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.

>’Ers’ when presenting are NOT evil

>I’m designing some presentation training that’s actually pretty advanced stuff. I’m looking at things like how to understand the psychology of your audience quickly, spending time to rehearse in front of a highly critical group, how you develop your ideas, what presentation aid you should be using. This is exciting stuff and I’m looking forward to rolling this out.

But, in the midst of this, and in the reading around the subject I have to dispel some myths. What irks me – massively – is the way presentation ‘gurus’ / trainers / experts claim you can deliver a perfect presentation without any hiccups.
Let’s take a step back and re-frame what we’re trying to achieve. Someone is trying to develop their presentation skills because there is a need to deliver messages to a group. There will be varying levels to which the message needs to be delivered, but in essence what we’re trying to achieve is getting the person to be able to deliver that message in a way which means that the audience are receptive to it.
Well I tell you what – I can bet my bottom dollar that’s not where a lot of presentation trainers are starting from. They’re typically starting from – you’re broken, let me fix you. The absolute incredulity of it all. The trainer will often have had no experience of their delegate before, but they can fix them so quickly?
I laugh in the face of this audacity. Presentation training is about getting the presenter to understand their own state of mind, how to accept their foibles, and then how to not let those be an issue. I’ve seen presenters who are very nervous. So much so that they physically shake when presenting. With careful development over a course, and coaching, I’ve been able to help them accept that being nervous is fine, and shaking is fine, they just need to be in a different state of mind and not focus on those nerves.
It’s not easy, and that’s why I’m such a harsh critic when I watch programmes like Apprentice or Dragons’ Den where these people are meant to be at the peak of presenting excellence. But equally I do not allow myself to fall into the same traps. I’m incredibly critical of my own presentation abilities. I actively seek feedback which picks up what I need to do to improve. I do this because I have to be able to understand a full range of emotions and anxieties that come with presenting.
So, don’t fall over yourself, or be critical of others if they say ‘er’ or any host of other behaviours that you may think are negative. First, observe. Not just the presentation but the whole person. Then question to understand what they’re trying to achieve and how they think they’re going about it. Then demonstrate what the behaviour looks like. Get them to practise again bearing in mind the feedback. Be critical and supportive. Ultimately you want to find their motivation for doing well. Once you’ve identified that, you need to build on it.
This really isn’t easy. The psychology and training into helping develop presentation skills is of vital importance. You can’t be fixed of your foibles, nor should you be sold this. You can learn how to deliver a message authentically, and this is what you should be sold.