Talking Stages

In the world of business presentations, style counts for as much as substance. Not only do you need to know your audience, but also how they perceive you as an individual.

Most presenters wrongly believe the moment of interaction with an audience begins when they start to speak. In fact, even before their opening remarks, any communication or interaction is the start of psychological contact. The comments over coffee before your presentation begins, the look of complete boredom as you endure other presenters, the shuffling of papers as you await your spot – all have an impact on how the audience perceives you.

Presenters who are self-aware are therefore better able to understand and take account of the psychology of their audience. This means not only knowing yourself and your natural style, but knowing your audience and understanding the predictable dynamics that exist between the two.

There are five key areas presenters need to remain conscious of: the quality of their preparation and the presentation’s content, the standard of support material, the ability to build a rapport with the audience, the appropriateness of their personal image and style, and the quality of delivery – both verbal and non-verbal. The first two are the easiest to get feedback on and to change and improve, but, surprisingly, most people fail to understand there are practical ways to enhance the other three.

The starting point for turning presentations from dry to inspirational is understanding how you are performing. This is best achieved by systematically gathering feedback from a cross-section – colleagues and others – of those who have been on the receiving end.

This type of feedback – usually carried out with the guidance of an occupational psychologist and referred to as 360-degree feedback – involves making a personal assessment of your skills and inviting colleagues to respond to a series of statements based around the five key areas mentioned.

The data is collected and structured feedback provided with a professionally prepared, confidential summary. Participants then have a clear picture of their strengths and weaknesses, and areas to develop or improve. They can assimilate the feedback from all sources and, with professional, personal coaching, develop an individual action plan.

Just as in life, an audience will be made up of a wide cross-section of personalities and preferences. The skilled presenter will understand this and ensure both the content and delivery account for various needs.

Psychologists use personality models – such as the Myers Briggs type indicator – that can help presenters understand their personal preferences and how material needs to be adapted to touch each member of the audience. The skill is in reading the audiences’ signals and responding to expectations. For example, the pragmatist in the audience will need details to be stressed, practical applications demonstrated and an unemotional delivery. On the other hand, the strategist will want to see the content’s strategic relevance, future possibilities and an enthusiastic delivery.

Presenters must appeal to the audience by ensuring appropriate emphasis is placed on what are, at times, conflicting needs.

So how can a presenter appear both practical and strategic? Can you demonstrate competence and warmth? Is it possible to be structured and ordered, but at the same time show flexibility and spontaneity?

It is possible to demonstrate competence by providing a logical flow to the presentation, with a rational, structured delivery. To show warmth, presenters can emphasise the subject’s impact on people, personal benefits and be personal and friendly with the audience.

However, note that an audience goes through three stages while listening and watching a presenter. First, they will ask themselves: “Can I relate to this person and do they have anything valuable for me?” They will then begin to judge whether the presenter is competent and in control. Finally, they will ask themselves whether they like them.

You can be a credible presenter and yet not be liked by the audience. But being likeable greatly reduces destructive behaviour from the heckler, the dismissive, constant questioner or the “blank wall”. The aim should always be to operate in such a way that the audience is able to concentrate on the message, rather than being distracted by small irritants that may be more to do with the presenter’s personality and approach than what is being said. For example, aware presenters include the audience by shaking hands with people as they come into the room, make eye contact and scan the people in the room. These simple actions make an audience feel noticed, acknowledged and included, and that the presenter is genuinely interested in them.

Referring to people by name (making sure you can see name cards or badges helps), and checking with a person what their name is when they speak, adds a personal touch.

Similarly, asking members of the audience about their interest in the topic, and their experience or expertise in that area, makes them feel significant and valued. They feel involved.

Presenters can demonstrate their competence and control using simple techniques. Listen carefully to questions – it makes the person feel respected and that their competence is being acknowledged. Speakers should maintain an open body posture and move towards the audience.

It makes them feel you are assertive and open, rather than defensive and closed.

Finally, give a structure to the presentation – include a clear objective – with an opening, middle and end. At the same time, be flexible about people’s particular areas of interest. This helps the audience feel confident you know what you are doing and that, while you will respond to them, you will also manage the time and ensure you get through all the topics you intend to cover.

If you can, use illustrations from your own experience, with personal examples, anecdotes and appropriate self-disclosure.

Show concern and consideration for people to encourage them to share their concerns more freely. And generate a friendly and relaxed atmosphere through the appropriate use of humour – even a humorous note about yourself.

None of this should suggest there is a right or wrong way to give a presentation. All pres enters must develop a unique style that sits well with their personality.

There is no point trying to ape another person’s style that does not fit with your character. The aim is not to turn shy, reflective types into outward-going, extrovert evangelists. Rather, presenters must understand the personal impact they have on an audience, and know how to develop this to best effect.

Angela Terry is an occupational psychologist working with attitudes, skills and knowledge development group ASK Europe. Among other areas, she specialises in running programmes on advanced presentation skills, which develop models for understanding audience dynamics and interaction.

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