Presentations are an integral element in the recruitment process for many organisations, and are something that few of us really enjoy, particularly when so much is at stake. The good news is that practice definitely makes perfect, and you’ll find that each time you present you will become more comfortable as long as you follow a few basic guidelines. There can be a lot of variation in what’s expected: you might be asked to prepare something fairly substantial in advance on a work-related topic, you might be told that you will be given a brief on the day and some time to prepare, the presentation could well be part of a group exercise or the occasion for you to set out your recommendations to a business challenge; you might be expected to prepare slides and handouts or be told specifically that it will be just you and your words of wisdom. Whatever the subject or logistics, there are a few things that will be common to all, both in terms of how to approach creating your presentation and then the actual delivery.
Prepare, practice, perform
It’s important to remember the three p’s. Make sure you know exactly what’s expected, try to get feedback from others, and do a bit of honest evaluation of your own performance. If you have a presentation coming up as part of an assessment centre, book a practice interview with a careers consultant. Take advantage of one of the workshops and seminars which run regularly through the year. There’s also lots of information available online to help you. Finally, don’t forget to check out some real professionals – TED talks are a great way of seeing some experts in action and picking up really useful tips.
Planning content and structure
The first step is to have a clear understanding of precisely what’s expected, so read all material and instructions carefully and then decide what you want to include. Once you’ve decided on the points you want to get across, plan and structure your presentation carefully. An effective presenter will think carefully about their audience and pitch their content appropriately, always keeping those listening in mind.
It’s a good idea to open by telling your audience what you are going to be doing, use the middle portion to do it and then conclude with a summary of what you have done, whilst avoiding the trap of trying to squeeze in too much information. A key attribute assessors will be looking for is your ability to identify critical points and express them succinctly. Having a beginning, middle and end will improve your presentation skills because a clear logical structure means your points will come across – especially as people are most attentive at the beginning and end!
If you’ve been asked to come up with some conclusions, describe your approach, the issues and – it sounds obvious, but it’s a common mistake – make sure your conclusions actually relate back to points already mentioned. Also, be careful about how you use humour – it can be effective, but it’s never great having to deal with a joke that’s fallen flat!
Don’t worry about being nervous – that adrenaline rush can be a very good thing as long so it’s all about harnessing that energy in a positive way. If you feel it’s too much, use breathing techniques to relax you before you begin (inhale to a count of four seconds, hold for four and exhale over four). You can also focus your mind on an occasion when something you did went very well and remember what that felt like, then visualise yourself at the end of the presentation, being thanked for it, told how interesting it was and enjoy reliving that sensation. Think excited rather than terrified. Think invigorated rather than overwhelmed. Have a glass of water to hand and smile!
Delivery and owning the space
This goes back to the three p’s – prepare, practice, perform. However good your material, the way you convey the information you have prepared is crucial, and, again, there are some techniques you can work on. Take every opportunity to practise, whether to familiarise yourself with your prepared content or just to focus on your style. Film yourself, practice in front of a mirror, check for any distracting mannerisms you didn’t know you had. Listen to your voice and work on getting the volume right, making sure you sound natural. Vary your tone, and use expression to underline your points – if you don’t sound interested in what you are saying, why should the audience be captivated?
If you’re worried about things like fiddling, hair twiddling or pen clicking (identified when you did that practice session in front of the mirror, friends, or a careers consultant), hold your hands together in a relaxed way, low across your body, and focus on the interesting things you want to share. When you finally step up to give your presentation, take the time to position yourself in front of the audience, feet planted on the floor with an open posture before you start speaking. Minimise barriers between you and your audience and, once underway, make eye contact with each member. It’s fine to use gestures to emphasise points as long as they are not too distracting.
It’s absolutely critical to respect the time constraints you’re given. When you have the opportunity to prepare your presentation in advance, practice your timing carefully. Give yourself some markers in the presentation so that you can check progress and be ready to adapt if necessary: know what you can drop if you are going more slowly than in practice, and have some extra material you can draw on if your delivery has been speedier than expected. Once you start, make sure you keep a discrete eye on your watch or ‘phone, or ask to be given a five or one minute warning and remember, aim for a well-paced approach rather than racing to pack in as much as possible.
You’ll need to be ready to take questions with confidence and it can be a good idea to state up front whether you’ll be taking them during or after the presentation. Have a think about what might come up and prepare some thoughts in advance. Pausing before you answer will give you a bit of extra thinking time, and give the impression you are considering the question carefully. Thank the person asking the question and, if the group is large, repeat to ensure that everyone has heard – paraphrase if necessary to confirm your own understanding.
After your answer, check that the questioner feels you have answered their question adequately. If you don’t have an answer, be upfront about it, rather than trying to cobble something together. If any question seems aggressive (unlikely!), remain calm, try to find a shared point of agreement and stay focused on the question itself to ensure things remain impersonal.