BY Russell Wardrop

DATE: 06 NOV 2015

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Over the past wee while I have delivered lots of sessions on pitching and presenting, which has been hugely enjoyable (at least for me). From one-to-one with senior people, through small group facilitation and feedback sessions, individuals in many sectors have had my version of tough love that's aimed at making better presenters.

The final gig on pitching was last night to 300 Enterprise students at the University of Strathclyde, who will shortly be pitching their ideas for real to some well kent entrepreneurs. It was only an hour, in a big room, a short walk from the Department of Architecture and Building Science, where I spent six happy years in the 1980s, a fact that provided my opening story. It was a blast, with an impromptu half hour after fielding questions from a group hungry to find out how to be better when one in front of many.

An hour is no time at all, so rather than give them what I thought they wanted, I asked them what they really wanted to know about pitching.

Here's what they asked… and how I answered:

What if you blank?

It happens, even to the best. Sometimes the Gods are not with you. Learn from it, forgive yourself, move on. Think positive thoughts and get yourself in the zone before you go on. Really though, proper preparation can prevent blanking, so have a plan and know where you are going. And practise, especially the first few minutes. Too many still speak without effective preparation, thinking the slides will do the trick. They won’t.

How do you deal with interruptions?

Few of us need to present in overtly hostile environments too often; if that’s happening you might want to consider a move! Confidence and assertiveness are skills everyone needs 24/7 and never more than when presenting, but one big mistake speakers make is to say at the beginning they will take questions at any time. In other words you invite the interruption. Having a facilitative style is all fine and dandy but if it compromises delivery you need to choose when to invite the interruption and set expectations at the outset. Tell the audience when you are presenting and when you are inviting questions.

How do you persuade if your topic is boring?

There are no boring subjects, only boring speakers. Making the emotional connection is an attribute all effective orators have and there are many ways to do it, the most dangerous and difficult being humour. One key thing to note is that humour is not the only way to connect with an audience. Find a good analogy or case study (but don’t go on about it for too long…), ensure your speech is personalised and not jargon-filled corporate nonsense and have a great, impactful visuals are all tools that persuade.

What if you have a tendency to waffle when you are nervous?

Preparation, preparation, preparation. Many worry about blanking when the bigger danger is going over time by using 100 words for what might be said in ten. Nerves play a part, to be sure, but often the seeds of the waffle-tree are sown in poor preparation: speak to the purpose, check your draft against that purpose, be disciplined with time, know the details might appeal to you more than your audience and stop yourself by having notes that tell you to move on.

And one more thing about waffle, aimed at confident presenters: be focussed and have a structure. If you like presenting and are good with words, focus and structure are your best friends. They keep you from going over time while simultaneously ensuring you deliver everything you intended.

How do you speak to the whole audience when they may all want different things?

This is true of all audiences; this question was asked by one of 300 in a room, with maybe 40 different nationalities. The short answer is to be a good speaker who knows how to connect (see above).

But the other important thing to note here is not to worry that every word you utter is understood by the audience and this is the thought I want to leave you with. In the midst of my recent presentation and feedback gigs I worked on a strategic facilitation, kicking off a large university project. There were 24 people in the room, both genders, ranging in age from 30 to 60, many of them big hitters. At the end of the session one big hitter came up and said how much he enjoyed the day, despite my accent, as he knew from experience how tough knitting together such a disparate group can be. I recognised his accent was not local and asked how much he had understood of the past four hours.

“Oh, about fifty per cent…” he said with a huge smile on his face.

If, in your preparation and delivery, you obsess about the minutae you’ll miss out on the big picture. And the bigger the audience is, the bigger the picture has to be.

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about the author

Russell Wardrop is our Chief Executive. If you would like to know more about this subject, drop him an email and we will be in touch.

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