Public Speaking Tips

Twelve Steps to Great Presentations
You’ve been asked to give a talk about your area of expertise to a group interested in learning what you have to say. How do you ensure that your talk will be successful? That you will engage your audience, exceed their expectations, and position yourself as a thought leader on the subject?

1. Know your audience – what do they care about?
The best advice I was ever given regarding speaking to an audience was to think less of what I wanted to say, and more of what the audience wanted to hear. In other words, speak to their listening. Will you be speaking to business executives or college students? What does your audience expect to learn from their interaction with you? Try to gauge this well, make sure you deliver upon it, and then if you have more to add, do so. Once you have an audience engaged and they trust that listening to you won’t be a waste of time you can give them what they want plus more.

2. What are the main takeaways that you want to present?
People can at most remember maybe four things from a presentation. What will be your four? What is the most important thing you want your audience to remember? I still remember the main points of the best presentations I’ve heard. Lengendary Venture Capitalist John Doerr said that VCs evaluate 4 risks in a company –management risk, market risk, technology risk, and financial risk. See? Four things. Joe Costello, former CEO of Cadence, built his whole talk to an audience at Stanford around the theme that if you focus on the negative, that’s what will happen, look instead always for the opportunity in a situation. Joe Neeleman, CEO of JetBlue, focused on the theme that value-based leadership and attention to customers can create the kind of company that is not only profitable, but is worth your life’s energy as an employee. Think about what it is that you want your audience to remember as you create your presentation.

3. Preparation – Be prepared.
Know your stuff. Research your topic, find quotes, charts, and research study results to include in your presentation. The more you know your topic, the more comfortable you will feel talking about it. Do not put off making the presentation until the last minute. Think of how much time it should take to prepare and then quadruple it. The upfront investment in time is worth it. If it is a good presentation, you’ll be asked to give it again. If you will be making a Power Point presentation, save the graphics for last. Write an outline first. Then roughly storyboard the presentation on several blank pieces of paper. Believe me, this is a huge time saver. Talk the storyboard out loud and make sure it flows and makes sense before preparing the Power Point slides. Do not get carried away with Power Point graphics, colors, or animation. Use them only if they enhance your message. I’ve seen far too many presentations that are mostly distracting fluff. Don’t try to cram too much content into one slide. Look at each slide and ask the question, what is the main point of this slide? Is that point clearly being communicated? Once you think you’ve finished, vet the presentation with a colleague to gauge response and then refine.

4. The Room – Do a room check.
If at all possible, visit the room in which you will be giving your talk before you actually have to go on stage. Believe me, it will be less stressful if you have a physical sense of your environment. If being there isn’t possible, ask the person who is setting up the talk to describe the room to you – how many seats? Will it be dark? Light? How big is the expected audience? I was terrified once to discover upon arrival that I was to give a talk in front of a thousand people in a darkened room with a huge video display of me behind me on stage when I was expecting a small room with 50 people in a well lit room. Public speaking can be stressful enough, do what you can to be as comfortable and stress free before your talk.

5. Audio Visual – Have a plan B.
Everyone who has done public speaking has an AV horror story to tell. The demo didn’t work, the Internet line went dead, the computer gave out. The list goes on. Murphy’s law is in full form when it comes to presentation technology. Everything that can go wrong will indeed go wrong at some point. Depending on the stakes – the importance of the presentation – you’ll want to have back-ups. Computers do pick the worst times to fail. If this presentation is important, make sure someone on your team is close by with a back-up laptop, with the presentation loaded, ready to go. Make sure your laptop is charged. Meet with the tech people ahead of time and do a run-through making sure your computer can hook into their AV system. I recently gave a talk where I was assured that the AV team had the connectors needed to hook up my Mac laptop. Sure enough, they didn’t, and I had left my AV cables at the office. Fortunately one of the audience members had a flash memory USB card that he hooked into my computer, downloaded the presentation, re-hooked into a PC someone had and uploaded the presentation. The PC worked with the AV equipment and we were off. This was a fairly low stakes presentation. For more important presentations, I would also have had along the slides printed out on transparencies. Almost every AV department has a transparency projector.

6. Eye contact – Windows to other worlds
While you are waiting to be called to give your presentation, before you go up to the podium, smile and make eye contact with some of the participants in the audience. It shows you are interested in the people in the room and that you are excited to be there. Throughout your presentation, pick different people with whom to make eye contact. Don’t stick with only one person however, it will either make that person feel special, or very nervous. People’s eyes are like windows to other worlds. Look at them as if they were those of old dear friends. You never know, they may turn out to be! Refer to your notes, but do not read from them. Speak to your audience, look in their eyes, and engage.

7. Opener – How you start sets the tone for the whole talk.
The purpose of an opener is to engage your audience and get their minds in the room. People come into a room thinking about all sorts of different things – an argument with a spouse, a traffic ticket, everything they need to get done by 5 pm, etc. Your opener is what shifts their attention to you, what gets your audience engaged and ready to hear the rest of what you have to say. One technique I’ve used in lectures is to write the lecture topic on the blackboard and ask the audience what they might want me to talk about within the context of the topic. As they shout out things, I write them down on the board. When the suggestions die out, I go over them and say whether or not I’ll be covering them. I’ve seen others use this technique effectively in rooms with 300 people. Sometimes I do a warm-up exercise, where I ask each person in the audience to write something down pertaining to their personal experience with the topic (ex. What do you love most about your computer? Least?) and then share that with the person next to them. Many public speakers tell a joke to get a speech started. I’m not so good at telling jokes, so I don’t do that. But if you are, great! Play to your strengths.

8. Own the stage.
Pretend that the stage is yours and that the audience members are your invited guests. Act as if the speaking room is your living room at home, and your best friend has just brought over some of her friends, and you are having a conversation. Use the room. If you can, move away from the podium. Try not to have physical barriers separating you from your audience. Depending on the venue you can walk right up to the center of the room and walk around to give your talk. It’s more intimate, more “risky”, more charged with energy when you remove the safety blanket of the podium.

9. Keep track of time.
If you have been slotted an hour, keep it to an hour. It is rude and inconsiderate to your audience and to other speakers to go beyond your time allocation. Take a couple time checks through the presentation. Notice if people are shifting a lot in their seats, or if many are quietly getting up to leave. That would be a red flag that people need a break. If you do come to the end of your time period and you still have more to cover in your presentation, stop what you are doing and ask the audience if they would like you to go on, or end now. Give people the opportunity to leave the room if they have other time commitments.

10. Summarize.
At the end of your presentation, summarize the key points. Remember what we said earlier about take-aways. Is it clear what yours are? Sometimes a slide on the future implications of what you just covered can leave your audience with good topics for future conversation.

11. Take Questions.
Take questions if appropriate and time permits. If a question comes up during your talk that will take you too far off topic, offer to answer it after the talk is over. “That question requires a longer answer than I have time for now but I’m happy to talk to you about it after the session.” Be wary of getting defensive. If you disagree with a questioner’s point, validate their perspective first before offering an alternative. Repeat the question and clarify it if you need to. This helps others hear what was said and ensures that you are answering the question that was asked. Even oddball questions can be opportunities to go deeper into the topic. A master takes what appears to be a stupid question and answers it so eloquently that in retrospect the question seems brilliant.

12. Have fun up there!
If you are having a good time, so will your audience. If you are uncomfortable, your audience will feel uncomfortable for you. So relax. Be yourself. Remind yourself that you know your topic and that these folks want to learn what you have to say. Enjoy yourself, even if the AV falls apart and your computer crashes. 99% of the time everything will turn out just fine, and people will remember your grace much longer than the details of your Power Point slides. Sometimes we forget to have fun when giving a talk. Give yourself reminders on your speaker notes. Your enthusiasm will be infectious!

This article is written by Elise Bauer and licensed under a Creative Commons License with some rights reserved. If reposting this article on a website, please host all graphics on your own site and link back to this article at