In this article we will cover:
- Why connection matters more than presentation techniques
- How presentation skills combat fear
- My top 11 tips for effective presentations
- A note on virtual presentations
Let me ask you… how do you feel about your presentation skills?
If you’re like many of us, the idea of giving a presentation, or speech, or leading a meeting can be nerve wracking. That’s totally normal and it’s still possible to excel at giving presentations. I’m going to guide you through some tried and true presentation techniques so that you will know exactly how to prepare a great presentation, even if public speaking doesn’t come naturally to you.
I’m also going to share something else with you: public speaking does not come naturally to me!
As a coach, a huge part of my job is leading presentations, keynotes, workshops, and even giving live interviews. I have never felt 100% comfortable with it. There’s always a part of me that worries about messing up or not giving my best to my audience.
For me, learning how to prepare for a presentation step by step was a big part of building both my skills and confidence but ultimately, it was stepping into full self-acceptance that empowered me to successfully lead talks, presentations and coaching workshops, even on those days when I’m not feeling like my best self.
Getting comfortable giving presentations was important to me because it was a critical part of creating what I wanted for myself. So I dug in, got real with myself, and went to work building those skills.
Why Connection Matters More Than Presentation Techniques
In developing my skills, I learned that you can prepare a good presentation in practical steps, but your inner experience is truly the difference between good and great, and great and masterful. Even when it comes to technical aspects like how to prepare presentation slides, connecting within will not only make your presentation amazing, but help you feel more at ease and in control, which helps you better connect with your audience. When you have these critical connection points, your audience actually tunes into you, engages with you, and connects with the content of your presentation.
How Presentation Skills Combat Fear
The very human truth is, public speaking is scary. And if you think you’re the only one shaking in your boots, think again. Not only is public speaking the top fear among Americans, many people even fear it more than death! And yet, it’s something we all have to do at some point, especially in leadership roles.
Like any fear, we can only truly overcome it by facing it, head on. That doesn’t mean diving in unprepared. Rather, it means working to develop your skills and build your confidence, so that facing your fears becomes a little less… fearsome.
The tips I’m sharing here are a combination of practices that worked for me, and some that worked for people I know and respect. Ultimately, it’s about finding what feels right for you – your personal sweet spot – and getting yourself in the right headspace to create and deliver amazing presentations.
Top 11 Tips for Effective Presentations
1. Practice messing up.
Guess what? You might mess up! Even if you practice till it’s perfect, you might stumble, forget something, or mix up your words. So what? Everybody makes mistakes. It’s only a big deal if you aren’t prepared to handle it.
When practicing your speech or presentation, don’t start over when you mess up. Instead, imagine you’re doing it live and dance in the moment. Create from it. Make a joke or simply acknowledge it. Keep it light. Something like, “Oh… guess what? I just skipped a whole section! Let’s rewind a moment.” You’re human and that’s ok! I once had a leadership teacher recommend intentionally making a mistake in the first few minutes to own your humanness and create that critical human connection right at the start.
Have I ever messed up, unintentionally? Definitely. Actually, a few times. Each time, I ask myself, “What is the ‘fertlizer’ in this? How can I use this to grow and deliver an even better presentation next time?” Once while filming for TV, the interviewer threw me for a loop with a question. I stumbled and got blocked for the rest of the interview. Thank goodness it was not live. The interviewer said, “This will not make it on air. You’re in luck, we have some extra time today, let’s reshoot it.” This was the final result.
If you’re nervous about messing up, you could even say that right from the start because… it’s normal and human! I remember hearing Brene Brown talk about feeling nervous and telling herself, “They are people.” As someone who has coached thousands of people at all different levels, I can tell you with confidence that just about every person, in every audience you encounter, shares the same fears, concerns and insecurities. They all struggle with self-acceptance, speaking their truth, personal Gremlins, and wanting to feel like they belong. They are people and you can be a person with them.
The reality of live presentations is, you could even face interruptions totally beyond your control like an audience member’s ringing phone or a malfunctioning microphone!
Mistakes and stumbles aren’t bad. They humanize you so your audience can better connect with you. You’ll also feel more confident going in if you aren’t worried about messing up. You might mess up, but so what? You’re ready for it!
2. Connect with your content via your heart.
Delivery is so important. Not that it has to be perfect (see #1). Rather, it needs to come from your most authentic self; from your heart. People sense authenticity – often unconsciously – and that can determine whether or not they connect with you and your content.
Think about it. How many times have you attended a presentation, workshop or meeting where the presenter was just reading notes, or speaking in monotone? It makes it hard to connect with the person or what they’re saying. More than likely, you just tuned out. It was missing that heart connection that fuels audience connection.
At times, I’ve given this feedback to people and they reply, “Yes, but I need to say certain things. I don’t want to miss anything important.” My advice is take a deep breath, connect with your heart; your inner leader. Remember that you know your stuff, or you wouldn’t have been asked to present. What you don’t know, you’re capable of learning. Choose your main points, have one slide for each point, and speak from your heart. If you can share an example, fact or anecdote for each point, the audience will better connect with you. Connection is everything. Without it, people tune out and it no longer matters if something gets left out.
What helps me be more comfortable and connected is to talk as if I am talking to a friend. I remember one client telling me, “Imagine you are talking to a room full of people like me. Yes, I have a big title, but you hear all the crap I go through.” It was a great reminder that everyone is human and that’s the level we can meet on.
When you connect with your content through your heart, you find that magic place of deep engagement where your energy and enthusiasm shine through in your delivery. It’s infectious and draws your audience in.
3. Involve your audience.
Involvement = engagement. If you can get your audience involved early, they’ll be far more engaged, at ease and invested. Here are a few ideas for involving your audience:
- Create a disorienting event – an experience to upset life as you know it. In my leadership tribe, we once started with an event that was purposely disorienting, with the goal of pushing us into serious reflection. I was not happy while it was happening, and for a few hours after that. But, after a day, I realized I had a lot to learn from it.
- Show some shocking data or a picture or quote to evoke emotion.
- Get them to imagine something. Say something like, “I invite you to do something with me. Close your eyes and imagine…” It’s important for people to feel they have a choice, so frame it as an invitation or request.
- Ask a question that activates the creative part of people’s minds. Something like, “If you had a magic wand and could change anything about your life, what would it be?”
- Have them write something down. “Before we get started, I’d like to invite you to write down your definition of leadership.”
- Get them moving. “I don’t know about you, but I focus better after a few deep breaths. May I ask everyone to stand up and take some grounding breaths with me?”
- Ask for a volunteer to help with something or to answer a question.
- If it’s online, get people to check in with how they are feeling with a word or two.
- Also for virtual settings, try a poll to get people connected around a common topic.
- At the end of the presentation, get people to share their favorite takeaways or commitments as to what they will now do differently.
Break people out into groups or breakout rooms.
- Have some great visuals and/or audio. Bonus points if you can get people dancing in their seats a little :) Don’t be shy to lead the dance :-)
- Create an “aha” moment. This is usually most impactful about ¾ of the way through your presentation. It’s a profound moment meant to jolt your audience to attention and experience a noticeable moment of shift where they really begin to think or feel in a new way.
The moment the audience becomes involved, it stops being a presentation and starts being a conversation. It draws people in and gets them genuinely interested in where you’re going to go next.
It can also be impactful to set commitments at the beginning of the presentation that bring everyone together. For example, depending on the type of presentation or workshop you’re leading, you might state from the outset that anything people share is confidential and that you have trust in every attendee that they, too, will honour that confidentiality. You may openly set an intention of compassion and invite everyone to join you in inviting compassion into the space. Or your commitments may be more practical such as telling people they can raise their hand at any time, or to please hold questions till the end of each segment, or the presentation overall. Approach these commitments with a mindset of co-creation to create an “us together” energy with your audience.
4. Use story for structure.
In my leadership training, my tribe and I were once tasked with preparing a presentation inspired by Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, or “The Hero’s Journey”. It’s a storytelling structure that connects with the audience in the world of the ordinary, then takes them on an exciting journey into the extraordinary, and finally brings it all back to the world of the ordinary, forever altered by the incredible journey.
It’s a story format that Hollywood uses a lot because it’s a proven method of connecting and engaging with the audience (there’s a great outline here of how it can be used for script writing).
If I’m leading a presentation on conscious leadership, for example, I might start my talk by painting a picture of the traditional leadership styles we’re all familiar with, and the limitations of those styles. The audience can relate to this and we connect in that shared experience. I might then bring in conscious leadership approaches to contrast with that ordinary world and take my audience on an extraordinary journey of possibility! Then, returning to the world of the ordinary, I might bring in case studies of real world organizations, struggling with real world challenges and how they applied the “extraordinary” principles of conscious leadership to forever shift their ordinary world.
This is certainly not the only option for structuring a presentation, nor is it one I use exclusively. It is, however, a deeply powerful method, one that is time-tested and proven to create engagement.
5. Plan your pauses.
If you’ve watched a lot of TedTalks, you’ve probably noticed that the speakers all have a certain way of talking that includes a lot of pauses. Most of the talks are actually really short, and it’s in the pauses that information sinks in for the audience and gains in impactfulness.
Pauses not only allow your audience to keep up, digest and really absorb your message, they also allow you to regulate your breathing and hold yourself in the moment.
Plan your pauses and even mark them in your notes. Little stickers are a great way to visually mark pauses on your note cards. Don’t skip the pauses when you’re practicing either. Flow with them, get comfortable with how your body moves with them, and practice how your voice goes from speech to pause and back again.
6. Simplify your PowerPoint.
Too often, people focus on having “perfect” slides and end up with overly complicated slides that make it harder for people to follow along.
Shift your mindset into thinking of slides only as supportive documents, meant to highlight key words, points or statistics. They are not your presentation, your words are. People should not be trying to read full sentences or paragraphs while you’re talking.
Avoid falling into the trap of putting everything on your slides. If everything were there, you could simply send it out and skip the presentation all together! Strive to co-create with your audience, not with your slides.
I often have slides with a single word or phrase, or just two or three super simple points, accompanied by a nice visual. These serve as the theme for what I’m discussing, helping people to stay on the path with me. I find that people become far more engaged with my words when they aren’t overly focused on my slides.
7. Practice your vocals.
Simple vocal warmups can have a huge impact on the delivery of your presentation AND on your confidence. There’s a fantastic video here of some simple, but highly effective warm up exercises that take just minutes to perform, prep your voice for clarity, and even steady your breathing.
Speaking uses muscles – your diaphragm, tongue, vocal chords, etc. Like any activity involving muscles, we’re better when we practice and warm up before an event. Athletes don’t perform without first warming up. Speakers shouldn’t either.
8. Practice in your outfit.
Hand gestures and open body language improve speeches. Fidgeting does not. If you aren’t totally comfortable in what you’re wearing, it will be a distraction for your audience.
When you practice at home or in the office, wear the exact clothes, down to the shoes and accessories, that you’ll be wearing during the presentation. If it’s a big presentation where you’ll be fitted with a microphone, try to find out what that will be like and see if you can replicate it during your practices.
You definitely want to know beforehand if the shirt you chose rides up when you point to graphs, your shoes make your feet sweat, or your watch catches on the microphone wire.
In terms of what you choose to wear, what are your core values? What is your big picture vision? Find clothes that align with that energy.
If you’re going to be on camera – either in a virtual presentation, or filmed for TV – film yourself in your outfit to see how it looks on camera. I once appeared in a TV interview thinking my outfit worked, only to realize too late that it came across differently on camera!
I once received these guidelines for a TV interview, and I now stick to them, even for virtual meetings and presentations: “We kindly ask you to come camera-ready. You always need more makeup on camera, even if you’re live. Also, please don’t wear stripes, checks or small patterns. Solid, bright colours work best. Do not wear all white, black sattin, or silky fabrics. DO NOT WEAR GREEN, TEAL OR YELLOW.”
The part in all caps was specific to TV appearances, as those colours can interfere with green screens, but the rest of the advice is really good for virtual speaking engagements. You want people focused on you, not getting dizzy from your shirt pattern.
9. Practice tuning into your audience.
For this, I highly recommend taking an improv class, joining Toastmasters – a leadership development organization that focuses on public speaking skills – or even creating a group on your own. Try out a few different groups to find one that feels right for you. Noticing what your audience needs and what they’re responding to (or not responding to) demands that you be fully in the moment and comfortable making adjustments or even letting go of your notes, depending on the energy and response of the audience. It’s 3rd level listening on a whole new level!
With a group like Toastmasters, you can really get a feel for what people connect with about your presentation. In the show Friends, for example, producers tried out the Monica and Chandler relationship dynamic on live audiences where they were able to gauge reactions before turning it into a full blown storyline. This tells us two things. Number 1, practicing on a live audience gives us invaluable insight, and 2, if even the most successful and experienced Hollywood producers rely on dry runs, the rest of us can benefit too.
Practice situational self-awareness – awareness of your impact and the strengths you can draw on. When you have a high situational self-awareness, you easily focus on the here and now. You are tuned into the impact you have on others, and the impact they have on you. You are able to read the room, notice how people are reacting, and adapt. Are people nodding off, looking at their phones, losing interest? A speaker who goes on regardless of the audience “vibe” lacks this awareness. Speakers who adapt, are practitioners of awareness. Adapting can even mean calling it out. “I am noticing that I’m losing you. Where did I lose you?” Invite questions. Invite in-the-moment feedback. Check in with your audience. Dance in the moment. Presentations (with the exception of keynotes) leave a lot of room to adapt to what comes up for the audience, and are always better for it. Intentionally plan time to practice awareness and adapt to what is needed. You could even work this into your planned pauses (see #4).
Relationship and connection are most important. In a one-on-one conversation, we check in and adapt as we go along. Bring that to your presentations. Be present, open and flexible. Bring a conversational energy.
10. Practice, practice, and practice some more!
Practice makes… comfort! When you feel totally comfortable both with your content, and your delivery, it takes away so much of the anxiety.
I often coach people on how to have difficult conversations, and I usually tell them that it never really gets easy but, with practice, you get a lot more comfortable, which eases the anxiety and allows you to connect better with others.
The same is true of presentations. It’s never easy to give a presentation, but with practice, you can get comfortable with it. Practice means practicing your specific talk until you know it backwards and forwards, with and without notes, on your own, in front of a mirror, in front of others to get their feedback (this can be a huge help, both in building your comfort and seeing how your talk is received), and it means practicing public speaking in general. Volunteer to give talks or lead meetings, ask questions in public settings, make small talk with cashiers, ask for directions even if you know the way. Work your vocal muscles. Practice your body language. Take yourself outside your social comfort zone. Accept the parts of you that feel anxious and know that you are capable and worthy of expanding your skills in all directions.
Even after finishing a presentation, continue to practice by asking for feedback. Feedback can be hard to hear, especially when it is negative, but it really is helpful in improving your skills and doing even better next time.
Practice. Practice some more. Practice again. Never stop practicing!
11. Be YOU!
Whenever we feel nervous about an interview, first date or other event, what’s the most common piece of advice? Just be yourself! Here’s why that’s actually great advice: when we show up as our truest, most genuine selves – not trying to emulate some ideal of who we should be – other people feel it. When we do the opposite, they feel that too. And that – not perfect slides or flawless delivery – is the difference between a connected audience and a tuned out audience.
So… what’s missing from that great advice? How to actually BE yourself! How do you not just connect with your true self, but also get comfortable bringing the true you forward? Mindfulness and intentional living are overall approaches to life that can also be tapped into as public speaking tools.
Let’s look at a few examples:
- Meditation: Regular meditation teaches you to notice thoughts and feelings without judgment, empowering you to consciously decide which ones you will respond to, and which ones you will let go of.It also strengthens the neural connections between your mind and body, which is a huge factor in calming your body in times of stress or excitement. If you experience physical reactions to presentations – sweaty palms, tummy butterflies, increased heart rate, shallow breathing, hand tremors and so on – a daily meditation practice is a must as it creates self-regulating habits that you will reflexively reach for when any stressful event occurs.When it’s a regular practice, you’ll also be able to enter that state of stillness and ease more quickly, meaning even just a few minutes in meditation before giving a talk can have a huge impact on how you show up for your audience.
- Notice what puts you in a good mood: In your day-to-day life, take note of what lifts your mood so that you can lean into that just before a presentation. Sometimes I spend a few minutes in a downward dog pose, or I skip, or dance to one of my favorite songs. Maybe you feel joyful after doing a cartwheel, or listening to a comedy routine. Notice what makes you smile from ear to ear!
- Practice gratitude: Tell yourself how lucky you are to have this opportunity and remind yourself of all the steps that brought you to that place. Thank yourself and the Universe (or whatever higher element resonates with you) for getting you to this place. Take a moment of gratitude for the fullness of your life, knowing that this presentation is both a gift and merely one element in this wide, wonderful, multi-faceted life you’re creating for yourself.
- Grounding: Another favorite of mine is to practice grounding, both as a regular practice and just before a speaking event. It helps me connect with the Universe, which puts me at ease, thereby putting my audience at ease.
- Care for your physical well-being: Plan to have a good night’s sleep, to eat well and to feel as good in your body as possible as this translates to greater mental clarity and awareness. If you need to release stress, go for a walk, do some jumping jacks or even burn your fears.
- Recognize your Gremlins: We all have inner Gremlins or Saboteurs. Do the work to recognize yours so that you can consciously take away their microphone and tune into your inner leader.
All of these are examples of mindfulness and intentional living practices that serve to develop and maintain your connection to yourself, empowering you to bring YOU forward with ease.
A Note on Virtual Presentations
Even before Covid, more and more presentations were moving online to accommodate dispersed teams, remote workers, and to allow ideas to reach global audiences.
The tips above apply to virtual presentations as well. In fact, these tips may be even more important for virtual presentations as we’re more likely to encounter technical issues and struggle with engagement, making it so critical to be able to flow with whatever comes up, stay in the moment, and focus on connecting at a human level. I must admit, this is my biggest challenge. I always seem to have some technical glitch at some point and choose to roll with it by making a joke about how not to judge me on my technical skills.
The basic steps in preparing a presentation can be found from many sources, and are usually dependent on the specifics of the presentation, audience, event, etc. For example, some experts advise to analyze your audience before choosing your topic, but a lot of the time – especially in workplace settings – your topic is determined first. What would matter in that situation would be to find a way to align your content with your purpose and values – for it to feel authentic to you – otherwise your audience would feel the disconnect.
Always, your most valuable asset is YOU. The more you work on yourself and embrace self acceptance, the more confident and approachable you will seem to others. When we haven’t prioritized our growth, it shows. People may not be able to pinpoint exactly what it is, but they’ll feel it.
If you would like guidance in connecting within in order to create connection with others, I invite you to connect with me.
Sending heartfelt presentation vibes your way!