Preparation, presentation, and communication

Good presentation skills have nothing to do with slide shows or getting up in front of a room full of people. They are the same skills you use almost every day, when you communicate with others.

This past Thursday, I had the pleasure of watching Marie Vea-Fagnant from UVM Career Services give a presentation to this year’s McNair Scholars as part of our three day workshop. The presentation itself was geared towards the future graduate and doctoral work the scholars would be pursuing.

For me, the highlight of Marie’s talk came in the form of an anecdote she used to describe how she acquired some of her public speaking and presentation skills. She described taking a canvassing job one summer. This means going door to door and interviewing strangers, explaining the organizations positions and the issues they were currently addressing. Quite an intimidating thing to do, and by no means an easy task.

The challenges inherent in this type of work requires one to be able to briefly present and discuss complex issues to complete strangers who have varying levels of familiarity with the subject matter. It was these challenges that forced her to hone the skills that are so essential to effective presentation.

One of those skills was the art of preparation. She had to know what and how she was going to present the material before going out each day. It is this kind of preparation that I find so key in building confidence for public speaking, not to mention putting together a presentation itself. Knowing what you are going to say and how you are going to say it is more than half the battle.

Marie could have been selling vacuum cleaners, suggesting a particular course of action during a staff meeting, or composing an email to a relative encouraging them to come to a family reunion. She could also have been delivering a keynote address to a few hundred people. Presentation is a form of sales, which as any marketer can tell you is all about communication. Someone who is trying to sell a product is trying to effectively communicate the value of the product to the customer. In the same way, you may be communicating the value of whichever position you are taking to whoever you are interacting with. The medium doesn’t matter – you might be presenting your points via a blog, over the phone, or in person. What matters is the preparation that you put into your pitch, and that you practice delivering it. Again, it’s knowing what you are going to say, and how you’re going to say it.

Another big part of effective preparation is practice. Whether you are going door to door having the same conversation, or showing the same Powerpoint slides to different groups of people, practice helps you refine your argument. Knowing what to say is one thing. Having said it before is another. Practice helps you determine how you say it.

A great way to practice pitching an argument is to write. The reason writing is such a crucial educational tool is that it helps us shape and form our ideas. You may be able to comfortably understand an idea in your head, but getting it out of your head so that someone else can understand it is harder than it sounds. Writing the idea out forces you to think about how you are communicating that idea. The more you practice writing about the idea, the clearer it becomes.

An easy way to practice writing is to use a blog. There you have the added benefit of allowing others to easily comment on and critique your writing and your idea, helping you improve it. So start writing. Start presenting your side of the story.