Presentation Skills: Introverts and Extroverts

I really liked the TED version of this presentation because of the way that Susan Cain talked about her own struggles as an introvert with public speaking. That’s not in this condensed version, but some of my other favorite parts are, including the research that shows that audiences find extroverts to be more persuasive and believable than more introverted speakers.

I love this kind of science, but the idea that extroverts are more convincing is understandable even on a common-sense level. Extroverts tend to be much more engaging and more enthusiastic, both of which help an audience pay attention and stay focused on what’s being said. Enthusiasm is particularly powerful because it can be quite contagious and help win people over to a presenter’s point of view. If you think about it, the RSA videos are kind of like the “extroverted” versions of the original talks. They’ve been edited and animated to make them more engaging and entertaining.

As a closet introvert myself, I know that I’m a much more effective public speaker because I make a conscious effort to be more extroverted. I try to bring as much energy as I can to every presentation, I tell my best jokes and stories in an attempt to be entertaining, and I talk to people that I don’t know in a way I’d probably never do if we were random guests at a party.

The difference between being an introvert and at least being able to act like an extrovert is often the difference between success and failure in a presentation. Maybe you’re not a natural extrovert, but a lot of people (including Susan Cain and myself) aren’t, and we’re doing passable jobs at public speaking. Can you manage to be an extrovert for 30 minutes? An hour? Try giving it a shot. If you’re still having a hard time, try co-presenting with someone who is more outgoing than you are. I find that I’m even more successful when I’m paired with someone who is an extrovert (or seems like they are one).

That doesn’t mean that I’m telling you to be fake, to put on a personality that isn’t your own. Audiences react badly when they perceive that someone is acting “phony.” What you want to do instead is be the best, most interesting and energetic version of yourself.

RSA Shorts–The Power of Quiet

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Steps in writing presentations: Developing Visual Aids and Practicing

We’ve covered a lot of other steps in writing a presentation already. It’s only after you’ve worked on (or at least given some thought to) each of them that you should consider creating what many people mistakenly think of as their “presentations.”

Developing Visual Aids

After you’ve created a script for yourself you’re finally at the point where you can start developing slides and other materials that will act as the visual aids for your talk. You might have come up with some ideas for visuals during your brainstorming sessions or as you developed your ideas, but this is the point where we suggest you might actually fire up PowerPoint for the first time.

That certainly doesn’t mean that you have to use slides, however. Defaulting to slides that look just like those you see in every other presentation is probably the least effective thing you can do. Consider whether you can do away with slides and rely on other kinds of exhibits, a demo, or props. Can you make your interactions with your audience the focus of your whole presentation?

If you do use slides, think about how you can minimize your reliance on them. Whatever you wind up doing, make sure that your visual aids serve a purpose that supports your objective; don’t include them just because they’re expected.

Practice

Finally it’s time to rehearse your talk. Any presentation that requires you to stand up in front of an audience deserves at least a little bit of practice to make sure that you’re ready for the real thing. But that doesn’t mean that you need to commit a huge amount of time to rehearsing. You can approach it on several different levels of scale, everything from simply running through your main ideas in your head to recording a full dress rehearsal in a room with a live audience.

Not every presentation requires a lot of practice, but you don’t want to find yourself struggling in front of your “real” audience as you try to recall your own presentation. I can almost guarantee that any presentation you’ve found memorable and engaging, no matter how spontaneous it looked, involved a fair amount of rehearsal.

Steps in writing presentations: Editing your ideas

You don’t want to be critical of your ideas while you’re brainstorming for a presentation, but at some point you’re going to have to figure out what belongs, what doesn’t, and where it goes. We call this the editing phase, and it can be painful; few of us like ripping out our ideas. Most people are terrible at editing themselves and resist it as much as they can. The general failure to edit is why we see so many slides full of junk.

But the editing process can also be liberating. Start by grouping your ideas to figure out what goes together and what doesn’t really belong at all. Narrowing down your ideas gives you a stronger focus and a much better argument in the long run. It’s important to remember that sheer volume of material and information isn’t likely to persuade an audience. They’re much more likely to remember a carefully constructed talk that presents a few important details.

We also use the editing stage in order to figure out how much we’re realistically going to be able to cover in the time we’ve been given. Early in our planning stages we often have lists of exercises and visual aids that never make it into the final product, but that’s OK. What you want to have in the end is the best of your ideas that you can accomplish with the time and resources available.

Presenters who can ruthlessly edit themselves often look like geniuses because they are so spot-on. Audiences only see the good stuff.

Steps in writing presentations: Deciding on your main idea and researching your material

Deciding on your main idea

Once you come up with a lot of ideas by brainstorming, themes often start to become clear pretty quickly. Using Post-Its, software, or scissors and tape, you can move them around and group them in order to see what really stands out in order to find your objective. If you find that you have several big ideas, you’ll have to decide if you can discuss them all or if you’re going to need to edit them down in order to provide your audience with a focused talk. At this point you can start trying to solidify your objective. Try to come up with one sentence that describes what you want to accomplish with your presentation. If you can’t do that yet you may still need to work on defining your “big idea.”

Researching your material

Once you’ve targeted a main idea you can take a closer look to see if you have enough material to support it. Maybe all you need is data that you already have filed away somewhere, or maybe you need to go on the internet or –God forbid– to the library, in order to support your ideas. During the research stage you may find a lot of new raw material to throw in with what you generated during your brainstorming sessions and you’ll eventually have to figure out where it all fits, if it fits at all.

Hopefully you find evidence that support your ideas, but you might find yourself changing your mind about your original plan. There’s no shame in this– in fact it’s the sign of a really thoughtful presenter that they are flexible enough to change directions when necessary.

A brainstorming example

Brainstorming is messy, but effective at generating ideas

There are all kinds of different brainstorming processes you might use. This is mine; I love scribbling all over a whiteboard in color-coded pens. In this example you can see the work that some friends and I did to start one of our first seminars on presentation skills, so it’s a bit of a historical document at this point. One of the few things I miss about my old job is that giant whiteboard.

It’s not easy to see the details here because of the poor skills of the photographer (me again) and because of the fact that the whiteboard was basically the same size as the room, which meant getting a good picture wasn’t easy. But you can get a sense of how chaotic a good brainstorming session can be.

Here you can see broad categories (Organizing, Designing, Delivery) followed by main topics. There are other ideas that were subsequently crammed into the margins, arrows that indicate where some subjects might be moved, and suggestions for audience interactions and other activities during the talk.

In the broad sense, it’s a pretty good outline of the presentation we ultimately developed. But there’s a lot in here that we didn’t use, too, especially the stuff like filming video of sample presentations that was more ambitious than what we could accomplish with our resources. Some of what got left out were actually good ideas, they just weren’t practical or didn’t quite fit the rest of the plan.

And that’s the way that brainstorming should work, by allowing you to generate ideas and record them without making you feel committed to them. They you can cut the not-so-good ideas, the topics you don’t have time for, the pieces that don’t help you achieve your goals, in the editing and scripting stages.

Steps in writing presentations: Getting a topic and brainstorming ideas

The initial step in creating a presentation is often the quickest –someone just tells you that you’re going to be giving a presentations. If only the rest were that easy.

You get a topic

Every presentation gets its start somewhere, and this is usually the way they begin. You’re assigned one by your boss. You volunteer to do some training. You rent out a ballroom so you can give a lecture on the history of the Smurfs. Your final result may look very different from the original concept but, however you got your topic, you’re going to have to make it work somehow.

Brainstorming

The idea of brainstorming may take you back to the days of elementary school, but that doesn’t make it childish. It’s a very helpful tool in allowing you to explore many ideas before you settle on any one thing for your presentation. And in keeping with the old-school methodology, we suggest that you use primitive tools for your brainstorming. A whiteboard and dry-erase markers work great if you have them available.

I’ve long been partial to yellow legal notepads (even before I worked in legal) because of the extra room they give you for scribbling thoughts, and lots of people rely on Post-It notes stuck on their walls for writing down and rearranging their ideas. There are also brainstorming and mind-mapping software tools out there, but sometimes a pen and paper are the best weapons.

The important thing is to write down as many ideas as possible so you have lots of possible avenues to explore and material to mine. What are your themes and how might you address them? How will you interact with the audience? What stories might you tell? What can you use as evidence? If you’ve ever done a brainstorming exercise, you already know that the goal here is to generate as many ideas as possible without making critical decisions about them.