Earlier this week, I gave my first ever formal presentation at the SLA Europe, BIALL and CLSIG joint Graduate Open Day.
Now, you may know that I am a rather shy person. At school I never used to answer questions in class, and if I was asked to speak I would shake like a leaf. Any opportunity for public speaking I used to actively avoid like the plague. I even remember badgering my brother to ask the ice-cream man for my ice-cream as I was too shy to ask him myself. Now, it is safe to say that I am not naturally a good public speaker.
During my undergraduate degree of Philosophy and Literature, we were never asked to give formal presentations, but only to lead seminars with our initial thoughts on a literary work or thinker; which I thought was wonderful at the time as I hated public speaking. I didn’t mind this so much as to me it wasn’t a formal presentation, and so I can be fairly talkative in group meetings at work and so on. Again during my Masters in Library and Information Studies at UCL, I only ever had to give one formal presentation where I was in a group of 5 and had to speak for precisely 2 minutes. For the whole of 2 minutes I just read from a page of notes, and made sure I looked up at the audience once in a while. So my experience in presenting and public speaking was virtually non-existent. So last year, when I was asked to co-present at the BIALL conference at 2013 I thought it was too good an oppotunity to miss, and it would be great to get some experience by presenting with someone else, who could always take over if I decided to die of humiliation, collapse on the floor and crawl out of the room. I also thought that as it was so far in the future, I didn’t need to worry about it. It’s surprising how quickly time flies.
So about a month or two ago, I was asked to speak at a Graduate Open Day which I thought would be the perfect warm up practice to public speaking. I would only need to speak for 30 minutes (including time for questions) and the audience was the most unscary, nice audience you could possibly ask for.
In preparing for this presentation, the first thing that I did was ask for help from a professional. Now luckily for me, working in a corporate law firm, we have a fantastic number of resource available including a great HR department with an excellent trainer. So I attended a training session on presentation skills; this covered what makes a good speaker, how to design a good presentation, how to present the information so that the audience takes it in, what kind of language you can use to make information come alive and so on. I have put below the most important points I took away from the session:
- Think about your ending – what do you want your audience to do on leaving? Do you want them to be enthused, to take further action, etc? Keep this purpose in mind in when creating your presentation, and ensure your ending will leave them witha high energy and feeling enthused, if that is what you are aiming for.
- At the beginning, do something to grab their attention. Use a surprising picture, a quotation, etc.
- The rule of 3 – always have an odd number of bullet points on your slides, as your audience will take them in easier. Also, try and keep the information on your slides as simple as possible, with as small a number of bullet points as possible – ideally only 3 per slide.
- Bring information to life by telling a story – this will make the information more memorable, and can also give the audience a taste of your personality. If you can, use sensory language to really make the story come to life.
So with all of these tips in mind, I first wrote a list of things I wanted to cover in the presentation, created a hairline structure, and then with the structure in mind I wrote out a full script of what I wanted to say in an ideal world where I had a photographic memory. Using the script, I then filled out my slides with the important points, making sure there was always 3 or 5 points in each slide so the audience could take it in more effectively. I am not saying this is the right way to create a presentation but this was how I did it.
So, I had a presentation, but what do I do next?
Despite every inch of me screaming no, I contacted the trainer at work and asked if I could run through my presentation in front of him. I ended up running through it on 3 separate occassions, roughly once a week in the 3 weeks leading up to the Graduate Open Day.
During the first session, the trainer videoed me presenting the first 5 minutes. It became apparent that my hands didn’t know what to do (my arms were down straight by my sides, like the trained irish dancer in me, but my hands were twitching and flapping like they wanted to move as I talked!), and that I liked to sway as I spoke, which can be extremely distracting for an audience. So I repeated the first 5 minutes, this time starting with my hands looseley held in front of me in front of my chest, and standing on a piece of paper so I could hear if it rustled (if I swayed). I repeated the first 5 minutes over and over, and by the end had become much more relaxed. But there was still a long way to go. At the end of this first session, I decided I could attempt to go through the 30 minute presentation. But about 7 minutes in I stopped and basically gave up. I had lost my train of thought, had got on to the wrong slide and had basically panicked and felt that I really couldn’t continue.
So with this rather traumatic experience in mind, I practise it every night for the next week without fail in front of the mirror. Working on my hands and mentally slapping myself on the wrist if I swayed. I also used a timer on my phone, consistently taking 34 minutes say all I had to say, and I had my laptop to show me the slides as a prompt, trying not to use notes. However, the trainer had advised me to add notes to my slides and print these out (1 slide and accompanying notes per A4) as he felt I may need them as a security blanket.
The second session with the trainer, I managed to get through the whole presentation. Although there was a marked improvement in that I was now talking with my hands, and not swaying (yay!), it only took me 23 minutes. 23 minutes! Where had a whole 11 minutes disappeared to? Obviously I was speaking really fast, and I had noticed that at various points throughout I was running out of breath, which made my voice sound shaky. I also had a few moments where I got stuck trying to turn my notes over, which distracted my train of thought.
So my trainer gave me some very constructive advice regarding my slideshow; making my life easier for myself by just putting a screenshot of Twitter instead of using a link to the external website (during the run through I had panicked and lost the slideshow when I had the internet browser open), and advising me to introduce some statistics to emphasise some of my points. He also said to add sticky tabs to the notes to make them easier to turn over, and to just practice speaking extra slowly at home.
Again, I went home and practised, and practised, and practised. I still tried to do a full run through in the mirror once a night.
In the third and final session with my trainer, I ran through the presentation with no mishaps in 24 minutes. I was still speaking fairly fast but not noticeably so, and I was obiovusly missing out a few unimportant bits that I usually included in my run throughs at home. But I was fairly happy. As I knew the presentation inside out I could do it without notes, with the slides as my only prompt. Getting to this point was something I never could have imagined for myself, knowing my natural shyness and hatred of public speaking. This was a HUGE achievement for me.
So, we now come to the morning of the Graduate Open Day. I looked at my notes once in the morning, and then didn’t look at them again before the presentation. My thinking was that whatever I didn’t know now I was not going to take in, and I was confident that I knew my stuff. I think I may have heard some general advice before that it is actually a good idea to give yourself a break mentally before you go up to present, but I couldn’t say where I heard this.
I gradually got nervous throughout the morning, and when I reached the venue I felt a little excited. I tried to distract myself by talking to the other speakers, and by enjoying the 2 presentations that went before mine. Finally, it was my turn to get called up.
Post match analysis
Now, something that myself nor my trainer could have prepared for, was the fact that my legs instantly turned to jelly as I walked up to the stage. By the I was at the front, my legs were shaking so violently thyat I was sure the whole room could see it. My worrying about what the audience was thinking of my jelly legs, actually distracted me a little from my presentation, but I don’t think noticeably so. So what I did (and I knew my trainer would have screamed at me for doing this), I half leant, half sat on the very conveniently placed table behind me. As soon as I took the weight off my legs I instantly relaxed, stopped worrying about what the audience were thinking, and got in to the flow of my presentation, using the big screen with my slides as a prompt (no notes!). The jelly leg syndrome was probably made worse 10 times worse by the fact I was wearing heels, and so I now know to wear flats when presenting! I think I also felt more comfortable, as by half sitting down I was more on their level and I instantly felt more informal. This isn’t to say I wasn’t still nervous during the rest of my presentation, of course I was! But it allowed me to relax and give the presentation as effectively as possible. I also didn’t have the problem of running out of breath or my voice going shaky at any point during, which I was thrilled by.
I was initially thrown by using a clicker for the presentation (I had only ever used a laptop when practicing), but after the first few slides it became quite natural.
I was desperate to get some feedback to my presentation, as I had no idea if I looked nervous, if anyone noticed the jelly legs, and most importantly whether the presentation was actually helpful to the graduates attending. There was a nicely timed networking session immediately after my presentation, and I had a number of people come up to chat and ask questions about going in to law after library school, which I take as a good sign. People also seemed genuinely surprised when I said I was nervous, so either they are extremely good actors, or I am a better actress than I thought I was! I was lucky to have a friend attend my presentation who assurewd me that I look totally relaxed, and I would like to think he wouldn’t lie to me just for the sake of being polite. So this was a huge achievement for me – to fool a whole room of people that I wasn’t terrified of public speaking. I also had a really nice email from a vendor who attended my presentation who said, and I quote, that my presentation was “inspirational” - I don’t think I could ask for more than that!
Here are some blog posts of the day by attendees:
- Kat Steiner, Bodleian Law library graduate trainee
- Francesca Marsden, Bodleian Law Library graduate trainee
- Claudia Yogeswaran, Library Trainee at West Herts College (WHC) Learning Resource Centre (LRC)
- Edward Boyle Library Graduate Trainee, University of Leeds
- Blogger Queer in Biblioteca
Now by no means am I a great or comfortable public speaker – I only did as well as I did because I practised the presentation solidly for 3 weeks, which gave me the confidence to actually go up and give it. I also had a professional trainer who was extremely encouraging, and truly excellent in the tips and advice he gave me. I think I will always get nervous before speaking, and I will definitely have to work on my jelly legs before the BIALL conference, where I will have to be standing and presenting for a whole hour! But this presentation has certainly given me a massive boost to my confidence, and I honestly never believed I could have done it.
My personal advice to fellow nervous public speakers
- Practice makes perfect. Honestly! Know your presentation inside out, and this will give you confidence. Don’t learn a script, as you will then get nervous about missing a line out, but just know the key points you want to convey
- If you feel you may be susceptiblke to jelly leg syndrome like myself, wear flats not heels! Make sure you are comfortable.
- I read on Ned’s article (mentioned below) about finding a few happy, attentive faces in the crowd, and coming back to them if you need reassurance. At one point in my presentation I saw someone yawning who looked like they were falling asleep, and I instantly looked elsewhere to someone who I had noticed was smiling and nodding along throughout the whole thing. So this is definitely a tip I would recommend!
- Read Ned Potter’s 10 non-standard tips for public speaking – and there are some excellent comments at the bottom where other people have contributed their own tips on public speaking – and I have found them very, very helpful!