time by two weeks when shipping to resellers.” Alternatively, if you’re presenting to your CFO, you’d most likely discuss cost and return on investment. Try focusing on only three major areas in your speech, or use a catch-phrase—it could be “saving time” or “saving money” in these examples—that links multiple benefits.
- Let your audience set your tone. Tailor your approach to fit the listeners. How much does your audience already know about the topic? Would it be wise to first establish your credentials? If the audience includes individuals outside of IT, minimize jargon and acronyms that may not be familiar to them.
- “Illustrate” your point. Use flip charts, laptop computers or video presentations to enhance the messages you’re trying to convey.
While there is no foolproof way to ward off the effects of rising adrenaline, there are, fortunately, some things you can do to minimize—and maybe even take advantage of—your nervousness.
- Know your material. Be sure you’re thoroughly versed in what you will be talking about. Never agree to speak before a group on a subject with which you’re not completely familiar. If you’re the resident networking expert and are asked to give a presentation on quality assurance, you’re going to feel awkward because you don’t know the material. In addition, you probably won’t be able to provide as much relevant information to your audience or answer their questions.
- Practice, practice, practice. While a firm grasp of the subject matter is critical, even the most knowledgeable speakers need to rehearse their delivery. People who brag that they never practice before speaking in front of others and rely on “winging it” are rarely successful presenters.
- Slow down. Begin your presentation in a calm, measured manner and avoid speaking too quickly. Be sure to articulate words clearly so they are easily understood. Take natural pauses as appropriate—and remember to breathe.
- Allow for your nervousness. Even the best public speakers say they feel some anxiety when they are in front of an audience. Rather than attempting to completely suppress the butterflies in your stomach, try to capitalize on that energy to make your presentation more compelling.
- Maintain perspective. Remember that your nervousness is rarely as noticeable to your audience as it is to you. Some speakers are amazed to find that no one noticed their apprehension at all.
On the day of your meeting, even though you have prepared thoroughly, there are still a number of things you can do to avoid unexpected pitfalls.
- Arrive early. Allow plenty of time to set up your visual aids and assemble any handout materials. If someone else is responsible for providing equipment such as a laptop or overhead projector, you’ll still need to arrive early to double-check the set-up. (This is where most IT professionals have an advantage—you’ll probably know how to set up your own equipment or trouble-shoot, if necessary!)
- Get to the point. Begin by introducing yourself, letting your audience know what you’re going to tell them and why it’s important. An opening anecdote can sometimes be effective, but be sure not to let your introduction drag on too long.
- Make a personal connection. To more fully engage your audience, try not to think of yourself so much as a performer, but more as a “conversationalist.” Move casually around the “stage” and make eye contact. Be sure to smile. In short, don’t be afraid to show your personality.
The more you practice the points discussed above, the more you can improve your public communication skills—and the less anxiety you’ll experience the next time you’re asked to give a speech.
Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals for initiatives ranging from e-business development and multi-platform systems integration to network engineering and technical support. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia and offers online job search services at www.roberthalftechnology.com.