A while back, I was teaching a User Experience course, and a part of the curriculum I received was focused on the presentation of the design: how to run the presentation effectively, “sell” your ideas, and receive feedback during the process.
The curriculum was interesting, but I felt it was not enough. I remembered a few pieces of advice from my mentors, their real hands-on experience, something you may not necessarily find in textbooks. I thought about how insightful that info was and how much it helped me at different times in my career, so I shared it with my students.
“Opportunities to improve,” not issues.
Before I go into details, I want to share a short story. It was a meeting I’ll never forget, although it happened many years ago, early in my career. I was presenting to a large group, and there were people from my team, our business partners, and managers of different levels. I thought I was well prepared for this presentation — we ran extensive research and gathered great insights. I talked about various product issues we discovered during testing… surprisingly, the meeting didn’t go well, and the information wasn’t received positively.
The reason was the terminology and phrasing I used. If I did it over, I would rephrase how I talk about “issues.” I would not even talk about “issues” but “opportunities to improve.” And it was one of the first great pieces of advice I received in my career.
When providing feedback or pointing out something that not entirely meets the expectations – put it in the perspective of “opportunities to improve,” not issues. It will make a big difference in the way the information is received and on the outcome as well.
Situations that could potentially put you at a disadvantage and therefore impact the outcome of your presentation.
When you’re different.
If you ever enter a room where you’re the only kind (either by gender or by age, the color of your skin, cultural background, or professional level — anything), you know it can sometimes be challenging and uncomfortable. That difference might make it harder to present and “sell” your design, product, or idea. It is because of the subconscious bias every human being has, and those can play a significant impact.
For example, if you are the only person of a certain race or gender in the room, the people around you may unconsciously hold biases about the traits, abilities, or characteristics associated with that group. As a result, they may perceive you as less competent, credible, or capable, which may influence how they respond to your ideas, designs, or products.
In these situations, two important steps could help:
- Find a supporter or ally in the room. Having somebody supporting you and your ideas can help to overcome biases and create a more positive environment. Most importantly, it will help you feel more confident.
- Highlight your qualifications and relevant experience to build credibility.
When you don’t have a chance to know your audience in advance.
When you understand your audience’s needs, interests, and backgrounds, you can tailor your presentation to meet their needs and ensure that your message resonates with them. But it might not always be possible to learn about people in your audience in advance.
Entering a room to present in front of an unfamiliar audience can be a daunting experience, but there are steps that can help to establish a connection with your audience:
- Take a deep breath. This can help calm your nerves and clear your mind.
- Connect. Introduce yourself, make eye contact, ask questions, and actively listen to your audience.
- Use humor. There is a great article written by John Zimmer, an international speaker, and trainer — “Using Humour in a Presentation — It’s No Laughing Matter”. In this article, the author talks about how humor helps the audience remember your points and you.
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.– Maya Angelou, American Poet.
When the information you present is entirely new to everybody in the room.
Imagine you’re walking into a room ready to present a new idea. You’ve been preparing for this meeting for days and feel confident and ready to present. I was in a situation like this, but to my surprise, the meeting didn’t go as expected. The idea was good, and I was prepared; the demo was done simply and logically; there were good visuals; people asked a lot of good questions. But many participants in the room had their own perspectives and opinions, sometimes opposite from each other. And the discussion went on endlessly without coming to an agreement.
One great suggestion I received after that meeting, I want to share here:
If you know the people who will attend the presentation and who need to agree on an idea or make a decision — try to introduce the idea to each of them time before the meeting. When people are familiar with the content and you know their opinions, possible questions, and concerns, you can prepare answers in advance and manage the discussion more effectively.
When people are familiar with the content and you know their opinions, possible questions, and concerns, you can prepare answers in advance and manage the discussion more effectively.
If you feel nervous…
It’s a phenomenon, but your audience will immediately pick up and channel your mood (worries, anxiety, lack of confidence). This phenomenon is known as “emotional contagion.” (This phenomenon has been widely studied and is now recognized as an important aspect of social interaction.)
Also, when people feel nervous, their speech pattern changes, they might speak too fast and not very clearly, giving off that unsure vibe. And your audience will likely feel less engaged and less receptive to your message!
If you feel nervous, the first piece of advice is to breathe. (I took a fun voice coaching course last year and remembered this very simple but very effective exercise. It is called 4×4 breathing, all you need to do is to inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four, and hold for four. After you repeat the cycle four times, I guarantee you will feel less nervous (or, at minimum, hyperventilated :)).
Most importantly – know when to stop.
I remember how my mentor shared their story and mentioned that almost everybody had a similar experience at some point in their careers: imagine you present to a group of stakeholders, finish your line and hear silence in the room. Feeling unsure, so many of us tend to fill pauses with talking.
In reality, repetitiveness and rambling can undermine your credibility.
The advice is simple: “When you deliver the line, stop and allow time for people to process the information and ask questions.”
“When you deliver the line, stop and allow time for people to process the information and ask questions.”
If you’ve read to this point, here is one more useful tip:
The rule of “Three S”: Simplicity, Story, Surprise.
The “Rule of three S” refers to Simplicity, Story, and Surprise. I learned about it from one of the public speaking workshops I attended; the rule points out three important aspects of effective communication and content creation.
Simplicity. The best way to make your idea easy to understand and remember is to use clear language and avoid too complex concepts and very specific technical jargon. It is because people have a limited capacity for processing and remembering information, and complex concepts can easily overwhelm this capacity. When cognitive overload occurs, people are less likely to understand and remember the information and may become confused or frustrated.
Story. It was proven scientifically that people understand and listen to stories better than any other form of communication. The research showed that when people listen to a story, their brains display increased activity in the areas associated with language, understanding, and social cognition. That means that stories may be particularly effective in helping people process information.
I read a few books about storytelling; my favorite is “The Storyteller’s Secret” by Carminne Galo. He talks about why some ideas catch, and others don’t, and how to structure your idea in the form of a story that resonates with the audience.
Surprise. If possible, there should be an element of unexpectedness that can capture the audience’s attention and make the content more memorable. This could be achieved through the use of surprising facts, unexpected twists in the story, or a unique perspective.
And one more piece of advice I remember and want to share to conclude this article:
Communication and collaboration don’t stop after the meeting. If you received a comment or a question that you were unsure how to answer during the presentation, always follow up.
Following up to resolve unanswered questions or other situations is important in business and life because it shows you’re responsible and that you care. It can also prevent possible misunderstandings and mistakes and improve outcomes for everyone involved.
Thank you so much for reading this article – I wish you great success with any presentation!