And if you think you're just not the presentation type, think again. "Everybody can improve," says Steve Bennett, a communications trainer for science and technology executives. "Very little of this has to do with looks, charisma and charm. That's all nice, but you don't have to have that."
Presentation Skills Are Crucial
Tech pros use presentation skills in many different situations: sales calls, client meetings and reports to other departments. Even the lowly staff meeting can be a chance to demonstrate your ability to present. And if you assume your work won't include the need to give presentations, remember that presentation skills come in handy during a job interview.
"These skills come into play first and foremost when they are presenting themselves for employment," says Jack Wilson, an independent career coach who serves as an advisor to the Association for Computing Machinery on career issues. "Unfortunately, a lot of technology programs don't include practice in presentation or communication skills. One of the most prevalent complaints of CIOs and CTOs is the inability of some of their most technically proficient employees to communicate."
Presentation Training and Practice
Bennett, Wilson and other presentation experts advise techies to seek out books, courses, and one-on-one communication and presentation training to develop skills and get some practice. IT organizations sometimes offer training as a member benefit. Books to consider include Maximize Your Presentation Skills by Ellen Kaye and Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story by Jerry Weissman.
The pros offer these tips for a great presentation:
- When working on your presentation, don't lose sight of your ultimate goals and objectives. Do you want to convince a client your product has five distinct advantages over a competitor's? Show the CIO your company will save money by investing in a new technology? Always ask yourself what key ideas you need to convey for the presentation to be successful.
- Avoid just reading your slides. Instead, think of your visuals as a table of contents your audience can follow.
- Don't cram too much information into the slides. Know the size of the screen and room to assess their readability. "If you need to read a slide top to bottom, it's too dense," says Bennett.
- Make eye contact. Talk to the audience, not to a screen. When working with executives, Bennett will sometimes have them practice without the slideshow. "Imagine the projector broke down," he says.
- While practicing, read just the headlines of your slides to make sure the presentation hangs together.
- Remind the audience where you're heading. "Give them the headline [the main point], and drill down into the detail," says Bennett. At the same time, avoid laundry lists of features and too much detail.
- Establish ground rules for your presentation, such as length and when you'll take questions.
- Wilson suggests developing "platform skills" by recording your presentation on tape or video, practicing in front of a mirror and presenting to someone who doesn't know the material. You can do this for just a piece of your presentation to get helpful tips on body language, delivery and overall clarity.
All these suggestions are increasingly important in an environment where techies have to move beyond technical skills. "Less and less are companies valuing the geek who sits in a back room," says Bennett. "Everyone has to communicate."