How to Deliver a Presentation: Lessons from MARAC

by Rebecca Crago, Head Editor, INALJ Virginia

How to Deliver a Presentation: Lessons from MARAC

me2At the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) last April I attended a half-day seminar called “Let’s Go On With the Show: Skills for Developing and Delivering Conference Presentations.” The title alone grabbed my attention, but I had to register because just two days later I would be standing in front of MARAC colleagues delivering a presentation of my own. Dickinson College Archivist, Jim Gerenscer, taught the session, from which I gained a new perspective on how to stand in front of a crowd and keep them engaged using words. Learning techniques to improve presentation skills is not only useful on the job for library instruction and outreach, but also for interviews (many academic or tenure-track positions require an on-site presentation), written communications and when engaging new audiences.

The first thing we discussed in the seminar was that nobody is born an orator. Above all else, even flying, people are most afraid of public speaking. Keeping this in mind, we proceeded to discuss the varying types of presentations people give, ranging from church sermons to keynote addresses.

I learned the most from the next part of the session, which covered the style that makes up a good presentation. Gerenscer explained that to give a good speech you should follow the same general guidelines that make up a good essay – or at least the kind of essay you were taught to write in high school. Start with an intro that states your thesis and briefly highlights the points you will touch upon during your argument, support your thesis with X amount of evidence, and wrap it up by returning to your thesis, all while keeping your audience in mind and trying to maintain a natural voice.

Another tip we discussed is to avoid using convoluted visual aids, including PowerPoint, posters and any number of graphics. In fact, avoiding them altogether really makes people focus on the words you actually say, rather than try to interpret data from visuals and focus on you at the same time.  Also, tread carefully when using numbers and stats in a talk, as they can be difficult to digest on their own. Anecdotes, when given at the right time and in the right context, can really drive home a point, but use them sparingly to avoid digressions and keep your mind on track.

Losing your place is easy to do, so the best way to combat this blunder is to prepare, prepare, prepare. That means going over the speech as many times as possible until you feel comfortable with it and you’ve calculated time efficiently. No great speeches in recorded history were given off the cuff, nor were they improvised. Watching yourself in the mirror or recording yourself are two review techniques to help measure progress and success, but Gerenscer noted it’s not a good thing to be too calculated in your performance. When you start critiquing yourself as you speak, it’s difficult to think clearly enough to deliver the intended message.

Having never in my life taken a class on public speaking, I found the session to be enlightening, but whether I was able to stick to all the techniques we covered during my own speech is another topic of conversation. What I certainly gained was a lot of food for thought when comparing my own speech delivery to what I had learned. Not soon after the conference I was watching TV when I heard Sarah Silverman say (in response to watching one of her old bits): “If you don’t cringe when you look back on yourself, you haven’t grown,” which really hit home for me. Having the ability to give a good presentation doesn’t happen overnight, but we grow each time we are placed outside of our comfort zone, as most definitely is the case with public speaking.