The American comedian Jerry Seinfeld once joked that since more people are scared of public speaking than of dying, you’re more likely to want to be in the casket than delivering the eulogy.
The fear of public speaking is actually the fear of it going wrong or your audience rejecting you. So, it might come as a surprise that many seemingly confident presenters have these same nerves before a presentation, but they appear confident because they’ve prepared thoroughly.
When you feel properly prepared for a presentation, you won’t worry so much that something will go wrong because you know you’ve anticipated everything and created a presentation your audience will find interesting.
We have created a list of 10 easy to follow steps which will make you a much more confident presenter assuming you’re clear on what the topic is and when you will present it.
1. Understand your audience
The key to any presentation is understanding who you’re talking to and why they’re there. You’re presenting for them, and they’ll expect to get something out of it. Consider their level of knowledge, what they want to learn, their personality, culture, attitudes and their level of seniority when creating your presentation.
Compare how you’d present to new employees on their first day – appearing friendly and not using too much technical slang they haven’t learnt yet – to the more professional and concise style you’d use when presenting to senior management.
2. Be clear about your purpose
Along with knowing your audience, you need to know why you’re presenting at all. You obviously need to know your topic, but also what your end goal should be.
Are you simply informing your audience, or are you trying to persuade them towards a particular point of view? Pitching, relationship building, motivation and influencing all require different presentation content and styles. The biggest flaw a presenter can make is to misunderstand or neglect their purpose.
Your job is to take the audience from where they are now to where they need to be to fulfil your objective. This allows you to work out what key messages are that you must get across to achieve it. These are the main things you want your audience to leave knowing and thinking about.
3. Choose the content
A presentation shouldn’t include everything you know on a topic. Even when informing an audience, think about what they actually need to know and select your content accordingly.
Focus on the key messages you want to deliver to your audience by the end of the presentation, letting this guide you when choosing which content to include or leave out. Be wary of too many tangents, as these can appear unfocused, and also be careful not to intimidate your audience with too much information. It will also detract from the key messages which will then be more difficult for you to land.
4. Structure your content
Once you’ve chosen your content, you need to work out which order it goes in. Using a clear and carefully thought out structure helps audiences follow and engage with a presentation, without it becoming overwhelming or confusing.
You should guide your audience through the beginning, middle and end of a story. Start at the beginning, with an introduction to explain what you’ll be talking about; the middle is for all the main information; and end with a conclusion and summary. This structure will work regardless of your topic.
It’s important to outline your key messages at the beginning, explain them properly in the middle and then reiterate them at the end.
5. Adding flavour
A great presentation has more than just basic information, key messages and a good structure, it needs a bit of pizzazz to bring it to life and keep your audience interested and engaged.
Think of a campaigning politician: rather than simply saying “we need more hospitals,” they’ll talk about an ill person they met, probably naming them and describing their life, showing how this could have been avoided if there were more hospitals. They bring the audience along with them making sure the story stays in their minds.
Not all topics lend themselves to this kind of empathetic story. Sometimes you’ll want eye-catching graphs or images to illustrate your points, and even some (appropriate) humour can help lighten the mood if your topic is quite serious.
6. Open and close with impact
Audiences are most focused at the beginning and end of presentations, so open and finish with something extra special. Many presenters spend their first few moments introducing themselves, but why squander your audience’s attention on that? It’s much more effective to start with something more interesting – a surprising fact, a story, a quote or a question are some effective ways of grabbing your audience’s attention.
Your opening ‘bang’ shouldn’t be longer than 40 seconds, and it’s only after this that you should give your name and why you’re there. Remember, audiences are selfish and only interested in what’s in it for them, so make sure they know what to expect right from the outset.
Similarly, your closing moments are your most powerful, often being the part that people remember best, strongly influencing their impressions of the entire presentation. Even if you’ve been repeating it throughout, make sure you end by summarising your key messages. If you take questions at the end, repeat your key takeaway after the final answer, ensuring people leave with this in their minds.
7. Anticipate questions
For many people, questions are the most nerve-racking part of any presentation. You don’t know what’s going to be asked, so how can you prepare? Although you don’t know exactly what will be asked, you can make some educated guesses and anticipate likely topics and difficult questions. If your presentation hints at more information which you haven’t covered, people might ask about that. If you make a controversial statement, you may be asked to justify or explain it.
8. Complete your PowerPoint Slides
You’ll feel much happier and more confident about your presentation once your slides are completed. You should never have to stand in front of an audience knowing that several slides are missing and hoping nobody notices any spelling mistakes.
Set aside plenty of time to create your PowerPoint slides, proofread them, check all the links work and everything flows. Remember, no one wants to watch you reading off the screen, so limit the amount of text on each slide. Read our advice on avoiding death by PowerPoint to learn more about creating an engaging slide deck.
Practicing is one of the easiest ways to raise your confidence. Some people like having people listen and give constructive feedback, and some prefer rehearsing alone. There’s no right or wrong way, but make sure you’re honest with yourself about what works and what doesn’t. Recording yourself and watching it back can help you see how you come across. Seeing even the small details, like what you do with your hands while you’re talking, will let you actively improve your performance.
By rehearsing, you’ll learn to present it better and you’ll discover anything that doesn’t flow or is unclear. Also, if any parts are tricky to say – such as difficult terms or long names – you’ll have time to become more familiar with them. Additionally, you’ll see how long your presentation takes. This gives you the chance to add or remove sections, and to discover if some parts aren’t as interesting or engaging as you expected.
Many people are tempted to skip this important part of preparation. If you’re short on time make sure you at least rehearse the opening, the close and your key messages.
10. Check the logistics
The final step to feeling confident is checking the real-world practicalities. Do you know where you’ll be standing? Do you know if you’ll need a microphone to be heard? If you have to travel there, do you know how long it takes?
Make sure you know how all the technology works and check you’ll actually be able to access your slides. You don’t want to get caught out by discovering there’s no internet connection when your PowerPoint is saved in the cloud.
If possible, you should get to the room early to set up before your audience arrives. This will give you time and space to solve any last-minute issues and to take a moment to breathe and get yourself ready.
Take a look at our Learning Solutions for more ways to improve your Presentation Skills.