Doug Neff of presentation specialist firm Duarte just wrote a short advice column providing Tips for Kids on How To Nail Presentations in the Classroom.
I salute Doug for his efforts. I think such advice is great and benefits future generations of people who will grow to be more effective and successful at incorporating effective presentation skills into their business and professional lives. I wrote a similar column a year ago, focusing on different aspects. I like Doug's layout a lot more than my dense text version!
This type of advice is much on my mind this week as I prepare to deliver presentation tips to high school students at a school near me. What struck me is that Doug and I have diametrically opposed advice on one small issue… What to do with your feet.
I'll bet if we met to talk it out, we would both agree that we are actually on the same page philosophically. But there is an inherent danger in trying to distill subtle presentation coaching down to quick "sound bite" pearls of wisdom.
To be specific, Doug wrote:
"For most of your presentation, keep your feet still, like you stepped on two big pieces of bubble gum and can’t move them. Then, when it’s time to change to a different topic or the ending of your presentation, you can walk to a new spot on the stage and stand still again."
Meanwhile, I'm busily telling the students that they should NOT stand rooted to the floor! What the heck?
My best guess is that Doug is trying to stave off a common behavior (particularly when novice speakers feel nervous). People can unconsciously shift their weight back and forth from foot to foot, creating a swaying motion to the entire body. It is far better to plant those feet and avoid inducing seasickness in your audience.
Whereas I wanted to help avoid a different type of common nervous behavior, which is to lock your body rigidly in an attempt to stop yourself from shaking. The feet stay rooted to the floor. Legs are straight, with knees locked in place. Hands are rigid at the side, or are thrust into pockets, or are clasped in front of the body. Everything is tightened up to keep yourself from trembling.
Of course this simply results in even greater uncontrollable shaking as muscles fight against the stiff and unmoving positions they have been placed in. As the muscles twitch, the speaker fights even harder to tighten them and place more strain on them. It can create a feedback loop that is horrific to behold (or experience).
So my advice for nervous speakers is the opposite of Doug's. I'd rather have the kids bend their knees and pace a little bit. Keep the arms swinging as you move towards one side of the room, talk to the people over there, using some hand gestures, then move across the stage and speak to the other side of the room. The movements hide little shakes and nervous trembling. The presenter can feel like they are "covering up" the worst of their jitters and the muscles don't get locked into a strained stress reaction.
As I said, I'll bet if we each had more time and space to write out everything, Doug and I would end up supporting each other. I don't want kids to look like they are hopped up on caffeine, and Doug doesn't want them to look like statues. As with everything else, a quick piece of absolute advice can't cover every situation or deal with which side of perfection a particular presenter tends to err on.
All I know is… This is the wrong approach for your next presentation: