What are the skills you need for a presentation?
Presenting information clearly and effectively is a necessary skill in business today. Most of us will be required to give a presentation at some point in our career. While some people take this in their stride, others find it much more challenging and have a fear of public speaking and presentation in front of others. It is, however, possible to improve your presentation skills with the right planning, preparation and practice. So, what are the skills you need for a presentation?
Planning The Presentation
Every great presentation starts with asking yourself three key questions.
What is your objective?
Clarify the objective of your presentation by asking yourself what you want your audience to do, agree to or know as a result of it.
Be specific about what you are trying to achieve. “I want to update the team on the project” or “I want to get buy-in to my idea” is not specific enough. “I want to convince the Board that investing in CRM software will drive sales and improve customer satisfaction” or “I want to reassure the team that recent organisational changes will not affect their jobs” is more specific.
Think about what you are trying to “do” to your audience. Are you trying to challenge, inspire, excite, reassure, provoke or warn? Creating an emotive response in your audience is a key part of the persuasion process. Neuroscientific studies have shown that decision-making occurs in the emotional centre of the brain and that decisions are often prompted by emotional factors (which we explain as ‘instinct’ or ‘gut feeling’).
Who is your audience?
Analyse your audience. What type of people are they? What interests them? If you are trying to persuade, what do you need to say to convince them to do or agree to what you are asking?
Ask yourself what the audience wants to know about your topic, as well as what you want to tell them. By considering what will interest them, you will keep your presentation relevant and cut down on unnecessary detail.
Write down any objections the audience might have to your proposal. What are the weak points in it? What difficult or challenging questions might people have? Either answer these in your presentation or prepare to answer them at the end.
What is your key message?
Your key message is the overarching theme of your communication. It is the one thing you want the audience to take away with them, if they only remember one thing.
Define your key message in a short sentence that contains a what (the topic) and a why (the reason your audience should care). By giving the audience a reason to listen, you generate interest for what you are going to talk about, which is crucial for getting attention.
For example: “The benefits of design thinking” is not a message. It contains a what but not a why. “Design thinking will transform the way you solve problems in your business” gives the audience a reason to listen. It delivers a benefit up front. Frame the why part of your key message based on what is relevant and of interest to the audience.
Structuring The Presentation
One of the key skills you need for a presentation is a solid structure. Almost all persuasive presentations follow a three-part structure. It might be Why-How-What (Steve Jobs’ iPod launch), Topic 1-Topic 2-Topic 3 (Sheryl Sandberg’s UC Berkeley ‘Personalisation, Pervasiveness and Permanence’ keynote) or Situation-Complication-Resolution (Brené Brown’s Power Of Vulnerability TED talk).
Whichever way you think of it, the three-act structure works equally well for investor presentations, product launches and vision statements as it does for political speeches and TED talks.
Map out your structure and the “headlines” (or main points) you want to include. You can brainstorm your headlines on your laptop, on pieces of paper or even on sticky notes, which you can then move around. As you develop the headlines, go back and remind yourself of your objective and audience and ask yourself whether all the information you are planning to include is relevant. Everything in the story should support your key message. Any additional information or data should go into the appendix.
Next, think about your opener. Your opener is crucial for getting the attention and buy-in of the audience and is also the time when you are establishing your presence. A great opener will engage the audience and set up the key message. It can be a question, an arresting statistic, a story, a metaphor, a personal anecdote or a picture. Whatever you use needs to draw your listeners in and get them ready to receive your content. Find a way to arouse curiosity.
Finally, plan your ‘closer’. This is the last thing your audience will hear before you take questions. You want to ensure you finish strongly. If the presentation has been more than ten minutes, summarise your key points. Then remind yourself of what you wanted your audience to do or agree to at the end. This should be stated explicitly in your call to action. If there is no specific call to action, use this opportunity to restate your key message before thanking the audience and inviting questions.
Creating Your Slides
Ensuring you understand the basics of good slide design is definitely one of the skills you need for a presentation. Your slides are not your script or speaker notes. The fastest way to put your audience to sleep, and to ensure that they remember very little, is to present slides full of text. Effective presenters use their slides to support the story they are telling, facilitate understanding and ensure memorability.
Put together a storyboard of the slides you are going to use based on the key messages you want to get across. The best way to create a logical and easy to understand story, and to make your story memorable, is to present one concept per slide.
Consider how you will illustrate your points visually. Replace words with pictures as much as you can but ensure pictures are meaningful and aligned to your message, rather than simply decorative. Be careful your slides don’t upstage you – unless it is deliberate. Remember that an image will make your point more memorable than a list of bullet points and is useful if you want to convey emotion.
Use simple graphs and infographics to explain big numbers or just put one number on the slide on its own. This is far more powerful than showing multiple charts and graphs full of statistics that the audience will not remember and possibly won’t understand. Remember that the data isn’t the story, it’s there to give credibility to the story.
Ensure that you show your audience the meaning of your data by choosing the right graph to convey the information, giving the graph a clear headline, labelling it appropriately and taking out any unnecessary clutter. Your audience only sees the graph for a minute or two at most. They don’t have time to interpret it for themselves.
Delivering The Presentation
Looking relaxed and confident when standing in front of the audience is one of the key skills you need for a presentation. Body language, gesture and the way you carry yourself matters.
A slumped posture will give your audience the impression that you’re not confident in your topic – or in yourself. Conversely, if your back is ramrod straight or you pull your shoulders too far back, you’ll come across as rigid and tense. A gentle lift at the breastbone will align your spine and open your chest helping you to stand tall and take up the right amount of space, while still looking comfortable.
If you watch the most popular TED Talks, you’ll notice the presenters have one thing in common: they all use gestures to emphasise their words. Hand gestures will help you stress what’s important as well as help to keep your body free, open and relaxed. They will also demonstrate your passion for the topic, as people generally gesture more frequently when they’re passionate about something.
An animated face is also crucial to making you look interested in your own content. Smiling at the beginning of the presentation will make you look comfortable and confident – and will also relax your audience. And don’t forget to maintain eye contact while you’re speaking. Avoiding eye contact or turning your back will break your connection with the audience.
Using Your Voice Effectively
Great vocal delivery is just as important as body language when it comes to the most important skills you need for a presentation.
A presentation delivered too fast can get in the way of your audience understanding your message; too slow and you may well bore listeners. So, you want to find a ‘measured’ baseline pace that that allows your audience to easily take in what you’re saying without having to concentrate hard.
Start a little slower than you usually would – it not only gives people time to settle into the presentation and get ready to receive your content, it also telegraphs confidence (we tend to rush when we’re nervous). Then consider which parts of the presentation need more energy and momentum, and which parts need more weight; speed up and slow down accordingly.
There are all sorts of reasons why people fail to pause when they’re presenting: nerves, the glare of the spotlight, a lack of interruption, a learned script. In real life, however, we pause all the time when we’re speaking. But not always in the same place or for the same length of time.
The average length of a ‘natural’ conversational pause is approximately one fifth of a second or the length of a finger click. Applying these micro-pauses at natural breaks between thoughts gives you a chance to take a breath and think about the next point you’re going to make. Try it – it won’t just help your delivery, it will help you control your pace, too.
Of course, not all pauses are created equally. If a breath-pause lasts about a finger click, try one that a little longer after a key point – it will ensure attention is directed to the message, which will help it to stick in your audience’s mind.
When it comes to tips for using your voice in a presentation, emphasis of key words is one of the easiest to put into practice. Emphasis is all about ‘sharing the sense’ with the audience. Pick out the words and numbers you want to stand out and use a lift in pitch or a slight increase in volume to place them in the audience’s ear. Do it sparingly however and don’t exaggerate.
Listen to this clip of Steve Jobs to see what this sounds like. Note that he sounds quite conversational when he does this, not at all stagey. And remember he had to practise – a lot – to achieve this.
Speech that is absolutely regular, without variation in rhythm or anything else, will bore an audience within minutes. Add in pause, pitch and emphasis, and it immediately becomes more dynamic and interesting.
The same is true for volume. Variation – sometimes louder, sometimes softer – will ensure select passages stand out from the rest.
In my years of coaching, it’s always struck me as odd that energy is one of the most overlooked areas in presentation style – to me, it’s always been one of the most important presentation skills too have. Yet people tend to talk a lot more about volume.
Energy doesn’t always mean ‘high and excitable’ as so many people seem associate with the word. It’s more about a strong sense of intention. Think about the energy you have when you are talking about something that’s really important to you, or you’re passionate about. It’s just a little bit ‘more’ than your usual conversational self – a little bit more energised, a little bit more focused. If you imagine a gas knob on a kitchen hob, think of what your baseline energy is, and then just dial it up a couple of notches for the duration of the presentation.
Get your energy and focus right and you’ll often find other elements of your presentation style – including volume and emphasis – fall quite naturally into line.
Varying your tone will add another layer of variety and interest to your delivery – but more than anything, your tone needs to reflect the ‘mood’ of your message. Consider the intention behind your words.
The expression ‘it’s not what you say, but how you say it’ might not hold true for every message but it’s astonishing how many presenters get the tone of the message wrong when it does matter. An audience will always pick up on the tone in which something is said. And if it’s in opposition to the content, they’ll often believe the tone rather than the words.
Think about what you are trying to DO to your audience at different stages of the presentation. It will help you set the right tone and, crucially, seem invested in the message you are delivering – which, when it comes down to it, is really what great presenting is about. After all, if you don’t believe in what you’re saying, why would anyone else?
Now, that might seem like a lot to think about but once you have your content and visuals in place, you’ll probably only need to work on one or two key areas of your delivery. If you’re stuck for where to start, try the following:
Tips to get the skills you need for a presentation
1. Watch popular speeches
Watching and dissecting speeches or talks is a great way to learn the habits of top speakers. You can’t go wrong by starting with the most popular TED Talks, which demonstrate that there is no ideal style of communication. What the speakers do share is the ability to structure a compelling storyline and to tell their story in a way that connects with the audience making it a successful presentation.
2. Record yourself presenting
When it comes to improving your presentation skills, your phone or webcam is the best tool you have at your disposal. Practise your presentation out loud, recording yourself with video but also occasionally with just with audio (which will allow you to really concentrate on your vocal delivery) this will also give you an idea of what your body language is telling people. Critique yourself and practise honing one area at a time until you’re happy with the result. Remember that you’re not aiming for perfection, just polish. As Ella Fitzgerald said, “God doesn’t mind a bum note.” It’s about engaging the audience and sounding confident, not getting rid of every single mistake.
3. Volunteer for presentation opportunities
The best way to get better at presenting is to give more presentations! If a work presentation is too daunting, start with a Toastmasters course. You’ll get plenty of practice as well as constructive feedback and support from the group. Or you could volunteer to teach English (or any other in-demand skill) to first get comfortable with the idea of speaking in front of a group of people.
Alternatively, if you want professional advice on how to improve your presentation skills from some of the best and most experienced coaches in the business, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out our Presentations Skills training courses here.