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7 Ways to Improve Your Presentations and Speak With Presence

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As long-time readers know, each year I write down goals for the next twelve months, something I’ve been doing for about twelve years now. This year one of my goals was to “dramatically improve” my presentation skills. In truth, this is a goal every single year but this year I made sure to put it to paper and then I proceeded to read a bunch of books and blogs on the subject. I’ve also spent a lot of time analyzing the presentation styles of those around me, since I have ample opportunities to do that at work.

Why the push? See, about halfway through last year I found myself presenting to medium-sized groups of people (from fifty to a few hundred people) bi-weekly instead of, at best, quarterly. That was clear motivation to get better. No one likes to completely suck at something you have to do all the time. Plus, if you’re not a halfway decent communicator, you’re probably not a halfway decent leader either.

Of course, I’m still far from good at it. This stuff, like most anything else, takes a ton of dedicated practice and attention to really nail it. The difference between star performers and everyone else is that the people who care to get better use deliberate and corrective practice. They set specific goals, respond to feedback, and look at the process of improvement as a long-term thing. Others don’t, they just go through the motions. This isn’t just me speaking, by the way, it’s been exhibited in research by Psychology professor Dr. K. Anders Ericsson.

Now, before getting into the tips & tricks, remember that there’s always room for improvement, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever be perfect. Perfection is a pipe dream. But you can absolutely make your presentations better, in some cases much better, and you can always become better at public speaking. So make sure to have the right expectations going in and then just commit to the process fully.

Look, presenting is hard. Putting together presentations is hard too. It’s all quite scary, especially if it’s not something you do often. I remember a few years ago when I wasn’t doing this regularly, the nerves prior to presenting were so intense that I could barely sleep the night before. If this describes you, then maybe one of these tips will help you get over the proverbial hump. Look at this as just the beginning of a lifelong journey. Here we go.

1. Have a Single, Short, Memorable Takeaway.

Before you put your presentation together, figure out what you’d like the one key takeaway to be. Not two or three… pick a single one. If people remember one thing, they may be motivated to dig up #2 and #3 – but if you confuse them with a bunch of things your presentation was supposed to be about, the odds of them remembering anything goes down.

One fun way to do this is to think about what the tweet would be for your product, service, or pitch. We do this at Microsoft when we prepare our public blog entries and Carmine Gallo recommends doing this in The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. Limit yourself to 140 characters just like you have to do on Twitter and again you’ll find that the constraint helps you focus your message. When you use, say, 100 words no one will remember it.

For instance:

Microsoft SkyDrive ( is quickly becoming the world’s most powerful cloud service.  [true, by the way]

2. Avoid the “Slideument”.

Garr Reynolds coined the term “slideument” to refer to what happens when we don’t exercise restraint when we prepare our presentations. Lazy people use bullet points because they don’t know what they’re supposed to say. Presentations that look and read like documents are NOT good presentations. They’re handouts or memos, and so you should just use them as such.  You’re better off having a single slide than a bunch of Word documents and Excel sheets filling the screen.

  • Limit all slides to no more than 10 words. Use large fonts.
  • Use full-bleed stock photography or simple, interesting graphs to complement and amplify your words.
  • Use the slides’ notes field in PowerPoint or Keynote for your own notes, which will be shown in Presenter View if you need them. Make the type HUGE and give yourself subtle cues so that the notes are glanceable, otherwise you may just end up reading them again.

Learn more about how to design beautiful slides in Presentation Zen.

3. Start with a Story.

What better way to break the ice than to do a “cold open”? This means that instead of jumping right into the guts of your presentation, tell a quick personal (and hopefully entertaining) story that’s peripherally about what you’re going to talk about. This serves two purposes: one, it helps the audience get to know you better and two, it grabs their attention right off the bat, setting the tone for the rest of the talk. They may start to realize that this isn’t going to be a waste of time like most presentations.

4. Realize You Are an Entertainer.

When you’re speaking in front of a group of people, the first thing you have to realize is that you are their entertainment for the hour. You’re putting on a show, you aren’t reading to them during story time. If you think about it as a show, it can change the way you approach things. People need to be entertained or they will start looking for stimulation elsewhere. For starters:

  • Don’t ever, ever read from your slides or read from a script. Did you notice Brad Pitt reading from index cards during Ocean’s Eleven? You are the performer. Perform.
  • Don’t become a talking head. The best presenters keep their audience engaged by making them a part of the presentation. Figure out how to do that and you’re golden.
  • Don’t do an “early reveal”. Time everything such that you get the biggest impact from your words. Putting up slides that say everything you’re about to say means the audience is no longer listening to you – they already know what you’re going to say, and they were so focused on reading that they didn’t even listen to what you just said anyway.

5. Connect With the Audience With Real Energy.

If you’re standing behind a podium picturing everyone in the audience naked, things may not end well for you. Entertaining is about connection, it’s not about giving people a “talking to”. Think about some of the best presentations you’ve attended and chances are the presenter(s) were active, authentic, used simple language, and exuded passion for what they were talking about.

There are lots of ways to do this, but some of the easiest:

  • Get away from the podium right away. Use a remote to control your slides (never the space bar) and make sure to effuse energy.
  • Make eye contact with people. It may feel creepy at first, but there’s no better way to keep people’s attention.
  • Maintain an “open posture”. Don’t throw your hands in your pockets or cross your arms the entire time. Keep your hands up and open.  Pretend you’re holding a basketball.
  • Have a conversational style. Don’t try and sound smart. Use short sentences and never use words most people in the audience won’t understand.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk about how excited you are about what you’re talking about – it can be infectious provided it’s real. Use inflection in your voice to show your excitement!

6. Change Your Mode of Delivery Every 10 Minutes.

This recommendation comes from Brain Rules, a book I read a while ago (and have blogged about before) and I think it’s genius. At about 10 minutes of the same thing, people start to check out. Rule #4 in Brain Rules is “We don’t pay attention to boring things”.

How does this apply to your presentations?

“You must do something emotionally relevant at each 10-minute mark to regain attention.” says John Medina. If you drone on for 50 minutes on a set of text-heavy slides, you should just assume that at the start of minute eleven, no one is following you any longer.

You have to mix it up. Introduce a new speaker. Show a video. Engage the audience. Play some music and break into song (no, don’t do that). Shift to a product demo.

7. Rehearse… Like… Crazy.

If you’re hosting an unscripted Q&A, it’s going to be hard to rehearse. But for a planned presentation the most important thing you can do is nail your timing and delivery. Oddly enough, the only way things are going to sound natural is if you’ve said them before! You should rehearse at least 3 or 4 times through for every new presentation you’re going to deliver – there’s really no better way to make it good.

In Only Perfect Practice Makes Perfect, I talk about this:

Practice may not actually make perfect, but if you aren’t practicing perfectly, you have no shot. The more you practice the right way, the more you’re creating routine – or “muscle memory” as the coaches call it. Your brain understands sequence and your nervous system reacts more quickly as the pathways are grooved. The more this happens, the better you become at the task at hand and the more natural it all becomes to you.

In order to really practice “perfectly”, you should do a dress rehearsal in the room you’re going to present in. You should have people around to give you feedback. You should also try and rehearse while you’re fresh and not half asleep.

And most importantly, practice your presentation in order, all the way through without stopping. If you mess something up or forget something, don’t worry about it. It happens. When you’re really presenting you don’t get a “do over” so don’t give yourself one during rehearsal.

Take practice seriously – it’s something most people don’t do and should!

This is a very short list of things, primarily to whet your appetite. If you’re actually interested in this stuff, there are some great references out there. Here are the books I’ve read – I’d strongly recommend all of them. If you can only read one of them, I’d probably start with The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. As silly as the title sounds, the book itself is a great first step down the path.

  • The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo. Ever wonder how Steve Jobs did it? This book analyzes his various keynotes and comes up with very simple and well-articulated steps to achieve similar success with your presentations.
  • Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. Garr’s books, in particular the first one, help you realize just how important the art of design is for your presentations. This book will change the way you think about your slides and you’ll start to view them less as a crutch, and more as an amplifier of your words.
  • Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson. The first book I read on the topic back in 2005 when it first came out, Beyond Bullet Points is a phenomenal book comparing your presentations to a movie script with three acts. Storyboarding is a big part of the approach. My only wish is that Microsoft Press had read Garr Reynolds’ book before designing that cover!
  • Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun. In typical Scott Berkun fashion, this book is an entertaining and fun read about the various things public speakers have to deal with. Definitely worth a pick-up.

Good luck!  Let me know how it goes.

  • Some of the best speeches/talks I’ve heard had no slides or visuals at all (e.g. MLK’ s talks, State of Union addresses, Steve Jobs commencement address). If a talk is interesting enough with no collateral at all, it is probably a good one. That’s a good test to use before building out any content.

  • DrewLommen

    Hey Mike, how do you feel about using animation in PPT? Is this a risky pratice when dealing with remote participants? It seems like the avoiding the “early reveal” could best be accomplished with making certain words appear when you are ready to talk about them, but I’ve given presentations over live meeting before that sort of flopped when remote connections couldnt handle the animations…

    • Animations are definitely risky over LiveMeeting.  The key is to know when and how you will be presenting – and if need be, cater the presentation to the format.  The best presentations I’ve seen over LiveMeeting or similar have had little to no animation but used the switch from person -> screen -> person effectively to handle the reveal of information.