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More About Presentations (by Mary Sandro)

1. Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Presentation? -  How the Pros Make Nervousness Their Friend

2. Seven Strategies for Handling Difficult Questions

3. How information is processed by Listeners

4. How Visual Aids Undermine Presentations -  Three Ways You May Be Boring Your Audience to Tears

1. Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Presentation?
- How the Pros Make Nervousness Their Friend

“There are two types of speakers.  Those who get nervous and those who are liars.”
                                                                                    -Mark Twain-

Everyone is afraid of a presentation, physiologically.  Toastmasters International reports that the following professionals have admitted to feeling nervous when speaking in public: Mark Twain, Ronald Reagan, Carroll O’Connor, Barbara Streisand, Anthony Quinn, Garrison Keillor, Sally Struthers, George Burns, James Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Joan Rivers, and… Mary Sandro.  I couldn’t resist adding my name to such a star-studded list!

Many presenters fight their nervousness.  They deny it or use it as an excuse for not presenting.  The first step to making nervousness our friend is to accept that it is normal.  I dare say, the more nervous we are, the better a presenter we can be.  The rationale for this seemingly ludicrous claim lies in the physiological understanding of nervousness.

Making a presentation is an opportunity and a challenge.  Any time we are faced with a challenge, our bodies produce adrenaline.  Psychologists refer to this as the “Fight or Flight” response and there is no way to stop it.  It is wired into our genetic makeup and our bodies have been producing adrenaline for thousands of years.

Adrenaline is a fancy word for energy.  When we are faced with a challenge, like making a presentation, our bodies produce energy.  That almost sounds helpful, doesn’t it?  In fact, from this point forward we will never call it nervousness again.  We don’t get nervous; we have excess energy!  All of those nervous symptoms we experience like dry mouth, shaky knees, hyperventilation, and butterflies are nothing more than excess energy getting the best of us.  Now, what if we could take that energy and get the best of it?

Energy is a necessary ingredient for a successful presentation.  Nervous presenters have a lot of raw energy available to them, which is why I claim they can become great presenters.  This is also why I disagree with the advice most often given to nervous presenters, “just relax.”  This advice is counterproductive and almost physically impossible to execute.

When was the last time you went into a performance or a competition relaxed?  Maybe the last time you didn’t perform very well.  We need energy.  Some call this energy the competitive edge.  Some call it inevitable.  It’s very difficult to fight thousands of years of evolution.  If we think a presentation is a challenge, which it is, our bodies are programmed to produce adrenaline or energy.  Instead of trying to fight this natural, helpful phenomenon, why not use it?

The difference between a polished presenter and one who seems to be having a nervous breakdown is not that one is nervous and the other is not.  Physiologically they both are producing excess energy.  The difference is how they use the energy.  Polished presenters use the energy positively.  Historically nervous presenters can too.

In general, things exist in pairs, on a pole as opposites.  For example, there is hot and cold, light and dark.  Things on the same pole can be changed into one another.  Light can be changed into dark and hot can be changed into cold, but cold cannot be changed into light.  The same is true with emotions.

Emotions exist in pairs, on a pole as opposites.  For example, there is happy and sad, love and hate, anxiety and anticipation.  Happy and sad are of the same pole and can be changed from one to the other.  The same is true with anxiety and anticipation.  Nervous presenters allow their energy to manifest as anxiety, while polished presenters channel that energy into anticipation.

The same energy that creates nervousness or anxiety can create anticipation or excitement.  There are many strategies for shifting the energy to the higher end of the pole.  The most helpful are mental strategies.  To keep the energy anticipatory and exciting, focus thoughts on positive aspects of presenting.  Visualize only success.  Imagine the benefits of presenting and focus on the opportunity rather than the challenge.

Another strategy for shifting the energy is to get in touch with the physical feeling of anxiety in our body.  Where is the feeling centered?  Is it in the gut, throat, or somewhere else?  Once located, move it up one inch higher and notice how the emotion changes.  This mental and physical relocation will shift the emotion to the higher, more positive pole of anticipation or excitement.  Do this exercise anytime nervousness strikes, even just before the presentation.

To summarize, everyone gets nervous when they present, even the pros.  Nervousness is nothing but excess energy that we can use to generate an emotional state of anxiety or anticipation.  Be gentle with yourself and make friends with the energy by focusing on the positive aspects of presenting.  Know that the energy can propel you to great presentations by giving you the necessary competitive edge.

My people are nervous when it comes to presenting.  I need help to make them better presenters. CLICK HERE

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2. Seven Strategies for Handling Difficult Questions  

Honesty is the only policy when presenting to a group.  However, blatantly admitting, “I don’t know”, in response to a direct question from an audience member can be disastrous.  The solution is to be honest and maintain credibility at the same time.  No one can know the answer to every question.  It’s how the inevitable situation is handled that separates great presenters from amateurs.   Study the following seven strategies and keep them in your back pocket so that you can field even the toughest questions with confidence.


Repeat the question and toss it back to your audience, “Does anyone here have any experience with that?”  When you allow the audience to help you, they will save you without ever realizing it.  In fact, the audience will revere you because adults love to be involved and share their knowledge.  After you have fielded all of the contributions, be sure to summarize and add your own ideas if any have been sparked by the interaction.  Summarizing at the end helps you to maintain control and authority.  Always repeat questions before answering for the same reasons.

I’ll Get Back to You

This is an old standard and it works well if you do three things.  First, write the question down.  Be conspicuous.  Make sure everyone knows you are writing the question down.  I go so far as to tell the audience, “I am writing this question down.”  Second, tell the questioner exactly when you will get back to them.  Be honest.  Then do it.  Can you get back to them by the end of the day?  If it is an all-day program, can you get back to them after lunch?  Third, be sure to get the questioner’s contact information if you don’t have it.  All of these things make this strategy very powerful.  It is not smoke and mirrors.  It is an opportunity to go the extra mile, expand your knowledge, and impress your audience.

Defer to the Expert

This is a more sophisticated version of the Reflection technique.  Sometimes a question is legitimately outside of your area of expertise.  You may be a marketing expert and someone asks a question about the engineering aspects of a product.  This is a question that requires an engineer.  If there is an engineer in the room you could say, “Sally, you’re an engineer.  Do you have any insights into that?”  If there are no engineers in the room, state that you will confer with an engineer and get back to them.  Notice I have just combined two techniques.

Compliment the Questioner

For this to be effective, the compliment must be sincere.  Sometimes I get lulled into thinking I have seen and heard it all on a particular topic.  It never fails though, someone comes out of left field with a question I have never thought of and I say, “That’s a great question.  I’ve never thought about it that way.  Does anyone here have any ideas  on that?”  (I have just combined two techniques.)  When I use this strategy it is usually not a conscious decision.  It’s a reaction.  That’s how sincere it needs to sound.  It always works when it’s sincere because audience’s love to be complimented.  I might also combine this technique with ‘I’ll Get Back to You’.

Answer a Question with a Question

Sometimes questions are too narrow or too general to answer.  Reserve the right, as the expert, to open a question up or close it down by asking a question in response.  Once upon a time I was a software trainer.  One day a woman asked me a very specific question, “What does that button do?”  I had no idea, but I didn’t confess, “I don’t know.”  Instead I asked her a question, “What is your goal in pushing that button?”  She elaborated for me and explained what she wanted to accomplish.  I knew a way to help her and it didn’t involve pushing that button.  She was happy.  I was honest, credible, helpful, and very happy.

Parallel Answer

If you don’t know the bull’s eye answer to a question, offer what you do know quickly to demonstrate some credibility and then combine with a previous technique.  When I was a software trainer I used to be an expert in the Lotus spreadsheet package.  However Microsoft’s Excel began to gain popularity and I had to learn it so I could teach it.  In the beginning I was on a learning curve.  Sometimes I would be asked a question about Excel that I didn’t know the answer to, however I did know the answer in Lotus.  Quickly I would say, “I know that is possible in Lotus.  I’m not sure if that is available in Excel.  I’m writing this question down.  I’ll research it at the break and get back to you.”  Refrain from droning on and on about your parallel knowledge.  Brevity is the key to this technique.

Set the Rules

You can avoid many difficult questions simply by setting rules for questions in the beginning.  Whenever you present to a group, you are the leader.  You are accountable for everything, so lead.  My experience is that if you set rules and follow them, the audience respects you.  If you make rules up as you go along, you lose credibility.

The number of rules you set will vary depending on the topic.  When I taught technical subjects, I set lots of rules because I knew the questions would be many and varied.  I would start a software seminar by saying, “I welcome general questions at any time about anything on the agenda.  If you have a specific question about a project you are working on or a subject outside of the agenda, please see me at a break for a private consultation.  Because we have limited time together, I reserve the right to stop taking questions and comments.  This is not personal.  It is to make certain we cover every topic today.”


You can’t know the answer to everything.  It’s how you handle yourself.  Study these seven strategies and use them to maintain credibility and confidence.

To see these strategies in action, CLICK HERE.

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3. How information is processed by Listeners

Raw information tickles the logical mind and bores the rest of the mind to sleep.  The result of an overly logical presentation: bored, sleepy listeners who remember nothing and do nothing.  Great presenters start with raw information, add their opinions, color it with imagery, and give it personality.  The more of the mind you tickle, the more retention and motivation you reap.  Additional parts of the mind you can tickle include: long term memory, imagination, and emotion.

Long Term Memory

Adults know a lot.  Unlike children who come to us with clean slates, adults harbor vast reservoirs of knowledge and experience.  Great presenters do not fear this knowledge and experience.  They use it to their advantage.

The fastest way to create learning is to link the unknown with the known.  Since adults know so many things, opportunity for linking abounds.  Simile and metaphor provide the means.  A simile uses the words “like” or “as” to bridge the unknown with the known.  Example: It tastes like chicken.  I don’t care what food I’m discussing.  You now know how it tastes.  Metaphors link without the words “like” or “as”.  Example: That business is a three-ring circus.  You can probably think of multiple businesses that fit a three-ring circus description.

One year, the city that hosted the Super Bowl was vying to host an upcoming Summer Olympics.  A reporter interviewed the mayor of that city and asked about his confidence level in hosting an Olympics after the recent success with the Super Bowl.  The mayor responded by acknowledging the recent success, but then cautioned, “Hosting the Olympics is like hosting 15 Super Bowls per day.”

A COO of a healthcare organization used a wonderful bridge to lead into a brainstorming session on marketing ideas.  He mused, “Suppose we were in the business of attracting squirrels.  How would we attract them?  We would climb up a tree and act like a nut.  Now, what kind of nuts do our squirrels like?”  Employees laughed and joined in enthusiastically to offer new “nuts”.


The mind loves pictures.  We dream in pictures.  We daydream in pictures.  We remember faces and forget names.  We forget street names and remember landmarks.  Have you ever given someone directions like these?  “Go about one mile.  Then you’ll see a big white church and a nursery across the street.  Take a left.  When you come to the fire station…” 

I participated in a research study in college that still fascinates me.  To earn extra credit in a psychology course, I agreed to be a guinea pig for the graduate students’ research project.  The graduate students sat me down and told me they were going to read 20 sentences to me.  My job, visualize or imagine each sentence as vividly as possible for 30 seconds.  Then we would proceed to the next sentence.  Based on only that information we began.

Being the good student, I visualized intently, practically crinkling my nose to see the images.  After 20 sentences, the graduate students blindfolded me and walked me down a hallway to a water fountain.  They told me to take a drink of water.  They blindfolded me again and escorted me back to the original room.  They took my blindfold off, handed me a blank piece of paper, and instructed me to write as many of the 20 sentences as I could remember in 60 seconds.  Despite my unnerving walk down the hall, I wrote down 18 sentences exactly as they had read them to me within 60 seconds.  I had no idea a test was coming.

Visual aids provide a perfect opportunity to incorporate pictures into a presentation.  Yet, most presenters squander the opportunity by using bulleted lists of words and numbers as their visual aids.  Challenge your bullet points.  Clipart programs abound.  Dress up boring graphs.  For high profile presentations seek the assistance of a graphic artist or employ internal talent.

If real pictures elude you, paint word pictures on your listeners’ minds.  Similes and metaphors, by their nature, paint vivid pictures like the 15 Super Bowls or the squirrels and the nuts.  Take conceptual or technical ideas and create pictures for them.  In a former life I used to be an actuary in the insurance industry.  I recruited from colleges and gave presentations about the actuarial profession.  To educate students about actuarial science and motivate them to pursue the career, I defined an actuary as a mathematical fortuneteller.  Reaction from students, “Hey that sounds pretty cool.”  (Now do you believe word pictures are powerful?)


People take action for emotional reasons not logical ones.  Most people logically understand the hazards of cigarette smoking, yet they continue to smoke.  Most people logically know that healthy diet and exercise keep them vibrant, yet they eat chocolate cake and watch TV instead.  Sales professionals claim that people buy for emotional reasons then justify with logic.  Have you ever purchased something you couldn’t really afford?  Enough said.

In general, people are motivated emotionally by “moving towards” happiness or “moving away” from pain.  When your alarm clock sounds in the morning, why do you get out of bed?  If you answer, “Because I love life and I can’t wait to start another spectacular day.  Carpe Diem!”  You would be motivated by “moving towards”.   If you answer, “Because if I don’t get up now I’ll be late for work and get fired.”  You would be motivated by “moving away”. 

Add an emotional element to your presentations by explaining to listeners the rewards of action (moving towards) and the consequences of inaction (moving away).  Be sure to address both ends of the spectrum.  If you only dangle rewards, the “moving away” listeners tune out.  If you only threaten doom, the “moving towards” listeners sour. 

A recent prospect wanted presentation skills coaching for their software experts because for the first time their Users Group conference included other companies.  I advised that if they went forward with the coaching, the improved presentations would create a buzz that would drive some of the increased traffic into their sessions.  Then I warned that if they didn’t pursue coaching, lackluster presentations might cause an exodus of once guaranteed audience members to other companies.


Raw information tickles the logical mind, but bores the rest.  To increase motivation and retention, tickle more of the mind by appealing not only to logic, but long-term memory, imagination, and emotion.  Use similes, word pictures, “moving towards”, and “moving away” to join the ranks of great presenters.

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4. How Visual Aids Undermine Presentations
-  Three Ways You May Be Boring Your Audience to Tears

How do you know you have a presentation?  I posed this question to a sales team I was working with recently.  One gentleman said, “If I win the business, I know I have a presentation.”  To that excellent response I replied, “That’s how you know you have a good presentation.  How do you know, before you even arrive at the prospect’s site, that you have a presentation?”  Another gentleman offered, “Well if I have some PowerPoint slides that I can talk from, then I have a presentation.”

The belief that visual aids equal a presentation is a very common misconception.  Visual aids are aids.  They are not even necessary, usually.  A presentation is the information, stories, statistics, quotes, and opinions that the presenter shares.  Visual aids, if used, enhance the presenter’s message, not the other way around.  Anytime visual aids become the presentation and the presenter becomes the aid, you will probably be boring your audience to tears.  Below are three specific examples of how this happens.

Words, Words, Words

The visual aids are nothing but the presenter’s notes, which the presenter proceeds to read from the screen to the audience.  Imagine you are sitting in an audience waiting for a presentation to begin.  The presentation is scheduled for one hour.  The presenter walks to the front of the room, clicks their clicker, and a large blue screen fills with a yellow, bulleted, run-on sentence that flies in from the left.  For me, this is when dread sets in.  Glaze is starting to form over my eyes.  Fog is rolling in on my brain.  The battle to stay alert and appear interested has begun and it intensifies with every bullet that appears.

When visual aids say as much or more than the presenter does, one of them is not necessary.  Reading from wordy slides is not only boring, but also insulting to an intelligent audience.  Many presentations I have suffered through would be more economical, less stressful, and better received as memos, special reports, or CDs that the audience could read individually on their own time.  Unless the audience is taking notes, as in a training situation, wordy visual aids undermine a presentation.  The point of a visual aid is to make the presentation more interesting not boring. 

Tired Graphics

If your audience is thinking, “This is the 762nd time I’ve seen that piece of clipart.”, your visual aids are undermining your presentation.  Similarly, if your audience recognizes your visual aid background as one of the popular software templates, your visual aids are undermining your presentation.  Graphics are the solution to the wordy visual aid problem discussed previously.  However, freshness now becomes the issue.  Ideally, all visual aids would consist of simple, powerful, interesting graphics.  In reality, time and money may be constraints. 

Let the nature of the presentation dictate how far you will go to secure fresh looking graphics.  For high profile or high opportunity presentations, more time, money, and effort should be placed on creating visual aid graphics.  My recommendation would be to have a graphic artist assist if talent is not available internally.  Examples of high profile, high opportunity presentations include the unveiling of a new product or service and sales presentations. 

Just Like Everybody Else

If your visual aids fall into either of the previous two categories, Wordy or Tired Graphics, present without them unless the audience needs to take notes.   Because most presenters use wordy or tired visual aids, audiences are conditioned to become bored at the first sight of a bullet.  A bulleted list is like a timepiece on a chain that sways in front of the eyes chanting, “Sleep…sleep…sleep”  I have discovered that being contrarian and forgoing visual aids can actually make a  presentation a huge success. 

I was presenting to 120 salespeople at an annual conference.  I was the only non-industry, soft-topic presenter on the multi-day program.  I arrived early and attended the presentation before mine.  There were two presenters standing on an elevated stage behind podiums with a huge screen centered between them.  The room was darkened as the PowerPoint slides clicked by.  I surveyed the salespeople.  No one was jumping out of his or her seat with excitement.

My host asked if I had any visual aids.  I had PowerPoint slides but claimed that I had none and that I would work from my handout.  I asked them to turn all of the lights up and requested a wireless microphone.  Just turning the lights on had a huge impact on the audience.  I moved around freely and referred to the handout periodically so the salespeople would feel anchored and take notes.  When the conference was finished, I was the highest rated presenter.  They invited me to come back immediately for the next year.

Summing Up

Visual aids are powerful.  They can be the icing on your cake or the rain on your parade.  To ensure visual aids are not undermining your presentation, use words sparingly and find fresh graphics.  Even have the courage to present without, if your visual aids are not truly aiding you.

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About the Author
Mary Sandro helps companies and professionals achieve results through effective  presentations, exceptional customer service and innovative hiring techniques.  She is available to speak on these topics.  For more information visit or call 800-731-0601.

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