Knowing that you need to improve your skills in some area and knowing what skills to improve are not the same thing.
Let’s say your last presentation didn’t go as well as you wanted. Not that all your presentations are home runs. But this one bothered you: you thought you were ready and you’re not sure what went wrong.
There could be several reasons. Delivering an effective presentation is not one skill; it’s many skills. There’s how you use your voice, your gestures, where you’re looking, the content, the slides, how you respond to questions, etc.
The same basic principle also applies to other skills or skill-sets you might want or need to develop. Negotiation, customer service, and delegation are examples.
Assuming you want to address the problem, you’ve got two choices:
- Attend a workshop and hope that whatever went wrong gets fixed
- Figure out what went wrong and address it, which could include attending a workshop
Many immediately opt for the workshop. Workshops are easier and usually more fun than trying to figure out what went wrong. And even if the problem isn’t fixed, it shows you tried. Regardless, there’s a good chance you’ll learn some useful skills and/or get better at the skills you have already.
But let’s say you can’t attend a workshop. Maybe there isn’t money. Maybe your manager can’t spare you. Or maybe your manager realizes it’s difficult to solve a problem when you don’t know what the problem is.
Steps to identify what probably went wrong.
- Brainstorm a list of the skills it takes to deliver an effective presentation
- Briefly interview some of the people who were in the audience to identify areas that went well and could have worked better
- Review the input from those people and determine the likely problem
- Identify possible fixes and implement a solution
If you did the presentation, you should take the lead on this. But it’s helpful to work with someone else to do the brainstorming and to review the results of the interviews. Your manager could be a good candidate.
It’s also important not to feel shy about asking others for input. It’s difficult to be objective about your own work or to understand the impact of your actions on others. Even if you have a recording of a presentation and are able to watch yourself, it’s still useful to view it with someone else. They will see things you don’t.
Going from general to specific
As I mentioned, there are a lot of skills that go into effectively delivering presentations. The first step is to identify them – or as many as you can. The traditional way to do that is task analysis. But doing a task analysis can be tedious; most people avoid it.
A good substitute is to brainstorm the skills or elements involved in delivering a presentation. These should be as specific and behavioral as possible. Do this with at least one other person.
Here’s an example related to voice and non-verbals in presentations:
- Voice is loud but doesn’t sound like shouting
- Voice tone modulates. It’s not a monotone
- Presenter varies the pace of speaking
- The speaker does not hesitate when speaking
- The speaker looks at the audience
- The speaker refers to what is on the screen but does not read it
- The speaker does not use distracting arm or hand gestures
The list could go on. The point is that the list gives you a place to start when you want to identify the development area. It also can help you think of other skills or performance elements.
Use the completed list as the basis for brief interviews with some of the people who attended the presentation. Explain that the presentation didn’t go as well as you wanted, and you are hoping to get input. People often have difficulty coming up with specific feedback on their own. Having a list jogs the memory and makes it easier for them to recall examples of things that did or did not go well.
If you want to take a more structured approach you could, for example, ask questions such as “I structured my opening XYZ, how do you think that worked?” Or “How do you think the transition between X topic and Y topic went?” Or “Do you have any other suggestions regarding my body language?”
Also, explain that you are just going to listen and ask questions only if you don’t understand something. Otherwise, you are going to be quiet. (If you tend to be defensive, this could be a challenge.) At the conclusion say thank you.
A few conversations could lead to feedback like:
- Hesitation when speaking and answering questions
- A tendency to look down when answering questions – especially difficult questions
- Voice got very soft and hard to hear at those times
These are behaviors that you easily could be unaware of. Taken together and after a bit of reflection, this information could lead to the conclusion that at least some of the participants in the meeting perceived that you lacked confidence and weren’t well informed.
Let’s assume that this is accurate.
A public workshop might be helpful, but probably not nearly as helpful as activities that would help you deal effectively with difficult questions, like:
- doing a dry-run with co-workers and providing them with the presentation in advance so they can come up with their own difficult questions.
- identifying critical questions and answers yourself for key points in the presentation
Applying this approach more broadly
Although this post has focused on a particular example, the approach will work with a variety of areas. All you need to do is slightly alter the four steps described above:
- Brainstorm a list of the skills it takes to perform the skill you are addressing
- Use that list as the basis for obtaining input from others
- Review the input and determine the likely problem.
- Identify possible fixes and implement the solution
A presentation workshop easily can be one to three days. That’s eight to twenty-four hours. If you devote even eight hours to figuring out what you actually need to address, there’s a good chance you’ll find your answer and more.