To some extent, one can develop key presentation skills simply by working as a class teacher. Often you’ll get to improve your abilities further by convening assemblies, speaking at governors meetings or meeting parents.
Having myself taught for 14 years at a primary school in Surrey, eventually becoming deputy headteacher and later acting headteacher, I now coach others in developing the skills they need to make their presentations more effective.
Formal love letters
The first thing to note is that the audience for every presentation is different. There’s a great quote by Ken Haemer, a former presentation research manager for the US telecoms company AT&T: “Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it: ‘To whom it may concern.’” Headteachers will already possess some presentation skills, but can still lack confidence in certain areas.
One area that’s hugely important is the ability to structure what you’re saying. There are four questions that presentations should always be structured around, because they’ll be on the minds of every audience member – ‘why’, ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘what if?’ (see panel).
Ways of improving your confidence once you get up there at the front include standing upright, with your feet about hip-width apart. Stay still; don’t move around unless it’s for a particular reason. It’s hard to listen to someone who’s wandering around aimlessly or swaying slightly.
The next thing is to use your hands for gesturing as you would naturally. Scientific evidence demonstrates that when people are asked to try and explain something while keeping their arms still by their side, the speaker finds it difficult and listener finds it harder to understand them. When speakers are allowed to move their arms in natural gestures, they became more eloquent and articulate and find it easier to choose the right words. Audiences in turn find it easier to absorb what they say.
Remember to also breathe. A good way of combatting nervousness is to take deep breaths in and out, while holding that good, confident posture.
Memory and movements
When addressing a regular weekly meeting, colleagues won’t expect you to reel off everything you want to say from memory. If, however, it’s a short, high stakes talk, it’s worth practising and potentially scripting key lines. Since such talks tend to be fairly rare, my general tip would be to prepare bullet points you can glance at for reminders of details you already know how to explain, rather than memorising the presentation in full.
If you’re using PowerPoint you can include key points on certain slides that you’re able to talk around, or keep them within easy reach on cue cards. That said, you’re usually better off not holding objects in your hand while delivering a presentation. If you’re holding something, you’ll inevitably fiddle with it. Put pens down when you’re not using them so that you’re not tempted to twiddle them, and avoid having any sheets of paper in your hands while speaking. It’s better to keep some brief notes outlining your key points to one side. If you get stuck, take a breath, glance over at the notes you’ve prepared and carry on.
Some speakers can exhibit idiosyncratic postures and movements, like putting their hands behind their back, which is best avoided. Try to also avoid holding your hands out in front of you and fidgeting or wringing them together, which can be a sign of nervousness. If you’re asked any questions during the presentation, stand your ground, stay still and open your arms to welcome contributions from the audience. A common reaction is for people to take a step back, which is a visible sign of nervousness and an indication that the speaker feels a need to retreat.
Engage your audience
Think of your presentation like a piece of music – it might start nicely, but if it stays like that for three or four minutes, people will soon get bored.
Instead, create contrast through the nature of the content and your method of delivery. Whether it’s showing videos, displaying slides or putting questions to the audience, vary your content, method and pace. If a roller coaster only ever went really fast, it would soon get dull. Roller coasters are exciting because they slow down, go uphill and then suddenly woosh down the other side. Contrast is key.
One of the biggest mistakes people can make is to begin too enthusiastically. If I were to say, “I’m really excited to tell you all today about the latest health and safety update,” that’s not starting from a place agreed between you and the audience. You need start from where the audience are – and the way to do that is to give them reasons to listen to you.
With our health and safety example, you might say something along the lines of, “Many of you will have worked here for at least several years, and may be wondering why you’ve had to come to this…” To get people on board from the start you need to captivate their attention.
Reading the room
It’s important to keep your attention on the audience throughout. Much of what gets in the way of a good performance is down to ‘self-talk in the head,’ which is what happens when your attention is focused inwards, towards your own mind. By keeping your attention outwards and your eyes looking round, not only will you connect with people through eye contact, you can pick up on early signals as to how you’re going down.
When heads are nodding, you’ll know that you’re with them and they’re with you. If they start frowning, you’ll know that’s not the case. Being able to make adjustments as you go is entirely contingent on keeping your attention focused on the audience, though generally you shouldn’t be making huge changes to what you’ve prepared. Comedians do the same thing – their material will typically be very well rehearsed before they start, and they’ll only make relatively minor adjustments if and when needed.
When it comes to reviewing your presentation skills, I’d recommend getting colleagues to watch you. If I were scheduled to present a high stakes talk at an upcoming conference, I’d want gather a few teachers together and have them watch me perform a run through. Those colleagues can then closely examine three things: the content and structure of your presentation, any visuals you’re using and your overall style – namely your energy levels, whether your voice is projecting, the degree of eye contact, physical stance and how you’re coming across.
Get your colleagues to be specific. You could even give them a feedback sheet and ask them to note down anything they feel is working well, and anything you could do differently next time. If you’re colleagues are able to do that, you’ll receive a great deal of useful information in return.
You can invite audiences to consider two types of ‘What ifs?...’ When referring to problems or risks, what might go wrong? What are some of the issues with what you’ve just said?
The second type points to benefits. What if your idea or proposal goes right? What will happen in the future? Is there’s a positive story to be told, paint a positive picture of the future at the end of your talk and how people’s lives will be different as a result of them taking action.
Graham Shaw is a speaking coach and professional conference speaker; his book, The Speaker’s Coach, is available now, published by Pearson