delivering great presentations
How can you recharge your presentation skills to be your most inspiring? How can you handle presentation nerves?
While some people seem born to present, we believe that good presentation skills are still within everyone’s grasp. So, the next time you have to present and you would rather stay under the duvet, we hope you’ll have a read of some of the simple ways you can make it a better experience all round. We’ll start with a list of some of the worries most commonly expressed by our clients.
How can I best prepare?
Where should I start with structuring my presentation?
How can I develop personal style?
Is there anything else to try for presentation nerves?
How can I keep my audience engaged...even when I'm up last?
What follows are some of the answers we've found over a decade of working with colleagues on their crucial presentations. We hope you’ll find them useful.
How to best prepare
When preparing for a presentation, most people start by thinking about their content. Before you get stuck in, it can be very useful to ask yourself three key questions:
Why? What is the purpose of your presentation? What do you need your audience to think or do?
Who? Who is your audience? or Who is your readership if you’re sending your ideas digitally ?
What? What are the core messages they need to hear?
The next questions relate to the practicalities of the event. What do you need to do in advance to achieve your ambitions? Where and when does this event need to happen? Why? Who do you need to talk to? What can you send them up front?
What about the rooming, your technical stuff? Could you get into the space you’ll be presenting in advance if you can and play with all the technical equipment (if you’re using any) and get a feel of things? What will you do after the presentation to take things forward?
What is the best way to convey your ideas? How will you pitch the event? Ironically, the how question is the one most presenters overlook. More impactful than the value of your content is the presentation experience in its entirety. Yet for most presenters, these can be the afterthoughts.
Beware of falling into this common trap. The whole ‘raison d’etre’ of any presentation is to connect with your audience - it’s all about them. This means, you need to try to meet their intellectual needs and be attentive to the emotions your words may evoke. This means in your prep – and in real time on the day.
It is always best to avoid making assumptions on this score. Think about how all the stuff that is going on under the surface could help or hinder your core messages and intent as far as they are concerned. And then of course, there is your stuff!
In terms of preparing to ‘deliver’, tips about handling nerves will be shared later in this piece. Suffice to say that in terms of preparing the delivery of your content, it is always useful to practise a short and sharp intro that gets you off to a great start.
Some say that presentations are made and broken in the opening moments and stumbling in your opening seconds can put you off your stride. So, learning your fist 30 seconds and then rehearsing can help you to feel a bit more comfortable over those opening minutes.
Having said that, you do not have to be totally perfect to be a great presenter. Try being human instead!
It may make you feel better to know that some people say that good presenting is about recovering well from all the things that go wrong – and they do in most presentations.
In fact, when preparing yourself psychologically, try not to get too hung up on advice you may have heard elsewhere about a trillion things NOT to do. Our main advice is to be yourself – which for most of us is quite easy.
Trying to be someone else in a pressured situation, let alone an identikit perfect presenter, is a hiding to nowhere. Even if you were to try to emulate someone else you admire, your audience won’t believe you. Be authentic and real and you’re on to a good thing.
To fine-tune your professional prep, you could do worse than paying heed to Aristotle’s advice. He argued that to be your most persuasive you needed to appeal to ethos, pathos and logos - so prepare to be credible and logical and to appeal to their emotions.
Jot down your thoughts in terms of what you could do or share to address each of the three prongs.
What about structure?
Your next job is to get your ideas organised and clear. So, how do you ensure that your content flows smoothly, clearly and logically?
Without worrying too much at this stage, gather all your ideas together – everything that could possibly go into this presentation.
Once you have collated all your ideas and information, group your thoughts under clear headings. Order them under each if you need to, so that you can provide structure and clarity to the presentation journey. At a later date you can rethink your headings, to ensure that they sound like interesting hooks as opposed to bland banners.
In terms of your presentation structure, where you position key data, statistics or case studies will surely depend on what will be of most interest to your audience on the day. If you have logically grouped your ideas to create a generic presentation you can still usefully tweak the content or graphics or rejig the order of your slides to personalize your presentation so that it better connects.
Speaking of which, it may be very clear to you where it is you want to take people. Clearly you need to let them in on the act too. Unless, that is, you want to take them on a mystery tour, which can also be a useful device if you are using it deliberately.
The presentation journey
So, how will you entice your audience to come with you on the presentation journey? What could you do in advance to whet their appetites or prepare them to be their most receptive?
This may mean having diplomatic chats with potential resistors beforehand or finding out what their main interests in your subject are. You can then pre-empt more challenging presentation scenarios and shape your presentation around answering their specific needs.
The magic of three
Three is a good number. Many more headings that than that means risking that your audience will not remember very much at all. If there is so much more to say, use three main headings and then create sub-headings under each.
For supporting resources, such as a document like this one, using sub-headings also means that you can break up your content and people can skip the bits they are not interested in.
Digital presentations mean you can provide people with far more flexible structures.
Use hyperlinks where you can so that people can click into the topics of further relevance to them, within or beyond the document or presentation itself. You can do the same by creating hyperlinks from your agenda slide. (More on this in our article Navigating Compelling Presentations).
A less linear agenda can still offer a clear structure, which also affords your audience or readers a degree of control about which paths they would like to take.If you are able to find out or negotiate with them up front about which aspects of your topic are of most relevance to them, all the better.
Some of the old wisdoms can still be useful. Presentations need clear signposts so that your audience knows where they are, so some presenters are still firm believers in the mantra:
Tell them what you’re going to tell them
Tell them you’ve told them
You don’t have to necessarily ladle it on with a trowel, but it’s not a bad idea to be as clear as you can be. If clarity is king, colour is queen is helping you to bring your messages home and help to convey complex ideas more simply. Colourful visuals generally are useful, as is the colour of examples, case studies, stories and metaphors.
More of which later, but for now think about how using analogies can bring your ideas to life in different ways. Saying that ‘Unstructured presentations can be like dog’s dinners’ may help to better connect you with the point being made here.
On which point, keep an eye on those light bulbs and other over-used training metaphors. If your audience are not lighting up you may need to try a different one.
How to develop your personal style
So that brings us to the third element of great presentations - you!
When you are presenting you are at your most visible, why wouldn’t you want to create the best impressions, extend your influence and win their support for the business? How can you be sure to deliver and what can you do to develop as a presenter?
The word deliver often feels the sticking point here as it doubly underlines the importance of presenting. According to where you present (and to whom) it also may imply all sorts of things about how you’re supposed to do that.
For some people, that means feeling that they are responsible to fire off endless bullet points of data and every last shred of information. Sometimes the business world seems to have gone mad in this respect.
The standard approach to presentations is best captured better by Groucho Marx when he said, “Before I speak, I have something important to say.” The obvious implication that we are ourselves and then we stand up, clear our throats and become our presenter selves.
We say strange things, we tell people things they already know - or things they are not interested in. Our whole professional demeanour may change, even our voice, as we believe that to deliver we have to perform.
As audiences we usually want to be addressed by a real human being (warts and all) as opposed to an uber slick operator don’t we? So, try not to think too much about performance, think dialogue. As well as encouraging interaction, promoting a dialogue helps to take the pressure off those of us who dread presenting.
Handle their expectations
To be fair, certain expectations are often built into what presenting looks like historically within your business - which may not always represent the most inspiring models to follow
Yet as long as you deliver, surely it doesn’t really matter how you do it. It only matters that what you do does the job appropriately, effectively and within the bounds of the culture of your company or industry.
Nevertheless, if you do decide to take a risk to do things differently, to surprise people or even shock them, you may need to prepare the ground politically. Ask for permission, if that’s the world you work in, or ask your audience if you think trying a new approach could be professionally suicidal.
Suggesting a five-minute overview followed by discussion, as opposed to the usual 60 minute monologue and its dreaded ‘any questions’ conclusion, may be tantamount to sacrilege, or it may be met by warm approval and relief.
Instead of lengthy and detailed presentations which rely on your running commentary or cram-packed slides which may be indecipherable, why not devolve some of the responsibility elsewhere?
Editing what you actually show to your audience does not mean you have to dumb down your content. You can put more detailed information in takeaway resources, pamphlets, comprehensive reports and so on. Interesting and stimulating support material are gifts to everyone - not least reluctant presenters who don’t want to stand and deliver for too long.
Gifts too, for audiences who can’t bear to sit and pretend to be listening.
Audiences engage with presenters who are passionate about their subject, so watch your ‘passion-o-meter’. Too much may be overkill (pause for swift glance in the mirror), on the contrary, displaying little passion for your subject may turn people off.
So, how can you check yourself from ranting and where can you get excited about your subject? Find moments to change the energy and pace of your presentation. For example, when you have made a strong point…pause.
Let it sink in.
For those presenters who find their subject genuinely dull, you do still need to find something or what hope is there for your poor audience?
Know your strengths
Speaking of feelings, most people have better presentation skills that they think they do, which is why we are great believers in seeing yourself on film - however excruciating that may sound.
In the first place, it is important to recognize what you have - not what you have not. Starting from your natural style you can then look at what to turn up or turn down as necessary. It is also a development strategy that is do-able and sustainable.
When up in front of an audience, most people feel vulnerable, so do encourage those around you to tell you what worked. Do get a trusted colleague or friend to share their honest thoughts about your performance.
Ask them to be kind and kindly constructive, their job is not to destroy any last vestige of hope and dignity. When you mull things over on your own, challenge yourself to try to do the same.
It is really useful to get feedback and to reflect on what you could do differently BUT remember it is still all about your audience. On which bombshell...
What can you do about presentation nerves?
Firstly, you need to know that 99% of presenters, including professional performers, still get nervous about standing up in front of their peers to present. Why wouldn’t they?
What you feel when you stand up in front of people is the urge to either run away or fight - or else you freeze. If you try to deny those feelings you are fighting against your body’s natural response to stress, which is there for a reason.
Accept, acknowledge, adapt, authentic
Rather than playing the Rocky theme tune and trying to deny how terrified you feel. Acknowledge that you will be nervous. In any case, you need the extra energy to communicate, so a certain amount of nervousness is vital for any good presentation.
Accept your feelings rather than try to wish them away through sheer will power! Your next step is to acknowledge what usually happens to you when you're feeling under pressure. Accept that at the moment of lift-off you may sometimes forget your own name, stammer or blush - then have your plan B ready. Find something you could adapt or change about your pattern of behavior to break the spell. Prepare yourself by knowing what you will do if the situation occurs.
If any ‘rabbit-in-the-headlight’ persona creeps up on you, instead of freezing to the spot, move! Walk across the space, pick up a glass of water, sip - put the glass back down again. Anything, to avoid being rooted to the spot, rendered mute.
This response, as well as buying you some time, could also have the added advantage of making you look calm, thoughtful and commanding. It may seem an odd idea, but our bodies seem to feel better when they have some sort of displacement activity to occupy them. Having something to do tends to release tension. Do try it.
Certainly, the start of your presentation is when most of us feel our most insecure, so you could also try holding on to something rooted to the ground. A lectern, the back of a chair - even standing next to something solid may help you feel less wobbly. It may sound strange - who cares if you find something to make yourself feel less vulnerable?
Another much played down nerve quietener is twiddling. Lots of people have been told no to. Personally, I don’t object to a bit of quiet and appropriate twiddling. My twiddle of choice is to play with blue tak. Some people use stress balls, hold a pen, presentation pointers. Something that doesn’t make a clicking noise or become too distracting for your audience is the best idea.
Before you write in to complain that it is absurd to encourage people to display their nervous habits in public, we are saying that whatever you choose to do it obviously needs to be clean and unobtrusive. So, if you stay mindful of how many shapes you have made with the blue tak it’s fine. As long as the comfort blanky itself does not appear from the closet, whatever helps quell the jitters, go for it.
The result of the surge of adrenaline we get when we are faced by a perceived threat can also result in shallow upper chest breathing and tension. Staying conscious of your breathing really helps.
Take slow, deep breaths and slow down your exhalations. If it helps, imagine trying to make the flame of an imaginary candle flicker. It’s almost impossible to panic when you put your attention on how you breathe.
Focusing on your breathing will also help you to slow down. Try to go even slower, it will help you to avoid gabbling. It's a fact that in this heightened state your sense of what is really going on can be distorted, so what seems normal pace to you may sound double quick to your audience.
If you think you speak too quickly, you could tell yourself to try to pause after each section. Counting to 5 in your head after you’ve made a really important point or remembering to take those occasional sips of water could also help.
Take pauses too to gather your thoughts. Not only does the use of the pause help to uphold your status, your audience will also thank you for the time to assimilate and interpret what you are saying.
Back to why it happens. The extra adrenalin is there to help you to stay sharp and ready to engage with your audience. Use it. An athlete would. In any case, who wants to see a complacent presenter who has ceased to care?
In terms of all these suggestions, clearly you’ll decide which ones best suit you and your situation, so do question our well-meant advice and anyone else's that says what you should never or always do. This includes choosing whether you should stand in the same spot that everyone else does or indeed whether or not you have to stand at all.
It also includes how the room has to be set out. If it is okay to do so, why not rearrange the furniture or lay out of the room to make things feel easier?
Everyone will benefit from having a more relaxed and comfortable presenter, so use questions themselves to take you out of the spotlight. They have the dual advantage of taking the pressure off you as presenter and they ensure that the audience feel more included.
You could start by asking a question or presenting bold visuals to grab their attention, rather than putting your nerves on display. Visual aids are there to support you, the clue being in their title.
Remind yourself of all the other ways too that you can support yourself, ones that don’t rely on you being on broadcast. The support of other colleagues, of experts, of planted questions, of activities and things for the audience to work out - all take the pressure off you and help your audience to stay engaged.
Again remember, you don’t have to be perfect! Being prepared and professional is a good enough place to start. Involving your audience in your presentation is what real professionals do.
How can you engage your audience and keep them with you?
So that brings us neatly to what else you can do to involve your audience. Remember their job in this deal is to fall asleep with their eyes open.
Your job as a presenter is to stimulate and communicate with your audience, so that they want the information you have. It is not to talk at everyone until the very last ounce/milligram of information has been unceremoniously recited. It helps to do a reality check about what is really going to stick. Aside from the irritation of sitting through 96 slides.
Despite their polite professional attention, you still have to earn the right to be really listened to. How can you grab their attention from the beginning and keep them with you right to the end? And what thoughts do you intend to leave them with?
Use visuals well
Quality graphics, pictures, bar charts also help paint the big picture far more effectively than wading through bullet points, plus you get to say less.
Visual aids, by the way, do not include your speaker notes. Let us be really clear here. Slides with lots of words on are usually of limited value. If you seem to have a lot, it’s because you are sharing your speaker notes.
Using story is another great way to keep people engaged. We all love stories. Follow the simple conventions of set up, build up and pay off. Once upon a time there was a very skeptical person who felt nervous about sharing stories with serious and seriously busy senior executives, but after quite a few happy endings I feel really comfortable now at using the conventions of story.
Think about what’s going on, who your characters are, the goodies as well as the potential baddies, the problem to be resolved, the proposed solution – it’s a tried and tested format, it’s also an easy and familiar structure to follow.
The fact is that there is no excuse for not finding a variety of ways to share your ideas. Aside from feeling that you never having enough time (but that’s for another article!) it is far too easy though to shrug off the fact that you cannot be your shiniest and best every time, or that your subject does not lend itself to a more inspiring approach.
It is important to approach presentations as a dialogue. Have a conversation. Your listeners may not actually say anything - especially if you are addressing a large audience - but you can make them feel consulted, questioned, challenged, argued with. Then they will stay awake and attentive if you do.
Try not to defer to your visual aids, stay present to what is going on. Look for reactions to your ideas and respond to their signals. If the signs indicate they are not with you, check that this is the case. Stop. If you are not connecting, pausing to find out what they are thinking is not a radical choice - it’s a necessary one. So, monitor their reactions and respond.
Your audience must be at the top of your agenda. It can be very easy to feel that your pre-prepared script is. Connect with people in real time. If you don't, you might as well send a recording of yourself going through you reciting your script happily undisturbed. If you are asked a question, it means they are engaged so don’t make them wait too long for the answer - their attention may go elsewhere.
As a rule of thumb, most people will want to hear what you have to say - they want you to do well. There may be someone out there who thinks you are marvelous. The odds are that there may be someone else in the audience will not like what you have to say.
Handle the politics
Try to welcome comments and questions however challenging - it’s usually not personal. In any case, active resistance is always preferable to silence. Use it to find out what the other person sees and try to build their perspective into your view of the subject. If you can acknowledge what they have to say it is much harder for them to continue trying to trip you up, if that is their game.
If it is, there is a great deal more to be said on that subject, lots of subtle things you can do to stay in control. Our experience says that having a go with some of the ideas mentioned will help pre-empt badly behaved audiences. When your presentations acknowledge their needs and concerns at the very least you will be offering a thought-provoking dialogue.
Whatever happens - try to end well, even if you feel you've done badly. Firstly, you're probably the worst judge of how you've really done. And secondly, if you finish well, even when you’re unsure of how things have panned out, some people will believe it was actually pretty good. Anyway a good finish may even get you some applause!
Be kind to yourself
Try to be kind to yourself. One of my colleagues talks about PITs and PETs. PIT stands for performance inhibiting thought, PET for performance enhancing thought. Think PETs so that you can avoid digging your own pit.
If you are new to presenting or still feel terribly anxious, try not to over reach yourself in one go. Give yourself a chance to succeed. A few mini presentations that go well will do far more for you than one biggie that leaves you feeling inadequate.
And, if you do need to change a few things? Frame your future options in positive ways. Give yourself things to try, instead of chastising yourself. The alternative is to put all your focus upon NOT doing something. Try to give yourself a few things to do, as opposed to a shopping list of things NOT to do. It’s a far more effective way to progress.
Keep a sense of perspective too. If you are generally seen as professional, things would have to go very horribly wrong for you to scupper your reputation by one presentation.
If you’ve done your homework, related your ideas to your audience and involved them as much as you can - you will have given yourself every chance to be effective and engaging.
For starters, remind yourself of all you know about the subject in hand and how well prepared you are - and good luck!