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Presentation skills 101: engaging teenagers

So here’s the gig…

Speak to 90 pupils of a secondary school in Glasgow for 40 minutes about presentation skills that will help them in life.

How do you keep them engaged?

How do you spark their imagination?

I use a very simple method – to make sure I relate, before it’s too late.

How to structure your presentation

Here I turn to the rules we impart on the presentation skills courses we run in Glasgow, Edinburgh and across the UK.

We ask clients to pose three questions to create the right content.

Q1: What points do I want to make?

Q2: Who’s today’s audience?

Q3: So how will I arrange it?

Key points

presentation skills training courses glasgow old man on boat.

We decided on a subject title:

Say What You Mean – Mean What You Say

That gave me the territory to be covered.

Now to select the key points I wanted to get across.

Here, I gave thought to three things I wished some wise old bloke in a suit had told me when I was 16:

  1.  Learn how to go up to a complete stranger and introduce yourself
  2.  Speak positively rather than falling into British negative language
  3.  Choose words of commitment rather than watering down words

The audience

Given that all are to leave school within weeks, I wanted to arm them with practical advice.

Advice that would help them build their confidence before university, college, or a job interview.

How will I arrange it?

I’d use a number of vivid stories to hold attention and illustrate each point.

I’d leave them with a call to action to ask any questions, or come up for a word afterwards.

One small step for man

presentation skills training courses glasgow first men on moon.

(l-r) Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin

I believed a 16-year-old would prefer that I launched straight into a fun story rather than drone on about what I’ve done and learned in my life.

So I began with this.

“An 11 year-old boy who once went to this school wanted to join his Dad’s golf club, but had to overcome the hurdle of being ‘interviewed’ by the club captain.

His Dad offered the boy advice on how to introduce himself.

“Walk into the room with your head held high,” he told him.

“Go up to the captain and tell him your name and that you’re very pleased to meet him.

“Give him a firm and warm handshake and wait until you’re asked to sit down.

If you start like that, you’ll make a good impression.”

presentation skills training courses glasgow moon in sky.

Well the boy did just that – was welcomed into the club – and played there for years to come.

When the boy was 22, he was working in Chicago in the United States and attending a golf outing.

A friend told him that he may want to go and say hello to the man sitting alone at the bar.

The young man asked why.

“Just say hello and you’ll find out,” replied his friend.

So he walked over to the bar, head high and introduced himself, saying he was pleased to meet the stranger.

But the stranger was better known than he could have imagined.

“Hello…I’m Neil Armstrong,”

replied the man at the bar.

“Pleased to meet you.”

And that’s how you get to meet the first man on the moon.

presentation skills training courses glasgow bill mcfarlan with tom watson.

Bill McFarlan interviews golfer Tom Watson

Now that story takes just a minute to tell – but it makes a point about the need to learn to speak to complete strangers.

I had to learn to introduce myself from my first day in journalism.

Firstly, to go up to the police station sergeant and introduce myself as being a reporter from the East Kilbride News.

Finally, being comfortable walking up to golf legends Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, the bad boy of tennis John McEnroe or Princess Anne and introduce myself as being a BBC reporter.

Negative language

presentation skills training courses glasgow donald trump negative language.

For the sixth year pupils, I would then choose to talk about the negative language we hear from President Trump every week.

Calling people liars, accusing journalists of reporting “fake news” and criticising everyone from judges to actresses if they disagree with him.

I’d point out that we live in an era where many feel it’s OK to be negative, especially on social media.

But I asked what a potential employer might think of them if they were to come across sarcasm, criticism, foul language or negativity on their Facebook page.

Then there’s the language we use without thinking that can come across so negatively.

I recall taking part in a careers night at the same school many years ago.

As a sixth-year pupil came into the room to talk about careers in the media, I asked him how he was.

“Oh – surviving”,

he replied, to my horror.

presentation skills training courses glasgow schoolkid with tie.

I believe that’s down to conditioning.

It could well have been that his Mum or Dad replied to the same question that way.

My Dad was inclined to reply:

“I’m not too bad. I can’t complain. I mustn’t grumble.”

I would point out to the pupils out that:

“I’m good thanks – and you?”

is more likely to land a job…and find them a life partner.

On our presentation skills and media training courses, we call these unnecessary negatives Pink Elephants.

(If I say not to think of a Pink Elephant, that’s what you think about).

The negative words come from negative thinking.

People worry about saying or doing the wrong thing rather than saying or doing the right thing.

Something to soak up

presentation skills training courses glasgow royal bank of scotland plaque.

Finally, I’d tell the pupils about “watering down words”.

Words like ‘hopefully’, ‘try’, ‘I’ll do my best’, the use of which are the quickest way to talk yourself out of a job.

I spent a couple of hours one evening with a friend’s son, hearing about his frustration in going for job interviews, to be turned down each time.

When I asked him questions and showed him the results, he was astonished at how many watering down phrases he used.

We then rehearsed using phrases like “I firmly believe”, I’m committed” and “I’m determined”

Suddenly the interview was thoroughly positive and inspiring.

Make it relate – before it’s too late

So that’s how I created the talk for the sixth-year pupils.

But it’s the same method for any group you’re talking to – if you can make it relate, before it’s too late.

So what became of my friend’s son after our rehearsal?

He landed the next job he applied for.

Last I heard, he held a senior post with RBS in India.

What became of the lad who was self-assured enough to introduce himself to the first man to set foot on the moon?

He’s now Managing Director of Pink Elephant Communications.


Bill McFarlan is Executive Chairman of  Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can view his full profile here

Photo credit: NASA on The Commons; Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA; arteunporro / CC BY; morebyless  / CC BY; soei_cs_82 / CC BY; all via

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