Great Presentations and Trust

by janetkayfetz

This post expresses the thoughts of Adam Doupe who recently completed a 10-week Great Presentations class I taught for PhD students in Computer Science at UC Santa Barbara. This was Adam’s second time participating in the class. I will post more of these personal reflections, so be looking for them!

“The last thing that I worked on [in the Great Presentations class] was ad-libbing or off-the-cuff presentations. I wanted to experiment with giving presentations with minimal preparation.  In doing so, I learned something not only about myself, but also about presentations in general.

What I learned was how Trust is important in a presentation. Here, I’m specifically talking about trust in yourself and your abilities. The more presentations I gave with little preparation, the more I began to trust my ability to string together coherent thoughts into a coherent story to get my point across. This gave me confidence in my ability to react to questions, interruptions, and general presentation surprises.

During the course of the class, after watching my fellow students rely less on memorization, I came to a theory about trust. These students would memorize their talks beforehand. Then, when giving the talks, they would recite and remember the exact words they should say. I firmly believe that memorization leads to presentations that are boring; presentations where the speaker is not really present. It also leads to very awkward moments: the speaker loses their train of thought and tries to remember exactly what they had written down, not the point that they were trying to make. Or when the speaker gets completely derailed when someone asks a question. Or when the speaker makes a mistake and goes back and corrects that mistake repeatedly until the sentence is “correct” with respect to what they had written previously.

Adam presenting in the GreatP class

Adam presenting in the GreatP class

I believe that trust in one’s own speaking ability is the key to getting over the rigid adherence to a memorized script. The true path toward a more effective presentation is in memorizing only the key points you need to make. Then, you can let your mind create the specific sentences and words on-the-fly to connect those points. You should know your story down cold. This way you can be present, in the moment, during your presentation.

Now, it should be noted that I am not against rehearsal. I believe that rehearsal leads a presentation to become crisp, and rehearsal is the key difference between a good presentation and a great presentation. Rehearsal helps you fine-tune those transitions and words. You can identify the places where you stumble, the places that are great, and the key ideas that are missing. Once you marry trust and rehearsal, when you are actually giving your talk, you won’t be rigidly following a script. You will trust yourself to take those detours, to point out details, or say things that you never did in rehearsal. You will be able to handle questions, skip some parts for time, or wrap up the presentation 15 minutes early if need be. And you will do it without the audience knowing that anything has changed. In short, you will be in full command of your presentation.

In class I practiced this principle in the two-minute talk, without visuals, about the book that I was reading. Beforehand, I thought through the main points that I wanted to hit. I also decided on the format (posing the situation and asking the class what they would do), but I had never given the talk before. As this was the first talk that I did not deliberately prepare beforehand, I was frankly surprised by how well it went. This was the talk that intrigued me into exploring the interaction between lack of memorization and trust.”

Thank you Adam!