Showing Up: Creating Captivating Presentations

There is a famous quote by Woody Allen that says “80 percent of success is showing up.” But this means showing up with all of you, and that requires more than just being physically present. It includes bringing your ideas, your passion, and your personality into the room with you.

Over the past three years, I have been teaching academics how to create better presentations. Quite often, when people are speaking to a large crowd, they forget to bring their whole selves. They may physically arrive, but they leave the things that make them unique at the door. They become shells of their dynamic selves. Their voices become monotonous and boring, their shoulders slump, which makes them look small and weak, and their bodies and voices shake as nerves take over.

There are many ways to bring you back into your presentations.

Warm Up

It takes a lot of time to prepare the content of a presentation. Whether you are speaking at a conference, leading a meeting, or teaching a class, you devote a great deal of effort to putting your ideas together. However, many people do not spend any time preparing the actual vehicle through which these ideas are communicated: your body and your voice.

Athletes know how critical it is to warm up their bodies before a game. Scientists always make sure that their equipment is clean and ready to be used. Artists make sure they have all their tools before starting a project. However, for some reason, people often forget how essential it is to warm up their bodies and voices before giving a presentation.

You can’t express your ideas in compelling and dynamic ways if your body and voice aren’t warmed up. For example, bounce on your feet, shake your hands, and stretch your body. This will get your blood moving a bit and help you shake off your nerves. If you do yoga or sports, you can do familiar poses or exercises as your warmup. Then, find a neutral stance in which your feet are firmly planted on the floor, hips width apart. You can warm up your voice by humming or reciting tongue twisters.

Tell A Story

When your best friend tells you a story, he or she relives it in the telling. Then, when he or she is finished, you feel as though you went through the experience with your friend. You have a connection with the person and the story he or she told. However, when people are giving presentations, they tend to summarize and distance themselves from the information they are delivering.

Instead, re-experience your story as you talk about it. This way, your voice will have natural variety, your body will be animated, and the audience will walk away with a connection to you and your material. People come to life when they are telling stories. This is one of the best ways to make sure that you are showing up.

Find Your Why

In order to bring your whole self into a room and in front of a group, you need to know your why.

First, you need to let your audience know why they should care about listening to you. Students, fellow academics, and any other audience you might address all have a lot going on in their lives. The Internet floods them with information they are told they ought to care about. So why is what you are talking about worth paying attention to? Why is what you are saying worth turning off my own thoughts and concerns to focus on you?

Second, you need to know why you care. As an audience member, if I don’t get the impression that you care about what you’re saying, then why should I care? I’m unlikely to stop thinking about my own life and to listen to what you have to say if you don’t sound interested in it yourself.

Finally, be clear about why this is important now. If I can’t connect to the immediacy of what you are presenting, I am likely to tune out and think “I’ll worry about that later.” Why is what you are saying critical to listen to, and to care about, right now? If you can convey a clear answer to this question, then I will believe it is important to listen.

If you warm up, tell a story, and find your why, then you—all of you—will show up when you present.

About the Author

Bri McWhorter is the founder and CEO of Activate to Captivate, a company that teaches communication techniques from an actor’s point of view. She has a MFA in Acting from the University of California, Irvine and a BA in Theater and Performance Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Specializing in presentation skills, interpersonal communications, and interview techniques, Bri teaches group workshops at universities, companies, and nonprofits. Her public speaking certificate program for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars is currently being featured at the University of California, Irvine.