One of the most important factors in delivering a successful presentation is the ability to look and act naturally. If you’re stiff, uncomfortable and “not yourself,” that’s definitely going to negatively impact how your audience perceives you.
There’s no magic formula that will instantly make you look and feel cool, calm and comfortable. But there are definitely steps you can take to project the quiet confidence of a seasoned professional.
Present Like Nobody’s Watching
A funny thing happens when I do presentation training. Usually it’s for a group of people who work together in the same company or organization.
I typically record each person on video doing a snippet of a speech they regularly give. Before they start, I ask them to briefly give us the context: who’s the intended audience and what is the talk designed to do?
In that moment, they are natural, conversational, human. Then when they start the speech it’s like a wall goes up. Suddenly they’re formal and stilted and self-conscious.
When I point out this difference, they’ll often explain, “Well, it’s a lot easier when I’m talking to people I know” or “It’s a simple message” or “It’s different when I’m speaking off-the-cuff.”
So if all that’s true, the challenge is, how do we reproduce that feeling in the actual presentation situation? Here are six ways to look and act naturally when all eyes are on you.
1. Know Your Audience
Yes, it’s often easier talking to people you know. But we don’t always have that luxury. So your job as a speaker is to get to know your audience as well as you can before the speech.
Talk to the organizer or whoever invited you to speak. Consider interviewing audience members in advance. Or get there early and mingle with them.
Here are six questions to ask about your audience.
I always say that if you do your homework, your audience will feel less like strangers and more like allies.
2. Practice, Practice, Practice
Next, know your material. Practice it over and over and over again. And don’t just memorize the words. That’s a sure ticket to coming across as inauthentic.
Instead, internalize the ideas so you can get your points across without sticking to a verbatim script. This is what great actors do. They know their material well enough that they can essentially “forget it” and put their energy into being in the moment. They live and breathe and experience what they’re saying, as opposed to just standing there reciting lines.
3. Make Your Presentation a Conversation
Here’s another trick actors use to deliver a natural performance in one of the most unnatural situations actors face: delivering a monologue at an audition.
It’s hard because there’s no scene partner to interact with. So the actor has to conjure another character in her head. As the monologue proceeds, she imagines that each shift in subject or tone is a response to something her imaginary scene partner has said or done.
You can do the same in your presentation by anticipating your audience’s thoughts and reactions and answering them as you go:
- “You’re probably wondering why you should care …”
- “Maybe you’re thinking this won’t work …”
- “So how do you implement this?”
They’ll think you’re doing some kind of Jedi mind trick, but actually you’ve just done your homework (see point 1).
And, of course, you can literally make it a conversation by encouraging and answering questions along the way, polling them, quizzing them, doing group and individual exercises and other things.
4. Look Your Audience in the Eye
Throughout the presentation you need to stay in touch with your audience, taking measure of their mood, their emotions and their understanding of what you’re saying.
This starts by looking them in the eye. Do they seem to “get it” or do they look confused? Are they nodding and smiling or scowling and avoiding eye contact? Are they bored?
Don’t get so wrapped up in what you’re saying that you fail to notice what’s going on around you. And if you feel like you’re losing them, stop and do a reset:
- “Several of you look confused. Let me try to explain this better.”
- “I see some skeptical looks. Let’s talk about that. What are your doubts or concerns?”
- “I see a lot of nodding heads, so I won’t dwell on this point any longer. Let’s skip ahead.”
5. Project Warmth When Presenting
Smile. It will help your audience connect to you and it will put them at ease because you look at ease.
In fact, the physical act of smiling has been shown to have a calming effect. A smile is not just an expression of happiness — sometimes it can actually create a sense of happiness and contentment in ourselves.
6. Reveal Yourself — Warts and All
Okay, don’t show ALL your warts. But a little humility, the admission of a mistake, a small confession — these all help paint a portrait of a living, breathing human. Which is what audiences want to see.
Just don’t go so far that you undermine your authority. Audiences also want to feel confident you know what you’re talking about.
All You Gotta Do Is Act Naturally
Speaking of warts and all, this whole conversation puts me in mind of the awesome Beatles cover of the Buck Owens song, Act Naturally. It’s the perfect Ringo song, since Ringo was the most “human” of the Fab Four.
Though his image as the awkward, goofy Beatle was the result of stagecraft (he was, in fact, the most experienced musician when he joined the Beatles, and one of the greatest drummers of all time), his humanity is part of what endeared him to a worldwide audience.