Last week I gave a presentation; this week I went on a presentation skills course. Timing is everything.
Stewart Theobald from Talking Shop took us through a jam-packed day of theory and practice, starting with breathing from the abdomen (hard), via using your body as a resonating tool for the vibrations of the voice (harder), culminating in speaking without props or preparation in front of an audience, implementing the techniques we’d learnt (hardest).
Stewart, a trained actor and voice coach, works with clients from all sorts of backgrounds, including PhD students preparing for their viva (!). For a number of the exercises he taught us you can download audio-files, whether you’ve been on the course or not. Just do take heed of the health and safety warning and don’t listen whilst driving or operating heavy machinery, as Stewart is also a registered hypnotherapist!
Reassuringly, all the participants, experienced presenters as well as novices like myself, confessed to experiencing some sort of physical symptom of anxiety when faced with the prospect talking of in front of an (unfamiliar) audience. Don’t fret, says Stewart. Pick the one thing you notice most of all in your body; for me, this would be feeling my heartbeat thumping in my throat. Then work on that – apparently most symptoms of anxiety can be alleviated by deliberately slowing the breath, which should happen through breathing deeply into your belly. This will then impact on your voice, making it sound less shaky and more resonant (hopefully). And in turn, this will calm your mind. I hadn’t thought about it before, but when Stewart pointed it out, it made complete sense: if you are totally in the moment, you can’t feel anxiety. Anxiety is mainly about the future, and sometimes about the past (at least when you’re giving a presentation! We’re not talking real life-threatening situations here, where the pre-programmed fight or flight reaction may have its uses).
I was struck by how this was very similar to techniques used in Yoga, meditation, mindfulness etc. Stewart specifically drew on the Alexander-technique, which I always meant to learn more about, but never did. Looks like you can’t fault the old ones – another helpful model we discussed was Berne’s Transactional Analysis concept of the parent, adult and child roles, and how adopting either one or more of these can affect the dynamics between audience and presenter. When seeking a connection with your audience, bear in mind that first impressions are crucial: your body language and voice counts for over 90% of how your audience feel about you. In other words, it’s how you say it, not what you say! Don’t underestimate the importance of connecting emotionally; intellectual comes later. Of course it may be possible to bring the audience round again through the riveting content of your presentation, but if like me you’ve experienced ‘death by PowerPoint’ just a few times too often, you’ll know there’s plenty of proof that that’s unlikely.
The more bizarre moments of the course included us opening our eyes to the catering man gingerly stepping around us, tray of sandwiches in each hand, attempting to reach the tables we’d stacked at the back. At the time we were on all fours, eyes closed, entrancedly humming up and down across several octaves, trying to find the point of maximum vibrations. All in a day’s work!