It’s estimated that as many as 70% of Americans fear public speaking, yet as a working professional, it just comes with the job. While the majority of the work is in finding the right content for the presentation and making sure you thoroughly know the material, going the extra mile in delivering a presentation will make you stand apart from your peers. So what’s the secret?
Before “The Big Day”: Preparation
There are two core components that go into making a good presentation. The brunt of the work is in the preparation— how are you making your slides or blocking your talk? What’s the most effective and concise way of communicating an idea? Assuming that you have the content down and just need to know the best way to prepare the talk, here are a few tips:
Always spruce up your slides
Yes, we try not to judge a book by its cover, but having a pretty deck always makes a difference. Consider the following example:
On the left, we see a slide that only has text, which makes it hard to read and parse easily. It also uses a serif-based font, which takes longer to read. On the right, we use a sans-serif font that is easier to read, and group the information in a logical way. I also recommend having titles that either pose a question or make a statement— titles are a great way to summarize what the take-away from the slides should be. Lastly, people remember icons much easier than they do straight blocks of text— by including even a few cartoon images that summarize the information, the slide immediately becomes more digestible and approachable. And don’t be afraid of using a bit of color! Having an understated color palette throughout the presentation will draw eyes to the important information while still remaining professional.
Include an agenda
So many talks have amazing content but fundamentally lack cohesion because the audience is unaware of the journey that they are being brought on. Make sure that you begin your presentation by giving a clear sense of what the overview is. Who are you, and what are you talking about? What is the one-sentence summary of this talk, and what are the exact steps you are going to take to lead us to this conclusion? And finally, why do we care? I often like to have an “Agenda” slide that I include multiple times in the talk and bold specific sections that you are talking about at the moment. This way, the audience is aware of how much longer the talk is going to take and why this particular section is important to the overall buildup.
Anticipate audience questions
Time your presentation and make sure that you are well under the allotted time limit. I often recommend recording yourself practicing the presentation to replay it and confirm that you are speaking in a well-paced and clear tone. Leave time for questions, because people will inevitably want to clarify or poke further into your work. If you think you know what some common questions might be (either based on a practice run you did with a friend or your own intuition), create “backup” or “Appendix” slides that you can refer to in the case that people ask about specific information. A common question is to ask for a citation or reference that backs up data that you are presenting, so always include references or a Works Cited section.
Day Of: Delivery
Once you’re happy with your presentation, move on from the slides. Focus on you! Again, we like to pretend that image and delivery doesn’t matter as much as it does, but impressions have a lasting impact on how people view your presentation.
It’s okay to be a little overdressed
No one faults someone for trying “too hard” at delivering a good presentation— it’s a lot better to wear something slightly more formal than usual. Pick your outfit beforehand and make sure that it is comfortable enough for you to stand up and walk around without feeling self-conscious or hurting your feet. Most importantly, though, wear something that makes you feel confident because that will project to the audience.
Body language is key
Plant your feet shoulder-width apart, and keep your hands out rather than behind your back or in your pockets. Try to keep gestures to a minimum and use them only when they directly accentuate the point you are trying to make. Relax your shoulders so you don’t feel too stiff, and try to keep your torso towards the audience so your position is open and amicable rather than reserved. If you feel awkward and uncomfortable, chances are the audience is reading that too. Delivering a great presentation is a bit like acting— you have to own the part completely, even if you feel nervous.
Don’t speed up or slow down because you’re worried about time.
Your presentation may not go exactly as planned, or perhaps impromptu questions got in the way and took up a lot of time. Either way, the solution isn’t to suddenly speak a lot faster and try and get your point across as quickly as possible. Keep the same calm and measured pace, but decide ahead of time what slides you might be willing to gloss over or skip entirely in the case that you need to prioritize.
A lot of people I know tend to practice so much that their presentation begins to sound robotic and rehearsed, which takes away from a natural delivery. People want to know that you’re thinking on your feet and telling you a story rather than reciting lines that sound memorized. Practice enough times that you have a general flow and sense of the time you need to take per slide, but not too much that you begin to feel stale.
Tie back the conclusion to the beginning of your presentation.
Remember, delivering a good presentation is just like telling a great story. That means that the audience genuinely must feel like you’ve taken them on a journey and that they ended up exactly where you promised you’d be at the beginning of your presentation. I often like to use my title slide as my concluding slide as well so there’s a visual cue that shows the presentation si ending, and you can then restate the title and give a few quick sentences about why they care about the topic at hand and what you’ve taught them.
Most importantly, trust yourself— you’ve practiced, and now it’s time to show everyone what you’ve put into your work!