“I’m just going to light up, to be ready to present” said Anthony – a good friend of mine. I give plenty of tips on calming your nerves before presenting, but as I stood there waiting for Tony, it made me wonder if I needed to add fags to my tips list at least for those who smoke.
The idea that smoking relieves anxiety is a myth, according to doctors and psychologists. In fact the exact opposite is fact – smoking, or rather nicotine, actually increases anxiety. The act of smoking simply relieves tension caused from a lack of nicotine in the body, but does not make your presentation any more effective. So this is one habit that I will keep off my list of advice to make presenters more effective.
So back to the promise I made in the headline…
An effective presentation is one that results in your audience feeling or acting in a way that you want them to after your presentation. And for this to happen, you have to get inside their heads when preparing for your presentation (the habit). You need to understand what they know, what they don’t know, what they expect, and what they believe.
If you assume knowledge that does not exist in your audience, you will quickly lose them and they will be highly confused leaving the room. On the flip side if you don’t recognise the knowledge they already have, you will quickly make them bored if not agitated. These are both situations you want to avoid, so don’t assume the knowledge of your audience, go and find out. If you get this right you will build an understanding in those that have little knowledge and build credibility in those that have some or a lot of knowledge. Understanding and credibility both foster trust, which is essential if you want to lead your audience to feeling or acting in a certain way.
In general, to an audience that you have not presented in front of before, assume they have little or no knowledge (unless you are able to specifically ascertain their knowledge levels beforehand), and to an audience that you have presented in front of before, assume that with a little bit of context they will quickly be able to relate to assumed knowledge from your last presentation. Context is an incredibly powerful way that you can reinforce assumed knowledge in a way that also demonstrates that you recognise and respect your audience’s knowledge – and this will win big brownie points from your audience.
When considering an audience’s beliefs, the most important consideration is whether an audience is predisposed to agree or disagree with your message. In some cases your audience may be neutral. All three situations require different presentations particularly if your goal is to persuade your audience to take a particular action. Beliefs also come from a person’s values which can also be influenced by the values of their organisation or other associations. Understanding values that are important to your audience are often the best starting points to build arguments. For example, if an organisation has a value towards always putting it’s customer first, and your message is able to demonstrate this value, then this could persuade team members within the organisation to embrace your ideas even if the idea doesn’t directly benefit themselves. Sometimes it is useful to also consider what your audience has been going through in the days or weeks prior to your presentation. For example if one team has been working extended periods of overtime they may (rightly or wrongly) have a belief they have more work to do with fewer resources than other teams. This belief is important to understand if you are going to present them with new work plans. Where you are looking to influence or even change an audience’s belief, ensure your preparation includes finding concrete evidence supporting your message.
When considering an audience’s expectations you should aim to identify what the audience wants to know. Pretend that you are one of them and identify the main questions that you would want answered. For example, if you were presenting a new business idea to a Board of Directors they will likely want to know the costs, benefits, and return on investment of the idea. The same idea presented to the IT Department will seek different questions needing to be answered such as what IT support will likely be required to launch and sustain the business concept.
Understanding an audience’s beliefs and expectations will also help you validate and in some cases refine the action you want your audience to take. By action I mean activities, behaviours, and thoughts. In some cases your goal will be to get your audience to take some physical action such as purchasing a product. This goal will be appropriate for an audience that already believe they have a need to buy something. On other occasions your goal may be more appropriately positioned to change an audience’s behaviours, such as using a product in a different way by accepting the information that you are presenting them with. And on other occasions your goal will be limited to getting your audience to just think in a new or modified way. For example to understand and accept that a problem exists with a current product that they are using.
Addressing an audience’s knowledge, beliefs and expectations is one of the best habits you can develop as a presenter.