A Time To Present

By Gemma Watts, Programme Manager.

We all know about and have seen loads of presentations, but have we all presented?

I have avoided presenting as much as I can through my career, as it is just one area that I am really not comfortable with. However, in my previous life before academia, one of my roles was to sit in on trainee solicitors dummy run presentations and provide constructive feedback, which I loved doing.

I think it is this detailed analysis of presenters, content, pitch delivery and the knowledge of potential pitfalls that has given rise to my fear of presenting. I can hear myself saying to the trainees that they would be fine and to learn the content, whilst knowing full well that I would run a million miles before I stood in their shoes.

So when I was asked to present on a topic that I knew well, to an audience that would be great to network with, and in place that I would like to visit, Geneva. I would have been a fool to say “No, thank you for asking but unfortunately I am too busy on that day”.

So with a heavy heart and with the fear already rising, I said “I would be delighted to do that and thank you for asking me”.

The next part sat well with me, because it played to my organisational strengths, so dates were agreed, title, what the presentation would cover, number in audience (from 40 – 60 gulp), who would organise the hotel and flights – yes they were going to pay for me to go. That meant I really did have to deliver a good presentation and that there was no backing out.

So now I had two weeks to contemplate the fateful day. Yes, that is how I saw it. It was with trepidation and slight dread rather than excitement and seeing it as a great opportunity.

So I sat down to write the presentation. For me, whether it is reports, talking through points in meetings, or as it would appear, writing presentations, I draft out everything first. I went back to the agenda points we agreed I would cover and I started to write content around them. What did I want to say to the audience, what were the salient points, how did I come to these conclusions, what visuals would I use to explain these.

The drafting I found easy. I knew this content. By drafting the presentation, I came to realise that I knew more than I thought and that I could do a really good presentation. This gave me the much-needed confidence.

Once I had drafted the slides, I choose the platform I would use. I am new to Prezi but I love it (prezi.com). This was only my third time of using it, but it only took me about 2 hours to build an impressive looking presentation. I was delighted with the final result. I felt that if the presentation looked good, it would keep the audience’s attention looking at the screen and not looking at me. Which for some reason is one of my big dreads about presenting. That all eyes would be on me.

So with my confidence increasing and the impeding day looming ever closer, I wrote my talk. I wrote it word for word on what I would say, from the first to the last word. This also gave me confidence as it only took me an hour, with a glass of wine. So this reinforced the concept that I knew this subject well and I could do this.

My first guinea pig that I practised on is a good colleague, so I thought the nerves would be fine. Well, all I can say to my colleague is, I am so sorry. Everything went wrong, from the equipment in the room shutting down half way through the presentation, so all eyes back on me! To losing my place numerous times, as I tried to follow my printed out talk. I fumbled and kept repeating myself. It was a disaster, but it flagged up key things for me.

And these were:

  • Learn what you want to say and do not take a printed out version of the talk
  • Check that there is a technician there on the day, who can have the responsibility of the equipment and therefore not me
  • Practise, practise, practise

I had a week to turn this around. I stood in my lounge with no notes and delivered my presentation to my empty sofas and dining room chairs. Yes, perhaps I should not be so honest, but that is what I did. I needed to get used to standing up, looking at where the audience would be, to hearing my own voice and to saying the talk out loud.

The next day I presented to another colleague, well it was a completely different story. The equipment worked which was a good start, but I was so comfortable with the talk, it was more natural and the feedback was good.

The day of the presentation was very close now and as I started to talk to more people about it, I started to get excited. I had my presentation and talk done. I knew where I was going. People kept saying what a great opportunity it was and that I must be delighted.

The only bit that still niggled me was the question and answer session at the end of my presentation. This is where I would move into the realm of the unknown. What would I do if I did not understand what they were asking? What if I could not answer the question? What if I gave the wrong answer and people laughed.

I go to a lot of presentations and training sessions in my job. And probably because of my past life, I note how well presenters and trainers deliver their pitch, talk or training, but I also note how well they deal with the questions section.

Recently one trainer, who was very good, opened some of the questions up to the audience to give them the opportunity to answer. I liked this because what it said to me is, if I cannot answer the question, I can offer it out to the audience to answer.

This took the pressure off me, as it made me realise that I didn’t need to know everything and that it can be very positive in engaging the audience in valued discussions.

So I am standing there on the big day, waiting to be introduced. I am charged up and ready to go. I am glad the day is finally here and I am smiling. I have put a lot of work into this and I am actually looking forward to the opportunity.

I have my bottle of water, my hand held microphone, 50 people in the audience and I am at CERN looking at a London Bus that is housed in the venue. It is all a little surreal but this adds to the experience and to the memory.

I am taking slow deep breaths and I can feel the floor beneath my feet, here I go “Good morning, thank you for inviting me here today to CERN and for making me feel so at home with the London bus”… well you can’t keep to the script always.

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