Presentation Skills: What Harvard Doesn’t Teach You

People are shocked when I tell that the only time I give presentations at Harvard is for my Chinese class. “Business” majors everywhere else in the country are working on group projects and giving final presentations for pretty much all of their classes.

If you’re shy and/or socially awkward (which may or may not be the case for a Harvard student), then you may need some tips on how to sound confident and competent when you’re presenting your recommendations for a multi-million buck project. While Public Speaking is a natural given for theater geeks, it CAN be learned. I somehow managed to learn it even though I was that kid who would never speak in class unless called upon.

Presentation skills are essential in today’s work force. Don’t let your Ivy League education hold you back from presenting yourself well.

1) Practice.

A few people can wing it, more can bring a set of notes and sound competent, but if your throat closes up when you have to stand up in front of just 5 people, you’re going to have to start relying on your other skills to prop you up at first. If you’re at Harvard, you know how to memorize.

So, write out EXACTLY what you want to SAY the way you would normally SAY it. Don’t make it sound like a book. It ain’t a paper where your TF will write “awk.”

And then memorize it. It will feel super lame, and you will probably think that you yourself are super lame, but if you know what to say, you can then worry about how you want to say it.

Also, you need to be memorized to the point where if you screw up, you will be able to continue normally. No recitations here.

2) Fake it, until you make it.

Once that script is out of your hands, practice giving the presentation as if you were the main lead in your high school play. You want to sound convincing, and the first thing to do so, is to PRETEND you sound convincing. Imagine yourself as some sort of big deal CEO or world conquerer. Was Alexander the Great afraid of public speaking? I think not.

3) Volume and Speed

Two biggest mistakes: being too quiet, speaking too quickly.

Speak REALLY LOUDLY to compensate for the fact that you’ll want to speak really quietly.

Speak REALLY SLOWLY to compensate for the fact that you’ll want to speak really really really quickly just to get the whole thing over with and spit out every little detail of your memorized speech before you forget it.

Grab a good friend, and have them let you know how loud and fast you should be. Once you find that groove, really listen to what you’re saying, and try to replicate it later on. Keep making note of your speed and volume when you are actually presenting.

4) Posture

Professors can get away with slouching, but you can’t. So stand up straight. I like to position my legs slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. I like to sort of anchor myself into the ground, visualizing myself as a big oak or elm. Sway not.

While a lot of the best public speakers walk around, if you’re a n00b, you’re best with trying to minimize slouching, rocking and twitching. You need to neutralize the detrimental habits before you can work on amplifying your stage presence.

5) Hands are the expression of the mind.

People like to fidget with their hands, twiddle with whatever is in their pockets, or play with their ties. Keep your hands out in front of you. Bug said lovely friend to tell you what annoying hand motions you keep on doing.

One thing I really like to do is to gesture from the shoulders and forearms rather than from the hands and fingers. Once I’m “grounded” and have my back straight, any sort of hand motion originates first from the shoulders and forearms. Or in other words, less wrist and knuckle movement. This is sort of a weird, advance-ish? concept, but it makes you look more confident and less flighty and nervous.

(Captain Jack Sparrow ascribes to the theory that motion should come mostly from the hands and fingers, while Optimus Prime of the Transformers is all about limb movement.)

6) Keep your mind clear. Be in your body.

When my middle school started forcing its progressive project and presentation based education on my poor painfully shy self, I eventually learned to stop FREAKING OUT OMG over presentations.

Think about it. If your mind is going 120 mph, you’re not going to be able to speak confidently at the right pace and volume level. Questions are going to throw you off your game. You’re basically a top whizzing about on the top of a pinhead.

So, when you’re FREAKING OUT, just think to yourself the number of people who actually truly care about your presentation, and of those people that really do care, chances are they will be focused more about your content rather than the delivery (if you ain’t got content, your public speaking skills are pointless).

Presentation skills are ways to subconsciously make your audience more receptive to what your saying. (Think used car salesman.)

So, take a deep breath. Stop freaking out, and get over yourself for-the-love-of-god.

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