When I walked into class on the first day of Acting II at the University of New Hampshire, the chalk board at the front of the room was empty except for three words: “No acting, please.” Yeah. This was an acting class. At first, this made no sense to me, but soon it was crystal clear. Our teacher, David Kaye, taught us if you are truly connected to your character and the scene, then “acting” gets in the way. The key is to be so open to your character that you don’t need to act. If your character is terrified, and you are fully committed to what you are doing, then you ARE terrified. This is achieved through researching the material/character/setting and rehearsal: homework. I didn’t know it at the time, but I learned a great deal about presenting in that room.
When I present, I try to keep a conversational tone. I don’t want to talk at my audience. I want to connect with them. If I’ve done my homework and know the material, if I have rehearsed, then I can focus on sharing the material instead of reading it from my slides. Rehearsal also helps you stay comfortable and avoid speaking too fast due to nerves (done that one). It can be hard, but it is totally worth it when your audience sees how relaxed you are and how much fun you are having. This audience comment from an evaluation of a presentation I did shows that this effort makes a difference:
Good presentation skills – like the "breezy" style
Keeping things relaxed also allows me to pepper in some humor here and there. That can help a lot, too. Sitting through overtly serious, monotone presentations can be painful. I don’t want to do that to anyone. Now, for me, planned humor is a real challenge. I did Improvised Comedy in college and it was perfect for me. I can’t tell jokes to save my life; I would be horrid on Last Comic Standing. But, what I can do is come up with one liners off the cuff. That works for me. But whatever works for you, be it funny images in your slide deck or a well timed rubber chicken, try to work some humor into your presentations if you can. It can pay off, as this audience comment shows:
Good sense of humor!! Very nice presentation.
Another aspect of the “No acting, please” lesson has to do with honesty. If you really commit to your character, then you show the audience that you believe in what you are doing and they are far more likely to come along for the ride. In terms of presenting, for me that means being open about what I know and what I don’t know. Nothing wrecks credibility like making sh!t up. When I don’t know the answer to a question, I am honest about that. But I don’t just say “I don’t know” and move on. If I don’t know, then I make the effort to point them in the right direction or have them contact me afterward so I can try to track down their answer. This helps a lot, in my opinion, as this audience comment shows:
Let us know what he did and did not know about the subject!
Whether I am presenting at clients or at a user group, etc, I try to keep keep the above in mind. The feedback I have gotten from clients has been great. My presentations at the Minnesota chapter of PASS have gone over really well, too, both averaging 4.4 our of 5 on the audience evaluations. This success is not because I have presented humteen million times or because I wear bright yellow pants, but rather because I have a strategy that works for me.
My advice to new presenters is to find a strategy that works for you. If any of the above work for you, do it. If bright yellow pants work for you, wear them. If it helps you to picture your audience in their Fruit of the Looms, go for it (but, take my word for it: don’t stare). Whatever you need to do to keep things relaxed and fun, bring it. Share what you have to say like you are showing something really cool to a friend. Above all though, don’t force it. No presenting, please.