- Practice and preparation are the keys to feeling – and acting – confident during your presentation.
- Avoid boring your audience by building rapport, interacting with them and surprising them.
- Mastering your body language is one of the most important ways to be a successful presenter.
- This article is for business owners and professionals who want to improve their presentation skills.
Poor presentation skills cost businesses time, money and opportunities. For entrepreneurs who rely on presentations to secure new investments or land large client accounts, a weak presentation can be the difference between success and failure.
When presentation software company Shufflrr conducted a survey of how 1,500 U.S.-based professionals behaved during business presentations, the results were grim.
One in 25 people reported walking out on a presentation that lasted too long. Another 25% admitted to having been so uninterested in the material that they fell asleep. And 1 out of every 12 people were so unengaged by a business presentation that they spent time browsing a dating app.
Strong presentation skills, on the other hand, will help your company stand out from the competition, connect with new customers, and make an impression on industry leaders.
What differentiates a strong presentation from a boring one? According to James Ontra, CEO of Shufflrr, it comes down to these four aspects.
1. Be strategic.
Ontra recommends thinking about every presentation not as a discrete set of slides, but as a part of your overall marketing strategies. This means that every time you prepare to present, you should think tactically.
Don’t focus solely on what will happen while you are speaking. Instead, structure your presentation around what you want to happen afterward. Ask yourself these questions:
- What do I want people to remember at the end of my presentation?
- What next step do I want them to take when we are done?
- How can I gain my audience’s trust?
That last one is particularly important, because the face-to-face interaction of a presentation often makes more of an impression than any other form of communication.
“If you lose them in your presentation, all your other marketing won’t make a difference,” Ontra said. “If you don’t gain trust, no matter what else [your audience] read or saw on TV, [they] would discount all of it.”
By thinking strategically, you put yourself in the mindset to create a presentation that supports your other marketing efforts and connects with your audience.
2. Prepare and practice.
According to Ontra, there is nothing worse than learning the contents of a presentation as you speak.
“You’ve got to take a moment to know the content,” Ontra said. “If you can’t speak confidently and conversationally, people will know you’re not the expert they’re looking for.” If you fail to demonstrate your expertise, your audience is going to lose interest before they come to trust your business.
Taking time to prepare and know your material is key to an engaging presentation, no matter who your audience is the topic you are covering.
Knowing your material doesn’t mean memorizing a script. Rather, try to understand what you want to communicate and why, including these elements:
- Information you want to cover, such as statistics
- The flow of the material
- The goal of the presentation
- Any questions that your audience may ask
Ontra suggests familiarizing yourself with your content well enough that you could carry on without using any of the technology or visual aids that you prepared.
“If you were one-on-one in the elevator without a slide,” he added, “how would you explain that slide to a person?”
You should be able to answer that question for every portion of your presentation. This will help you develop confidence, eliminate fillers and awkward silences, and nail down your timing. Practice on your own first; don’t memorize it, though, since this will make your delivery sound rote. Then, video yourself and watch the recording. Finally, practice with a live audience – a close friend or family member – to refine your delivery.
3. Capture attention.
The first few moments of a presentation are critical, Ontra said. This is when you have to capture your audience’s attention and convince them to listen to the rest of your presentation.
Ontra recommends using a simple tactic: Start your presentation with a small story or anecdote about your business.
“Use something that captures curiosity,” he said. If you can get them to imagine something – the dripping of a leaky pipe or the sick feeling in your stomach when you lose your wallet – it will instantly help your audience relate to what you are talking about.
If you aren’t sure where to start, Google “surprising statistics” plus the name of your industry. According to Ontra, you’ll always find something useful.
4. Speak candidly.
Once you have your audience’s attention, it can be intimidating to speak persuasively and confidently, especially if you are not comfortable with public speaking.
To overcome your anxiety, Ontra suggests picking one person in the audience to speak to. Never choose the person who intimidates you the most. Instead, “pick a friendly face in the crowd and speak to them,” he said. “Then everyone will hear that same confident message.”
By speaking as if you were talking to a friend, your presentation will naturally sound conversational and candid, rather than memorized and rehearsed.
How do you sound conversational when delivering a presentation that you’ve prepared? Don’t read what’s written on your slides. Instead, Ontra said, “visualize your slides. Put an image in your mind for each one … Something that cues you so you can talk about it, not something that cues you off so you say words that have been memorized.”
If you become nervous or lose your place, Ontra suggests remembering that all you are doing is telling a story. “Presentations are corporate storytelling. If you can tell the story of your company with a short message and have it reinforced with a visual slide, you’re in.”
What makes for a good presentation?
There are three parts to a presentation: what you say, your body language and facial expressions, and your visual aids. For a truly outstanding presentation, all of these must be top notch.
Your verbal presentation consists of both what you say and how you say it. Before beginning, think about what your audience already knows and what they want to know. If you are talking to novices, you would do well to cover the basics with a longer introduction so they aren’t lost. For a more experienced audience, a sentence or two on the basics is fine before you jump into the higher-level information to avoid boring them. Include at least one statistic or fact that is surprising to keep their attention, and tell stories to illustrate your points.
More than 6 in 10 attendees remember stories from presentations, while only 5% remember statistics.
Speak loudly and clearly. Few things are more frustrating than sitting through a presentation and not being able to hear what the speaker is saying. If you have a microphone, get to the venue early to do a mic check. Modulate your volume so that it is neither too loud nor too soft. For handheld mics, practice holding it at different distances from your mouth until you get the best volume, and be sure to keep it there throughout your presentation so your words are audible.
If you don’t have a microphone, you will need to project your voice to be heard. Breathe from your diaphragm and talk louder than you normally would. Start your presentation by asking audience members sitting in the back if they can hear you; make adjustments as needed. When talking, be sure to enunciate your words so you can be clearly understood. End each sentence with a downward pitch to portray confidence, not an escalating pitch like you would use to ask a question. Speak with enthusiasm and passion, not in a monotone.
From your practice sessions, you should have your presentation well timed to fit within your time allowance. So there is no need to talk fast. Talking fast makes you seem nervous and not in control of the material or, in a sales presentation, can make you come off as a high-pressure salesperson. It also makes it more difficult for your audience to understand what you are saying. After an important point or statement, take a pause for emphasis and let the information sink in.
When you are giving an in-person presentation, particularly on stage, it’s important to avoid certain body language mistakes. The way you stand and your facial expressions communicate a lot about your level of confidence and your emotional state. Before you go on, strike a power pose – one of Superman’s or Wonder Woman’s stances, for example – to boost your confidence. If someone is introducing you, stride purposefully up to the person, look them in the eye and shake their hand while you thank them. Then turn to your audience and focus on different parts of the room while smiling. As you are talking, take time to make eye contact with people.
According to research from Quantified, people usually make eye contact during just 30% to 60% of a conversation, but the ideal amount of eye contact to make an emotional connection is 60% to 70%.
Stand up straight with your shoulders back, and keep your arms by your side or slightly in front of you when gesturing. Some people like to move around while talking, while others prefer to stand mostly in one place. A wireless microphone will allow you to use more hand gestures, so it works best if you are the kind of person who likes to gesticulate. Otherwise, you could end up moving the mic away from your mouth or, even worse, bumping it and causing feedback.
While you are talking, smile occasionally throughout the presentation. This allows the audience to bond with you and shows that you are relaxed and confident, even if you aren’t. In fact, just the simple act of smiling can make you feel more self-assured, so it’s a win-win!
Most presentations use visual tools, such as a PowerPoint slideshow that includes images and key facts. This is intended to give the audience something to look at – other than the presenter – and to reinforce the information. It is not intended to be the main source of information.
Text on each slide should be brief, with no more than three sentences or bullet points. Most, if not all, slides should include striking images – a few that illustrate your point, such as graphs – and the rest that support the overall theme of your talk. Text should be large enough that people in the back of the room can read it easily – no smaller than 32-point font. If you are not confident in your design skills, ask for help, either from someone in your company or a freelancer.
Manually advance each slide with a remote. This will give you time to discuss each slide and possibly answer questions as needed, rather than be rushed by an auto-advancing presentation.
A survey by Presentation Panda found that 91% of public speakers feel more confident when using a well-designed slide presentation.
Tips for in-person presentations
- Address different parts of the room. Walk to both sides of the stage, and make eye contact with someone in every part of the room. This will make everybody in the audience feel like you are speaking directly to them.
- Avoid filler words. Don’t use words like “um,” “like” and “you know.” If you lose your train of thought, just take a breath and get back on track.
- Avoid negative words. Avoid words like “don’t,” because these tend to communicate the opposite of what you are trying to say. Instead, say it in a positive manner. For example, replace “don’t forget” with “remember.” Instead of saying, “Don’t get bogged down in minutia,” say, “Focus on the big picture.”
- Arrive at the venue early. Arrive ahead of time to check and get fitted for a microphone, hook up your laptop to the projector, and test your internet connection for a smooth presentation.
- Gauge the reaction of your audience. Do they look engaged or bored? If they look bored, you can use humor to get them to reengage, take a live online survey, or ask a question and obtain audience input.
How to improve your virtual presentations
Virtual presentations can be challenging because there is a greater propensity for your audience members’ attention to wander. Follow these tips to optimize your results:
- Make sure you are well lit. Avoid backlighting, as this will throw you into shadow. If you have a window behind you, close the blinds. Light should be coming from in front of you. Eyeglass wearers should also adjust the angle of their light source to reduce glare. Many virtual presenters use ring lights for optimal lighting.
- Be mindful of your background. Audience members can see behind you, so opt for a clean and uncluttered area. If you are presenting from home, ensure nothing personal or potentially embarrassing sits in the background. If it is impossible to control your environment, opt for video conferencing software that allows virtual backgrounds such as Zoom.
- Get comfortable with the technology. Do several run-throughs with the software to get familiar with the controls and capabilities, like how to mute yourself or others, and how to acknowledge audience questions.
- Make sure everything is working properly. Well before the presentation, test your camera, microphone and internet connection to prevent glitches. Adjust your distance from the camera so that your head and shoulders are taking up most of the frame.
- Look at the webcam. While conducting an in-person presentation, you would look at the audience. This will backfire in a virtual presentation. Instead, pay attention to the camera the whole time; this will give each participant the feeling that you are looking directly at them.
- Interact with the audience. Every 10 minutes or so, interact with the audience by asking a question and having them answer in the chat window. Then mention some of the answers and comment on them, acknowledging individuals by name.
- Use a buddy. If possible, have someone else be your admin. Keep a copy of the presentation for yourself and also forward the slides to the appointed individual in case of a technical issue. Your assistant can also monitor the chat for anything noteworthy to comment upon.
Jennifer Dublino contributed to the writing and reporting in this article.