Presentation Skills: Starting With the Right Questions

According to The Chapman University Survey on American Fears, public speaking is consistently ranked as one of the most common personal fears for Americans. That’s a problem, because many professions require speaking in front of an audience.

While there are many public speaking gurus who will teach you techniques to “trick” yourself into feeling less anxious, there is only one sure-fire way to tackle the anxiety of public speaking: being properly prepared. Being prepared helps calm your nerves and gain confidence, even as it ensures that your information is accurate and materials reliable. Preparation also enables you to handle mistakes if and when they occur.

So what is the best way to be prepared?

In addition to rehearsing or reviewing materials, it also helps to ask yourself some basic questions about your presentation. The answers will make you understand your presentation in a wider context and manage audience reactions. For example:

What is the goal of the presentation?

Things go wrong in a presentation when you, the audience, or both lose focus on the main point. As Yogi Berra once quipped, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might end up someplace else.” That’s exactly what you don’t want to happen.

How many attendees do you expect?

Speaking in front of a group of 10 is different than speaking to a group of 30, and both are different from an audience of 500. Get a feel for the number and plan accordingly. With a small group, you can have a conversation. With an audience of 500, you need to set the pace with pre-planned remarks.

Why are the attendees there?

Is your presentation required, or did the audience just sign up? Is it the only presentation that will be given or are you one amongst a group of speakers? Different contexts set up different expectations. So knowing the situation will help reveal those expectations, and you can mold your remarks accordingly.

What are the audience demographics?

Think about age, gender, experience, and more. These factors can influence how your information is perceived. For example, a younger audience might tune out to out-dated television references. An audience with foreigners might miss key points if you use slang. A group of new employees might not understand industry issues the way an experienced audience would. And so on.

What else is happening?

Is your presentation taking place Monday morning or Friday afternoon? Is it scheduled after lunch? Is the audience coming from another event? What happens before or after your presentation can affect how it is received. Plan accordingly.

Of course, you need to practice your presentation, too. But most public speaking fears don’t stem from anxiety about what is known (the material). They stem from a fear of the unknown -- the questions, the audience’s reaction, and so on. By asking these basic questions at the start, you can better tailor a presentation to your audience and feel more prepared for anything they might throw your way.

Some of these tips were taken from our “Basic Questions” course in our Presentation Skills series. If you found it helpful -- or are interested in more tips for creating, organizing, and giving a presentation -- we recommend you see a demo of this series.

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