Improve Your Presentation Skills Using These 20 Tactics

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improve your presentation skills

WordStream has been doing a lot of presenting recently — and I admit, it’s tough. For those not born with natural eloquence, public speaking can be remarkably nerve-racking.

One of the biggest lessons learned over the last few years is that to be a great speaker, it’s key to develop a personal speaking style. If you’re not the most eloquent speaker in the world, you can make up for it by packing your presentations with enthusiasm, unique/proprietary data, and tons of useful content.

We can’t all deliver the next Gettysburg Address, but there are lots of small things you can do prior to your presentation that will help calm your nerves and set you up for a better presentation. Below are tips to improve your presentation skills.

1. Practice

Naturally, you’ll want to rehearse your presentation multiple times. While it can be difficult for those with packed schedules to spare time to practice, it’s essential if you want to deliver a rousing talk. If you really want to sound great, write out your speech rather than taking chances winging it — if you get nervous about speaking, a script is your best friend.

Try to practice where you’ll be delivering your talk. Some acting strategists suggest rehearsing lines in various positions — standing up, sitting down, with arms open wide, on one leg, while sitting on the toilet, etc. (OK, that last one may be optional.) The more you mix up your positions and setting, the more comfortable you’ll feel with your speech. Do a practice run for a friend or colleague, or try recording your presentation and playing it back to evaluate which areas need work. Listening to recordings of your past talks can clue you in to bad habits you may be unaware of, as well as inspiring the age-old question: “Is that what I really sound like?”

2. Transform Nervous Energy Into Enthusiasm

It may sound strange, but you might want to sit down with an energy drink and blast hip-hop music or whatever gets your juices flowing before presenting. Why? It pumps you up and helps turn jitters into focused enthusiasm. Studies have shown that an enthusiastic speech can win out over an eloquent one. If you’re not exactly the Winston Churchill of presenters, make sure you’re as enthusiastic and energetic as possible before going on stage. Of course, individuals respond differently to caffeine overload, so know your own body before guzzling those monster energy drinks.

3. Attend Other Presentations

If you’re giving a talk as part of a conference, try to attend some of the earlier talks by other presenters. This shows respect for your fellow presenters while also giving you a chance to feel out the audience. What’s the mood of the crowd? Are folks in the mood to laugh or are they a bit more stiff? Are the presentations more strategic or tactical in nature? Another speaker may also say something that you can play off of later in your own presentation.

4. Arrive Early

It’s always best to allow yourself plenty of time to settle in before your talk. Extra time ensures you won’t be late (even if Google Maps shuts down) and gives you plenty of time to get adapted to your presentation space.

5. Adjust to Your Surroundings

The more adjusted to your environment you are, the more comfortable you’ll feel. Make sure to spend some time in the room where you will be delivering your presentation. If possible, practice with the microphone and lighting, make sure you understand the seating, and be aware of any distractions potentially posed by the venue (e.g., a noisy road outside).

6. Meet and Greet

Do your best to chat with people before your presentation. Talking with audiences makes you seem more likable and approachable. Ask event attendees questions and take in their responses. They may even give you some inspiration to weave into your talk.

7. Use Positive Visualization

Whether or not you’re a Zen master, know that plenty of studies have proven the effectiveness of positive visualization. When we imagine a positive outcome to a scenario in our minds, it’s more likely to play out the way we envision.

Instead of thinking “I’m going to be terrible out there” and visualizing yourself throwing up mid-presentation, imagine yourself getting tons of laughs while presenting with the enthusiasm of Jimmy Fallon and the poise of Audrey Hepburn. (The charm of George Clooney wouldn’t hurt either!) Positive thoughts can be incredibly effective — give them a shot.

8. Remember That Most Audiences are Sympathetic

One of the hardest fears to shake when speaking in public is that the audience is secretly waiting to laugh at your missteps or mistakes. Fortunately, this isn’t the case in the vast majority of presentations.

The audience wants to see you succeed. In fact, many people have a fear of public speaking, so even if the audience seems indifferent, the chances are pretty good that most people listening to your presentation can relate to how nerve-racking it can be. If you start to feel nervous, remind yourself that the audience gets it, and actually wants to see you nail it.

9. Take Deep Breaths

The go-to advice for jitters has truth to it. When we’re nervous, our muscles tighten–you may even catch yourself holding your breath. Instead, go ahead and take those deep breaths to get oxygen to your brain and relax your body.

10. Smile

Smiling increases endorphins, replacing anxiety with calm and making you feel good about your presentation. Smiling also exhibits confidence and enthusiasm to the crowd. And this tip works even if you’re doing a webinar and people can’t see you.

Just don’t overdo it — no one enjoys the maniacal clown look.

11. Exercise

Exercise earlier in the day prior to your presentation to boost endorphins, which will help alleviate anxiety. Better preregister for that Zumba class!

12. Work on Your Pauses

When you’re nervous, it’s easy to speed up your speech and end up talking too fast, which in turn causes you to run out of breath, get more nervous, and panic! Ahh!

Don’t be afraid to slow down and use pauses in your speech. Pausing can be used to emphasize certain points and to help your talk feel more conversational. If you feel yourself losing control of your pacing, just take a nice pause and keep cool.

13. Don’t Try to Cover Too Much Material

Yes, your presentations should be full of useful, insightful, and actionable information, but that doesn’t mean you should try to condense a vast and complex topic into a 10-minute talk.

Knowing what to include, and what to leave out, is crucial to the success of a good presentation. I’m not suggesting you skimp when it comes to data or including useful slides (some of my webinars have featured 80+ slides), but I am advocating for a rigorous editing process. If it feels too off-topic, or is only marginally relevant to your main points, leave it out. You can always use the excess material in another presentation.

14. Actively Engage the Audience

People love to talk and make their opinions heard, but the nature of presentations can often seem like a one-sided proposition. It doesn’t have to be, though.

Asking the audience what they think, inviting questions, and using other means of welcoming audience participation can boost engagement and make attendees feel like a part of a conversation. It also makes you, the presenter, seem much more relatable. Consider starting with a poll or survey. Don’t be put off by unexpected questions — instead, see them as an opportunity to give your audience what they want.

15. Be Entertaining

Even if your presentation is packed with useful information, if your delivery bombs, so will your session.

I find that including some jokes and light-hearted slides is a great way to help the audience (and myself) feel more comfortable, especially when presenting them with a great deal of information. However, it’s important to maintain a balance — after all, you’re not performing a stand-up routine, and people didn’t come to your presentation with the sole intention of being entertained. That said, don’t be afraid to inject a little humor into your talk. If you’re not sure about whether a presentation is “too much,” run through it for a couple of friends and ask them to tell it to you straight.

16. Admit You Don’t Have All the Answers

Very few presenters are willing to publicly concede that they don’t actually know everything because they feel it undermines their authority. However, since we all know that nobody can ever know everything about a given topic, admitting so in a presentation can actually improve your credibility.

If someone asks a question that stumps you, it’s okay to admit it. This can also increase your credibility with the audience, as it demonstrates that, no matter how knowledgeable a person might be, we’re all learning, all the time. Nobody expects you to be an omniscient oracle of forbidden knowledge — they just want to learn from you.

17. Use a Power Stance

Practicing confident body language is another way to boost your pre-presentation jitters. When your body is physically demonstrating confidence, your mind will follow suit. While you don’t want to be jutting out your chest in an alpha gorilla pose all afternoon (somebody enjoyed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a bit too much), studies have shown that using power stances a few minutes before giving a talk (or heading to a big interview) creates a lasting sense of confidence and assurance. Whatever you do, don’t sit–sitting is passive. Standing or walking a bit will help you harness those stomach bats. (Isn’t that more appropriate than butterflies?) Before you go on stage, strike your best Power Ranger stance and hold your head high!

18. Drink Water

Dry mouth is a common result of anxiety. Prevent cottonmouth blues by staying hydrated and drinking plenty of water before your talk (just don’t forget to hit the bathroom before starting). Keep a bottle of water at arm’s reach while presenting in case you get dry mouth while chatting up a storm. It also provides a solid object to hurl at potential hecklers. (That’ll show ’em.)

19. Join Toastmasters

Toastmaster clubs are groups across the country (and the world) dedicated to helping members improve their public speaking skills. Groups get together during lunch or after work to take turns delivering short talks on a chosen topic. The more you present, the better you’ll be, so consider joining a Toastmaster club to become a top-notch orator. Just don’t forget, it’s BYOB (Bring Your Own Bread).

20. Don’t Fight the Fear

Accept your fear rather than trying to fight it. Getting yourself worked up by wondering if people will notice your nervousness will only intensify your anxiety. Remember, those jitters aren’t all bad – harness that nervous energy and transform it into positive enthusiasm and you’ll be golden.

Mic Photo via Shutterstock

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Larry Kim Larry Kim founded WordStream in 2007. He serves as company CTO and is the author of 4 Award-Winning Books on Software Development. Larry also blogs at the WordStream Blog and practices photography in his spare time.

7 Reactions
  1. Some really good tips – including the one about drinking water. Amazing how you discover “dry mouth” upon launching into a presentation. 🙂

    I watched a dozen startup demo at a conference recently, and then wrote this post on 10 ways to dazzle:

    • I once watched a presentation like that. It was uncomfortable to watch. Inside, I was willing them to take a couple of sips and was relieved when they finally did.

  2. No. 8: I have a lot of experience in the poetry field here in London. I find that usually, not only do the audience tend to be understanding when you’re nervous, but when you actually say you’re nervous, they really support you – they’ll either clap to encourage you to continue or start again, or vocalise their encouragement.

  3. Practice, rehearse, tape yourself. Even the best actors in the world rehearse their performances. This we must do. And video feedback is easy these days. A camcorder and you’re good to go.

    • I look crazy when I’m rehearsing when I’m out and about – ‘cos I look like I’m talking to myself. But what must be done must be done. 🙂