Self-Presentation in Presentations

See also: Personal Presentation

When you give a presentation, it is important to remember the whole package, and that means how you present yourself as well as how you present the material.

It is not good to spend hours and hours preparing a wonderful presentation and neglect the effect of your own appearance.

Whether you like it or not, people make judgements about you based on your appearance.

These judgements may be conscious or subconscious, but they all affect how, and whether, your audience is prepared to take on board your message as presenter.

Our pages on Personal Appearance and Personal Presentation explain the importance of presenting yourself effectively, more generally. This page focuses on the impact of self-presentation in presentations.

The Importance of Expectations

When you stand up to give a presentation, the audience already has certain expectations about how you will behave, and what you will say.

These expectations may be based on the event, the marketing, their knowledge of you, or their previous experience more generally.

Expectations may also be based on societal norms, such as business people are expected to wear suits.

You don’t have to match people’s expectations, of course, but you do need to be aware that, if you don’t, they are going to have to spend time processing that difference. This mismatch will take some of their concentration away from your message.

You also need to be aware that people can only take so much discomfort.

A mismatch between expectations and reality can even lead to a situation called cognitive dissonance, where individuals come into contact with something — whether idea, person, or belief — that causes them to question their own internal beliefs and values.

This can be very uncomfortable, and the normal reaction is to try to avoid it. In a presentation situation, that's going to mean either leaving or just not listening, neither of which is ideal.

This is particularly important if you want to say something that your audience will find difficult to hear.

If you want to say something outrageous, wear a suit.

The late Dr Joe Jaina, Organisational Psychologist at Cranfield School of Management.

Aspects of Personal Presentation

Your personal presentation includes:

  • Clothes;
  • Accessories, which in this context means anything that you’re carrying or wearing, including your notes, although it also includes luggage, bags, phones, jewellery, watches, and scarves;
  • Body language; and
  • Voice.

Your clothes are probably the most obvious aspect of personal presentation.

In deciding what to wear, there are several things to consider:

What does the audience expect?

It’s not actually as simple as ‘wear a business suit’, because this may not always be appropriate.

It does depend what your audience is expecting. On some occasions, or in some industries, smart casual may be much more appropriate. If you’re not sure, ask the organisers about the dress code. You can also ask someone who has been to the event before, or have a look online.

If it’s a regular event, there will almost certainly be photographs of previous occasions and you can see what other people have worn.

Within the audience’s expectations, what will make you feel comfortable?

You will present best if you are fairly relaxed, so you need to find a balance between the audience’s expectations, and feeling comfortable.

For example, you may have a particular suit that you think makes you look good. For women, it’s also worth thinking about shoes: you’re going to have to stand for the duration of the session, so make sure that you can do that.

If you’re not used to heels, don’t wear them.

Your accessories should be consistent with your clothes.

That doesn’t mean that your bag needs to be the same colour as your jacket.  However, if you’re wearing a suit, your notes should be in a briefcase or smart bag, and you’re not carrying a backpack or plastic carrier bag. Again, it’s about not distracting your audience from your message.

Likewise, your notes should be part of your thinking. Producing a dog-eared sheaf of paper is not going to help you project a good image. Papers tend to flap about, whereas cue cards can be held on your hand, which is why it is worth considering using cue cards, or even memorising most of what you’re going to say and using your visual aids as cues.

See our page: Managing your Presentation Notes for more on this.

The Importance of Self-Presentation

In 2005, the Conservative Party in the UK faced a leadership election as leader Michael Howard announced that he would step down. The actual election was held between October and December that year. In October, at the Conservative Party Conference, each of the announced candidates was given an opportunity to make a 20-minute speech.

Before the speeches, David Davis was very much the front-runner in the competition. However, his conference speech was considered poor. He spoke from notes, and never really came alive. David Cameron, a more junior member of the party and considered by many an outside chance as leader, made a speech that set the hall alight. He spoke without notes, and with passion, presenting himself as the young, upcoming potential leader who could take the party in a new direction.

By the following morning, the bookies had David Cameron as the front-runner and he went on to win the leadership election.

Self-Presentation also Includes Body Language and Voice.

While there are many important elements of body language, perhaps the most important is to project self-confidence.

You need to demonstrate that you believe in what you’re saying. Otherwise, why would anyone else believe it?

For more about this, and other aspects of body language that may help your communication, see our pages on Managing a Presentation Event and Non-Verbal Communication.

Part of projecting self-belief is being able to control your voice, and speak slowly and clearly. You also need to vary your tone and pace to keep people interested.

For more about this, see our page on Effective Speaking.

In conclusion…

When you are making a presentation, you are presenting a package: you and your message. The more you are aware of the impact of every element, the more effective the package will be as a whole.

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