PowerPoint presentations don’t usually make great movies but there is one notable exception: Al Gore’s 2006 Oscar-winner An Inconvenient Truth, whose sequel arrives in cinemas this month.
Gore’s film not only exposed the dangers of climate change to a new audience, it also showcased the potential of presentations as a persuasive tool.
For communicators, there’s lots to learn in how Gore frames his message and the influencing techniques he uses. But equally impressive is his assured manner in delivering his message.
Presentation skills are important for many professions, but for communicators the expectations are even higher. Yet the inconvenient truth about presentations is that it can be fiendishly difficult to attain Gore’s level of presence and influence.
The way we deliver a message is at least as important as the message itself. But while we may be adept at compiling an impressive PowerPoint deck, how many of us give equal attention to how we’ll get it across?
So take a leaf out of Al Gore’s book and give these simple tips a try to help tame your nerves and take your presentations to a new level.
Align your butterflies
Everyone’s familiar with that feeling of butterflies before an important presentation, but fighting it often makes it worse. The trick is to get them ‘flying in formation’ so they don’t affect your delivery. But how?
Performance coach Dave Alred has worked with some of the world’s top sportsmen and women. Rather than telling yourself you feel nervous, Alred says, tell yourself you feel excited. The body reacts to both emotions in a similar way.
This mental switch helps you refocus your presentation from something you’re dreading to something you’re looking forward to.
Find the passion
If we worry too much about making a good impression, those butterflies are likely to get out of control. One way to avoid this is to find a personal connection to your content. This helps shift your focus from your own performance to the importance of your message.
Much of Al Gore’s impact in An Inconvenient Truth comes from his sheer passion for his subject. That passion is expressed in humour, outrage, incredulity – and he takes his audience on that same emotional journey.
Finding an emotive connection to every work presentation may be a bigger ask, but doing so will boost your confidence and your performance.
“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile,” wrote Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, “but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”
This Buddhist wisdom illustrates a scientific phenomenon: if you act the way you want to feel, then the feeling often follows the action.
Making a genuine effort to smile before your session has two benefits. First, it releases feel-good chemicals like endorphins and dopamine, which can relax your body and lower your heart rate.
Second, smiling really is contagious. We’re naturally wired to reflect the way other people behave towards us: so if you smile at people, they’re more likely to smile back at you. This not only settles your audience, it helps you feel calmer too.
Smiling isn’t the only way to ‘act the way you want to feel’. In the second most-viewed TED Talk of all time, Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy extols the benefits of power posing.
Expanding your body overrides your instinct to fight or flee, allowing you to be grounded, open and engaged. Adopting power poses for just a couple of minutes can make you feel more confident.
So harness your inner Wonder Woman with her famous chest out, hands on hips pose. Or ‘starfish up’ by imagining you’ve just slotted the winning goal at Wembley.
Vary your delivery
The first step to improving your delivery is to assess how good you are now. One way to do this is to take out your smartphone and film yourself practising a presentation. It may make uncomfortable viewing, but you’ll instantly notice how you come across.
For example, is your voice lively and interesting, or does it tend towards the monotone? If it’s the latter, try these techniques used by voice coaches to inject more energy.
When you’re next watching the news, close your eyes for a few minutes and listen to how the news readers vary their delivery and emphasise key points. Then practise reading out loud, injecting more variation and emotion.
Or at the risk of feeling foolish, practise ‘singing’ your lines in the style of a well-known tune, like Happy Birthday to You.
Power up your pauses
Composer Claude Debussy once wrote that music is what happens between the notes. In a similar way, says Gravitas author Caroline Goyder, communication is what happens between your words.
Studies show that speakers who pause naturally have more impact. Watch Gore in An Inconvenient Truth and you’ll notice the way he pauses frequently to emphasise key points and let them sink in.
If you find pausing a struggle try a technique often used by actors: mark up your presentation notes to show the places where you want to slow down and add emphasis.
Practise, practise – you know the rest…
We all know people who can ‘wing’ presentations with seemingly little preparation. But the most seasoned presenters look effortless because they’ve consistently improved their skills, and take time to prepare for each event.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs, for example, was renowned for putting in gruelling hours of practice to perfect every aspect of his famous Apple keynote speeches.
That’s clearly not possible or appropriate for every presentation you make, but increasing your practice time will undoubtedly pay dividends.
So while the inconvenient truth about presentations is that it’s tough to attain Al Gore-like levels of skill and presence, there’s a convenient truth too: the more you work at it, the better you become. Give some of these tips a try and see how far you can take your own presentations.
By Dave Wraith for Alive!