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Presentation Skills Myth versus Reality by Rowena Crosbie

anxious speakerFire, electrical blackout, locust, earthquake…” Thus the apprehensive speaker prays. For him, speaking in front of a group is the experience to be feared most. More than fear of heights, fear of spiders and even fear of dying. The statistics indeed support Jerry Seinfeld’s humorous claim that most people at a funeral would rather be the corpse than the person delivering the eulogy.

But, it’s the ability to communicate effectively with individuals and groups that is cited as the number one factor contributing to the success of the highest paid people in America. So its definitely a fear worth conquering.

Like overcoming any fear, the solution lies in education, understanding and good ole repetition.

As in any industry, modern research and technology have invalidated much of what we took for granted five, ten and twenty years ago. Unfortunately, old thinking and myths have plagued countless presenters from developing this critical skill.

Myth #1
Start out with a joke – it gets the audience warmed up.

Reality
Although its certainly true that the release of adrenaline and endorphins into the system heightens learning and interest, a joke is seldom, if ever, appropriate. Too many speakers confuse comedy with humor. Humor is the relating of funny, relevant, non-offensive stories, cartoons or anecdotes to support the message. Unlike a joke, when they fail in their purpose, you don’t. Leave the comedy to the professional comedians.

Myth #2
Write your speech out so the most powerful words are used.

Reality
Written communication and spoken communication are two distinctly different mediums. Taking one mode of communication (written) and translating it directly to another (spoken) without any modification is dangerous. The words, phrases and stories we all enjoy reading in our favorite novels are too windy when communicated word for word in a presentation.

Myth #3
I like to put my hands in my pockets. It makes me feel relaxed and makes the atmosphere casual.

Reality
Studies from UCLA and other universities repeatedly show the critical importance of the visual element in presentations. This includes eye contact, attire, stance, grooming and gestures. When a speaker’s hands are buried in pockets (or behind their back) effectively one third of the ability to communicate is eliminated. Supportive gestures enhance the message and facilitate learning. And, if your hands are in your pockets because you’re nervous – be careful – they’ll find some keys or loose change to play with.

Myth #4
Scan your audience, everyone will think you’re looking at them. That’s important.

Reality
Our brains take in information through our eyes in the form of shape, movement, light and color. Our brain has to process information very quickly when the eyes are scanning the room allowing little time for thinking about this important presentation. Talk to one person at a time, holding your focus for several seconds and slowing the input to your already very busy grey cells.

Myth #5
An alcoholic beverage prior to presenting will relax you and make you sharper – just one!

Reality
Alcohol dulls the senses. Aren’t you glad your airline pilot or surgeon doesn’t have just one to relax them before they approach their job? Other no-no’s in the food and beverage category prior to presenting include caffeine, dairy products and over-eating.

Myth #6
It doesn’t matter if you run a few minutes long in your presentation. The topic is an interesting one and after all, they invited you to speak.

Reality
In a recent poll, 100% of the people asked said they dislike a speaker running overtime. 100% Even if the presentation is very interesting. Don’t run long. Don’t finish on time. Plan to finish early – five minutes early.

Myth #7
Tell them all the background information and all the factors considered and effecting the topic. It’s very technical but very necessary.

Reality
Your audience only needs to know enough to understand your premise. Allow a question and answer period at the end of your talk to answer those questions the audience is most interested in. Provide detailed information in a handout.

Myth #8
You’re there to inform them of progress and not trying to persuade anyone, so why worry about presentation techniques?

Reality
Many individuals and organizations and books and… will report that there are two types of presentations; one to inform and one to persuade. WRONG. There is only one type of presentation – the one to persuade. Whether you’re selling a product, a service, an idea, or your own credibility, you’re persuading and you need to know how people are persuaded.

Myth #9
Take questions during your presentation to be certain everyone is with you at all times.

Reality
Unless your presentation is several hours long or modular, this practice can be deadly. Questions from the audience can be hostile, get you off track or at best, be time consuming. Allow time at the end of the presentation for questions.

Myth #10
Practice makes perfect.

Reality
Perfect practice makes perfect. Practicing the wrong techniques makes for bad habits that are difficult to break. Learn techniques that work – practice those.

Myth #11
Use the techniques you’ve seen used by the late night talk show hosts. Its effective for them so it must be right.

Reality
Many factors affect our success in a presentation. I wouldn’t want to assume my audience attaches the credibility and charisma to me that they do to the accomplished entertainer. Neither should you. Learn techniques that work and use them.

Myth #12
If you don’t speak to groups often, don’t waste time and money attending a development program on the subject.

Reality
The skills effective for speaking to groups are the same skills effective for speaking one on one. If you speak to anyone during the day – your boss, your co-workers, your spouse, your kids – you need to develop these important skills.