Presenting well isn’t a gift you’re born with. It’s true that some people are naturally more charismatic than others, but this doesn’t always make them good presenters. For a lot of people this common misconception can lead to crippling nerves, poor preparations, and lots of money in lost revenue as your sales deck doesn’t do what it’s supposed to. Presentation skills can absolutely be taught, and even the most nervous, or clueless of presenters can learn how to present like professionals just by following some key advice.
Before we jump into that though, I’ll begin with a disclaimer. When a presentation fizzes and fails like a damp firework on New Year’s Eve, it’s rarely the presenter’s fault. In fact, the blame usually sits with the slides. No matter how hard the presenter tries, the presentation won’t go off with a bang if their slides are boring and ineffective. Slides should be visual, exciting, and compelling and it’s the presenter’s job to bring them to life. It doesn’t matter how good your presentation skills are, if your slides are more sad squibs than rainbow rockets, you’ll lose your audience’s attention.
So once you’ve got effective, visual slides then – and only then – is it time to focus on the soft skills that will polish your delivery.
How to use this article
This guide contains lots of helpful tips you can use to improve your presentation skills. We’ve divided it into three sections so you can work through your preparation chronologically. We’d recommend starting at the beginning, but feel free to click below to jump to your favourite bit.
Before your presentation: how to prepare well to reduce big day nerves
During your presentation: how to master the art of body language
After your presentation: how to train your team to present
Before your presentation: How to prepare well to reduce big day nerves
A note on presentation nerves
We’ve all felt it – that heavy feeling in your stomach waiting for your name to be announced, the pacing up and down in the corridor before the door opens, the slightly sweaty palms as you open up your laptop. Everyone gets presentation nerves. And the truth is, a little extra adrenaline pumping through your veins probably gives your performance a lift. But chronic, debilitating nerves are unpleasant, and are a real issue for many people.
But are avoiding sweaty palms and practicing deep breathing really presentation skills?
Yes, because the real problem with nerves is that they might adversely affect your audience. The physical symptoms are distracting – beads of sweat on the forehead, restlessness, and fidgeting are all pretty obvious to a watchful crowd. The audience will notice you are uncomfortable and become distracted from your content. Breathiness – which happens when a presenter takes lots of short, shallow breaths – disrupts the flow of information and makes it difficult for people to follow a narrative. Your nerves also undermine your confidence, and – in turn – your audience’s confidence in you. It’s a tad unfortunate that many of the symptoms associated with nervousness are also associated with guilt, untrustworthiness and deceit. So, while you may have every confidence in the validity of your claims, it might not come across that way.
When it comes to tackling nerves, there is no single infallible method, but we’ve created a four-step process that might help you get them under control. Even if you never get nervous (lucky you!) they will still help improve your delivery.
1. Know your material
Preparedness is your number one ally. Often nerves are the result of feeling uncertain about what lies ahead. You can’t control everything or anticipate what is going to happen, but you can take steps to ensure that your role is locked down and certain.
The key is to practise, and to really know your content inside out. It seems a simple point to make – and it is – but often people confuse ‘knowing their content’ with ‘being able to get through their content’. Here, we’re aiming for the former. You may know your slides, and can present them well start-to-finish, but can you do the same if they’re out of order? Can you pick up where you left off after a 10-minute interruption? Can you keep your narrative going if the slide doesn’t progress? Can you paraphrase the final 10 slides if you run out of time? What if you fall off the stage half-way through your presentation? If your laptop fails, can you deliver the content without any slides at all?
Most people massively underestimate the amount of time this requires, which is often why they end up feeling so nervous. It’s only with this level of ‘whatever-the-world-throws-at-me’ familiarity that will enable you to push past your presentation nerves. Often people stop rehearsing when they can get through the deck. In truth, your rehearsals only begin once you can get through the deck.
2. Pre-empt the worst (and best)
“Don’t think about it! It will all be fine!” This is not advice you’ll hear from us. In fact, we want you to think about everything that could possibly go wrong; power failures, laptop glitches, and unreliable projectors are all quite common. But there’s no need to worry or panic because if you think about it ahead of time you can arrive with a fall-back option should the worst happen.
Beyond that, you need to prepare to deal with the most uncertain element of your presentation: your audience.
- What are the most difficult and awkward questions your audience could ask you? It’s worth planning responses that answer them in a positive way.
- What are the most likely objections that could be raised? Come up with ways to overcome them, address them or dismiss them.
- You should pay particular attention to the audience members themselves – who are they? What are their interests? What are their challenges? What will they be expecting from you? What will they want to hear? What won’t they want to hear?
Thinking in these terms helps you plan and prepare effectively and helps remove the dreaded element of uncertainty.
And just in case you thought this was beginning to sound a little pessimistic, your preparedness needs to extend to best-case scenarios as well as worst. Are you prepared for them to sign then and there? Even if it’s a preliminary meeting, do you have prices to hand in case they are swayed by your early slides and don’t need to see any more? What if they are so engrossed, they want you to carry on past your 10-minute allotted time? Or they want to put you in front of the CEO then and there? Remember, as well as going wrong, things might go better than you expect!
3. Rehearse your presentation
You can be as prepared as possible, and yet your delivery may still need some work. Well, the natural choice is to get BrightCarbon in to provide some in-house coaching to really raise your game. However, there are other things you can do when rehearsing to improve your technique and boost your confidence.
- Rehearse in situ: When you’re rehearsing your slides, try to make the environment as similar to the event as possible. If you can get into the actual space with the actual equipment – great. You’ll get a better feel for the space and become more comfortable with the physical side of your delivery. If you can’t, hook your laptop up to a screen or projector – whatever you’ll be using on the day – rather than just using your laptop screen.
- Rehearse in front of people: Get them to interrupt, ask questions and act as close to how your real audience will act. Presenting in front of strangers is tough but doing so in front of colleagues is even harder. If you can become comfortable delivering your material in a room of your peers, chances are you’ll be fine on the day.
- Rehearse alone: If you’re struggling to find an appropriate space or a willing group of volunteers, fear not. You can still rehearse effectively by yourself. Put your laptop in show mode and click through your slides, speaking your narration out loud. This is really important. You might feel a little foolish, but everyone presents well in their head – doing so out loud is tougher. There’s no point giving yourself an easy ride now and struggling later on.
- Record yourself: Many people recommend rehearsing in front of a mirror. This seems a little strange to us. While you’ll get a good idea of how you will look while you present, it’s important to remember the audience will (and should) be looking at the slides as well as at you. Rehearsing without them (and without an appreciation of how you’ll interact with them) seems a bit pointless. A better technique is to rehearse your performance in context – that is, clicking through and interacting with the slides. Why not set up a video camera or your smartphone and record your delivery? Watch it back and try to spot the things you didn’t think worked; be your own critic. If you’re honest (but not too harsh) with yourself, it will work a treat and you’ll get more confident, and less nervous with each delivery.
4. Take a breath
The final piece of advice is to take a breath, physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s very easy to work yourself up into a state before you present. You automatically think of all the things that could go wrong and worry that your presentations skills aren’t up to scratch and the audience will judge you poorly for your performance. Try to drop all that baggage. There is no ‘you and them’, no one is waiting for you to mess up, and no one will judge you if you do. Take ‘business’ out of the equation and remember the crowd in front of you are people too. They’re here to learn from what you have to say, and you both want the presentation to go smoothly. All you need to do is keep your emotions in check and your mind calm, so you can clearly and concisely communicate your ideas to them.
It’s as simple as that.
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During your presentation: how to master the art of body language
I’m a firm believer that no one means to give out negative signals when they present – no one intentionally looks hostile or lazy; no one means to come across as overfamiliar or timid. However, the truth is that on the list of things to address when preparing for a presentation, body language comes pretty far down. Getting the message right, the content, the language, the follow-up, the technology are all bigger priorities. These are the elements that go into a presentation, which makes body language is one of the vehicles for delivery. Body language can have a real impact on your audience, which then has a knock-on effect on how well your audience perceive your message, so it’s really important we get this right.
What is good body language?
Because interpreting body language is a highly individual thing, coming up with a list of 1-to-1 substitutions (i.e. this behaviour means this) is impossible. However, there are certain traits that are broadly and universally interpreted in certain ways. What’s interesting is that often the same behaviour can fall on either side of the spectrum, depending on its intensity.
For example: movement. If you move around too much, you look like you’re uncomfortable and nervous – wanting to be anywhere but where you are. Alternatively, if you’re too stationery, your unnatural stillness is disconcerting and too intense.
In this respect, positive body language is about balance – about not being too much one thing, nor too much the other. To put it another way, effective body language is best defined by what it isn’t, rather than by what it is.
With that is mind, it is more helpful to look at some of the behaviours you should avoid, rather than try to write a prescriptive list of behaviours to follow. Striking a balance between extremes of behaviour is often the best route to ironing out any issues you might have with your non-verbal communication. Take a look at the diagram below, which roughly groups together the interpretation of certain behaviours.
Generally, there are two metrics for the impression that presenters give off – enthusiasm and confidence. Too little or too much of either can be perceived negatively.
- Your posture is a key indicator of your mood. Looking too relaxed or comfortable is going to come across poorly. However, being too still and rigid in your posture can make you look nervous or too intense.
- Your arms and hands also play an important role – keeping your arms folded or tucked away in your pockets can come across as being over-familiar and unprofessional, confrontational and aggressive in extreme cases.
- On the other end of the spectrum, overly-expressive and wild gesturing makes you look unfocused, erratic or just too intense.
- Your positioning is also crucial. The old adage that you should never turn your back to the audience is unhelpful; it’s fine to turn away if you’re directing the audience’s attention to the screen. However, be wary of spending too long facing in either direction and neglecting the other.
So, what does that leave us with? As I said, the key is to achieve a balance, so the ideal impression to portray would sit bang in the middle of the diagram above – shown by the green circle.
- You should aim for a natural, relaxed posture – engaged but not intense.
- Use open, expressive gestures, dividing your attention between the audience and the screen.
- Aim for a little movement, and an open, friendly demeanour.
- Try not to copy someone else’s stance or gestures, keep it natural and authentic and you’ll make a much better impression.
How do we assess and improve our own body language?
Increase awareness: The first step to making your body language work effectively is to actually become aware of how you present at the moment. Often problems develop because people disregard it – letting their subconscious take over. It’s this inattention that allows bad habits to creep in.
The best way to become more aware of how you present is to see yourself do it. Mirrors don’t give you the full impression, it’s better to record yourself presenting something. Obviously it would be great to do so in a ‘live’ environment, but a dummy run in a meeting room would work perfectly well. Watch the footage and objectively assess yourself using the following questions:
- What message would my posture convey to a stranger?
- Am I moving around too much, or not enough?
- Do I come across as professional?
- How enthusiastic am I? Does it look like I’m just going through the motions?
- Do I look like I know my material?
- How open is my body language? How expressive am I being?
Sometimes, watching yourself back and becoming more conscious of your body language is enough to improve it. You will probably find that you have an innate understanding of the mistakes you’re making and can figure out how to fix them.
Use a third party: However, if you’re still not sure whether you have an issue, it makes sense to bring in outside opinions to help. Choose a colleague for support but do so wisely. This isn’t the time for a ‘yes man’, someone who will simply say you’re doing a great job. Pick someone who will be honest and critical. Even better, get a group together – and aggregate their responses. As with any form of research, be careful when collecting their feedback – don’t lead them in anyway. So, questions like ‘What impression did you get from the presentation?’ work better than leading ones like ‘Do I look nervous to you?’.
Listen to your colleagues and pull together the common elements of their feedback. If there is anything that comes across as universally negative, it probably needs examining. Varied feedback, or comments that aren’t particularly strong in any sense usually indicate that your body language isn’t overtly negative. As I said earlier, people will likely take slightly different messages from how you behave. Don’t worry too much about this; try to get a general appreciation of how the group felt.
Effecting change: This is the tricky part. Changing your body language can be a case of trying to undo decades of learned and cemented experiences. This is not only challenging, but even if achieved, can come across as robotic and unnatural – ironically leading to worse problems. What’s more, you don’t want to be so caught up in perfecting your presentation skills that you fail to get your message across. Remember, we’re talking about adding a level of polish to a presentation here – body language is a finishing touch and should never come at the expense of content. In short: if you can’t make it work, don’t worry about it.
Having said that, do give it a go. If you think you’re moving around too much, try to present a few slides staying still. If people have said you look bored, stand up straighter and bring more energy. Of course, the difficulty is sustaining your new behaviour and not falling into old habits. Again, it helps to have a trusted colleague with you to pull you up when you slip. The only way to improve and to keep it up is to practise – to keep presenting with your new behaviour until it becomes second nature. It’s a frustrating and often slow process, but the more you work on it, the better your results will be.
Other techniques for good presentation delivery
Along with balancing your body language, there are a few other presentation delivery techniques you can employ on the day. For example, pay attention to your tone of voice. Watch the recordings you’ve made and consider whether the emphasis and emotion in your voice helps convey your message. Is your voice a droning monotone or do you come across as enthusiastic, lively and truly passionate about your subject? Just as with body language, the key to success is practice.
Secondly, to help you feel comfortable, try to pick out a few friendly faces in the crowd. If possible, speak to some audience members one-on-one before your presentation so there are familiar faces to focus on. More importantly, ignore the grumpy faces. Some people look miserable when they are actually just concentrating. Even if some of your audience are in a bad mood, it probably has more to do with the disappointing hotel breakfast than your presentation skills.
How to recover after your presentation
Once you’ve given your presentation, you need to recover. Talking about recovery as a presentation skill might seem odd but learning how to recover well is important as if you feel awful after every presentation it will feed into your nerves for the next time. This skill is particularly key for introverts who are more likely to find themselves feeling mentally and emotionally drained after a presentation. Schedule in recovery time – be strict! – and give yourself the time and space to collect your thoughts and relax. Maybe you need to lie down in a dark room, or perhaps a quiet cup of tea is enough. Put it in your calendar and make it a priority. If you can avoid a corporate dinner or intense networking session, do. The less traumatic the experience, the quicker your presentation confidence will grow.
A note on introverts
Before we move onto our next section, I’d like to dig a bit deeper into how to deliver presentations if you’re naturally shy or introverted. It’s a myth to think that you need to be extroverted in order to be a good presenter – it’s just not true.
What is an introvert: Most people think introversion is about shyness. Though this is partly true, it’s actually the level of stimulation you need to function, and the amount of time it takes to recover that determines whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert. Introverts need much less stimulation, and tend to want to withdraw in order to recharge. So it isn’t really a surprise that a highly stimulating activity like giving a presentation in front of a huge crowd of people is going to wear out introverts much faster and more intensely that extroverts. If you want to do some further reading on this, check out Susan Cain and her book Quiet.
How to present well if you’re an introvert: But all is not lost. Introverts often give far better presentations that their extrovert counterparts, because tend to be better prepared, but that isn’t always the most reassuring thing to hear when you have a presentation on the horizon. So here are five practical pieces of advice to help your presentation go well:
- Attitude: We all get passionate about the things we really care about, so where possible, try to present on something that really interests you. But we know this isn’t always possible, so instead spend a lot of time with the content and dig how into it relates to you so that you can bring it to life.
- Content: Creating a presentation as a team often sounds great, but in reality is can be a bit chaotic. Why not suggest coming up with a first draft of the content independently and getting your colleagues to pitch in afterwards. And then when it comes to slides, you want to stand up in front of something that will help you share the burden and a) not put you too much in the spotlight, b) not be so dull that everyone ignores you. You need your slides to be enaging and visual. We don’t have time to go into that here, but you can read all about it in this helpful article on visualisation for presentations and eLearning here.
- Preparing to deliver: Because introverts can become over-stimulated much faster than extroverts, it’s important to desensitise the newness of delivering your presentation. The more you practice, the more familiar it will feel, and the less likely you are to get over-stimulated. Prepare extensive speaker notes, but not a script, and practice – wait for it – in front of a camera. Trust me, it might feel awful, but if you know what your audience is seeing when you present, you’ll be able to relax a lot more on the day! Try to visit the venue beforehand if you can so that you aren’t acclimatising to a completely new place, and try to meet with some people who will be at your presentation beforehand, so you know you’ll have a few friendly faces to look at.
- Delivery: Soft skills won’t make up for bad slides, but of you’re well prepared up to know, it’s helpful to relax yourself before you go onstage. Have a shake to get the blood flowing, have a yawn to relax you further, and then take some deep, measured breaths – this will help moderate the adrenaline surge you might feel. Once you get out there, smile at your friendly faces, and as you present, don’t be afraid to be yourself!
- Follow-up: It’s completely understandable if, after your presentation, you have no energy to have further meetings and discuss follow-up sessions. If you think you’ll need time to recharge alone or with a close friend, put that in your calendar.
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After your presentation: how to train your team to present
Once you are confident in your own presentations skills it’s time to spread the love and help those around you take a step up the skill ladder. If you’re a manager, training your team is a great way to positively impact their efficiency and make sure they’ve got the presentation skills they need to get results.
So, how do you turn your team into better presenters?
No-one is a naturally great presenter. While it’s true that some people are able to ‘wing it’ and get by on their charisma alone, this is a rare talent – and an approach that doesn’t always go down well with an audience. For most people, becoming a better presenter takes old fashioned hard work and time. We have done our fair share of presentation skills training – and are happy to come and get your team into shape – but if you prefer to go it alone, you’ll want to follow the steps below.
Ask your sales teams to click through the deck they will be presenting and run through the narrative by themselves. This is a great way for them to become familiar with the material, it won’t raise the quality of their performance in and of itself, but these private rehearsals are the helpful groundwork before a more comprehensive, group coaching session. Just like a dress rehearsal, if your team don’t know their material thoroughly before this point, they won’t get the most out of the time, so make sure you encourage them to spend time learning the slide content before you concentrate on delivery.
2. Group sessions
It’s hugely important to work on presentation skills in groups. Taking the time to run through the presentation in front of peers, and refining delivery based on their feedback is when you really start to see results. Ideally, you will work with a group who are all learning to deliver the same presentation. In this scenario, each person is given the opportunity to experience the material as a presenter and as a member of the audience, and they will very quickly see how they need to hone their delivery to communicate more effectively with their audience.
If you are coaching one person, the group should be formed of colleagues – ideally a mix of those with a good understanding of the subject matter, and those without. This will allow feedback that focuses on clarity of delivery as well as accuracy of content.
We learn best in a group of peers – each sees something slightly different, which enables a balanced and broad review of the delivery. But even for seasoned presenters, the prospect of presenting to colleagues isn’t an enticing one, so it’s important you encourage an atmosphere that is sympathetic, supportive, while still critical enough to be effective.
Facilitating group presentation skills coaching, though, is a skill in itself, so here are a few tips to help you run things well for you and your team:
Get everyone involved: Where there are multiple presenters, everyone gets a chance to present and a chance to watch and critique. If you only have one presenter, it’s a good idea to get a couple of other group members to have a go too. This not only takes the pressure off the trainee, and can boost their confidence, but also allows them to see the material from the audience’s point of view.
While the chance to present in front of an audience is helpful, I’d argue that the most beneficial element of a coaching session is the opportunity to watch how others present, see what they do well and where they go wrong. As you progress, the entire room’s delivery will improve as one presenter builds on the quality of the last.
Have multiple run-throughs: Once you’ve got everyone together, start running through the slides. This isn’t the time to talk about whether the message is right or whether the design looks perfect, you’re here to focus on delivery. Hopefully your team has learned their material, but even if not, encourage them to begin presenting anyway. They will learn the slides as they go through, and it’s more efficient than having the rest of the team sit around and wait.
- First run-through: Give everyone a chance to run through the presentation once without interruption and encourage those watching to make notes. Provide feedback after the first run and invite comments and suggestions from those watching. It’s important for the first run-through to be uninterrupted; you want the presenters to become comfortable with the flow and the audience to get a feel for the presentation in its entirety.
- Second run-through: Then get everyone to run through a second time and, this time, direct the presenters to focus on putting into practice the comments that came up. Begin to interrupt if a mistake already commented upon creeps into delivery: stop the presentation, suggest a correction and give the presenter the opportunity to retry that section. As you progress, begin interrupting for any mistakes, even if they haven’t been brought up so far.
Your role is to facilitate. Don’t allow others to interrupt a run through, and make sure you militantly chair feedback sessions. Invite comments from others, but don’t let the session descend into a free-for-all. There needs to be ground rules, so the learning experience is seen as fair, organised and effective.
Manage the feedback: Receiving criticism isn’t easy; all feedback should be constructive and never personal (more on that here). To be truly effective, it also needs to be mutual. I like to start with something positive, follow it with something more critical, then end on a positive, which I’ve found allows you to critique whilst supporting confidence. Make note of two or three positives and one or two negative elements from each delivery. Begin by summarising the delivery and picking out a couple of positive things you noticed. Invite the group to do the same. Then move on to areas that you think could use some work, presenting each as a learning opportunity, not a criticism. Again invite the others to do the same, and address any comments you think unduly harsh or damaging. Finally, sum up with a final, strong positive from your observations.
It is important to follow this pattern each and every time. Negative comments alone will damage confidence, while positive comments alone reduce your credibility and the effectiveness of the exercise. As you progress and the strength of delivery increases, you will find your negative comments become more and more minor, whilst your positive comments become more significant.
Encouraging group feedback keeps the session interactive and enjoyable for all. Slowly, you will see the strength of the presentation delivery increase, as presenters learn from one another’s mistakes and build on their successes. Taking time to coach your team in presentation skills, to ensure they are delivering your message in a powerful, confident and consistent way will never be time wasted.
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So there you have it! Our ultimate guide to the soft skills you need to ensure a great delivery every time. Just remember, positive body language and calm nerves are lovely, but they won’t save your presentation if your slides are rubbish! Our ultimate guide to sales presentations is a great place to start if you want to learn how to create effective, visual slides.
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