When you’re presenting, a good story will get you noticed, hold your audience’s attention, and inspire action.
Make that a good story well told. Because just as important as what you say is how you say it.
Week after week this summer, I’ve found myself in conference rooms, training centers, and auditoriums. In addition to my own turns at the mic, this meeting-heavy schedule has given me ample opportunity to watch good (and not-so-good) presenters in action. And I’ve been taking notes.
Culled from my notebook, here are five practical ways to deliver a more powerful, professional presentation.
1. Hold your audience’s attention by holding still.
Don’t pace while you talk. Before you start speaking, stride confidently to a spot where everyone can see and hear you. Plant your feet shoulder-width apart, stand up straight, take a full breath, smile, and begin your presentation.
I’m not saying you should never move. But do it for a purpose. For example, if you’re setting up two alternatives, deliver the first from one spot, then take a step or two in one direction to deliver the other.
2. Don’t let show time be your first time.
As a speaker, you want to introduce new insights. You want listeners to say, “Wow, I never thought of it that way.” The key to that kind of refreshing delivery? Practice.
Practice your presentation several times—and in several ways—before the delivery date. Know your overall theme and the handful of points you will use to build your message. See and hear and experience yourself sharing your story. When you take the stage, your audience will be hearing your brilliance for the first time—but you won’t.
Let go of any fear that “too much rehearsal” will make you sound stiff. Instead, know that when you have mastered your material, you and your audience will benefit from your confidence and composure. You might even surprise yourself with a brilliant turn of phrase. Flashes of inspiration do come at unexpected moments—when we are prepared.
3. Check yourself for tics.
We all have them: phrases and mannerisms that creep into our way of speaking and become a magnet for the audience’s attention. Here are just a few habits that have distracted me from messages this summer:
- Reading slides verbatim
- Scowling or squinting
- Looking up, down, right, left—anywhere but at the audience
- Fiddling with hair or watch or clothing
- Moving hands in and out of pockets (which is doubly distracting if those pockets are stuffed with keys, money, phone, and what-have-you)
- Overusing “umm,” “uhh,” “like,” or any other word that becomes habit (two trendy ones now: “right?” to end sentences and “look” to start sentences)
- Using upspeak, where vocal inflection rises at the end of a sentence, making statements sound like questions
A little slip here and there may be no big deal. But repeat these offenses into a pattern, and they quickly become a distraction. And when your audience is fixated on your habits, they’re probably missing your message.
4. Stay out of the spotlight.
You may be a captivating speaker with a fascinating message. But when your body becomes the screen, you lose your audience’s attention. And you look weird.
Before you start speaking, notice the projector, the screen, and the path of light that connects the two. Then stay out of that path.
If you mistakenly step into the glow, move left or right to get out of the way. If you stay put, with bullet points emblazoned on your face or body, we will assume that you are oblivious; and that’s enough to drop you several notches on the credibility scale.
If front-and-center is the perfect spot to answer questions or lead a discussion, then lose the light. If you’re done with your slides, power down the projector. If not, use the projector’s cap or shutter to block the light. Or use this handy-but-little-known feature built into PowerPoint’s slide show mode: hit the B key on your keyboard. The screen will go black. When you’re ready to resume, simply touch B again, and your slides will reappear. (Bonus tip: W turns the screen white.)
5. Stick to the schedule.
Going overtime is rude. It’s rude to your audience, rude to those responsible for the schedule, rude to anyone who went before you and stayed on time, and rude to anyone after you who will feel rushed or (worse) be forced to make up the time you stole from them.
Know how much time you’ve been allotted, and plan your presentation to fit those bounds. Then, while presenting, stay on schedule. Watch a clock—whether posted on the wall, affixed to your wrist, or built into the presenter view of PowerPoint. Good times to check are when you’re halfway through your material and just before you make your final point or closing remarks. If you don’t trust yourself to keep time, ask someone to give you a sign when you have 10 minutes, 5 minutes, and 1 minute to go.
When writing and rehearsing your materials, anticipate what you could cut or abbreviate to save time. But don’t ever sacrifice your conclusion. Reserve your last two or three minutes (at least) to reinforce your key message and/or call to action, say thank you, and accept whatever applause or gratitude your audience will offer.
A master class in presentation skills surely includes more than these five lessons. But start here. By focusing not just on what you say, but how you say it, you will become a more powerful, professional presenter—the kind who gets high marks from tough crowds.