Presentation Skills Training: REDEFINED.
Academic public speaking vs. business presentations
Josh Bersin wrote an interesting article on LinkedIn about the mismatch between academic education and job skills. What jumped out at me was research showing that while 72% of educational institutions believe newly educated workers are ready for work, only 42% of employers think the same.
That’s a pretty big disconnect, but it’s one that I’m used to seeing in my corner of corporate learning and development. Participants in our presentation skills workshops always have to unlearn what they have been taught in school about presenting. In fact, as I have written about in a white paper called Getting Past 101, most training delivered to business presenters misses the mark because it is built on what is essentially an academic methodology.
I think it’s time to revisit this issue. You and your business deserve something better.
In this article, I will talk about the fundamental differences between an academic (think Public Speaking 101) methodology and the skill building approach my colleagues and I have developed over the past 20-some years.
The question I’ll try to answer is this:
How do I know I’m getting presentation skills training that will provide my employees with the skills they need to succeed on the job?
Here are my four must-haves.
1. Speech vs. Presentation
What is your presentation trainer training people to do?
We must draw a distinction between an academic approach to public speaking and the skill-building approach business presenters need. My goal is not to take issue with the teaching that takes place in university classrooms. Rather, I’m arguing against the application of that methodology—or parts of it—in the corporate training room.
If the training your employees receive applies the Public Speaking 101 approach, they are being taught to deliver a speech. A speechmaking approach is built on assumptions and goals that are unique to that particular type of communication. A presidential address, a TED talk, or a motivational talk are all speeches. They are carefully planned and executed performances. That’s not what business people do day-to-day.
Business Presentations are Conversations, not Speeches
Business presentations are a fundamentally different process, not simply because they may involve smaller audiences or focus on everyday topics. The difference between a speech and a presentation is in the nature of the connection between speaker and audience. At its core, a business presentation is a conversation, a process in which presenter and audience are engaged in a give and take. No matter what the goal may be—gaining buy-in, selling something, sharing information, teaching a new process—presenters and their audiences work together. If presenters approach a presentation as a performance, the conversation can’t take place.
This distinction affects the way presentations are prepared, how visuals are used to support them, what effective delivery looks and feels like, and how interactions are encouraged and controlled. If your presentation skills training ignores these differences, you’re getting the wrong set of tools.
The skills it takes to engage others in a conversation must be built from the inside out
In a traditional 101 class, eye contact, gesturing, intonation, and pausing are called “delivery skills,” and the focus is on how these skills look and sound to an audience. A successful speech involves, for example, establishing eye contact with your audience to appear trustworthy, pausing to emphasize your points, gesturing for impact, and bringing enthusiasm to your voice.
What’s missing with that approach is consideration of what these skills do for the presenter. Let’s look at eye contact and pausing. During our workshops, we talk about these skills as engagement skills rather than delivery skills. When they are used well, they help presenters relax, focus, and bring their listeners into the conversation.
The use of engagement skills, in other words, is about much more than simply how they make a presenter look and sound. Engagement skills help presenters initiate the conversation. Through their application presenters are able to focus on the here and now. If a presenter is thinking about how these skills appear to others, it takes them out of the moment and turns their focus inward. This weakens the connection to listeners and turns the conversation into a performance.
Once presenters are engaged, other delivery skills usually take care of themselves. Gestures occur naturally, and vocal enthusiasm is appropriate and genuine. So rather than thinking of these skills as the polish you apply to performance, think of them as the natural result of being engaged in the conversation.
3. Real-life Content
Training must take place in the context of the presenters’ jobs
Improving communication skills is all about nuance and flexibility. Neither can be fully appreciated unless class attendees are working with content that’s real to them.
When I was teaching Public Speaking 101 to college students, I was frustrated by the fact that my job was to teach students about public speaking, not developing their skills in public speaking. Granted speeches were delivered in class, but they were almost always merely another academic exercise for the students. For the most part, they didn’t care all that much about the topic they spoke about. They were interested in getting a decent grade.
You certainly can’t blame the students for that, but each grade had to be determined by behaviors that were objectively and fairly measured. This leads to standardization, prescriptive delivery, and speeches that very rarely had a demonstrable effect on audience or speaker alike.
Business presentations are meant to get business done
When you deliver a presentation, you’re doing something that is very much a part of your job. Your audience is equally invested in the presentation and its outcomes because it’s their job to be that way. What needs to happen during a presentation skills workshop, then, must recreate that environment as fully as possible. That begins, of course, with the topic of the presentation each person is working on.
When training opens up to an examination of real-life topics and audiences, the learning can focus on subtleties like these.
- When you prepare your presentations, are you able to focus on the audience’s need to understand what you’re presenting or are you simply focused on the information itself? Focusing on audience understanding is not intuitive for most presenters because it requires a hard look at familiar content from another’s perspective. That’s a necessary, but not always easy, process.
- When you prepare your presentations, do you tend to over-prepare because you’re after absolute accuracy or do you tend to under-prepare because you understand the content so well? Understanding and adapting to what comes naturally to you is crucial for improvement.
- During delivery, how does your familiarity with your content affect your ability to explain it to someone else? Do you go too quickly, making too many assumptions? Do you go into more detail than anyone needs? Are you able to adjust to the level of knowledge or interest of audience members?
These questions can only be answered through practice and feedback using real-life content during the training process.
4. Individuality must be taken into account
Find Your Focus. Be Yourself. Only Better.
Everyone wants to feel comfortable delivering presentations. They want to be themselves, trust their instincts, and feel confident in their ability to succeed. Reaching this level of comfort, though, is different for everyone because everyone is uncomfortable for their own reasons.
The knot of nervousness
Nervousness causes a lot of discomfort for presenters. As common as it is, nervousness is also a complicated response, unique to everyone who experiences it. Some presenters are nervous about what they’re saying, not quite sure if they will be able to stay focused on the plan. Others are nervous when they’re the center of attention. Still others are nervous about the audience or a particular person in the audience.
Once they understand the cause of nervousness, people can be coached to focus on the behaviors that will help them manage it. Without this insight, coaching is impersonal and generic.
The knot of doubt
Another cause of presenter discomfort is second-guessing. They worry that they aren’t making sense or that some point or other didn’t come out the way they’d hoped. Coaching these presenters begins by figuring out if what the presenter is feeling is accurate. Are they really stumbling? Sometimes they are. But most of the time they aren’t. When that’s the case, the presenter just needs to understand that it’s in their nature to monitor themselves a little too strictly. And that means they can trust themselves more than they think. When they do, their confidence and comfort increase.
Presenters don’t need to change who they are to succeed, but they do need to know themselves and how they respond to the challenges of presenting. On this level, there are no right and wrong responses. There is simply your response. Communication training should help people understand what that response is and what they can do to manage it.To take a deeper dive into this topic, download our white paper, Getting Past 101.
Written by Dale Ludwig
Dale Ludwig has a Ph.D. in Communication and, prior to Turpin, taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He founded Turpin Communication in 1992 with the mission to provide the best presentation and facilitation skills training possible. Since then he has worked to do just that. In addition to being one of Turpin’s lead instructors, he also serves as our Chief Learning Architect when tailoring learning engagements for our clients. Dale is a frequent blogger and the co-author of the book "The Orderly Conversation: Business Presentations Redefined." He’s excited about his latest book, also co-authored with Greg Owen-Boger, "Effective SMEs: A Trainer’s Guide to Helping Subject Matter Experts Facilitate Learning."