I have been invited to give a presentation — a presentation on digital portfolios to be precise. Dr. John Alexander Smith (with whom I’ve worked before), of the Interior Design department at my old college asked me if I would be interested in talking to a class of final year undergraduates on the subject of electronic portfolios and personal websites. Rarely the one to back down from a chance to scare myself to death with seemingly insurmountable tasks, I said yes.
I haven’t given a formal presentation to a group of people in a while. In more recent years, as a freelance designer, I’ve often needed to think on my feet and go into explanatory monologues with clients on occasion, but that sort of spur-of-the moment, spontaneous occurrence was almost never planned and I rarely found it intimidating. This was in large part because I had full confidence in what I was saying. Always a plus.
Say the words presentation or public speaking, however, and most people, myself included, lose sight of the pragmatism demonstrated in my previous example. Then it comes down to pure and unadulterated fear of the fight-or-flight variety.
My encounters with stage fright, public speaking anxiety, and presentation success
My first experiences on stage was as part of a group. As a kid in school I was into singing. I was in the school choir, and our large group of mostly melodious chipmunks belted out very traditionalist Indian tunes and patriotic fervour at every public occasion. It was fun, and more attractive than the 5-10 minutes of stage time, were all those classes I got to miss legitimately for “practice” before any big event. Being the multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-everything place that India is, the calendar of Indian School Muscat was filled with occasions, and the practice was plentiful. The freedom of being able to march out of class unfettered when the call came, and walk the empty corridors as we headed for the music room, was a truly liberating experience for a school kid. Those experiences had more of an impact on me than I consciously give them credit for.
I did a few solo performances around the same time, and while I was not brimming with confidence, I managed to not be reduced to a quivering mass of custard. Into adolescence the singing stopped, changing voices can rarely be pushed too far and there is always the bit of awkwardness that comes with the territory. Then in my last year in school I had a bit of a set back. A solo song/poetry recital with no musical accompaniment went horribly wrong when I stepped on to the stage in front of a few hundred souls and my mind went completely blank as to how the tune went. I could remember the words perfectly, but the melody was suddenly a mystery to me. After what seemed like an eternity of silence, but was more likely a few seconds of utter panic on my part, I just dived in with a made-up tune. Thankfully, it was meant to be more about the poetry on that occasion, and perhaps I did get away with it to some extent. But, I knew I had messed up, and I’m sure the strain showed, and that was enough. A few days later when I was strolling around the school playground, a younger boy came up to me and congratulated me on my performance. A casual, friendly gesture, for which I was truly grateful. I said thank you, but I was never convinced I had really gotten away with it.
Not being one to dwell too consciously on my past demons, my first term in college I signed up for a public speaking course. When registering, I was told it was still available because it was a requirement and because so many were trying to avoid it for as long as possible. I thought it would be best to face this dragon post haste, and I did. My instructor was Huma Ehtisham, and she brought an intellectual intensity to the proceedings that truly got me excited about the prospect of speaking. In spite of the butterflies, the cold sweat, and the (literally) knocking knees, I got through my first 4-minute demonstration with what looked to the audience like complete confidence – at least that is what I’m assuming based on the encouraging applause I received when I had finished, and the paper plane soared into the audience. I had just demonstrated how to make a slightly more sophisticated paper plane.
After that the presentations seemed to get easier a little, although the complete panic was always there and palpable. That class was a great way to start a college education, and I am always glad I took the plunge on that particular occasion. That class, the people in it and the wonderful lady at the helm added a lot to my reserve of confidence and my general thought processes as they have come to be over the years. For that, I am thankful to them all.
What makes a good presentation?
Throughout the rest of my stint as an undergraduate at university, I had the pleasure and the panic of presenting in front of a class on many occasions. By and large they were a resounding success, as long as I was not completely indifferent towards the topic in question. That never really happened because I always made sure I found an angle to everything that would keep me interested above all else. There are many who talk volumes about the importance of holding the interest of the audience in public speaking situations, but I feel not enough is said about the virtues of the speaker holding his/her own interest first.
I also made full use of my growing skills as a visual designer. Where others relied on staid charts and slides with borrowed templates and cumbersome bullet points, I always put in the extra effort to come up with custom designed slides and graphics to stand out and get my point across in a more entertaining way. In the early days I actually worked with video based graphics using the simple Scala 100 video titling software on my ageing Amiga 500. Later I would simply create slide images in graphics packages and then run them as a slideshow with IrfanView or some other small image viewer. Till date I have never used PowerPoint.
Possibly the most important technique in my presentations was the story telling. I tried to make every topic a narration rather than a bunch of facts and figures. Not only did it engage the audience more than bullet point recitals, but it forced me to prepare much more extensively for my presentations. So much so, that I never carried any cue cards or notes during the presentation. I would stand up there with my visuals behind me, and I would talk my well-rehearsed heart out without a care in the world, and without checking any written refreshers. I think the cue-cardless presentation greatly impressed the audience and gave me an immense dose of credibility in their eyes. If the audience thinks you are credible, they listen with more attention and then minor flaws in your delivery are usually ignored. That’s a good place to be.
Presentations, speeches, and public speaking stints of every colour are usually about informing the audience about something. Having said that I find that pure information is never attractive or engaging. Some packaging, and some context is a required embellishment to any message, to keep the audience interested and to keep them listening. In whatever small way possible, no matter how grim the topic, or how serious the information, you must keep them entertained. This doesn’t mean you let off a continuous stream of cheesy one-liners through the duration and try to be funny or amusing all the time, but in your material, or in your visuals, or in your delivery, create a bit of entertainment value. It always pays dividends, because a good presentation is part discourse, part discussion, part performance, and part huddling around the fire with your audience telling them a wondrous story of the world, which they cannot help but listen too. That last part speakers often ignore or forget, but it is essential because in our hearts we are all storytellers and we are all fascinated by a well told tale.
Presentations about portfolios
That brings me back to now. I have a presentation to deliver on electronic design portfolios, and part of the reason I went through all my stories and advice above was to remind myself of how it is done. It’s easy to take these things for granted sometimes and that never has great results when you find yourself in the hotspot.
Most of my own advice I can take, although some of it might not be appropriate to this particular occasion. The fully prepared and rehearsed presentation will simply not be possible, because I don’t have enough time to prepare and perfect a one hour long presentation, and that is how long it needs to be. That being said, I will obviously have some structure to the thing, and some prepared sections. The rest will have to be more loose and extempore. I think that is a good compromise given the time I have to get this done.
As a topic, electronic portfolios and websites for creative work is a pretty good one, and one that fits in well with my interests and with the broad topics I write about on this site. I have my own solutions to portfolios, as you can see on my works page. While that wasn’t, and still isn’t, meant to be my final and ideal solution, it does its job and communicates to potential clients my range of talents adequately. I have bigger plans for the display and discussion of my work, but they are only plans and once they mature into action, you will be the first to know.
This makes the material that will come out of this presentation even more relevant. How to make a portfolio is a tricky question and one that plagues many a creative soul, so once the presentation is done I would like to put up some of my material here. If I think the information of digital portfolios can be useful, I would be glad to share it with a wider audience on this blog.
Wish me luck, and stay tuned for more as it happens.