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Jump-Start Guide to Essential Business Presentation Skills

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This post is part of a series called Presentation Fundamentals.
Presentations 101: The Absolute Basics of Making a Presentation

You stand at the front of the room, facing the audience. Every pair of eyes is directed at you, every face eager with anticipation for what you're about to say. You feel your heart thumping in your chest. Your nerves give you an extra energy and vibe.

Can you imagine yourself in this situation? Would you choose to stand in front of an audience to practice your public speaking? I've done it, and it's an intense and rewarding experience.

Maybe you don't have a choice. Perhaps you've been asked to give a presentation for a job interview, or as part of a project proposal for a client. Perhaps you've been asked to give a report on your work at the next board meeting.

Whatever your reason for giving a presentation, knowing the basic skills you need will help you conduct yourself with confidence and finesse.

In this article I'll show you what you must do to feel confident when you've set yourself the challenge of making a business presentation. I'll also introduce you to the basic skills every effective public speaker uses.

Let's begin where you should start.

The First 6 Ps

We've all sat through dull presentations, watching the clock and wishing the speaker had never got up on stage. You may even have given a boring presentation. I know I've done it, despite my better judgment.

To avoid this, you need to make sure your presentation doesn't send your audience snoring. The solution lies in an adage from the British Army, known as the 7Ps. I'll quote six of them here: Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. (You can look up the official 7th P on Wikipedia). 

In a moment, we'll look at an unofficial 7th P.

How should you plan and prepare?

Recently, I was invited to speak at a conference. I've organized many conferences and spoken at a good number of them, so I felt confident I could deliver a solid presentation. I wrote my talk, and sent a draft to the conference organizers, who approved it.

Everything seemed to be going well. Then I arrived at the conference and discovered it was an academic conference. All the other speakers had prepared formal, referenced papers, whereas my speech was an informal talk.

When my turn came to speak, the audience listened politely, but they weren't particularly engaged. Knowing I'd missed the mark with my speech, my confidence plummeted, and by the end of the presentation I was ready to run off the stage.

What's the lesson from this? First, even experienced speakers can lose their nerve or mess up a speech. Second, to deliver an effective speech, you must prepare properly — which means knowing your audience.

I made the mistake of not finding out exactly who I would be speaking to. I won't make that mistake again.

Even if you think you know who will be in the audience, you should make the effort to find out as much about them as you can. For example, you may be asked to give a presentation as part of a job interview. You may think "I know the audience will be the interview panel, and they want me to give a presentation of my skills and professional experience". You're thinking in the right direction, but it's not enough. Get in touch with the company you're going to interview with, and find out exactly who will be on the interview panel. What are their positions in the company? What are they specialists at?

Whoever you'll be giving your presentation to, it's a good idea to talk to people who will be in the audience beforehand, if you can. Find out more about who they are and what they want to get out of the presentation.

The more you find out about your audience, the better presentation you'll write and deliver. In particular, you want to find out their level of knowledge about the topic. Knowing this allows you to pitch your talk at the right level. Your audience will be kept engaged if you teach them something new or surprising. By making the effort of finding out who your audience will be, you can ensure you do enough research to teach them something new.

Once you know your audience you're ready to write your speech. You may believe you can improvise  or you may be tempted to believe you can improvise because of the feeling of dread you get when you sit down to prepare. Don't give into that temptation. You'll always perform better if you've prepared in advance. 

When jazz musicians improvise, they have a backing band behind them, and they've spent years practicing on their instrument in a structured way. If you want to improvise during your presentation, having your presentation prepared will give you a foundation you can start from and use as a safety net. To return to the jazz analogy, what you write in advance is your backing band, and you can fall back on it if your improvisation doesn't go as you'd hoped.

Dale Carnegie, author of The Art of Public Speaking explains that being prepared helps to boost your confidence. In Carnegie's own words:

[T]o acquire self-confidence you must have something in which to be confident. If you go before an audience without any preparation, or previous knowledge of your subject, you ought to be self-conscious—you ought to be ashamed to steal the time of your audience. Prepare yourself. Know what you are going to talk about, and, in general, how you are going to say it. Have the first few sentences worked out completely so that you may not be troubled in the beginning to find words. Know your subject better than your hearers know it, and you have nothing to fear.

Note: I'll show you how to structure an engaging speech in a future article in this series.

Once you've written your speech, what should you do next?

The 7th P

You've prepared your presentation, but your work isn't finished yet. The next step is to practice your presentation.

I recommend starting your practice by reading your presentation aloud to yourself. That way, you'll get used to projecting your voice, you'll get familiar with the speech you've written, and you'll start impressing the speech upon your memory. Additionally, you will probably discover that some of what you've written is clunky. Spoken out loud your words have a different cadence to when you read them silently. Re-write your presentation so it flows naturally when you speak it aloud. Finally, time yourself to ensure your presentation is the right length for the time slot you've been given.

Next, practice in front of a one-person audience. This could be a trusted family member or close friend. The first time you give the speech, ask them to focus their feedback on what you did well. The second time, ask them for a feedback sandwich. A feedback sandwich is structured as follows:

  • Compliment. What did you do right? What went well?
  • Points for improvement. What could you have done better?
  • Encouragement. Conclude by reinforcing what went right.

Here's what your one person audience should look out for:

  • Do you hold their interest? Does your presentation keep them engaged, and does it flow well? A good speaker can make any topic interesting, even to an audience who knows nothing about it.
  • Can they summarize your talk? A good talk has a clear point. Can your feedback partner tell you the key points of your presentation?
  • How fast are you speaking? When you're on stage, you need to speak slowly and project your voice. If you feel nervous you may do the opposite  speak too fast, and mumble. Practice speaking slowly even if you feel like doing otherwise, and don't be afraid of pausing to collect your thoughts. Well-timed pauses help to hold the attention of your audience.
  • What is your body language saying? You may not have the confidence to strut about on stage, but you should take care to make eye contact with your audience and keep your body language open. Again, you may have to practice doing this in spite of your nerves.

If you want extra practice, find a public speaking group in your area such as Toastmasters. For a small weekly fee you can practice public speaking in front of a supportive group of people.

Ultimately, you've just got to take the plunge and give your presentation. The more you've practiced beforehand the better you'll give. Even so, it's a good idea to adopt an attitude of practice during your presentation. This is the first presentation you'll give, not the last. Treat it as a learning experience, even if not everything goes to plan.

Dale Carnegie writes: "Practice... in speaking before an audience will tend to remove all fear of audiences, just as practice in swimming will lead to confidence and facility in the water. You must learn to speak by speaking."

The 8th P (A Note On PowerPoint SlideShows)

Most business presentations these days come bundled with a PowerPoint slideshow. While visuals can improve your presentation, I recommend preparing a slideshow only after you've written and practiced the spoken part of your speech.

Why's that?

A slideshow can help to reinforce your message and hold attention. However, it can be tempting to use PowerPoint as a security blanket. After all, the slides detract attention from you, so you can "hide" behind them.

Make sure you are the driver of the presentation, and not PowerPoint. That's why I suggest preparing and practicing your presentation before you put together a slideshow. Then you can decide whether you really need a slideshow, or whether you'd just be using it to distract the audience from you. If possible, avoid text-based slides. Instead use images and infographics to illustrate your points. Doing this removes any temptation to simply read the text off the slides.

What Makes a Great Presentation?

You've prepared your presentation. You've practiced with a trusted friend, and perhaps with a public speaking group. You've put together visuals that support your main points. Great job! You've jump-started your presentation skills. The work you've put in will mean you're able to deliver a good presentation that your audience will enjoy.

To take your presentation from good to great, keep in mind the following:

  • Be clear on your purpose. What do you want your audience to remember from your presentation? When you're writing your presentation, build it around this point. That doesn't mean you should start with your main point. Rather, your talk should build up to the main point. Don't be afraid of looping back and repeating yourself to reinforce your point. Repetition is a powerful technique in writing and in speech.

  • Dress to impress. When it comes to public speaking the old proverb "never judge a book by its cover" doesn't apply. Your audience will judge you by how you look. The clothes we wear give visual cues to our audience about whether we're worth listening to. More significant than that, your clothes give subtle signals to you that impact your behavior and even your intelligence. As such, make sure you're well-groomed and appropriately dressed.

    Err on the side of smart rather than casual. Choose an outfit that gives you a natural feeling of confidence.

  • Be sure to smile. Smiling gives a visual cue to your audience that you're worth listening to. As Ron Gutman, founder and CEO of HealthTap, explained in a TED talk back in 2011, smiling makes you look good in the eyes of others. In Gutman's own words: "A recent study at Penn State University found that when you smile, you don't only appear to be more likable and courteous, but you actually appear to be more competent."

    Smiling is also good for you as it improves your mood and reduces your stress levels.

  • Be a good timekeeper. Keep within the time you've been allocated. This shows respect for your audience and keeps your talk succinct and on track. Your audience is more likely to pay attention if they know you're going to finish on time.

  • Let your nerves work for you. It's okay to be nervous. In fact, your feelings of fear give you an energy you wouldn't otherwise have that is captivating to an audience. You'll be more alert and focused than you usually are, which is good for your presentation. After all, there are few things worse than a presenter who seems half asleep.

In Summary

  • Prepare. Get to know your audience as well as you can. Find out exactly what they want from your talk, and give it to them.
  • Write. Write your presentation. Make sure it contains something new or surprising to your audience and has a clear point for them to takeaway.
  • Practice alone. This helps you get used to the sound of your own voice as you project it across the room. You can also time your talk, and correct any clunky sentences that looked good when you wrote them but don't sound so great read aloud.
  • Practice with a friend. Ask your friend for constructive feedback that focuses on what you're doing right. If you want extra practice, you can find a public speaking group in your area.
  • Use slideshows for visuals. PowerPoint can make your talk more engaging, but shouldn't be used as a security blanket.
  • Remember, it's all practice. If this is your first presentation, keep in mind that it's not your last. Treat it as a learning opportunity. Don't expect to be perfect, but do give the best you can.

What's Your Take?

If you've given a presentation before, what skills did you use to make it engaging to the audience? Share your tips in the comments section, below.


Graphic Credit: Presentation designed by Alexander Bickov from the Noun Project. Hurdle designed by Desbenoit from the Noun Project.

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