Project Management requires a broad range of skills. I joke sometimes that it requires being a “coach, den mother, drill sergeant, teacher, and therapist”—all rolled into one.
In addition to understanding project management methodology and group dynamics, we are often called upon to serve as spokesperson for the team. We find ourselves standing in front of a room full of executives explaining the project or requesting funding. This adds “orator” to the long list of leadership skills we must command.
The ability to speak in front of an audience doesn’t come naturally for many of us. It may surprise some to know that I started out twenty years ago absolutely terrified to even introduce myself in a group meeting. I can attest that training and practice can produce a presenter who actually loves to be on stage. If this is something that doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t be concerned. For most people, it requires training and practice.
Here are some my best presentation tips gleaned over the years. There are many books and resources available to learn presentation techniques. Make sure you’re ready to hop up in front of that conference room and deliver an effective message.
Top 10 Presentation Tips for Project Managers:
1. Know What You Want: Make sure you understand the purpose of the presentation, or the desired outcome. If your boss asks you to come to an executive session to update the leadership team, dig in further. Do you need their support or approval for a particular aspect? Is there anything that’s controversial? What do they need to know, and why?
2. Structure Your Presentation Around the Desired Outcome: Start off the presentation stating your intent. Don’t leave this as a surprise punch line for the end. It’s a tendency for Project Managers to want to build the case, and then deliver the “ask” at the end. This can confuse your audience, especially if they are senior executives who will be thinking “what do you want from me?” For example, if the purpose of your presentation is to gain support for a change in business process, then start out by saying that. Tell them you will be providing the supporting details and then at the end you will open it up for a discussion. This primes your audience to be listening better.
3. Make Your Visuals VISUAL: Challenge yourself to use as few Powerpoint slides as possible. The best presentation I ever saw was one slide with one graphic on it, which the speaker used to illustrate his points as he talked through the presentation. Use images and pictures whenever possible. If translating complicated words into simple graphics doesn’t come naturally to you, find someone who has this ability and ask for suggestions.
4. Never Ever Present Pages of Bulleted Full Sentences. This aggravates me the most. As far as I’m concerned, a Powerpoint presentation that contains your exact script is called an EMAIL—just send it to me, I know how to read. If you must have bullets, then keep them short to provide focus as you speak. While you may find it comforting to have your script right there in case you freeze, the audience tends to think “ugh, this looks boring and complicated” and so they tune out. The few who remain engaged will be busy reading your slides and not paying attention to you.
5. Make a Careful Decision About Handouts: It’s fine to provide handouts of your presentation, but think carefully about the timing. In a training situation, you may want to provide them up front so that the audience can take notes right on the slides. But in an executive presentation where you are leading up to a decision, the handouts can become a distraction. Restless execs will start paging ahead and may even start asking or challenging points that you have not yet covered. It can become chaos. So decide on the timing and purpose of handouts, and then tell your audience up front when/if you will provide copies of the presentation.
6. Think, Turn, and Talk. I learned this in an excellent seminar by Communispond (and no, I am not a paid spokesperson or affiliated with them in any way.) In situations where you are presenting slides but cannot be right in front of your laptop, you will need to rely on the large screen for your cues. What you do in these situations is look at the screen and THINK about what you’re going to say, then TURN toward the audience, and then TALK. It may seem awkward the first time you try it, but if you watch closely you’ll see great presenters doing this all the time. If you need to refer back to the slide for more cues, then repeat the process. What you never want to do is talk while you’re looking at the screen. If you’re at a podium microphone, then no one can hear you, and it also makes you look disengaged and insecure.
7. Tell Them Only What They Need to Know: Avoid packing in every bitty detail that is critical to you as a project manager, but may not have relevance to the desired outcome of your presentation. I’ve had presentations go waaaay off track because someone fixated on the statistics and derailed me from the main point. If you’re concerned that you may be questioned on details, then put those slides in a section titled “Backup” where you can refer to them on the fly, as needed. Even so, be very selective about going there. You can tell the audience that you have detailed data as backup which you will send out with the presentation.
8. Position Yourself Correctly: Don’t stand in front of the screen. It may sound obvious, but I see this all the time. It’s really hard to not laugh when watching a presenter with bullet points projected on their forehead. If you’re working with a flip-chart, stand on the same side as your writing hand. What I mean is, if you’re right handed, stand on the right (as you face the flip chart) and extend your arm across the sheet to write words. This also feels weird the first time you do it, but it looks so slick when you don’t block your writing with your body, and it keeps you from turning away from the audience.
9. Strike a Confident Pose: Stand facing the audience with your arms down at your sides. This will feel like you’re in a straight jacket until you become comfortable with the pose. Watch someone who you think is a great presenter and observe how much confidence and poise this posture projects. If you’re a wild gesticulator like me, then pretend your elbows are glued to your ribcage and only allow your forearms and hands to gesture. If you must stand at a podium, then stand up straight and don’t hug the sides like a life raft. And never put your hands in your pockets—this subliminally communicates insecurity and/or a desire to hide something.
10. Talk Naturally, But Slow Down and Pause: As we get nervous, our speech patterns change. The voice may raise a pitch, and we tend to talk faster and with no breaks. Breathing is essential to stopping the squeakiness. Stop between points, and take a breath. Allow your words to sink into the audience’s brains. If you have a chance to watch a video of your presentation, you’ll be amazed at how polished and natural this looks, even though it felt like you were talking in slow motion.
There are hundreds of more great tips and techniques. I highly recommend investing in a good two-day seminar type of training like Communispond where (gulp) you will be videotaped and can watch yourself practice these skills. Remember—that which fails to kill you only serves to make you stronger. Seeing yourself blunder on video won’t kill you. Have a sense of humor and realize that these are acquired skills, just like learning to cook or ride a bike. There will be some burned soufflé and scraped knees… and you will survive. Go out there and wow that crowd!