'Would I like to make a presentation? No thanks. I'd rather drink cyanide.'

by Calvin Sun | February 2008


If you react that way to the thought of giving a presentation, you're far from alone. Although speaking in public frightens many people, the ability to give presentations can boost your career immeasurably. It helps you gain visibility and exposure, and increases your chances of getting that new job or promotion.

Here are some pointers to help you give effective presentations.

Know Your Material

If you really know and care about your material, your audience will sense it. Remember, you're not merely presenting material - you're persuading as well. 

Make sure you're truly adding value or insight to the audience, rather than repeating or conveying information people can find for themselves. If you're talking about project management, for example, have you actually got experience with it? And be sure your presentation is useful: You want people to leave feeling glad they heard you, and that you've given them information that can help them do their work.

If you're using PowerPoint or handouts, be merciful. Don't read slides word for word, or your audience will start wanting a tax audit. Use slides only as a jumping-off point, and add to and embellish them with your presentation. On the other hand, don't memorize your presentation. If you're reciting more than presenting, your audience will know it. 

Control Nervousness

It's okay to be nervous, as long as you channel it to positive use. For example, try telling yourself your anxious because you want to share your information with the audience. It may sound odd, but it can work for some people.

Humor can dispel nervousness, particularly at the start. When I precede a more famous speaker, I ask the audience whether they're eager to hear from the marquee name. Of course, everyone says yes. I continue: "In other words, you're eager for me to finish."

Eliminate Distractions

Get rid of those things that can distract the audience, such as keys or loose change.  Otherwise, you may jingle them while you talk. Do you have a nametag around your neck? If so, and you're using a lapel microphone, take off the nametag and lanyard so it won't brush the mike and send the sound through the speaker system. And be sure to know whether your mike's on or off.

Connect with the Audience

"Connecting" with your audience increases the chances people will remember and be persuaded by your presentation. Try to look at individuals when you speak - I recommend looking at the bridges of their noses.  When you do, it appears you're looking them in the eye, but you have less chance of being distracted.

Before the presentation even begins, introduce yourself to a few members of the audience.  If you have an interesting conversation with them, consider mentioning it in your talk and recognizing that audience member. (Be sure to get their permission first, to avoid embarrassment all the way around.)

Also, mention specific places the audience will recognize. If you're in Washington, D.C., don't just say you had a delay "at the airport."  Mention Dulles or Reagan. Don't say you were walking "down the street," say "along Pennsylvania Avenue."

Keep Slides Simple

As the saying goes: Pictures are worth a thousand words. For that reason, look at your PowerPoint slides and think of ways and places you can substitute images for text.  For example, in my talk on "Communications Lessons from Titanic," I replaced text that said "the Titanic missed an iceberg warning" with images of icebergs surrounding the ship.

Calvin Sun helps organizations and individuals improve their communications skills.