My first test of the presentation skills I’ve been exploring came after an invitation by EMBRAPA (the Brazilian equivalent of the US Department of Agriculture) to present work on the farming practices of small-scale Amazonian farmers. The invitation came because EMBRAPA’s annual conference was being held in the state I have been working in for the last 15+ years.
To move my presentation lessons into practice, I prepared earlier than I had for similar talks in the past, practiced the talk (although the last run-through was on the shuttle over to the conference site), and aimed to be of service to my audience.
My assigned presentation time was 8:00 a.m. on the second morning — a full day after I arrived. This allowed me to scope out the auditorium, get to know the audience, and understand their expectations. The stage was intimidating: an open auditorium that easily seated 750 people. And, to my surprise, upon my arrival I learned that the conference was to be held in Portuguese! (After receiving the program in English, I assumed this would be the conference language). Translators were on site providing real-time translation, but I noticed this was not as effective as speaking in Portuguese: the audience was less attentive. Noting this, I decided to add a few phrases and slides in Portuguese (I speak the language, but not well enough to change the presentation overnight), pose a question for my audience, and, using the concepts of design and storytelling outlined by Nancy Duarte, rely on slides that were visually appealing and image-driven.
Lucky for me the continental breakfast lasted a bit longer than 8:00 am. Once the program got started, I had a pretty full auditorium. When I got on stage I was noticeably not nervous… this was not the norm. As the stakes rose in my career and my audiences grew, I went back to having visible nerves, a cracking voice, and butterflies that could just swallow you up. But this time was different. For one, I had practiced the talk numerous times. On other occasions, time constraints had often left me making final edits only minutes before I spoke.
The curve ball this time was language. I found it so funny to be in a room where only 10 percent of the people could understand what I was saying. I couldn’t stop smiling. I decided to pose a question to capture their attention. I had framed my presentation to have 3 objectives that I spoke in Portuguese (I presented the remainder of my talk in English). One of these was to determine if my work was of interest to the audience. I wanted to know this because my team and I were planning to come back in a year and hoped to involve local students in our work.
So, was the presentation a success? The audience was attentive. I noticed that all the faces as far back as I could see were clearly focused on me and my slides as I told a story to motivate my research, I got a few laughs (when they were supposed to happen), and the feedback afterwards was positive. But participant feedback is not always useful in determining success. As Berkun points out, saying “great job” to a presenter in most cases means little more than “I saw your talk.” (Ten points for Leopold training: receiving constructive feedback that you can later incorporate into improvement is hard to come by).
That said, I did feel like a rock star with a line of students waiting to meet me to exchange email addresses, a list of reporters pulling me away for interviewers in between these meetings, and requests for group photos with interested students (see above). Some of this was cultural – all the presenters were asked for interviews after their talks. I was the most sought-out English speaking presenter simply because I was the only one to speak Portuguese.
What did I learn? Not using a pointer is harder than I realized. Absolutely everyone who writes on public speaking states that you should never use laser pointers. However, even though my slides were not text-heavy (and many only included images), it was impossible not to use the pointer and keep my audience on target (they were typically a half or full sentence behind me, listening to the real-time translation). An easy fix for this would be a greater usage of animation. Having individual words and ideas appear as you are talking improves flow and eliminates the need for pointers… but then timing like that requires A LOT of practice.
What have you done when you’ve gotten a curve ball in preparing for a presentation? Share your story below!
Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.