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Stand up and be heard at presentations

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THE MERE thought of speaking in front of an audience is enough to bring most people out in a cold sweat. In fact, repeated UK surveys have shown that the only things people fear more than public speaking are spiders.

‘Fears can be overcome. Most fears are learnt behaviour and can therefore be unlearnt,’ points out Margaret Rose, a senior consultant with the Centre for Customer Awareness, who has experience in training nurses in presentation skills. The majority of people give a form of presentation every day, it is just the size of the audience that varies, and nurses are no exception.

‘Nurses incorporate presenting into their everyday working life,’ Ms Rose says. ‘It is not just about standing up at the front of a room.’

Nurses interact daily with patients and their relatives, providing information and giving advice on treatment options. They also present case histories to colleagues at multidisciplinary meetings, train other staff and attend interviews. Nurses are seen as experts,’ says Ms Rose, ‘so a vital ingredient of their job is communication skills.’

Training is paramount if nurses are to gain effective presentation skills. These skills can help their career advancement because, according to Ms Rose, ‘improved communication helps to get better results’.

The ability to be able to present information concisely and effectively is considered as important as having basic nursing skills these days. Therefore, whether you are educating a patient, liaising with other members of staff or attending an interview, the more effective your communication skills, the more successful the outcome will be.

So what is the key to success?

According to Ms Rose, preparation and planning are paramount. ‘It takes 200 per cent preparation to achieve a 90 per cent delivery. You can’t prepare enough and there’s room for improvement every time,’ she explains.

Planning your presentation gives it structure. The opening is particularly important because this is your chance to show the audience why they should listen to you.

‘The opening should be short and punchy, and must do something to grab the audience, but avoid cracking irrelevant jokes,’ advises Ms Rose, who suggests starting with an interesting fact related to your subject - something topical or historical to get the audience’s attention.

The middle section of your presentation should explain your message in greater detail, and the conclusion should summarise the key points. Knowing your audience is vital for getting your message across. Considering how much knowledge your audience has will help you pitch it at the right level. ‘Make sure your presentation has something for everyone,’ she says.

In order to ensure your presentation addresses the needs of all members of the audience you should consider four identified learning styles: why, what, how and what if?

For example, academics may want to know the facts, the more practical members of the audience will want to know how something works and others will want to know why. Taking into account the ‘what if’ can help you prepare for questions.’Even if nurses don’t have much time to prepare, considering these for even five or 10 minutes will help their presentation,’ she believes.

Whether it is a conference room or a patient’s bedside, it is important to check out the location of your presentation beforehand so you are totally prepared. ‘Acclimatise yourself, make sure you are comfortable with your surroundings,’ advises Ms Rose.

Imagining your presentation being a success can help when it comes to the actual delivery, she stresses. ‘Visualise your performance going well. Use all your senses to imagine the end result before it happens.’

Knowing your subject matter inside out, and having a smart, tidy appearance, will leave you free to concentrate on the delivery of your presentation. Research has shown that, although content is important, the actual words spoken only account for seven per cent of the message received by the audience.

The tone and volume of your voice, and the clarity with which you deliver your presentation, count for 38 per cent of the message received. ‘It is not what you say, but how you say it,’ summarises Ms Rose.

The remaining 55 per cent of the message is delivered through body language. Good eye contact is vital when you are trying to communicate with an audience. Ms Rose recommends using what she calls the ‘lighthouse technique’. ‘Scan the audience and cover the whole room, and don’t make the mistake of focusing too much on one person.’

Although you may be nervous, it is important to look natural when giving a presentation. To avoid making distracting gestures, she suggests holding something, such as a pen or papers.

Nerves can be turned to your advantage as long as you manage them properly. ‘No nerves are a bad thing,’ believes Ms Rose. ‘Every good performance needs adrenalin.’

To help control your nerves, she suggests using the ‘7/11’ breathing technique: inhaling for seven seconds and then exhaling for 11 seconds. This will stop you from shallow breathing and help you to keep calm. And nobody needs to know that you are doing it.

Where appropriate, audio-visual equipment can be used to help keep the audience focused, and to take some of the pressure off you. But it is important to remember that this equipment should only be used as a prop. Do not just read from slides because this will make it look like you do not know your subject matter and your audience may become bored. Similarly, you should use Powerpoint wisely.

Ms Rose adds that the advantages of developing good presentation skills can improve other areas of your working life. For example, there is a strong correlation between presentation skills and self-esteem.

Above all, plan and prepare as thoroughly as possible, but if your presentation goes wrong - do not panic. ‘Look at the reasons why and improve next time,’ says Ms Rose. ‘Identify the areas that need to be improved. And remember, the more you do it, the easier it will get.’ 

Seven steps to success in presentations

Know your subject matter: this will increase your confidence and help to prepare you for any questions.

Practise your delivery beforehand, either with a friend or in front of a mirror. This will help you feel more relaxed when it comes to the real thing.

Have a short and punchy opening to grab the audience’s attention from the start. A topical or historical fact related to your subject is a good idea.

Know your audience and pitch your presentation at the right level and have something for everyone present.

Acclimatise yourself beforehand and make yourself comfortable with your location.

Maintain good eye contact - using the ‘lighthouse technique’ to scan the whole audience will stop you from focusing too much on one person.

Use props or tools wisely - don’t just read from slides or the audience will become bored.

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