Preparing for presentations
Presentations are an increasingly popular element of the candidate selection process. The experience you gain throughout your time at university will let you develop your presenting skills. However, while course presentations are used for demonstrating and sharing your knowledge, presentations as part of a selection process are likely to be used as a medium to assess other things as well.
In a presentation, you might be asked to:
- Assess your knowledge
- Assess your communication (and specifically, your presentation) skills
- See how you perform under pressure
- Assess your ability to research, plan and prepare
- Measure your motivation
It is therefore important that you're not only secure in the knowledge that you need to share but that you're able to present that information professionally and confidently. Careful preparation and planning, coupled with practice, will let you become more confident and more able to give your best on the day.
To prepare and deliver an effective presentation you'll need to know:
- The subject you have to present – you're likely to be given a presentation title or brief. Ensure that you adhere to this and keep on topic throughout the presentation.
- How long your presentation should be – accurate timing is essential. It will demonstrate that you have prepared effectively and are mindful of your audience.
- Who you'll be presenting to – what is their background? What level of detail or explanation is needed? What are their expectations of your presentation?
Make sure you understand the requirements of your presentation brief and then ensure that you meet those requirements. Your content must be relevant. This may involve significant research about a company or a topic related to your application. Or it might be about you, for example, "why do you want this job?"
Some presentations might involve a case study or scenario that you have to work through and then deliver your analysis and recommendations.
Whatever the situation, you need to be clear about your key messages and facts and be able to back them up with evidence. Make sure you have an appropriate amount of material to fill the allocated time.
Just as you would structure an essay, you need to make sure your presentation has an introduction, a middle and an end (conclusion). Broadly speaking, "Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them and then tell them what you have told them."
- Introduction – introduce yourself and then outline what your presentation aims to cover. Remember, you'll be judged not only on how you meet their brief but by the extent to which you meet your promises. The idea is to capture interest at the start and then carry your audience through to your conclusion.
- Middle – this is where you share your key messages. Don't overload your audience with too much information. Keep your key points to a manageable quantity – they're not going to remember everything you say so make sure that you emphasise the essential information. Illustrate your key points with examples and evidence. Use visuals to emphasise your points – this may be key words or pictures. Don't be tempted to present text-heavy slides – your audience will be too busy trying to read the slides rather than focusing on what you're saying.
- Conclusion – revisit your key messages. Briefly summarise your presentation and offer the opportunity to ask questions.
Make sure you have finished speaking before your audience has finished listening.
Organising and presenting your content
When preparing your presentation, it's worth bearing in mind how people receive and register information:
- The rule of 3 – organising your key points in groups of 3 can be powerful, as it's easier to process and retain information presented in this way. Identify the 3 key messages you want your audience to take away with them at the end of your presentation. Try asking yourself "what?", "why?" and "how?" and use this to structure your argument.
- Try to limit yourself to 3 key points on a slide
- Use contrast – highlight the preferred outcome and contrast it with the alternative
- Make sure your presentation has a clear flow – if your introduction is accurate, your audience should understand the direction and is more likely to be engaged
- Don't confuse planning your presentation with writing the PowerPoint – you should always plan your content first and only then consider producing your slideshow to support your presentation.
- Less is more – don't be guilty of death by PowerPoint such as too many slides and too much detail. This will disengage your audience. Remember the rule of 3, but sometimes a single word on the screen or an image is all that's needed.
- A picture is worth a thousand words – sometimes using a picture can create more of an impact and your words will provide the context and detail. It's been shown that when using slides, the text delivers 7% of the received information, a visual component delivers 55% and the voice delivers the remaining 38%.
- Don't be tempted to use lots of transitions – they can be too distracting and may be perceived as unprofessional.
- Be aware of font size and style (never use Comics Sans for example) as well as text and background colour. Some people with visual impairments may have difficulty perceiving certain colours on some coloured backgrounds.
- Don't confuse planning your presentation with writing the PowerPoint. You should always plan your content first and only then consider producing your slideshow to support your presentation.
Planning the delivery of your presentation
- Timing – respect your audience and keep to the timescale you've been given. If your presentation is being assessed, then your ability to manage time will be under scrutiny. Your audience is there for a purpose and not filling the allocated time will mean you are wasting their time. If you run over, you're likely to impact their schedule and you may inconvenience them and others.
- Engage your audience early – start with something that will make an impact. This will set the tone of your presentation and give your audience an idea of what to expect. For example, this could be a question, a meaningful quote, a key statistic or an impactful image.
Use your voice effectively
- Volume – make sure you can be heard by your entire audience. If you normally speak quietly, practice projecting your voice and ask for help if you need to. Emphasise words that have significance.
- Pitch – ask a question and see how your pitch changes, then compare that to when you make a statement. Use this knowledge. Not varying your pitch can be monotonous – you don't want to send your audience to sleep.
- Pace and rhythm – be aware of speaking too quickly (hard for your audience to process information) or too slowly (stilted). It's okay to pause for emphasis or to allow your audience to process some significant information. Vary the rhythm of your voice to maintain interest.
- Non-verbal body language – don't be a statue, or a wild wanderer, or a penguin (with your arms glued to your sides making little hand movements). Don't face the screen and read your slides and don't read your notes with your head down, ignoring your audience!.
It's okay to move and this can emphasise a point when done correctly. It's okay to use your hands and arms in moderation. You should make eye contact with your audience – and not just the person on the front row who is smiling encouragingly, but the whole audience.
Smile and encourage them. Take your audience with you on this journey. Make them believe in you.
You'll want to look professional for an interview presentation, so dress in a smart outfit that you're comfortable in. If you want to get a new outfit for the day, wear it in first so you don't feel uncomfortable, as this can distract you from the most important part of the day – your presentation.
They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.
Most people who deliver presentations experience nerves of some sort. Being nervous can concentrate the mind and spur you on to deliver your best presentation. The trick is to not let your nerves impact negatively on your performance and make sure your nerves work for you.
The key to bringing all of the above together on the big day is to practice as much as you can. You'll build your confidence as you get more familiar with the content and there will be less room for error.
- Check the timings – if it's too long then cut content. If it's too short, why? Are you speaking too fast? Is your content too sparse?
- Test it out on someone you trust to be honest with you. Does it make sense? Does it flow? Is it engaging? Are you engaging?
- Does your PowerPoint presentation work? Check the transitions.
- If you make changes to your presentation, do you need to adjust your notes?
- As you gain familiarity with your presentation, can you reduce your notes?
You can get into a negative cycle where nerves lead to self-doubt, especially if you previously experienced a presentation that went wrong. Your mind fills in the gaps and responds as if you were back in that situation again. Your heart rate increases and you start breathing more rapidly. You can interrupt this negative cycle by:
- Focusing on the excellent presentations you've delivered during your practice – there's no reason why you're not going to deliver this time. You can do it.
- Consciously focusing on reducing your breathing rate – take long deep breaths through your nose, aiming to fill your lower chest and not just the upper part of your chest, and then breathe out slowly through your mouth. This interrupts the physiological response to your nerves.
- Practice this breathing routine regularly before your presentation so that you can control your breathing when you need to.
Own your space and practise 'Power Poses'. See Amy Cuddy’s YouTube TED Talk – Fake it ‘til you make it.
On the day
- If using PowerPoint, make sure you have your presentation with you or that you've emailed it to the organisation beforehand, if that's what they've asked you to do
- Arrive at your venue with enough time to get organised before your presentation is due to start
- Once at your venue, check the presentation environment and that your presentation is working correctly using the technology they've provided or that you've brought with you
- Re-familiarise yourself with your 'script'
- Check that you have the resources that you'll need
- Calm yourself – see above
- Dress to impress
Finally, good luck. If you do all of the above, you'll be more likely to be successful on the day. Believe in yourself and go for it.