7 Tips for Becoming a Better Presenter

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‘You say ummmm a lot’. That was some of the feedback given to me after doing my first presentation as part of the Tableau Desktop Train the Trainer course I attended in June 2015.

Immediately I googled ‘ways to avoid saying umm’ and  found a few articles which, in combination, were extremely helpful. I started being very mindful of my ‘umms’, to slow down, to prepare, rehearse and to take pauses that I didn’t fill with umms. It worked and while I still say the occasional ‘umm’, it now sounds natural rather than being an annoyance for an audience where people start tracking how many times I utter that sound.

Over the past few years I’ve had the good fortune to not only attend a large number of talks and presentations, I also had the opportunity to present A LOT as part of my job. 

I want to share with you my top tips for improving presentations, technical demonstrations and your public speaking skills in general. The following suggestions are based on feedback I received as well as observations I have made from watching others and tackling one, a few of them or the entire list will help you become a more convincing speaker, presenter and to make your audience remember your message and content rather than being distracted by your presentation style.

I have sorted these tips in chronological order as they typically occur in a presentation. My suggestions apply to any type of presentation, be they to a single person, your team or a large audience at a conference.

1 | Start with a strong opening

Captivating your audience right at the beginning is important and the primacy effect comes into play here: what you say at the start has the potential to be very memorable, so make sure you give the audience the things you want them to remember.

The opening of our presentation isn’t necessarily something we think about too much. We’ll just introduce ourselves and – after all – we know who we are, so we don’t need to practice that, right? Wrong.

Many presentations start something like this: Hi, my name is Eva Murray and today I want to talk to you about <insert title of presentation>.

Well, duh… Everyone has probably been informed of the title of your talk beforehand, they saw it on the agenda, it was most likely one of the key reasons they’re sitting in the room, ready to listen to you. And they can all read, so let’s give them something more interesting!

If you’re being introduced by someone else, for example an MC, you may not even have to say your own name, but it’s not wrong to repeat it anyway. But then… start with something memorable: a joke, a question, an anecdote, a story, a picture, etc. If none of those feel comfortable, by all means dive into the topic straight away and describe what you’re about to present but make it more interesting than simply rehashing your title word for word.

Ever since I had training by the fantastic speaker and presentation coach Montana von Fliss, my presentation opener is something I focus on much more. It’s the one slide that definitely has notes, it’s the part that gets rehearsed until it sticks and feels right.

Give your audience the confidence that yes, they’re in the right room and yes, they want to totally be sitting there and listening to you.

2 | Be a Sales Person

How many presentations have you watched that started with the speaker saying something like ‘I am <Name>, I’m here to talk about <title of presentation>. Okay, let’s start with a few boring slides…’

People really say that. They describe their own slides as boring. I can’t think of a better way to get your audience to grab their mobiles and start playing Candy Crush instead of listening to you.

Either you have boring slides and remove them immediately from your presentation, or you keep your slides the way they are and from now on never again describe them as boring. 

Don’t encourage your audience to tune out by telling them that what you’re about to show is not worth paying attention to.

I understand though, why people do it. Typically the slides are background slides, maybe put there by other people. They might focus on things you’re not excited to talk about but have been asked to by your boss, your marketing department or the organisers of the event you’re speaking at.

You can take the liberty to remove them – if possible – or you sell that content to your audience in the best way possible.

If those slides, for example, contain some history about your company, I’m sure you can find a way to jazz it up, through stories, anecdotes or simply by presenting it in an engaging way.

Do the slides contain material you’re not really confident presenting? Find a way to make it easier for yourself to get the content across. If, for example, it is outside of your ‘sweet spot’ but important context for your talk, ask someone who is an expert (e.g. a colleague from another department) to explain it to you until you understand it and take the liberty to change the layout and content of the slide so it resonates with your and your explanations. Give yourself a better chance of getting it right and being comfortable with every slide you present.

Remember: none of your slides should ever be or are ever boring. It is up to you to make sure of that. If YOU are the presenter, you also have the right to make things fit your style. Aside from having valuable content on every slide, ensure that you are comfortable ‘selling that content’, being confident presenting it to your audience.

3 | Show and Tell

Right after someone says they’re about to show some boring slides, they typically also say that they will ‘show the really cool stuff afterwards’.

Why not give me the cool stuff right away?

Now this one took me a little while to learn and it’s something I’m still working on getting right for every presentation and demo. Why? Because the German culture typically teaches people from a young age to build the excitement over time and let your story, findings and explanations reach the turning point or climax about halfway or two thirds into the story. So we discuss our credentials, our methods, the history of things and how it all has lead to… BANG!

The problem with that approach is that your audience has probably tuned out well before you get to the point of your story and the effect is lost or at least diminished. We don’t want that.

So I’ve learned, from Montana, as well as my many Anglo-Saxon friends and colleagues, that Show and Tell is the way to go.

Show people something, then tell them about it, 

I have found this to work really well, because whatever you’re explaining about the technical intricacies of your data visualization, the methods you used to find the right combination of ingredients for your culinary masterpiece, or the challenges you faced when climbing that massive mountain, all of this is easier to understand and relate to when people have seen and experienced part of your story first.

So show them your viz, let them taste the cake and share a picture or summit video from your epic adventure. Start with that, then unravel how you got there.

4 | Umms and Uhhhhs and Fidgeting

From personal experience, the way we can tackle our nervous habits during presentations is something like this:

  • Awareness: First we need to know what we’re doing. This can be facilitated throug feedback (ask for it!), through watching recordings of our presentations and through watching other presentations and seeing parallels
  • Attention: Once we know what we’re doing, for example, using filler words like ummm and uhhhh, we can pay attention to when we use them (are we nervous? unprepared?) and start working on reducing their frequency to a normal level
  • Research: This goes hand in hand with Attention. We need to not just look at what we’re doing but also understand how we can change it. Google is your friend and when it comes to presentation skills, there are many resources out there that can help you target specific habits. 
  • Practice: Practicing is key to improving our presentation skills and to remove bad habits. Why? The more we rehearse our script, practice our presentations and demos and develop the story we’re telling and the dialogue we want to create with our audience, the easier it is to do without filler words. When you know exactly what you’re going to say and you’re always ready for the next part, the next slide and the next click, there is no need to fill pauses with umms or to use filler words as a way to release anxiety. Because you will feel more confident and competent. So practice.
  • Make the right things easy and the wrong things hard: This applies to trick training animals as much as it works for ourselves. Fidgeting can be a habit related to our anxiety, to stage fright and being nervous in front of an audience. It is also very distracting for those listening to and watching our presentation. Some of us click pens constantly, others play with their clothes, jewellery or hair. Some people keep looking at the screen behind them instead of at their audience. There are many ways we act and often we’re not even aware. I used to sway from one foot to the other constantly, or stand with my legs crossed because I wasn’t sure how to stand. And where the heck do we put our hands???
    • Wear clothes that you feel confident, competent and comfortable in. This order is important – don’t come in tracksuits just because they’e comfortable :-). Clothes that fit well and make you feel good are much less likely to give you a chance to play with your belt, fidget with your pockets, tuck on that skirt or move fabric that has slid down your shoulder. You should wear your clothes, not the other way around
    • Wear the right shoes. I used to wear shoes that had fairly high heels and it meant I wasn’t as steady on my feet as I should have been and couldn’t plant myself comfortably on the ground. As a result I moved too much and it was just annoying. I wore lower heels until I felt confident enough no matter what and now I can pick any shoe and it doesn’t change my presentation style 🙂
    • It’s okay to stay in one spot. Sure, you can move and walk around, but don’t pace the podium like a tiger in a cage. Your movement should match your presentation style and you can use movement to accentuate your point and to engage with the audience. It is also perfectly fine to stand behind the lecturn. I often do this out of necessity. When I give presentations with demos in Tableau, I am always close to my laptop, simply because I need to be. You can be engaging from a stationary position as well, it may just require a bit more effort when it comes to your speech pattern, the tone of your voice and the volume
    • Ask for feedback. Ask colleagues or friends to tell you if there are any habits you have that you’re not even aware of. Figure out why you do those things and find a way that works for you to reduce them so your presentation can be more effective.

5 | Your Slides

I’d hazard a guess that over 90% of us still use slides in our presentations and that is absolutely fine. Our slides need to be good though. And what does that mean? 

We don’t want to experience death by PowerPoint and we certainly shouldn’t inflict it on anyone else. Using slides with exorbitant amounts of text, bad graphics and inconsistent design will leave your audience underwhelmed and less likely to return for your next talk.

We can change this quite easily though.

It’s important to have a story and I understand the need and urge to support your story with visuals, with contextual information and with facts. Let’s not forget though, that those listening to and viewing your presentation can only take in a limited amount of information and don’t have as much background information as you do about your specific topic.

How can we tackle the ‘slide thing’?

  • Start with a realistic assessment
    • what is the purpose of your presentation?
    • what do you want the audience to take away?
    • what resources do you have access to? (people, information, visual content, etc.)
    • how are you going to present the information? (demo, lecture-style, discussion)
    • who is your audience? (experts, lay-people, unknown audience, small group, large audience)
    • what level are your PowerPoint/KeyNote/Prezo/etc. skills at?
  • Build your story before you build your slides
    • focus on your key message
    • start on paper, a whiteboard, etc. Don’t start your presentation in PowerPoint. Your presentation should be about your topic and story, not about slides
    • identify different elements and how they would best fit together into a coherent structure. For example, one presentation I give regularly goes like this:
      • introduction
      • demo 1 – simple
      • explanation – high level
      • demo 2 – more detailed and exploratory, includes a personal anecdote
      • explanation – more technical
      • demo 3 – further detail, showing different techniques
      • explanation – focus on specific technical features
      • demo 4 – asking more questions, setting the scene to highlight specific feature
      • explanation of a single technical feature
      • demo 5 – visualization of the effects of that feature
      • explanation of how all the parts hang together
      • call to action
      • time for questions
  • Focus on what is essential
    • reduce the amount of text on your slides. Your audience should be listening to YOU, not reading your slides. Otherwise, just send them an email with a pdf attachment… YOU are the person adding value to the content you’re presenting, so make sure your slides don’t take that opportunity away from you
    • focus on what’s essential on each slide. Make key words and titles stand out and if you’d like to give more context in case your audience would like to take pictures, then leave that content on there but design the slide in a way that highlights the important stuff. Add a camera icon in the corner to encourage your audience to take pictures of those ‘take this info home with you’ slides.
    • Single words can have a big impact. Use them to your advantage
  • A picture says more than a thousand words
    • depending on the topic and purpose of your talk you may include a lot of pictures in your slides.
    • mine typically feature a few architecture diagrams with annotations, as well as slides with key words and graphs. The ‘pictures’ in my talks typically are creates through live demos
    • use well-chosen pictures to support your message and to give your audience something memorable
    • humor is absolutely allowed, so don’t be afraid to inject some via cartoons or silly pictures. Just make sure it suits the topic and your style. 

6 | Communicate with your audience and read their reactions

When you give a presentations and stand on a stage you typically have a fair bit of time during your talk or demo to watch your audience. 

How do they react to your content, your jokes and your slides? Are they paying attention? Are they nodding in agreement or sitting back with a critical frown on their forehead? 

In a setting where you can see your audience well, it is easy to pick up the vibe from the room. It takes time and practice to react to something unexpected, but for starters it’s simply good to practice reading the room and paying attention to the signals you get from your audience.

Aside from presenting to those sitting in front of you, make sure you’re accessible and that you don’t just lecture them but really engage with and speak to them.

That doesn’t necessarily have to involve audience participation and some presentations just don’t lend themselves to doing that. But asking a couple of well-placed questions (‘can I get a show of hands, who in the room has experienced <something> before?’) and picking up on queues is important.

After a more detailed explanation of a technical topic, for example, you may want to inject some fresh energy  by moving a bit, increasing the volume of your voice, using a joke or sharing a story that ties things together.

After you’ve shown something through a live demonstration, feel free to ask your audience whether there are certain elements they want you to show again.

And if you’re presenting about your recent climbing trip, there is no harm in asking the audience whether anyone has experienced a similar challenge, situation or feeling of accomplishment.

Give your audience the genuine feeling of being part of your story. They are there to learn from you, to hear about a specific topic and to find out something new or confirm something they already know.

Leave them with a really good learning experience that goes deeper to ensure that what you said really sticks. You have only limited influence over what they really take away, but you can do your best to give them a few golden nuggets they will remember.

7 | Finish strong

At the beginning of this article I wrote about the importance of a strong start and the closing of your presentation is just as important.

First up: Don’t diminish all your hard work by questioning your own competence, by downplaying the importance of what you just said, or even making excuses like ‘I’m not sure this is what you came for, but I hope you liked it’. Remember: you have to be a sales person here, you are selling your competence, skills, ideas and knowledge. You don’t have to hail yourself as the best in the world, but by all means take credit for your hard work and take satisfaction from the fact that people came to hear you speak. Don’t reject compliments, just accept them with a simple Thank you and use the opportunity to start a conversation with the person.

Ahead of time think of how you want to finish your presentation. What is the purpose of your talk? Are you there to inform, to sell, to engage the audience to take action, to inspire, to question…?

I like finishing with a call to action, so that people can put into practice what I showed or taught them. 

If you want people to go on adventures, to book that once-in-a-lifetime trip after hearing your talk, then give them ideas and tips on how to accomplish that. Share one or two websites, for example. Each URL in large font on a slide of its own, so people can take pictures.

Where can people find more information, how can they contact you, are you available for a chat afterwards and what’s the best way to stay in touch?

Don’t rattle these instructions off like a user manual, but support them with images, with well-design slides and with a smile and an invitation to talk to you in person over a drink after your talk.

Use the last two minutes of your talk to remind people of who you are – you as a person. They got a first impression during your opening. Then they learned about your expertise, your ideas and experiences during your talk. Now confirm the image you have created by wrapping everything up in a consitent way and showing your personality once more.

Then take the applause.

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