Presenting is one of those life skills that’ll benefit you no matter where you go, from the classroom to the boardroom. Although it can often be nerve-wracking, presenting is a skill that should be honed to be part of your arsenal – you’ll never know where it will be useful!
It may seem counter-intuitive, but often the true nature of being a good presenter isn’t in what they say, but in how they actively listen. What happens when a presenter isn’t talking?
With insights from seasoned professionals and psychologists, we’re exploring how good listening skills can and will help you become a better presenter.
Listen to Your Body Language
Content is important to any presentation. However, when it comes to being an effective presenter, what’s unsaid is just as important as what is said. In other words, your body language is front and centre of conveying your message well. For example, could your folded arms counter the warm tone you’re aiming to achieve?
Research shows that when it comes to presenting, tone and non-verbal behaviour have the biggest effect on the impact of your message: body language accounts for up to 55% of a message’s impact, while tone of voice accounts for 38%, and the words you say account for a mere 7%. In other words, it’s not just what you say. It’s how you say it.
Part of being a good presenter involves actively ‘listening’ to your body, and being aware of what message your body language is conveying. When you’re up on stage, whether practising for a presentation or in the midst of one, consider how you:
- Keep your body language open. Avoid crossed arms and legs, touching and fidgeting with your hands, or standing still. Planning your hand gestures ahead of time will help you to avoid fidgeting. Practice to ensure you’re using open handed, upward facing palms – rather than pointing fingers, which can come across as aggressive.
- Make eye contact. Avoiding eye contact altogether is a big temptation, and a big mistake. According to Psychology Today, “people who seek eye contact while speaking are regarded not only as exceptionally well-disposed by their targets, but also as more believable and earnest.” Take care to make eye contact with a few individuals in your audience, particularly those who appear in agreement with you. You can also pivot your body to face their direction.
- Assume a tall posture with your shoulders back to exude confidence. Create a presence on your stage. Simple tips, including standing in the centre, assuming a tall posture, pulling your shoulders back, and using the space given to you to move around in, all make an enormous difference. “Remember that status and authority are non-verbally demonstrated through height and space. So stand tall, pull your shoulders back, widen your stance, and hold your head high.”
Whatever the topic of your presentation, you want to build trust, and exude confidence. Dr Carol Kinsey Goman cites several ways of doing just that:
“In situations where you want to maximize your authority—minimize your movements. Take a deep breath, bring your gestures down to waist level, and pause before making a key point. When you appear calm and contained, you look more powerful.”
Social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power poses and using body language to shape yourself remains an iconic video for presenters the world over. At the end of the day, the incredible thing about body language is that it doesn’t simply affect your audience – it can affect and change you too.
Listen to the audience
One of the skills of a good presenter is their ability to read the audience, and to adapt their communication style to the people they are presenting to.
For many of us, nerves can cause us to want to simply barrel through our content and finish the presentation as quickly as possible – but when you stop and actively listen to your audience’s reactions, you can gauge their engagement to your content, and adapt yourself accordingly.
Your content doesn’t have to be rigid; in fact, the best presenters quickly read the room and adjust their humour, key points, body language, and speaking speed to match. For example, you could slow down your pace to emphasise a certain point, or nod in affirmation when you notice audience members showing agreement. You could even widen your stance when you’re laying down authoritative advice and information – notice how your audience agrees with you, or otherwise. In other words: give a little content, hear a lot in the audience’s reactions, and use this information to finish strong.
Listen to get feedback
Active listening goes beyond simply listening to your audience during your presentation. As with anything, it’s important to reflect on your presentation afterwards, and seek feedback.
A popular theory put forward by Malcolm Gladwell suggests you need 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. While 10,000 hours of presenting is perhaps a lofty (and daunting) goal, it’s important to practice, listen to feedback afterwards to improve, and then practice more with this feedback in mind.
Ask a trusted friend or colleague to take notes on your presentation, delivery skills, and the audience’s reactions, noting down any constructive criticism as well as positives. Immediately after the presentation, catch up for a coffee and debrief – this way the presentation is still fresh in your mind and you can apply your learnings next time. You may even choose to record practice runs of your presentation, before the big day, and review your efforts ahead of time. This opportunity to rehearse without any watching eyes will help you identify your habits, both good and bad.
Listen to learn
We all know the importance of active listening in leadership, but this extends past boardroom meetings and HR. In fact, one of the best ways to become a better presenter is to listen and learn your audience’s position on your subject matter before you prepare your content.
Are they ambivalent? Do they have a passionate opinion for or against the subject? Do you already have rapport with them, or will you have to establish this straight away? All of these questions can help you tailor your content to meet your audience’s needs, expectations, and viewpoints.
Whether you’re pitching to a room of investors, or convincing a group of undecided stakeholders, your understanding of their goals and pain points often determines your success.
Over to you…
Whatever your purpose for presenting, whether sales pitch or internal company meeting, the best presenters focus on listening first and speaking second. Unfortunately:
“A lot of people believe that selling requires being a fast talker, or knowing how to use charisma to persuade… In sales there’s a truism that ‘we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionately’.” — Jon Berghoff, ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain
Presenting can be challenging, but, in the end, the old adage is true: practice makes perfect. Practice active listening before, during, and after your presentations, and before you know it, presenting will be a powerful tool in your business arsenal. What are your essential tips for becoming a better listener, to become a better presenter?