The truth is that the real world is a very subjective place. The biggest paychecks go not to the programmers and artists but to the CEOs and salesmen with no single discernible “skill.” This is because, at the end of the day, the best artist can only create so many images per day and the best programmer can only type so fast. Once you reach basic competence in your trade, the ability to put people at ease and feel good about what you do is far more valuable than any other trait. If you ask certain analysts they’ll tell you the current Apple empire is (partially) built upon Steve Jobs’ ability to present – and the tech world looks forward to these events as if it was Christmas for nerds.
School is actually one of the best places to learn the skill of presentation. Professors and peers will often be much more open with their criticism rather than rejecting your proposal out of hand (and if they are not specific enough you can ask them for more details). Plus there is the added fact that school is a reduced-pressure environment where your composure does not effect your ability to put food on the table tomorrow.
Many people do not realize this until they are out of school and spend years reading books trying to catch up. There’s plenty of interesting research which pop-science likes to quote such as the debatable notion that 93% of communication is nonverbal, the recent discovery of mirror neurons and so on.
The truth, though, is that the basics of presenting yourself to a client are extraordinarily simple. Everybody wants to work with someone who enjoys what he/she does and can tell you in a clear, concise and confident manner about the specifics. These are exactly the skills which are tested when you “pitch” or present in front of a class. It all boils down to the fact that your audience needs to feel good about you. Professors (should) do a great job of instructing you on what to say in a presentation, but they often miss or gloss over how to say it.
With that in mind, here are some things to try next time you have a presentation:
1. Always start with a smile
A smile is powerful and contagious and will make everyone a little more relaxed. It takes practice to break into a grin in front of one or more pseudo-strangers, but the right smile is a valuable tool. Moreover, the most attractive people to do business with are those who seem to enjoy what they do. Anybody who has been in the business world for a while has met at least one exceptionally negative person who they would rather not work with again. Along the same lines, make sure to come across as enthusiastic about your subject.
2. Cycle your attention through the audience
Make eye content for a moment with each person as you talk, just enough to make them feel included. Not only does this build rapport but it also makes people more likely to listen to what you have to say. Again, this is a skill that takes practice! Not only does it require that you build up confidence, but you need to be able to maintain your train of thought.
3. Practice the Dramatic Pause
The use of filler words like “um” and “uh” are one of the most detrimental habits in presentations. They are a hard habit to break, and the truth is that there will always be time when you need a moment to think. The solution is simple though: just take your moment while you look at the audience and smile. Practice in a mirror if you need to. Instead of seeming nervous, it’ll appear as if you have the secret to the universe, life and everything – and are just about to tell the audience.
4. Watch your classmates when they present
This may be one of the most overlooked benefits of being in a class with presentations. Did someone get a good laugh? Did he or she seem nervous, and if so, why? Examine your own emotional reaction to your peers to understand how to present yourself better.
5. Understand your own image
No two people are the same, which means you should not try to bring the same things to the table as everyone else. Do you have a unique brand of humor? Do you naturally come across as large and threatening, meek and unsure, nervous and jittery or something else? If you understand how other people perceive you, you can exploit this perception. Not sure how you come across? Ask someone in the class! Try to convince them to list not only the good but the bad as well.
6. Put yourself in front of people
When I was a Sophomore I took a year off of school and taught English in China. To this day the skills I learned in front of the classroom are some of the most valuable I have obtained in my entire life (for example, I learned that my brand of humor is self-deprecation, which works well because I am a tall guy who, when not smiling, looks very serious; suddenly doing something that shows that I am willing to sacrifice that image seems to put other people at ease). Remember, presentations are a social skill! Suddenly taking a little time off to meet new people and go out for a beer is not so wasted, if you keep these things in mind and use the time to figure out how to present yourself better.
These thoughts are just a place to start – there are plenty more tips, books, strategies and so on out there. Reading more may help you get a grasp on what you need to do to succeed, but at the end of the day you just need to get out there and present. The most important bit of all is simply to understand that presentations are a valuable skill and that you need to jump into the ice water so that it is not so painful later in front of a client.