No More Presentation Panic with These Simple Tips

woman presenting in front of a projector

Put yourself in this scenario: You’re attending a work event one evening when your colleague Martin approaches you and begins to make small talk.

“Hi Janice, how are you doing? I haven’t seen you in a while. In fact, I think the last time we saw each other you were talking about how client expectations for settlements were becoming impractical. Interesting stuff…”

Then he comes in with the ask…

“I’m glad I ran into you,” Martin says. “I’m looking for someone to provide a lecture on tort reform for our summer associates next week. I think you would be a perfect fit. It’s just an hour, so it’s not a big deal.”

How many of you have been on the receiving end of a conversation like this? If so, what was your reaction?

If you’re like most people, the best word to describe it is “panic.” Yes, you know the topic may be better than most, but talking about it in front of an audience is different. What if they don’t like you? Or find you dull? What if it seems a waste of their time?

Don’t panic; you can handle it and I’m here to help.

I’ve written extensively on learning design as a concept, but this time, I want to make it simple. I’m offering a few turnkey activities that you can use to spice up a presentation next time you’re in Janice’s position.

Lean into your strengths

Before I jump in, I wanted to make clear that, in this scenario, I’m assuming that:

  • You’re delivering the presentation live (see the end of this blog for comments on prerecorded courses)
  • The course is longer than 20 – 30 minutes
  • You have more than 20 participants
  • You don’t have a lot of experience presenting
  • You are a subject matter expert compared to the average audience member

When I’m advising speakers, the first thing I ask is for them to define what they bring to the table and lean into that.

Most of us know whether we can engage a room easily through humor, charisma, or that X factor, or if we need to rely on something else, like our mastery of a topic.

If you have encyclopedic knowledge of a topic, but lack public speaking skills, structure your presentation in a way that gets your audience to do the talking and ask questions of you to showcase your expertise.

Tend to get deep into the weeds on topics and lose listeners? It’s likely you like to solve problems and uncover underlying issues, so arrange your talk as a series of problems that the audience is invited to solve through leading questions (I know you know how to ask those…).

Alternatively, if you can hold an audience through humor and stories, create a narrative that draws the listener in. People learn through stories, so weaving your key takeaways into a narrative is a powerful tool.

Finally, people tend to remember broad ideas more than details, so structure your presentations into three or four sections, with each having a simple, easy-to-remember takeaway. You can provide additional detail on your ideas in the accompanying reference materials if needed.

Spice up your presentation with activities

Once you’ve sketched out the structure of your presentation, adding simple activities that engage the audience can be the difference between a well-received presentation and a snooze fest.

A quick note before we dive in: We’ve created some slide templates for the activities listed below that you are welcome to use in your presentation. They are simple instruction slides you can leave up during the activity for participants to reference while working on the tasks at hand. Feel free to customize for different individuals, groups, and topics.

Download the slide templates here.

Drive discussion with polls

Polls are great for engaging the audience directly. I like to tell presenters that you get three for the price of one when it comes to polls, regardless of the results. When using a poll, you can:

  • Ask the audience what the expected results are and respond to the actual result
  • Ask the audience why they think the result was skewed one way or the other, was not easily predictable, etc.
  • Ask the audience if different questions may have produced a different result (if you have two minutes, watch this brilliantly funny sketch on surveys from “Yes, Prime Minister”)

There has been an explosion of easy-to-use online and live polling tools. Some I’ve seen used are Slido, Poll Everywhere, Quizziz, Crowdpurr, along with built-in tools in platforms like Teams, Zoom, and Webex.

The key to using polls is to view them as a starting point for driving conversation, not a confirmation of opinion.

Build scenarios

You’ve likely attended a course where, after presenting a section, the speaker walks through a related scenario or hypothetical for an audience response. Often, the scenario comes after the section content, and the correct answer replicates what the presenter has just taught.

I always urge presenters to avoid this by creating ambiguity (think the classic trolley problem), or to start instead with a scenario or story that sets up the content that follows.

Another good option is arranging the audience in groups and asking them to come up with a scenario after you’ve presented the content. This method provides several advantages, including:

  • Encouraging group engagement
  • Asking the participants to apply the topics to their lives
  • Giving you, the speaker, a quick break from talking

Assume the role of a consultant

This activity asks the audience to break into groups to evaluate and present recommendations based on a problem you have provided.

For example, provide the audience with fictional comments from staff regarding workplace bullying along with firm retention data, and ask them to develop scenarios that would improve the workplace culture.

This is a particularly good activity for lawyers, as it can remove them from taking a position and place them in the role of a neutral advisor… and there’s never a shortage of problems to solve.

Leverage discussion prompts

Discussion prompts can be an excellent way to encourage your audience to apply the content to their experience, without having to call on them one by one.

For example, if you are speaking on alternative billing practices, ask the audience to consider how the topics discussed will impact their day-to-day practice. The benefit to this is twofold – connecting your content to their lives, but also possibly uncovering additional content and learning from their discussion.

A quick word on prerecorded video CLE

If you’re asked to prerecord a presentation, turn and run… if you can. Have you ever watched someone on TV talk nonstop at a camera for an hour? Was it captivating? Now imagine that without professional lighting, makeup, sound, or scriptwriters.

If you can’t run away, then consider this approach:

  • You’re a resource, not the focus, so consider how you can support the topic, not be it.
  • Prepare some materials that you reference and explain. This could be a worksheet that the audience completes, a checklist they annotate for their work, or a case that needs some explanation.

Whatever materials you use, consider yourself as a guide working through a concept, not the focus and deliverer of content.

Go for it!

You don’t have to implement all or any of these suggestions to have a successful talk, but I encourage you to take a chance on adding a couple, even in a very contained way.

You will welcome the break, be surprised at the contributions, and, I promise you, the audience will appreciate something beyond a talking head.

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