Emotional presentations

Today, I’ve been delivering a course on presentation skills. I’ve written before about why this is such a valuable skill to have. The complete range of skills that become important in a presentation are not simply limited to standing and delivering a presentation. Self-awareness, use of gestures, non-verbal communication, assertiveness, time management, influencing skills, perceptions of power – all of these things and more become so apparent and transparent. It’s no wonder they can cause great anxiety.

Some presentations though, are just so powerful, even the presenter underestimates what they’re about to embark on. These are often personal in nature, and have a deep meaning that the presenter hasn’t resolved how they feel about themselves. What ends up happening is the presenter, when delivering the presentation, finds themself caught up in unexpected emotion. This is no bad thing as it shows the audience the presenter clearly cares about the topic. What it can do though, is unhinge the presenter to an extent they can’t carry on.

I’ve seen examples of this at wedding speeches, eulogies at funerals, and when recounting personal experiences to illustrate a point in presentations. You can’t help being touched when this happens. As I’ve just said, it doesn’t detract from the presentation. It does create some uncertainty in the audience though about how to react. Do we applaud to encourage you to carry on? Do we stay silent to allow you to compose yourself? Does someone come up to you and get you a glass of water? There is no clear etiquette about this. And nor do I think should there be.

I would like to share what you can do to help yourself for these types of presentation. Unsurprisingly, practise is at the forefront of what needs to happen. The reason people get caught off guard by their own reaction to the topic, is because they’ve not actually stood up and said it out loud. Actually hearing yourself speak, and being mindful of your feelings is a powerful thing. When people say, oh I’ve written it down, I don’t need to practise it out loud, they only do themselves a disservice. And they potentially so themselves a knock in social confidence. Practising helps you to become self-aware of what you are experiencing, and how this impacts your presentation.

A clear structure is of vital importance in an emotional presentation. You stay within the parameters of what you have written and this helps to maintain your focus. Often, when people are overcome with emotion it is because they decide to ad lib, and they haven’t prepared for this. Ad libbing is all good, and creates a true sense of genuine feeling from the presenter, but this has to be tempered. Your emotions can overtake your rational self at such speed and unexpectedness that you are thrown off track. The structure of your presentation allows you to go off course if necessary, and if you find yourself being overcome, you come straight back to where you needed to be.

The hardest thing about being overcome with emotion is allowing it to happen. That almost sounds counter-intuitive. Why would you allow yourself to become emotional? Because, emotions have a funny habit of staying around until you have dealt with them. You may think, oh I just need a glass of water and I just need to man up. And once you carry on, you get swung by a left hook from your own emotions again. Because you dismissed them. Fool on you for not listening to yourself. Being mindful of what you’re feeling and allowing it to happen is a powerful feeling of awareness. Laughing at a joke because it is funny helps the audience warm to you. Equally, displaying sad emotion because you feel it, shows your connection to the material.

I think something which is not considered when delivering an emotional presentation is the way you deliver it. Are you allowed to show it is a rehearsed speech? Is the presentation meant to be so carefully delivered? Are you meant to reveal personal feelings? Yes, yes, yes. People can get hung up on, oh but it was so controlled, and they didn’t reveal their genuine self. Have you ever delivered an emotional presentation? Do you know it is a success in itself to be able to stand there and deliver it while containing yourself?

And here’s something which doesn’t happen often enough. You need to de-brief with someone after. A full and proper de-brief of how you experienced the presentation. Not the content of it, but your own management of what you are thinking and feeling. You’ve just stood and delivered something which deeply resonated with you. Our psyche demands we resolve this in some way. Coffee with a friend, crying on a shoulder, laughing at the world, whatever it may be, it needs to happen. You learn from this, and you grow from the experience.

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Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

5 thoughts on “Emotional presentations”

  1. What a fantastic topic, as a fellow trainer, facilitator, person who talks to groups I can totally resonate with this.
    I feel so much more like me when I’m delivering from the heart (as well as covering the content) and as you say this can sometimes provoke emotion.
    I’ve learned to notice this and depending on the nature of the topic or purpose made a conscious decision to share or contain.

  2. Love the de-brief idea.
    I honestly dont believe there is enough emotion in bthe corporate world. It is continually suppressed in favour of the logical and rational. Its the main reason I took up poetry again, I was so fed up with the tyranny of the contained.
    Another relevant point (I think) – get the personal stories up front. The story element of a presentation should be first, to bring down the barriers and create connection. We always seem to do facts first, examples second. Flip it, and it works.

  3. I was half way towards paying attention to something on telly last night when on the screen a headmaster stood in front of his school and got a bit emotional, few tears, lots of pride. The school exploded with applause. We should not be unteaching this spontaneous show of appreciation for people willing to put their heart on their sleeve.

    In a microcosmic version of this I did a Pecha Kucha at the first ConnectingHR unconference about my youth and my mum dying when I was 19, and the impact that had on me and how I eventually moved on. Yes I’d practiced – there were song snippets involved so I’d learned those. And nothing could have prepared me for delivering that Pecha Kucha live. And now I look back on it I’m nothing but proud that I found the nerves to give it a go, flat notes, lumps in throats, warts and all.

    Telling stories rocks!

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