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Using the Basics for a Winning Presentation
By Chris King

This past week I was asked to help judge a presentation contest that involved high school students speaking about a chosen part (by them) of the Constitution of the United States for eight to ten minutes. This was followed by a three to four minute assignment presentation that was pulled from a hat including a choice of four possibilities (that had been posted beforehand).

All of the judges not only voted unanimously for the winner, but were also thoroughly impressed with both of his presentations. There was such a large range of scores between the young man who came in first and the one who came in second, I thought it was time to again review the basic skills that made the winner succeed. From time to time, it is always a wise idea for us, as speakers, to go back to the basics to check ourselves as presenters.

The first impression we make when we take the stage is all important. The young man who placed second actually spoke prior to the winner, so, as a judge, I did not know what the speaking level of the other contestants would be. Granted, in a contest, contestants will have an extra amount of nervousness - I know. I have been involved in Toastmaster competitions. Also, there was a time factor involved - each had to speak at least eight minutes and no longer than ten minutes for the first portion, and then at least three minutes and no longer than four minutes for the second portion.

Watching the timers can be quite unsettling. Remembering all of that, however, my impression of the first contestant was lacking. He started with his head down, his voice almost inaudible (they were not allowed to use a microphone for some reason) and his demeanor was expressionless. What a difference when the young man who eventually won took the stage. He stood up tall and with purpose. His voice was strong and filled with conviction. And, he flashed a huge smile and took some time before starting just to establish rapport with us. We couldn't help but like him and start sitting up and paying attention.

Pick a topic that both you and the audience care about. Even though the Constitution forms the backbone of our government, it isn't what I would term an "easy" topic. The goal as described for the contest presentations was that the presenters would pick an area of the Constitution, and present it with freshness, logic and creativity using interesting examples. It was obvious that both young men had prepared diligently and knew their history. The difference was that the young man who won picked a part of the constitution that he not only was passionate about, but one that most of the listeners could relate to - our jury system.

He began by reviewing the obvious and then moved on to make us aware of the law that we didn't know. He went back in history, giving us the background of juries in ancient times and moved up to the present day by sharing short snippets of interviews with people who have served on juries. I had no idea that a presentation concerning the Constitution could be so fascinating and enlightening.

Have a strong opening that draws the listeners in. I have already mentioned how the winner made a good physical impression immediately. He also caught our attention with his strong opening quotation by a well known statesman. He looked us straight in the eye, spoke with enthusiasm and drew us in. I never suggest memorizing a presentation, but do suggest being well prepared with a strong, confidant opening and closing, both of which this young man gave. We wanted to hear what he had to say.

Prepare, prepare and prepare some more. It was obvious that both the winner and the runner up had spent a great deal of time and energy preparing. The biggest difference was that when nervousness appeared, the winner had prepared so thoroughly that he didn't let the nervousness destroy him. At one point, he drew a blank. I'm sure it has happened to you - this is the worst part of memorization. I have a rap-like poem I share as a story, and no matter how often I have performed it, every once in awhile I forget what comes next.

However, when we are thoroughly prepared, we have the confidence that it will come to us if we just relax. This self-assured young man didn't "um" or "ah" or panic. He just paused and quietly mouthed a few words and was back on track. During the second portion, I had the distinct impression that the runner up hadn't thoroughly prepared for all four of the possible assignments, even though each knew ahead of time what they were. The winner had given just as much thought and preparation to this part of the program. I learned the difference between a Republic and a Democracy besides being convinced that this young man is brilliant.

Timing is paramount when presenting. As presenters, we are not usually held so strictly to minutes as the contestants were in this case. But, we are expected to speak for a certain length of time, no longer and no shorter. It is also always a good rule to know ways to shorten or lengthen our presentation. The runner up in the contest lost points for speaking under the minimum time in both portions of the program.

To avoid this, be prepared enough to know exactly how long your closing takes, so if there are two minutes left, you start closing. Or, if your presentation goes more quickly than planned, always have an extra point ready that you can interject to fill the time. In the real world, it is more often the case that we start speaking later than expected and do have less time than we thought we would. Do not - even in this situation - go longer than your time, especially if there is another speaker following you or another workshop using the same space.

Practice your basic skills and techniques - and don't be afraid to ask for feedback. Oftentimes, we are unaware of habits we have developed and techniques that are alienating the audience. This was another area that separated the winner from the runner up. The young man who came in second tended to play with his jacket, look down (not at us), paced back and forth and never once smiled. Unfortunately, we tended to be distracted by this rather than listening to his information. I do know that these habits accompany the nerves, but if we are made aware of them, we will start catching ourselves doing them. Ask someone you know and trust to take notes on what habits you have when presenting. Or, worse yet, have someone tape you giving a presentation. You will be amazed by all of the areas in which you need to improve.

No matter what happens during a presentation, remain upbeat and gracious. I know that the runner up was disappointed - it isn't fun to come in second - but he would have left a better impression with us if he had been more upbeat. Most of the people judging and in the audience wanted to shake his hand and tell him "good job" but he was almost unfriendly and left quickly. We wanted to give him credit for trying and encourage him to keep on presenting. On the other side of this, is when everything has worked beautifully during your presentation, be sure to give your listeners time to applaud and speak with you before you run off (unless you are going to miss a plane, that is).

And remember, we can always learn from and be reminded of the power of using the basics - even when we are judging others.

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