You know that expression, “It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it”?
Well, I’d contest that the truth is somewhere in the middle. We do listen to the content of presentations, of course, and most of us aren’t hoodwinked by gloss and salesmanship. When my students are learning to give good presentations, I remind them that they might have the very most compelling content, but that it will fall flat if they fail to hold their audience’s attention. I’d like to pass on some thoughts for helping your students engage their audiences with confidence, and ensure that their message is actually getting across.
6 Steps to Engage an Audience like the Professionals
Get Good Advice
Learning how to give a good presentation has never been easier. With the Internet, a literally uncountable number of talks, lectures and presentations are now available for perusal, almost all of them for free. Enjoy some TED talks, but not only because they’ll help you better understand your world; most TED contributors are very able public speakers whose styles and approaches are well worth borrowing. Watch for gestures, structural cues, questions to the audience, use of images or objects, etc. Then, fold these ideas into your own talk, and give your presentation to anyone who will sit still for it - friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, etc, and ask for their honest (and hopefully constructive!) feedback. I have a close friend who derives much from delivering presentations to his pet cat, although the feedback process is rather muted.
I do make a distinction between a ‘presentation’ and a ‘speech’. For me, speeches are for formal occasions and political purposes, while presentations are a summation of experimental findings, scientific discoveries, and the like. With a speech, we expect flowery rhetoric and big ideas, while with a presentation, we expect the neat conveyance of useful, interesting information on a particular topic. I point out this distinction to my students, and show contrasting examples - the inspiring loftiness of JFK’s inauguration versus Caroline Porco’s excellent summary of recent Cassini discoveries at Saturn, for example.
Keep Eye Contact
This freaks people out. The challenge of meeting the gaze of an audience is one which too many speakers find flatly intimidating, and we all know what happens next: the text ends up being read by a small, frightened figure who is trying to forget they’re speaking to a room full of people. We’ve all seen it, and many of us have done it, so let’s find ways to crack the problem.
It begins and ends, I’m afraid, with one of the hardest won of human traits: confidence. This can come from various sources:
- Experience in giving past presentations
- Fluency in the language
- Mastery of the content
- Thorough preparation of the presentation, including timings
- A refusal to be worried by something so comparatively trivial. As one of my students memorably put it, “I could be nervous, but this isn’t the Houses of Parliament, just my ESL class”. I couldn’t agree more, Khalid.
Techniques for retaining eye contact are many and varied. I like to make sure I look up every few words, or better still, not have to look up at all. I look at a different part of the room each time, and return to each one on a rotating cycle, so that my eyes aren’t always locked on the same faces. I make a point of switching from back to front, and left to right, so that the whole room feels engaged. And I try to include something of a smile in my gaze, so that I’m not staring people down; for the most part, I get to talk publicly about quite light-hearted topics, so there’s often a (natural but conscious) twinkle in my eye.
Shout It Out
Vocal projection takes years to properly learn, but a good start can be made by rehearsing in an empty church or large conference room. Is your voice getting lost in this vastness? If you raised it, would you also have to slow down, to compensate in this acoustic? The chance to rehearse in the presentation space before the Big Day is very valuable, and should be seized if possible. If all else fails, visualize (or, better still, physically look at) someone in the very back row, and then imagine they’re ninety years old and wearing two hearing aids. Strange to relate, I have a rather timid vocal tone in public, and this worked beautifully for me.
In all likelihood, these will be rhetorical questions such as:
- “So, you’ve heard that Britain is going to leave the EU, right?”
- “Let me ask, did you vote in the EU referendum?”
- “What are we to make of the recent fall in the value of the pound?”
- “Is it overstating things for me to refer to the EU referendum as an ‘earthquake’?
Give your audience three-quarters of a second to ponder these questions. We’re not anticipating a response, but they should formulate a view, in silence. Then, we can make good use of that same question as a structural marker. A good place to repeat the opening question is just before delivering your conclusions, so that the audience has a chance to briefly revisit their opinion before you lay down your own.
It’s also fine to ask for a show of hands, especially at the beginning of the talk: “How many of you voted in the EU referendum?” Even better, come back to the question and ask it a different way, some moments later: “How many of you would vote differently, given a second chance?”
Apart from being asked something interesting, and being clearly spoken to by a competent presenter, audiences react most positively to humor. Exaggerate your emotional responses or characterizations so that they become memorably hyperbolic: “The referendum campaigns were bruising, bad-tempered affairs which left many casualties on both sides.” Express amazement at surprising figures, quotes or events: “This was a massive, national event. In fact, more people voted in this referendum even than watched the final of The Great British Bake-Off, hard though that is to believe.”
Convey a Narrative
This won’t work for every structure, but alongside humor and competence, story-telling is a very popular method for keeping an audience entertained. If your students’ content lends itself to a narrative approach, encourage them to relay the information as a story. It could have two or three ‘acts’, and include characters which are either important to the story in reality, or who are invented to convey particular elements of it. In our EU referendum example, the characters could be a leave voter and a remain voter, and the story could be told like something from the Brothers Grimm, with a shock ending (Britain leaving the EU) that no one saw coming.
I know from personal experience just how strange and frightening it feels to stand up in front of a group of people and speak your mind.
Will they take me seriously? Will I merely repeat things they already know? Will I rush, or mumble, or become more nervous still? Take three deep breaths while shuffling your papers or clicking to the next slide, and remember that you’ve got something important to say, and the lives of your audience will be enhanced (albeit, often, in a very small way) by their having paid you the courtesy of listening. Look at them - young and old, front row and back, male and female - and try to speak to and convince every single person in the room. That’s only done by looking into someone’s eyes, and the more your students try it, the more confident they’ll feel.
P.S. If you enjoyed this article, please help spread it by clicking one of those sharing buttons below. And if you are interested in more, you should follow our Facebook page where we share more about creative, non-boring ways to teach English.