how to improve your presentation skills — without an “eccentric professor” vibe

I’m throwing this one out to readers to help with. A reader writes:

Do you (or the readers) have any tips for improving presentation skills? I have just started delivering presentations, and while it’s not something that comes naturally (I’m an introvert by nature, happiest buried in my own work), it’s something I’m very keen to improve, as I take on more meetings/ leadership/ public engagement. I know the subject area well and I’m passionate about it, but my presentations feel lacking somehow. I think back to excellent presentations I have seen, and I’d like to be a lot more like them — smooth, well timed, engaging.

I‘m currently browsing resources about how to create appropriate presentation materials (no tiny graphics with a lot going on, etc.), but I’d like to hear more about how to work on my own delivery of the material — I’ve read the tips about eye contact, not just reading off the slide, upbeat tone of voice, and so on, but sometimes I feel like I have the opposite problem; I can give off an “eccentric professor” vibe and I do sound like I lack confidence (“Oh, wait, hang on! I’ve just remembered this other really fascinating tangent, let’s back up a bit!!!”), and it is the opposite of polished! It’s not even nerves; it’s just how I talk sometimes, no matter how relaxed I am, but I need to be able to turn that off and project confidence and authority.

Does anyone have any tips or resources, or is it just a skill I’ll learn as I do it more often?

Readers, what advice do you have? (I’m especially interested in this myself; I come across as pretty informal, which I generally think is just fine, but it wouldn’t hurt to be able to impersonate someone more polished at times.)

{ 133 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    If you are getting distracted by tangents, perhaps it would help discipline to have a brief list of bullet points (I would think 3 to 5 max) to keep you on topic. While I understand the desire to go off into tangents, your audience is probably there to hear your main points.

    1. fposte*

      I like this–the point isn’t what you tell them, the point is what they take away. (And remember, you can have notes for yourself that aren’t on your slides.)

      A particular caution–I see a lot of trying-to-be-casual nervous laughs in novice presenters. It doesn’t sound casual, though–it just sounds uncomfortable. Stick with expressing that feeling through face and posture.

  2. College Career Counselor*

    Agreed on the main points. Ask yourself if your tangent is actually something that you would normally put in a footnote. If so, leave it out of your formal presentation.

  3. Gail L*

    I don’t really know if this will help, but here are some bullet points I’ve learned that have helped me.

    –On nervousness: No one knows how nervous you are. If your knees are knocking together and your face is red, still no one is going to notice unless you tell them. Also, no one cares. So you should fake not being nervous. See how a confident presenter strides out to the middle of the stage and doesn’t hide behind the podium? Just do what they do.

    –On clarity: 1) Tell them what will be telling them; 2) Tell them; 3) Tell them what you just told them

    –On written materials: No one can listen and read at the same time. Often written words distract from what you are saying. Visuals should be pictures or graphs that can’t be conveyed by words.

    –Just from me: I cannot – literally – read things while I’m presenting them. I have to have the entire thing in my head, or I am SOL including it in my presentation. That means I have to have a really clear objective and I have to remember the specific examples and know them inside and out. If anyone else has this issue, make all your examples into stories. The human brain remembers a good story where it will forget a bullet point. However, this style of presenting will make you look really smart because you know everything very well.

    1. Chinook*

      For written materials, if you have effective slides, you may want to hand out the handout layout ahead of time so that those who learn by doing can take notes on what is being said (but know that not everyone will do this).

      Speaking of learning styles: try to do something to work with those who are visual, aural and/or pyhsical learners. It is a difficult balance but speakers who learn the balance are the most effective.

  4. Mason*

    What’s the topic/reason for the presentation? Sales presentations are different than quarterly numbers which are different than… etc.

  5. thenoiseinspace*

    My motto for presentations: “Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.”

    Other than that, something which may or may not be helpful: consider an intro acting class. It really does help with delivery, presentation, projection, and getting used to performing in front of a crowd.

    1. J.B.*

      Practice, practice, practice. I would caveat the can’t get it wrong comment though. No presentation will ever be perfect and you will never cover everything you want to get to. The main thing is flow for the overall delivery of information.

      Figure out how many times you need to go through a presentation before giving formally – my number is twice. The first time in front of a computer, the second time in front of a person, and then I’m more comfortable with everything by the third time.

      The intro acting class is a great idea, or other type of training that will show you how to use your voice and body.

      1. Another Cat*

        +1 Practice! Say what you plan to say out loud, until it sounds right, until you say it the same way every time. Not just in your head. Make sure your message is clear and well-organized. Start practicing early and often. Don’t wait until the last minute to put it together. I personally need to go through more than 5 times to get it right (but that’s for complex scientific data). If you use a laser pointer, practice with that – practice pointing, especially if you’re prone to shaking hands while speaking.

        1. Pennalynn Lott*

          Yep, the reason most of those great presentations are well-timed, flow smoothly, and are engaging is because the person giving it has practiced and rehearsed it until they can do it in their sleep. They have driven their spouses/partners, family, and co-workers nuts by going through the presentation over and over and over again. If, during all those rehearsals, they find an “aha!” tangent that is vital to a previous point, they add that insight/data point to the presentation where it fits best and start over. (And over and over). :-D

          Giving a presentation and speaking in public are similar to sports and music: Pulling it off well is due to so many repetitions that the skill becomes a subconscious “muscle memory”.

          1. MaryMary*

            Saying it out loud is key for me. You can know the material and have memorized the slides, but you won’t have nailed the rhythm and flow of the presentation until you talk it through.

            Sports and music are a great analogy. If you’re learning to sing a song, you don’t just look over the music and hum, you SING it, over and over and over.

            1. Jessa*

              This. And if possible corral a friend or relative into letting you say it to them. But you have to say the words, get a tape recorder if you need one (use your phone?) but you can’t “practise” a verbal presentation by reading it over and over on paper.

  6. Yup*

    I’m an introvert too and while presenting didn’t come easily to me at first, practice and experience have made it much easier. A couple of thoughts:

    When starting to prepare your materials/notes, think about what *one* thing you want the audience to walk away knowing or understanding. Make that your core message and construct the presentation around it.

    Try writing up your powerpoint structure in a word document first in outline form, as though structuring an academic paper. What’s my intro, thesis, supporting points A-B-C, conclusion. Creating a story architecture will help you organize your thoughts (and slides).

    Practice! Present to significant others, roommates, friends, pets. Use the “timer” function in powerpoint or apps to see where you’re focused versus scattered. The more times you give a presentation, the more accustomed you become to the flow and content, which helps it feel natural.

    When presenting, remember that you’re speaking to individual people. Focus on an interested face and speak to that person for a little bit, then switch to someone else. It’s more engaging for you if you feel like you’re having a conversation than delivering a playacted monologue.

    Ultimately, I’ve kind of gotten to like giving presentation to small groups. Because as an introvert, it’s actually an opportunity to prepare my thoughts for a delivery where I can set the tone and pace.

    1. E.R*

      Agreed. As an introvert, sometimes presentations are the only time I get to actually share my ideas/ knowledge.

  7. T*

    Can you solicit feedback from someone who has been to one of your presentations or ask a friend or colleague to sit in on your next one? It might be helpful to find out if your tangents are distracting or not. I understand your desire to be polished (or at least to appear that way), but your goal is to have your audience’s attention, for them to be engaged and get your point. Getting critical feedback might help you improve your presentation without losing your personality.

  8. Chrissi*

    I think it depends on how often you have to make presentations as to whether this is useful or not, but practice! Out loud!! Not just in your head. If you actually say it out loud, your brain will remember. Also, when I practice, I practice to my cat. It sounds silly, but giving a presentation to another living thing (the only other living thing in my apartment) helps me. And I don’t stop practicing until I get through it relatively smoothly – no searching for how I want to say something or having to go back and correct things.

    If you give presentations enough that this would be too time-consuming, I would at least have a written list of bullet points (in outline form is my preference) to keep me on track.

    1. EmilyHG*

      This! When I started having to give talks, I practiced speaking to my yucca plant. Out loud. Over and over again until I was comfortable with my talk, not just able to get through it. My first talk ever (where I didn’t practice like that) started with me saying “So. Like, um, …” and I NEVER wanted to have that three-word intro again! It’s really important to really talk through it out loud to something/someone.

      1. Cath@VWXYNot?*

        I had to take a course during grad school during which we were all taped giving a short presentation, and then had to watch it back with the group while the prof pointed out all those little verbal and non-verbal tics that everyone has. It was one of the most excruciating experiences of my life, but incredibly valuable in the long run. Find a friend who can tape you – preferably someone who wants to improve their own presentation skills, too – and go for it!

        1. Alicia*

          I experienced that too. But by god am I aware of my tics now. And they’re now all gone. Except the red face, even though I’m not really nervous anymore.

    2. Celeste*

      I speak to even the largest group as if I’m only talking to one person. I don’t pick somebody and stare at them, in fact I try to look over the tops of heads in the group rather than at the faces. The exception might be as I’m winding down; then I will try to gauge if there are questions.

      If you think it will help to see yourself recorded, do it. Make sure you wear something comfortable for when you present; it helps take away physical nervousness.

      Regarding the eccentric professor vibe, I’m sure that’s cool in some situations, where people are hungry for the extra little details. He doesn’t have to die. Just invite his laid-back younger brother to the party–the one who keeps it light and easy for the crowd. It helps if you actually know of somebody who has a style you can emulate. Maybe watch some TED talks on your topic (if there are any) and see if you see some people who get the message across like you want to.

      Good luck! I think you’ll rock this.

      1. Amy*

        I second emulating someone whose style you admire! I give a training presentation that my work-idol used to give, and she was so good at it that I just try to be like her when I’m doing it. Informal, but polished, and with a clear and measured tone.

    3. Ann Furthermore*

      I practice in my car while driving to and from work, running errands, etc. Just talking through it out loud really helps, and sometimes you find that something in your head doesn’t sound as good out loud, or doesn’t flow as nicely.

  9. SL*

    Over prepare and practice! Find the preparation routine that works for you. I like to have copious notes – I don’t actually use them in my presentations, but writing things out cements the main points in my brain and having an easy to read, clear outline to refer back to if needed gives me great peace of mind. Practicing gives me a sense of how long a presentation will really be if I stick to my notes and if you can video tape yourself you can pick up on any things you want to change in advance.

  10. rw*

    I view presenting as storytelling. I plan my stories in three parts: the background or build-up, the problem or conflict, and the resolution. Then I present the Cliff Notes version. In my experience, hardly anybody likes presentations, but almost everybody likes a good story.

    1. ClaireS*

      Storytelling is how I like to think of it too. While not always appropriate (think: financial report), I like to remind myself that people remember how you make them feel, not what you said. It’s much easier to relate a feeling with a story than a presentation. I use this in sales/marketing presentations all the time.

  11. MK*

    For presentations, I draft a general outline of talking points that I want to address and then practice what I want to say out loud as many times as I can. I don’t write a speech (reading from a piece of paper is so boring!) so a presentation may come out different every time but it helps me formulate what I want to say and how I want to say it. Also, the OP may benefit by practicing in front of a friend or family member.

  12. Marie*

    Practice is your friend here. Try presenting the material alone, but out loud, the day before. Note any places where you stumble and practise those. Then, try presenting the material to someone you trust (spouse, close friend), and ask them for feedback: what did you not understand? where did it not flow? Then, refine the presentation and present it once more to the same trusted person.

  13. MR*

    Two things:

    1. Find a Toastmasters group in your area and start going. Heck, go to two or three different groups if your schedule permits.

    2. Don’t use PowerPoint. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz…

    1. PJ*

      I came here to suggest Toastmasters. It might not help for a presentation you have to give next week, but over a period of time it will hone your skills like nothing else. You will get HONEST and immediate feedback in a safe and supportive atmosphere, making it easy for you to improve consistently and quickly. And mulitiple groups will give you an opportunity to present to different audiences. Oh, and it can also be awesome for networking!

    2. Jen*

      +1 to Toastmasters. Totally changed how I approached presenting. Everything from delivery through how to craft a good speech – both of which enhance the other. I can’t recommend it enough!

    3. Lora*

      +1. I did this in college, and it was AWESOME. So much help!

      +10000000 on the No Powerpoint. There’s a series of books by Edward Tufte on how to present data in a non-Powerpoint-y way, very clearly. They are excellent.

      In the event that someone says you have to use PowerPoint and write down every single thing you’re going to say on the PowerPoint slide deck, avoid this person whenever possible. “But what if someone who couldn’t go to the meeting misses it???” Then a. clearly there are too many meetings b. if they really wanted to go, they’d figure it out c. presentations are SUPPOSED to be interactive. Otherwise, we’d all just send memos.

      1. Chinook*

        See, I am a fan of PowerPoint because some people are visual but it has to be done right. The picture/graph/few chosen words per slide should emphasize your idea, not overpower it.

        If you find you have too many words, cut and paste them in the notes section so that they can be later viewed by those who weren’t there or by future you who can’t remember what you were saying during the slide.

      2. Editor*

        If your material is all on the slides, then why are you talking? Show interesting stuff that you can talk about. Check your slides to make sure they’re not too busy and the small print (if any) can be read at a distance. Or, as others have suggested, just talk and don’t bother with the powerpoint.

        Printouts of powerpoint slides are convenient for reporters, but if you’re not at a press conference, I don’t see the point. A good handout on one sheet of paper can present a lot of routine data or contact information or the high points of the presentation.

        Plus, a one or two-sheet handout saves paper compared to the thick, one- or two-slides-per-page handouts I’ve received in the past. Putting it online and providing a web address for the presentation on the single-page handout is better than reprinting the presentation, too.

        1. Lora*

          EXACTLY! And I’ve known plenty of people who simply stopped going to any meetings they were invited to because “they’ll post their slides and I’ll just read those.” In other words, your meeting is useless and you might as well just send round an email/memo.

          At my first job out of grad school, I did chalk-talks (i.e. completely from memory, notes and diagrams jotted on a chalkboard or whiteboard rather than slides) instead of PowerPoint, and oh boy, were my new colleagues shocked.

    4. V*

      another +1 on Toastmasters. Not just because it will give you a lot of practice and feedback, but also because it will give you the opportunity to actively observe others giving presentations and will require you to evaluate them. My own presentations improved a great deal when I was able to break down the elements of why one presentation was better than another. I would not have been thinking at about them on that meta level without Toastmasters.

      another +10 on the Edward Tufte books (and the course if you can spare the $$).

      another +100 on practicing, out loud, until you know it so well you can’t mess it up. I like to use the voice memo app on my phone to record myself practicing and hear how I sound. Even better if you can film yourself.

  14. Anon*

    For nervousness, I talk myself up before my presentation time. “You’re going to great because you’re awesome, and everyone likes you, and you’re the best presenter! You know this cold, and you’re going to be the most knowledgable person in the room, and everyone will be impressed with your awesomeness! …”

    It also helps to remember that it’s often true– you are the most knowledgable person in the room on what you’re presenting. Even if there are experts in the room, they likely don’t know all the details pertaining to your specific presentation. You are the expert.

    To address tangents, consider making back-up slides. This is where you put everything you might want to say that doesn’t really fit in or where you prepare figures that might be used to answer questions at the end. Having back-up slides allows you to cull things from your actual presentation without removing them, which can help you stay on message.

  15. smallbutmighty*

    All the advice here is great, but please don’t sacrifice your authentic enthusiasm in favor of polish.

    There are a couple of people who present to my group frequently who are subject-matter experts in somewhat obscure and uninteresting-at-first-glance subject areas (firmware, error codes, accelerometry, that sort of thing) that relate to our area of focus tangentially.

    We LOVE these guys’ presentations. They’re eccentric, geeky, and utterly unapologetic about it. You can tell they love their jobs, find their subject matter fascinating, and enjoy talking about it.

    Their presentation materials are typically decent but unremarkable (clear graphics, big easy-to-read text where needed, logical organization of slides), but it’s their passion for their subject matter that makes their presentations must-attend events.

    They’re also very gracious about answering questions thoroughly and in a way that’s accessible to people who are a receptive audience but aren’t subject-matter experts.

    1. Kelly L.*

      +1 from me too. I love it when someone is so genuinely geeked out over their subject matter that it shines through like that, and it doesn’t matter to me if it’s a little bit awkward. And sometimes when people are too slick, it’s a bit off-putting.

    2. Erin*

      This is just what I was thinking. I LOVE presentations by the eccentric professor type. It’s true there may be a time and a place for them, but I’d shy away from trying to be someone you’re not. If eccentric professor is your thing, figure out a way to be the most polished, engaging, articulate version of that you can be.

    3. Us, Too*

      I agree.

      I don’t think the “eccentric professor” is a problem in most situations. Geeky and eccentric presenters can be hugely interesting to just about any audience when done well.

      The key here is that you plan to be an eccentric geek and make sure you practice enough that each gesture you make and phrase you utter is by design, not by accident.

    4. Poe*

      +1,000! I have done a lot of public speaking and presenting from high school debate and speech and onward to now (weirdly, I don’t think I’ve ever really done it for work) and have won awards for presentations and speeches where everyone else was very slick and smooth…and I was a bit “eccentric professor”. You need to tailor your words and accompanying slides/props to your audience (age-appropriate words, dress, etc.), but your STYLE doesn’t change. My favourite professor gave amazing lectures and he was not polished at all, but his presentations were organized and logical, and he just put his love of sports psychology out there. He also once used a golf club to hit tennis balls at the audience to demonstrate something, because he was the best.

      TL;DR: BE YOU. It will make your presentations memorable.

  16. Anon*

    I spent all four years of college participating in forensics (competitive public speaking, not dead bodies) and helped my team win a national championship (trying not to be braggy, just to let you know that I have experience with this). The number one thing you need to do is know what points you want to hit before you walk into the room. Have your key points for each slide written down in front of you — not to read off of — but to pull you back on track if you have a brain freeze. Look at that before you flip to the next slide to make sure you don’t leave out a key piece of information. Sit down before you ever even create the presentation and build a strong outline that conveys whatever information or argument you have in the clearest, most concise way possible. There are standard ways to structure presentations that you could also use if you aren’t sure where to start. Any basic communication textbook should have some examples.

    Also, practice, practice, practice. When I was competing we would spend 4-8 hours a week practicing our speeches for teammates, coaches, roommates, any other human being who could give us feedback. It really does make a huge difference to have somebody else watch you speak and talk with you about what you’re doing well and where you can improve. The more you do it, the more comfortable you will be and the better you’ll be at anticipating all the things you want to say in the moment, rather than thinking of them later.

    Good luck!

    1. Wendy*

      This is a total tangent, but I’ve always wondered how the word forensics came to mean both “public speaking” and “examining crime evidence/dead bodies”.

      1. Anon*

        It’s from Roman law courts, which happened in the forum. The oratory of the lawyers and the evidence they present are therefore linked!

  17. Jamie*

    I’m really interested in the responses to this as well.

    I got to the point where I’m no longer nervous about them – but while the content is never an issue, I’m definitely informal and certainly not all that engaging. I definitely have room for improvement in this area.

  18. ClaireS*

    A few commenters have touched on it but I wanted to emphasize what should be on your slides. I strive for slides with no words and all visuals or, sometimes just a few key words. This forces me to know my stuff and tell the story which is much more engaging.

    Also, it’s basic but I still have to remind myself to speak slowly (uncomfortably slowly) and avoid vocal uptick that’s so common with women (turning statements into questions by raising your pitch at the end of a sentence).

    1. AdminAnon*

      Your second paragraph is my biggest weakness! I tend to speed-talk and ALWAYS use a vocal uptick (but only when giving presentations). I’m still working on that–I always remind myself before I start, but then nerves take hold and it’s all over.

      1. Another Cat*

        also, you can use bullets on the slides to call out important points to remind yourself of what you want to say, but don’t type out the full sentence you want to use – people will start reading the slide and not pay attn to you

    2. Anonymous*

      I’ve been to many events where people want the slides as a reference.

      Good slide presentations – particularly if they are reporting fairly technical information – can certainly have some text, even fairly detailed slides, as long as the spoken presentation complements the slides, and doesn’t duplicate it.

  19. AnonHR*

    A lot of my nerves during presenting come from worries that everyone noticed a slip-up or thinks I look stupid or boring or whatever, and I’ll make the mistake of honing in on that one person who looks like they hate listening to me. To avoid that, I try to pick someone else from the beginning, either someone I know has some amount of faith in me or someone who looks receptive or sympathetic. Then I focus more on meeting and exceeding those (perceived) positive expectations instead of fighting the (perceived) negative ones. It makes me a lot more confident and my presentations are always better that way… I’m sure this says something terrible about my psyche, but it works for me :)

    Also, practicing out loud might help you find the places that might deserve a tangent, and you can add them to your planned presentation beforehand.

  20. Laura*

    Another vote for Toastmasters. I’ve only been a member for a few months, but I can’t say enough good things about how it is helping me improve my presentation and speaking skills. I can definitely see that I’m beginning to acquire that much-longed-for polish.

  21. Anon*

    I can totally relate to talking in tangents. When I tell stories to friends or family they’re never linear. Part way through I’ll remember some essential detail that I have to go back and explain. Definitely not how I want to present professionally!

    In my current job I give very formal presentations, so I make myself a script that includes the slides. I just make a table in Word and copy the slides into the left column, and put my script on the right. Some parts of the script are bullet points, others are exact sentences I want to be sure I say. Then I practice in sections until I feel comfortable with each one.

    I also make an effort to use verbal cues like “switching gears”, “in conclusion”, “we’ll be looking at three examples”, whatever is appropriate. I had a college professor who did a nice job of outlining his lectures verbally by asking a rhetorical question and then answering it. So you might say something like, “So what are the stages of chocolate teapot production? [brief pause] Well, first is …”

  22. Tiff*

    I’m fairly decent at creating and given presentations. I’m no expert, but these tips work for me:

    Take a look at the presentation in Slide Sorter view. Notice the “flow” (for lack of a better word). Balance word-dense slides, picture slides, graphic slides, etc. Create a little movement through design.

    Pretend you’re talking to a group of 16 yr olds. Realize that these are professional adults, not teens who will openly roll their eyes, gossip, throw spit balls, and there is ZERO chance a fight will break out in the back corner. Carry that relief with you to the mic.

    Don’t force yourself to do things you don’t naturally do. You don’t have to stride all over the stage if that’s not your thing – especially if those strides are going to put a big old shadow of your head on the screen.

    More on walking around, casual gesturing: those are really advanced skills that most of us have to work for some time to make work. If you’re going to do it, you better have your presentation down cold and you have to rehearse it enough that it truly is natural.

    Remember, most people would rather poke their own eyes out than do what you’re doing. The willingness to stand up and start talking is a win.

  23. Jubilance*

    I always present off a list of bullet points that I have, that aren’t the same bullet points on the slides – that way you aren’t just “reading the slides to people” and you remember what you’re going to say.

    I can’t emphasize this enough, but PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE. Seriously I do mock run-thrus of my presentations multiple times, until I know exactly what I’m going to say and can do it in my sleep. And not just practice the words, but the timing, the inflection/tone, making it conversational, etc. It’s even better if you can record yourself while doing this, even if its just an audio recording of your voice, or doing it in front of others so you can get that feedback. Go through your presentation in the shower, when you’re getting dressed, while you’re driving to work, while you’re sitting on the couch surfing the web.

    Another tip – you can use a function in PowerPoint to record yourself talking over the slides and that can give you a good idea of how much time you’re spending on each slide. This can help you make sure you have all your talking points organized so you don’t have to do the “oh wait, I have something else to mention from slide 5” thing.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Ooh, good point. I wasn’t aware of that function. I’m going to practice that the next time I have to give one in school or a meeting (school is probably more likely).

      I wish this thread had been here before my presentation last semester!

    2. Pat*

      Strongly seconding ‘record yourself’. And do the best you can to record video, rather than just audio. Sitting down afterwards to watch and review yourself on tape can be excruciating, but it’s so useful. You will see yourself doing things you had no idea you do. Especially if it’s a long presentation, as that gives time for your guard to drop and your brain forget that there’s a camera watching.

  24. Tiff*

    Oh yeah, and I make the most out of my notes pages. Points I need to hit, lead ins to the next slide (at the bottom in red), etc.

  25. Adam*

    Practice. Practice. Practice. If you know what you want to say beforehand and have rehearsed accordingly the odds you’ll forget/remember something mid talk are much less.

    That said don’t dwell too much on how you look if you have a flash of inspiration during your speech to include something you didn’t previously consider. If what you have to offer is interesting and relevant and you clearly are excited about it yourself then unless the audience is particularly uptight they aren’t going to mind.

  26. JC*

    I’m an introverted researcher who has to give talks and presentations. When I first started out I was really nervous about doing it and thought I sounded like a fool, but I’ve grown to love giving talks. One of my pitfalls has been that sometimes I do veer towards rambly/unpolished if I forget what I wanted to say. A few things that help with that:

    As others have said, practice practice practice! Sometimes it helps for me to write down what I want to say at first, but it really helps to next practice without that paper in front of me (and then look at it as a cheat sheet if I forgot something while practicing).

    I’d also advise to not go TOO far in the direction of putting no text on a slide if you are nervous or tend to forget what you want to say. It is really, really helpful to have bullet points on a slide that bring you back to what your next point was if you end up deer-in-headlights. When I have a point to make that is not on the slide, I’m much more likely to forget it entirely or say it ineloquently because I’m grasping at what the point was to begin with.

  27. cat*

    I’m a serious introvert too, and I was called upon to give sales presentations to our 500+ person sales force in my last job. It gave me anxiety and nightmares beforehand for weeks! My company sent me to training (I highly recommend and, in combination with prescription beta blockers for the anxiety (used immediately before a presentation, they kept me from displaying physical signs of anxiety), I’ve become much better.

    Maybe look into a public speaking program?

    1. Lisa*

      Beta blockers are my number one presentation skills tip. ;) I don’t mean that everyone should take them, but they are magic for me. In university I had an EXTREME fight-or-flight response to having to speak in public (and since I really couldn’t punch the professor, a few times I actually walked out of class because no words would leave my mouth) and beta blockers turn that response off entirely. I’m still nervous and I’m no more charismatic, but that panicked feeling that death would be preferably is gone.

      I don’t think this is helpful for the OP but I like to mention it for any other readers because if I had known that taking a few pills a year could make it possible for me to speak in public, my life would have been a bit easier.

      1. Sharm*

        How does one get a prescription for these? I don’t have anxiety as a condition per se, but you’re describing my feelings when I used to have to go to staff meetings! Presentations would just kill me.

        1. Lisa*

          I got them through GPs, in my case university health clinic doctors. I’ve found that doctors are pretty generous with them – I did get a diagnosis of anxiety disorder once from a psychiatrist, but the last doctor who prescribed them didn’t do a new assessment but just took my word for it that they helped me. They’re not benzos or what you’d think of as a tranquilizer, and they’re not addictive (as far as I know), so I can’t imagine doctors would be overly suspicious.

        2. Jamie*

          I was on beta blockers for migraines back in the day and passed out on a flight of stairs. My BP had dropped to 90/40 – they are used for anxiety and migraines but also for blood pressure and heart problems.

          If your blood pressure runs low you need to make sure you have a doctor you trust to take that into consideration before prescribing them.

          1. Kate in Scotland*

            And some weirdos like me get super-anxious and insomniac on them, so not something to use without a test-run!

  28. CTO*

    I love public speaking and get a lot of compliments about my style and skills. A few things I do:

    1) Rehearse! I talk through my entire speech or presentation at least a couple of times. That especially helps me figure out what extra information is missing that I want to share. Then when I present it comes across as organized and orderly. I use notes when I worry that I might forget something.

    2) Show enthusiasm and interest in what you’re saying, even if you have to fake it. Keep a conversational vibe; even though I rehearse I don’t worry about getting the presentation word-for-word the same each time. You’ll come across as authentic and interesting, but also incredibly knowledgeable.

    3) Understand that sometimes you just can’t share every single piece of information that you want to. There will always be time constraints. Think carefully about your most important message (what do you want people to learn and remember?) and stay focused on that. Then add in other information if you find while practicing that you have extra time.

  29. the_scientist*

    There is lots of great advice here! I especially agree with not losing your authentic enthusiasm. Practice and polish is important, but there’s nothing worse than listening to a speaker who appears to have little to no personality and no investment in the topic.

    Something that I find helpful as someone who delivers primarily academic, research-y presentations (but obviously applies everywhere): you really need to construct your presentation according to your audience. Are they subject matter experts? If so, details and tangents might be acceptable. If it’s a lay or policy audience- they will not be interested in tangents. Policymakers in particular want short, declarative statements. They don’t want minor caveats, uncertainty, or hemming and hawing. They also want a presentation they can understand.

    Finally, as someone else mentioned, figure out 1-3 “take home points” for a presentation; that is, if all else fails you want the audience to leave having learned these points. Then, build the presentation backwards from there.

  30. Brett*

    Make your “slides” (I never use powerpoint now).
    Practice with your slides to get the basics down. Change anything that doesn’t flow well.

    Now practice without your slides. You should really be able to do the whole presentation without your slides.

    Now go back to your slides. You should have a good idea of your best flow now and change your slides to match this flow. Strip out anything extraneous.

    I have found that my favorite technique now is to present everything as one big document. E.g. something like notepad++ zoomed in to a readable slide and just scrolling down the document. If I really need visuals, then I use prezi or write an html document that I serve from my laptop.

  31. Stephanie*

    Taking improv classes helped a ton with my public speaking and presentation skills.

    If that’s not your cup of tea, I’ve heard good things about Toastmasters as well.

    Other things that helped:
    1. Avoiding PowerPoint. Or if I use it, using the bare minimum of slides and crazy transitions. My mind goes to la la land t if I’m just watching someone read from a PowerPoint. I remember at FirstJob, we had a 140-slide PowerPoint. I think half the room was asleep about a third of the way in.
    2. Knowing what points I want to make ahead of time and sticking to those.
    3. Reminding myself I’m being asked to present because someone thinks I’m the go-to person for that topic.

    1. Zahra*

      My (very very broad) rule of thumb is: the number of “text” slides you have should not exceed 50% of the minutes you have for your presentation. Transition slides and image slides do not count. I can’t count the times I had a particular teacher give a 3-hour class with over 120 slides. He was basically reading off the slides, not giving us much time to take notes since he moved so quickly from one point to the next.

  32. Ashley*

    Just like everyone else has said, practice! I HATE public speaking and presenting (it’s seriously one of my biggest fears), but I get into a groove when I’m actually up there and the nerves have died down a little. Mostly this happens because I remember that I’m still me, and people like me, and they must like me for a reason, so if I just act like myself, these people will like me, too.

    Don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through. Nothing is worse than a presentation with good content but a boring presenter with no personality. Your eccentric professor persona may be what keeps people engaged. Work on not going off on tangents, but keep that passion for your subject and your personality. You don’t need to be 100% polished, you need to be 100% engaging, and personally I think you do that by being human and connecting with your audience.

  33. SomebodyElse'sProblem*

    I worked for 13 years for a famous education speaker and watched him and his son do their presentations. The father knew his topic and stories so well that if you plopped him down in front of an audience from a dead sleep, he could go for 5 hours without notes.

    His son was just starting out in the presentations part of the business as I started, and he grew from a fumbling speaker to a very smooth, practiced speaker. His secret was practice, in the shower, on his runs, to the cats, to us, over and over until he had it down. It wasn’t a lack of knowledge, as he grew up with the material, literally. He had to learn how to be his own person, speaking his way, not just a pale copy of his father…pretty hard to do! Now I’ve heard his jokes too many times to think of them as anything but corny, but audiences LOVE them and him…

  34. NHNonprofitDirector*

    Practice and Toastmasters. Toastmasters will force you to practice. It also feels a lot like a support group when you hear others say, “My boss said I would lose my job if I didn’t get better at public speaking …”
    I’m a serious introvert who lost a “dream job” due to a flubbed presentation during the interview. I now pay a lot of attention to presenting, and all the above advice is great.

    One thing I’ll add that I don’t see here — interaction. The best presenters I’ve seen engage the audience. It could be as simple as asking for a show of hands or as complex as a group exercise, but it always seems to make the presentation go much better.

    1. Stephanie*

      Second on the interaction. Doesn’t have to be a complicated activity or anything really cute/funny. But even something as basic as a show of hands keeps me engaged and from planning out my grocery list.

  35. Dana*

    Check out the book “Own the Room” by Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins. There are also amazing Own the Room workshops you can attend, where they video you presenting and then help you refine your skills.

    Also a good article on presenting is here:

  36. Sharon*

    Another vote for Toastmasters. I’ve been a member for just over a year and it is really helping me. It has a structured learning path but you pick your own topics. Look for a club that is light-hearted and fun.

    Something else I’ve been doing is practicing my speech in an actual conference room at work. I check our Outlook for the meeting room schedules and make note of times when they’re empty, and I go and present my speech to an empty room. I think this is really helpful if you need to practice timing with audio-visuals, or if you just feel more confident standing up. Practicing at the head of a large conference table gives you an idea of what it feels like to “own the room”, which also prepares you for your presentation.

  37. SA*

    Know your audience

    1. What do they care about?
    2. What do they not care about?
    3. What do you need them to take away from the presentation?
    4. What are likely objections you will receive?

    Thinking about all this in advance instead of on the fly helps me be more relaxed and confident when presenting.

  38. Kacie*

    As for the tangents, realize you can often leave them out if you focus on a few key points as others have said. You’re passionate about your topic, but you don’t have to tell everyone everything about that topic in your presentation. Know what people are there to learn, and then focus on their need to learn instead of your need to tell.

  39. LovelyLibrarian*

    I realize this might not apply all the time, but wanted to throw in a technical tip about presenting with a microphone. Typical conference-room mics will pick up your voice best if the tip of the microphone is pointed directly at your mouth, about about a hand-span away. Too close, and it’s muffled; too far and it won’t be loud/clear enough; in the wrong direction, and it won’t get you at all.

    To illustrate, here’s a diagram of microphone pickup:

    Basically if you hold your mic like straight up like an ice cream cone, or too close to your mouth (both demonstrated by Tom Green here: it won’t be clear.

    If you hold your mic like a diva (demonstrated by Mariah Carey here: everyone will be able to hear you loud and clear.

    Don’t let your tech get in the way of your great presentation!

  40. Mel*

    I had to take a public speaking class as part of my AA degree, and it turned out to be the most useful ‘ugh, you mean this is required?’ class of the lot. The process that I learned there, and which has served me well, goes something like this:

    – Structure your speech like an essay. Intro, main points, subpoints, conclusion. Write out a sentence or two for each, you don’t need to plan the speech word for word unless you really want to.
    – Use this as your notes when speaking
    – Rehearse. It feels silly to stand alone in a room and give your presentation to the wall. It’s also the single most helpful thing to do. Some people find it’s useful to give their presentation to their dog, or a teddy bear.
    – Go give that presentation!

    It can be really useful to videotape yourself giving a live presentation. I didn’t know that I pinched my elbows into my sides and then waved my hands like windshield wipers until I saw it on film. Viewed in fast-forward it looked like I was trying to dance, it was pretty hilarious.

    Time and experience are the real teachers here. Everyone starts out terrible at this. It’s a learned skill, not a natural one.

  41. nuqotw*

    Absolutely, practice practice practice. That said, I have had the unpleasant experience of practice not helping much and I sat down to give it some thought. What I found was that the setting of the talk made a huge difference in how polished I am. Think about the setting(s) in which you feel the most polished, and try to reframe the setting(s) in which you feel less polished as the former. This reframing will help reset your mind to a confident, polished place.

    For example, I basically give two kinds of talks: (1) teaching class and (2) research talks. For a long time, there was a big gap. I was much more polished and confident when teaching. After a lot of thought, I figured out that when I was teaching, not only was I an expert, I *felt* like I was the expert. I felt like I was there to lead and facilitate a discussion in which everyone should and would walk away better informed. On the other hand, when I gave a research talk, I felt like it was a miserable scene that would expose me as a bad researcher. The result was that I conveyed that feeling when I gave a research talk, even when I knew my material well. After identifying my different feelings about these settings, I consciously reframed the research talks as teaching opportunities. My expert margin might be small to non-existent giving a research talk, but nevertheless I am there to facilitate discussion, teach my audience, and to learn from them. I didn’t think this would help all that much, but after my most recent research talk, my advisor said to me that he wasn’t sure what had changed, but that I seemed much more confident and capable than I had in previous talks, and to keep the changes because they were great. It really, really worked.

    Good luck to you OP! You can totally do this.

  42. Anonymous*

    People have already commented on a lot of the points so I’m going to keep mine comment to 2 items.

    1. Build in engagement. I try to do something to engage the audience every 3 minutes or so. Sometimes it is just a “Raise your hand if”, sometimes a full blow activity. Having something to make them Do a Thing will really help to engage. They should all add to the quality of your presentation, and focus on your key points, but it will really help engage the audience.

    2. GEEK OUT! If you’re excited about it? Be excited. I get way to excited about super dull stuff (YAY SharePoint! Whoo hoo data! EEEP! Super awesome performance tracking!) and while people occasionally comment on how I seem super excited, they nearly always do it while mentioning something I was trying to teach them. Which means it works. And I’m ok with being seen as excited geek because they took away what they needed too. (That said don’t tangent off, stick to your outline, time it down to the minute, but be enthusiastic about it if you are!)

  43. Ruffingit*

    Ok, this is going to sound weird, but go with me here. Find a “famous” lawyer in your town (one who has been in the papers for trials they have won) and go watch them do opening/closing statements a few times. Great lawyers have a knack for presentation and I learned a lot just by watching them when I was in law school.

    Same theory – who do you know or have seen who has done fabulous presentations? Have you been to a conference where a presentation was given that really impressed you? Get in contact with the person who gave it and ask for tips or help.

    1. Leslie Yep*

      This is a really great point. Talented lawyers don’t just tell you the information, they make you feel it. They walk into the courtroom knowing exactly what the judge or jury needs to experience in order to hear their arguments positively, and they evoke that mood. Talented judges on the other hand both see through and mock any less-than-stellar application of this skill!

  44. Sara*

    In addition to all the great advice above, I wanted to stress the point about building in interaction with the audience. The kind of interaction will look different based on your topic – it’s easier to find those opportunities when you are teaching people how to DO something like making widgits or customer service or supervision – which naturally leads into skill practice to apply the concepts. It’s harder with delivering a ‘data dump’ or reviewing technical material. But even with technical info, you can ask people their opinions about why something is, or ask them to guess the next piece before you give them the answer, or ask for a show of hands on some question related to the material. When you ask people questions, they learn better, even if they don’t answer out loud. It causes a different kind of thinking than just listening. Also, it feels good to me as the presenter (assuming people respond) because I get feedback that people are listening and engaged, and I get to not be in the spotlight for a brief moment (which is a welcome respite for the introvert). It’s not without risk – you need good facilitation skills to manage the interactions – the occasional person makes comments that are long-winded or off-topic or otherwise unhelpful. But if you have prepared well by creating a good structure to your presentation and then over-practised beforehand, as other writers advised above, the interaction with the audience, for me, is what steadies my nerves in the moment, gives me evidence that they are engaged with the material, and moves the presentation into the next level of success.
    Good luck!

    P.S. I read somewhere that your powerpoints should, more than anything, ‘set the emotional tone’ of your presentation. That struck a chord with me. My powerpoint slides are far more likely to express the main point graphically or as a picture now. I give the detailed info in handouts for future reference.

  45. KM*

    If the problem is tangents, backtracking, and a herky-jerky presentation flow, then I think the most important thing is to practice for flow when you’re rehearsing. The best way to do that, IMO, is to practice letting things drop. Try to imagine you’re an actor and take the mentality that the show must go on — from the moment you start the run-through of your presentation, don’t let anything stop you or slow you down; don’t backtrack, don’t rummage around in your notes or your brain to see if you hit every single point you meant to hit; just keep going forward, no matter if you fumble one of your points or suddenly remember something you meant to say five minutes ago.

    If there’s one point you absolutely HAVE TO hit and there are five points that are helpful and interesting but not absolutely essential, then by happy if you hit the one mandatory point and any three of the extras — and then keep going.

    In my experience, you will naturally remember the most important points, because they’re most important, so it’s the “extra” information that can cause a stumbling block. But, if you do find that you’re dropping vital information when you rehearse this way, revise your presentation outline to make sure that you have the most important points highlighted somehow so that you can’t possibly forget them. For the extra stuff, if you miss it, or it doesn’t fit organically into what you’re saying as you’re saying it, drop it and move on. It’s possible that you can circle back to it during the Q/A, and it’s also possible that you can just let it fall with no harm done.

  46. Mints*

    So much advice! When I took a speech class for GE requirements, the teacher advised us to write out the first and last paragraphs in their entirety, but the body was just an outline. Full sentences for topic sentences, and bullet points for the rest. Memorize the things that are written out, but the bullet points should be open to rephrasing every time. It was such a DUH moment: I should outline speeches just like essays!

    I think that for your tangents issue, it’d be good to practice out loud, then when you go on a tangent, you can go back, after your practice run, and figure out if it’s good enough to add, and if it is, add it to the appropriate part of presentation.

    Also, maybe it would help to add something at the end, where you can be super extra geeky, and tell a joke about what a fanatic you are, and you’d love to talk more, with your contact info or a QA session. That way maybe you won’t feel you need to dump ALL the information, since interested persons can follow up.

    Lastly, geeking out isn’t always bad, and I liked my professors who were passionate about their topics (:

  47. EngineerGirl*

    Toastmasters is great to get rid of the fear of public speaking. It’s also great to have someone video you to find out how often you use the words “uh”, “ummm”, etc. (more than you think). Toastmasters groups vary a lot, so look around.

    You should be able to give your speech without any slides at all. Rehearse until you know it by heart. Rehearse so much that going off on a tangent won’t happen. Speak the presentation, just don’t do it in your head.

    Pictures, charts, and graphs tell more than any bullet point. Text should only be there as a supporting role for the pictures etc.

    The first chart should be about what you want. “I’m here to give you the status on the XYZ project and to seek approval for going on to the next phase” All charts should be toward this goal.

    Always have backup charts on something that may be controversial/complex. Unless it is critical to the discussion, it should be deferred to the end of the presentation. But really, if it is this controversial, the weakness should be worked out ahead of time.

    Red text is for bad things – use it sparingly, as people will latch on to it. Green text is for a “go” situation. But better to use pictures/graphs with color.

    Most people get nervous because they haven’t practiced enough and they feel unprepared and vulnerable. Put your effort into a few super-high quality charts and speak to them. You can easily spend hours per chart, but the payoff is in a presentation where everyone understand the issue.

    Absolutely agree on advice on telling a story and going for flow. Use a few cheat sheets if needed (but memorizing is better).

    This is like riding a bike, writing, etc. . The more you do it, the better you will get if you have a competent person critiquing you. It gets way easier over time.

  48. Leslie Yep*

    I’m not sure exactly what kinds of presentations you’re giving (as sales presentations will be really different from skill builders/trainings, for example) but I think these things should apply in most cases.

    First, make sure you’re very, very clear on what your objectives are. Exactly what will your participants come away with? This should not be something like: They will learn about my product. It should be extremely specific: they will know that my product has x, y, z characteristics and they can buy it from ABC Corp. You want to come in with a crystal clear message and a plan for your audience to leave with that message.

    So second, the plan. Not just what are you going to say, but what are the heuristics or little shortcuts that you’re going to give your audience so that they can’t forget what you’ve said. I think this is a big part of making a presentation engaging. Stories, graphics, clip art, a simple saying, repeated keywords all work for this. The point is not to be salesy, so avoid that; what you want is to give the audience a very simple way to remind themselves of the key points of your presentation through multiple modes.

    Finally, keep in mind that talking at people is not a great way to get them to remember things. Adults can usually deal with about 20 minutes of lecture before things start going downhill, attention-wise, and retain maybe 20-25% of the info they receive in a combined reading-listening environment, like a presentation with powerpoint or handouts. If you can break up your presentation into chunks of 20 minutes or less with opportunities for the audience to discuss with each other, write down key points (e.g. 3 questions this makes you think of in your own workplace), physically move around the room with some purpose (be cautious of mobility issues though) immediately practice something, or best of all, teach the new skill or information to a partner, your audience will retain a lot more and pay better attention.

    Having a very clear set of learning objectives, a very clear plan to help your audience achieve those objectives, and a very detailed structure for your talk will all make the discussion more engaging for your audience, and help keep you on track and confident, and make you look really polished and professional.

  49. Anonymous #13*

    I read the first few but not all the comments on this post. As a part of my role I give a variety of presentations, ranging from 15 mins, to 1 hour, to 3 days, and to a variety of audience sizes (shorter prezos are to larger audiences, longer prezos to much smaller audiences).

    Advice like “practice the presentation before you give it” is not practical for a 3-day presentation. Here are the things that have worked for me and I can apply to all presentations:

    – Create a layering table for presentations 30mins and longer. A layering table is basically saying, I’m going to spend 5 mins on A, 20 mins on B, 15 mins on C. Don’t forget to build in time for Q&A , activities, and breaks. Presentations 1hr and longer you should share a simplified version of your layering table with the audience at the beginning (add timing to your agenda slide).
    – Before you build your PPT, ask yourself: what should attendees leave this presentation knowing? And then tailor your PPT to that. If you can add a slide at beginning and end with this info, that answer’s What’s in it for Me (WIIFM) for attendees.
    – If it’s a training session or anything where attendees should come away learning something, build in exercises or activities, even if it’s just a simple recall question. And when you ask, let the room go silent. Do NOT answer your own question. The silence makes attendees uncomfortable and forces them to participate. Do it early and often.
    – Add a notation to your slide to indicate audience participation. I use a specific logo or sometimes an exclamation point in the corner that others wouldn’t notice. If you can get to the point where you don’t have to have a slide that reads, “Who can tell me X” or “Activity B”, and instead present that activity as a part of the slide with info on it, that comes across as very prepared.
    – Come up with stories/anecdotes to say on specific slides. Plan them out just like you would for an interview (using STAR or another method). Stories should be relevant and lead in to the information on your slide.
    – Get to the point quickly. Don’t explain methodology if all we care about is results. Eliminate extraneous info and highlight what’s impt or what you want the audience to know. I tend to put ALL the info on a slide and then highlight the important information with a box. But my presentations got even better when I only put the highlighted info on the slide and had the full info in my notes to refer to if there was a question.
    – Occasionally, change slides and before you say anything, take a big gulp of water. Research shows that audiences can’t read AND listen at the same time, so every few slides, let them read your slide before you say anything.
    – Figure out ways to ask for audience feedback. “How do you interpret this?” or “How do you feel about this?”.
    – I make good use of the “notes” section in PPT. In the notes section, I have an explanation of “What’s the point of this slide?” or “Why is this slide critical to the presentation?”. Then, I include 3-4 bullet points that are either stories, activities, or exactly what I want attendees to learn from this slide. Also, every couple of slides I include notes to myself like, “Walk around the room”, “Make eye contact”, “Stop talking”, “Slow down”, etc.

    Hope this helps!

    1. Cb*

      The use of silence is key. I run tutorials with undergrads and was assessed the other day. My strength? The effective use of silence.

  50. Joshua*

    I do a ton of professional presentations in my company, and no I’m not is sales. I do them for top level execs and anywhere they are needed. The key to learning good presenting is… take the pain in private, not in public. What that means is, practice in front of a mirror until you can sort of “see yourself” when you are presenting live, you have an awareness of what you physically look like from the audience’s point of view when you are moving around on stage or in the conference room.

    While doing this you can record yourself. You don’t even have to be presenting something formal or even rehearsing for an actual presentation, although having a purpose helps get it done. You’ll see how many ways you disengage your audience or perhaps even give them permission to tune out.

    I watched a presenter once tell his audience that he was going to “try to make this interesting.” to which everyone responded by pulling out their phones and checking email.

    As far as the “eccentric professor” vibe, go with it but only to a point. you have to stay on point, but a little bit of eccentricity is fine, it lets people know you are human and being vulnerable. But, getting off point is not OK, unless someone asks a specific question about it. And then, if it’s going to be a long answer ask your audience permission to take the question, something like, “well, that’s a bit off topic for us today but I’m happy to go into it. Is this of enough interest to the rest of you to dive in today or should we take it offline?” And done.

    Also, try to make it so you don’t need a powerpoint at all to present. I do mobility stuff constantly. I recently did a presentation on iPad uses within the insurance vertical and my iPad totally froze, so no slides. I just shut it off and kept going, didn’t need it. There was a day when I would have freaked out but now I know that those things are to SUPPORT your message, they aren’t the message. I got it rebooted and back on track but was fully prepared to go “instruments only” no visuals. A wise man once told me that if people can download your slides and get most of what they need from your presentation, you are relying on it too heavily.

    Lastly, if you want to roll it all together, record yourself on your phone or tablet or something and assess your performance. When I began doing presentations in earnest I put a digital recorder in my jacket pocket so I could refine my skill later by listening and refining. now there are iOS specific lapel mics for just such a thing.

    1. Anonymous #13*

      “if people can download your slides and get most of what they need from your presentation, you are relying on it too heavily.”

      I like this. I’ve gotten in to the habit for my training classes of preparing slides that look like worksheets for attendees. Blanks where key words are written. If you just have the training book, it’s no help, if you don’t have the blanks filled in.

      My company places a heavy emphasis on training materials as a “take away” for attendees, so slides that are largely pictures or visuals are sometimes frowned upon, even though everyone agrees it makes the actual presentation better. We haven’t yet come to a good solution on how to provide attendees a great take-away while also being something that matches the presenter’s slides. Hence the workbook format.

  51. Office Mgr*

    Don’t focus on the words the audience takes away 10% of the words used the rest is volume, and body language. Make sure you are engaging everyone by making eye contact and keep your tone at a nice strong level.

  52. Training Manager*

    Excellent points, a few things that I use and now try to help newer trainers/facilitators/presenters learn:

    1. Don’t forget to breathe -that means when you find yourself speeding up or going on a tangent, take a pause to breathe. That will slow you down and give you a chance to re-direct back to the main topic if necessary.

    2. Time yourself while you practice, then see the difference when you present. I notice that my practice times almost always go shorter than my actual presentation. So I add 5 minutes for every 10 my practice sessions last. That gives me time for tangents, questions or just completing the presentation. If you tend to run longer in practice just do the opposite. When you do this it actually tends to help with the confidence on the material.

    3. Watch the audience. As stated so well above, your audience may be really enjoying the lecture in your own style. If you see them getting bored, confused or irritated, then it is time to ensure you are keeping the presentation to what’s important to them.

    4. Practice in front of a mirror, I loathe doing it, but it always helps me watch my expressions, mannerisms and habits that become distractions. Once again, as stated above, video is awesome for this as well. For another level of torture, watch the video at twice the speed and you really see nervous movements clearly (I look like I am trying to fly because of how I move my arms).

    Good luck.

  53. Laura*

    I took a course from Coursera about public speaking – I didn’t have time to finish it and want to go back and do it again – and the parts I did follow seemed really helpful. So, if that’s the sort of thing you’d be interested in:

    It’s starting up again in March.

  54. Liz*

    Two related bits of advice that I think improve people’s presentation skills (as opposed to public speaking skills, e.g. eye contact, vocal volume) are:

    1. Remember that any visual aids you use are there to serve YOU and what you are saying, not the other way around. Words on slides should be avoided wherever possible – because if you’re saying the words that are up there, you will be boring; and if you’re saying different words than are up there, you will be splitting focus between the two.
    2. Doing the above really effectively requires knowing what you are going to say. If you had to get across each of your main points in ONE sentence, what would you say? Go through and do that – pretend you only have 30 seconds total for your presentation, and write a script. Once you’ve distilled your points to that level of clarity and simplicity, you can add color where necessary, but with the structure in place to ensure people understand you and get your main messages.

  55. Frieda*

    Oh oh oh! Two pieces of advice:

    1. If you are presenting quantitative data, read Stephen Few (Show Me the Numbers and Now You See It are great books) and Nathan Yau (Vizualize This). Great great data viz resources.

    2. For actual presentation skills, see if there is a museum or historical site near you that accepts volunteer tour guides. I am an introvert and the thought of public speaking made me very anxious. Then one summer when I was in college I worked giving tours at Edith Wharton’s historic home and gardens–and I quickly got over my fears and became very confident. Part of the benefit for me was that (1) I was giving at least 4 tours a day, and (2) the material was mostly the same. So I didn’t have to worry about content, just delivery. And doing it over and over and over is really the only way to do it. Dive in!

    1. Amanda*

      +1000 to this. I have never had a fear of public speaking, but the summers I spent at a tour guide at Louisa May Alcott’s home honed me into a confident, comfortable speaker with my own style, able to handle weird questions, move people along, etc. It also taught me to read a crowd and to modify what I was saying accordingly, and perhaps most importantly to really prep and research my presentation. You get ALL types taking museum tours.

      I still work in museums today, though I’m not doing tours anymore, but I regularly have to present to groups of people. The #1 thing that tips me from good to bad presentation is how much preparation I’ve done. Not necessarily practicing my exact talk (I’m a bullet point person, rather than a reader), but really immersing myself in the information I have to present, understanding it thoroughly, and thinking hard about the most important points and how to phrase them. The more thoughtful you are about the material (specifically in the summarizing/presenting way – not just knowing everything, but thinking about conveying it), the more at ease you will be presenting it and the more polished your overall presentation will be. It’s true whether I’m doing a 2 minute intro to someone else’s presentation or a 30 minute pitch to a board or donor.

  56. Z*

    When I have a presentation coming up, I make sure to have my content and slides ready at least a week in advance, two weeks if possible. Then, once a day, I close my office door and run through the entire presentation out loud, acting like I’m in front of an office. This gives me plenty of opportunities to tweak my slides as needed, and more importantly, it gets me used to having the words actually come out of my mouth. I can make notes for myself about points that I want to bring up while presenting, and I get the hang of what I’m going to say when in the presentation.
    That way, by the time I’m actually presenting in front of an audience, I have my speech nearly memorized, but I still manage to present it in a way that doesn’t sound rote.

  57. Chinook*

    The first thing I would do seems obvious – know your information inside and out so you can feel confident. Then, plan an outline of keywords/ideas rather than a word-by-word presentation so that you don’t sound overrehearsed. Lastly, practice. Maybe invite a friend or colleague to watch or tape yourself. They point is to practice what you want to say/do and get feedback. And remember that you needd to interact with the crowd, even if it is just eye contact or a smile.

    Also, I want to point out that I am an introvert but I love doing presentations/teaching (I actually started teaching adults as a hobby). I have a general plan of attack and practice ways to segue between topics or to start discussion. I review my notes, highlight facts I may need, have them available but rarely read from them. I have been thrown off my game when my cellphone rang once, which has just taught me to keep it at home.

    Remember that works for others may not work for you. Everyone develops their own personal style over time. Don’t be afraid to go over your notes after the presentation and critique what happened so you can do better next time.

    Lastly, sometimes the crowdd is just flat and nothing you can do will bring them into your presentation. In that case, just move on mentally.

  58. Alicia*

    Everyone who is saying to avoid PowerPoint – what do you use instead?

    Disclaimer: I come from scientific academia where talks are 45 min – 1 hr. How would I present data?

    1. Laura*

      Powerpoint is great if you need to show charts, graphs, pictures, or visual data.

      Powerpoint is terrible if you use it to present words that echo what you are saying, irrelevant pictures, etc.

      Don’t feel like, if you need a few slides such as charts, you need a slide for every point, either. I really don’t want to see 15 pages of bullet points, or irrelevant pictures, or topic headings, just because you actually needed it for two charts in the data-gathering section. Bring it up, show me the chart, leave it on in the background for a bit, and then – as you move on – turn it off or switch to a neutral-color “blank” slide for the part of your talk that doesn’t need it. My $.02.

      It helps if you can provide data without darkening the room, too. I hate to say it, but if you make the room dark and make me stare at a lit screen while you talk, unless I’m deeply invested in following along, I’m going to get tired and at the very least not be following well. At the worst, I’ll be literally half-asleep in my chair.

      1. Jamie*

        This – I’ll use power point for my data that I want to show – but I don’t have a slide for every part of my presentation.

      2. Gjest*

        I agree. I don’t have a problem with powerpoint as long as it is used for presenting only the information that has to be given visually. Maybe the people who are saying don’t use powerpoint have seen mostly boring powerpoint presentations with all the text on the slides.

        I also have to say I’m getting annoyed at the increasing use of Prezi (in place of powerpoint or similar software). I get annoyed at all the graphics flying around. Maybe I’m getting old and cranky, but I feel like it’s an unnecessary “new-fangled” way of doing presentations. To me it’s just as annoying as having a ton of animations in a powerpoint presentation.

  59. Caroline*

    I had to start giving presentations a few years ago, and it was SO HARD because I’m also introverted. I echo the other comments- put some bullet points together around each slide/message, watch your eye contact, and practice practice practice. My manager actually had me give demos to her and some coworkers on a regular basis to improve. If that’s not an option, practice in front of a mirror and record yourself speaking. I use the iPhone’s default Voice Memos for this.

    If I’m presenting on a conference call, I often put a script together for myself. It’s easy to get distracted and go off topic when you can’t see anyone.

    Also, sloooow down. Talk at a pace that feels silly to you. When people get nervous, they tend to speak faster.

  60. Helena (OP)*

    Wow everybody, thank you so much for your comments! I have a lot to go on here- it’s good to know that it’s a learned skill that comes with time, and also good to know that there are concrete things I can do to improve (eg, all the ways I can plan and structure things to help the flow). It’s a huge relief to hear that I can work WITH the Eccentric Professor instead of against it, and that being ‘polished’ doesn’t mean becoming someone else!

    Thanks again!

  61. AlisonK*

    Apologies if this suggestion has already been made (have done a quick look, but there’s a *lot* of response now & I might have missed it!) – the resource I’ve found really helpful is The Eloquent Woman ( – not just for women, and full of practical advice, scenarios, etc.


  62. shivering*

    Great advice. A few things to add:
    1. A lot of times the presentation is like a trailer. At a conference, the presentation is a short summary. But people who really want the details will download the paper, or check the website, or whatever. So don’t feel like you have to include everything.

    2. Similarly, you can provide a written outline (print outs, or even better something online) for people who like to have the URLs or details. This is not the same as your notes or script. In academia this might be the actual paper your presentation was based on.

    3. If you are at a conference and have a physical handout, the shorter the better. Beware that some may tend to just read it and ignore you, so sometimes providing it at the end of your presentation is better.

  63. Prague*

    Only thing I haven’t seen here already – and I’m skimming, so I might have missed it – is to practice in the actual room you’ll be presenting, if possible. That lets you know how the slide flipping mechanism works for that particular room, where you need to stand for you and your consumers to both to see your slides (and avoid having text on your face), whether you have a microphone/podium/place to put your briefcase, etc.

    If you can’t get an idea beforehand, take a minute just *before* you begin your presentation and ask things like which button to click to forward the slides (if necessary) . I once sat through four days of people flipping their slides the wrong way – not just once per briefing, but repeatedly. It was painful. I was apparently the only person who asked ahead of time and then kept my finger lightly on the button so I could go only forward (and then was interrupted and asked to go back a slide, of course).

    Okay, a few more, too:

    If you have more than one page of notes, don’t staple them, especially if you’ll be by a microphone. Slide the first page off the second so you won’t rustle paper and drown out your voice. It’s also less distracting if your notes are visible to the audience. That said, your slides should be your notes.

    Find ways to avoid your bad habits. I talk with my hands, so I lock them behind my back or place them on a podium and try not to move. If you play with your hair, pull it back that day. Get nervous? Try clenching your hands behind your back really tightly for about 30 seconds to let some of the adrenaline out, or avoid caffeine (don’t do that if you need caffeine to survive). If you sway back and forth, try deliberately leaning on one foot more heavily rather than giving everyone seasickness. Too quiet? Have a friendly face in place to give you a signal to speak up if possible. Also, in larger situations, it can work to avoid making eye contact by looking at people’s foreheads instead. This looks weird in smaller groups.

    Another note on practicing out loud – it helps me figure out what scripted phrasing will just not work because it’s awkward out loud or I simply can’t remember it. Flub in practice, not in front of everyone!

    If you’re briefing a larger audience, dry run it past colleagues or a lower-level boss first. Have them interrupt with questions. This serves two purposes. The first is that you’ll get used to having to get back on track (which looks polished) while understanding what common questions might arise or what needs clarification. The second is that the better you know the topic, the more you can adapt to the audience’s desires on the fly without seeming unpolished, whether that’s preemptive or taking their questions.

    I’m a severe introvert who’s had to fake it in front of audiences for about 15 years now, so I hope these ideas help!

  64. Cheryl*

    BODY LANGUAGE. Learn what body language shows confidence, and then practice doing it. All the time. At home in front of your cats. In the shower. On the subway. I can do those actions (head up, shoulders back, eye contact, open arms) and it makes me feel more confident. My mistakes seem less important and are easier to move past. And you capture people’s attention. I also walk around the room – slowly – but enough so that people know they aren’t escaping my attention by sitting in the back.

    Also, people tend to talk to the audience members who are interacting with them – the ones taking notes or nodding their heads. I give them their due, but also consciously head to other parts of the room to engage “more disconnected” people through proximity and eye contact.

  65. JustMe*

    What I find has helped me the most is writing out the speech in full first. That way you get the chance to really nail down how you’d like to make your points. Then, make bullet point notes for your most important points (or things that you want to make certain you say a particular way). Then, rehearse the crap out of the full speech version so you can start to establish the flow of your speech. As you get more comfortable reciting the verbatim version, get away from that and start just using your bullet point notes. Before you know it, you’re completely weaned off the big paragraphs and only need the little nudges. But, because you started with studying exactly how you wanted to say it, you have less risk of bunny trails and more opportunity to seize the moment.

  66. TP*

    I find the 4Mat system works really well for me. It keeps the presentation structured and flowing in a logical manner. Google it but the basic outline is
    1. Why
    2. What
    3. How
    4. If
    Covering these will include the majority of learning types. A great article is here:—Delivering-Successful-4-Mat-Presentations&id=6497155

    When I’m giving a presentation I write out the headings with a couple of bullet points for each and as said above – practice, practice and practice.

    I hope this helps

  67. Not So NewReader*

    This was not obvious to me, but other people might feel differently.
    The two parts of public speaking that got to me is 1) the sound of my own voice and 2) talking for soooo very long.

    I am used to hearing my voice in conversation. This means I am using a casual in word choice and speaking in brief bursts (maybe a few minutes to tell a story).

    To hear my own voice for a longer period of time was just so disconcerting. With this came concentrating- I found it very easy to get lost in a digression and getting back on track was not so easy.

    It could be someone mentioned this about recording yourself – one of the surprises I had was not everything is as bad as I thought. I found that some of my pauses actually fit the context. Although it seems daunting to listen to yourself- it’s not all bad.

    Lastly, I had a friend who was a quiet, soft spoken person. Her presentations were not strong and she knew it. She practiced in front of the mirror for a while. (Her plan was no cost/ no friends.) But she stuck to her plan. She ended up being the best presenter in the group. This does not have to be an elaborate plan. Some amount of effort will bring you some results. Once you start seeing results then it will become easier to dig in and refine your presenting skills to fit your personality exactly.

    If you do ask friends for help- set boundaries. Tell them “What are the top three things I need to correct?” And ask them to comment on what you should KEEP.
    I have a friend whose ums and ers are because she does not plan out her breathing pattern. (I’m not sure she is getting this one…) Be prepared that their comments may not immediately make sense and it will take some experimenting to find out how that works.

  68. SBL*

    1) Practice your talk out loud. Many others have said this and it is true. I think a different part of your brain is used when you speak than when you think the talk.

    2) Know your material.

    3) Tell a story. I have heard many technical talks, but the best ones are the ones that tell me a story. What was the issue? Why is it an issue? What are the different options? Why did you pick that one? instead of We added this and changed that.

  69. ABC*

    Wow. All this is such good advice. Im going to bookmark to come back to it again.
    Thank you everyone who has taken time to given in such detailed and helpful tips.

  70. Sue*

    Another vote for Toastmasters – as others have said, there’s no substitute for practice, but another aspect is that when you start giving feedback to other speakers, you start to notice the things they do that make their speeches more effective. There’s nothing like seeing a really well done Powerpoint presentation for learning how to use it effectively.

  71. SC in SC*

    I regularly have to make presentations from small, short meetings to half-day classes to large groups. I always find I do better if I mentally slow down during my talks. One thing I’ve found to be very helpful is to print out my slides and work from those and any notes I’ve written on them. I also like to take a second or two to glance at the printed slide before projecting it. Not long, just a pause to organize your thoughts, slow down and stay on point. You can also use that time to make sure you didn’t forget anything. You want it to be smooth but not rushed.

  72. Josh S*

    Practice. PRACTICE.

    You need to know the content–the things you want to say, AND the things you want to leave out (not because they’re not relevant/interesting, but because they distract from the main point and you only have a limited amount of time). And you need to know the content backwards and forwards. To the extent that when (not if, but WHEN) the technology fails, you can proceed without blinking twice.

    Your presentation should stand on its own, without the slide deck behind it. The slides should really just be there to emphasize and illustrate the things you’re saying, not to prompt your thoughts or be a regurgitation of the things you’re saying.

    OP, you said that you appreciate how ‘slick’ and smooth some presenters are. Think back to those presentations–was it the way the person referenced the deck? More likely, it was the way they let their presentation stand on its own, and barely referenced the slide show–just let it be there as a visual reminder of what they were talking about.

    Work toward being the same way–let your presentation be the presentation, and let your slides simply refocus the attention of the audience on the things you’re saying.

  73. Puddin*

    As a frequent presenter, I find that tangents happen to me for a handful of reasons:
    1. I have poorly laid out order of slides/information.
    2. I talk too fast and ‘run over’ my own train of thought.
    3. There is too much info in my head trying to get out (and it probably does not all need to be addressed in one meeting).

    Which of these applies to your situation?

    In addition, don’t let your audience know you have ‘forgotton’ something and are going back to it. Use words like, One thing I would like to add or Going back to X for a moment Or An important detail to mention…Sometimes I will use this as an opportunity for audience engagement, if appropriate. “Without going back to slide X, can anyone remember and tell me what the 4 keys to chocolate teapot success are?…Right, and we also want to ….”

  74. NutellaNutterson*

    Totally agree with the recording. Webcams make this a million times easier than back in the day!

    I’m shocked (shocked!) that Amy Cuddy’s Power Posing TED Talk hasn’t yet been mentioned. Power Pose before you rehearse and before you present. On the TEd Talk idea – there are eBooks and websites out there that discuss what makes a compelling TED Talk. While that’s obviously not the only way to present material, it has become incredibly popular, and some good tips can be gleaned.

    Lastly – say less. WAY less. If there’s a way to show a video, a picture, even a (good!) infographic – use it. Make the images as concrete as you can, and focus on tying in the images to what you’re speaking about. If there’s a way to tie in props, use them! This takes practice, yes, and it’s worth it. If there’s ANY way to bring in audience participation and movement, use that.

    There’s an awesome education curriculum researcher/educator – Tamara Thompson – who helps does a beautiful job of emphasizing the idea that “we talk too much.” I attended her Mockingbird Education Training and now I play a game of “how can I say less and show more?”

  75. Sarah*

    I had a really good response to this speech on public speaking that I actually made at Toastmasters – I’ll just copy & paste it here, as it says pretty much everything:

    Did you know that fear of public speaking has its own word? Glossophobia. It’s from the greek – Glossa tongue, phobos fear.

    Some people say that public speaking ranks as a fear even higher than death.
    According to Wikipedia, it’s estimated that 75% of all speakers experience some degree of anxiety/ nervousness when public speaking. Which really makes me wonder – what the heck are the other 25% feeling?
    The ancient roman orator, Cicero taught that a public speaker should have a healthy degree of fear that demonstrates respect for the audience. Without this fear, speakers would become shamelessly arrogant and would not prepare or polish their speech.

    “And now, Crassus states, he will finally speak about that which he has always kept silent. The better the orator is, the more shame, nervous and doubtful he will feel about his speeches. Those orators that are shameless should be punished. Crassus himself declares that he is scared to death before every speech.
    Because of his modesty in this speech, the others in the group elevate Crassus in status even higher.”

    I’m with Cicero on this one. We cannot bypass the fear. We need to respect our audience!

    In my time in Toastmasters, I’ve found that new members are often surprised that those of us up here giving a speech – who don’t look nervous – actually are.

    Likewise, those of us who are up here being nervous are often surprised that we don’t look nervous. Didn’t you see my hands shake the other week?

    There are ways of handling this fear, so that it is a healthy fear. One of these ways is by getting practice in public speaking, in a supportive environment, such as Toastmasters. You can get immediate feedback over those little – um – vocal tics, and very helpful feedback about what to do with your hands or other body parts.

    Do you know what the secret is? The more you do it, the easier it will get. There is no real secret trick to public speaking, there is only confidence.
    If you do not have confidence in yourself, you must have confidence in your message.
    Know your message, prepare and practice, speak with confidence, and be sincere, whether you mean it or not.
    And remember audiences are amazingly forgiving. They will applaud you for standing up in the first place, and they really and truly don’t care if you mess up. Your audience knows it could just as easily be them up there – or perhaps not, if they’re still worried about public speaking – and they are rooting for you.
    I have two stories for you about this. My very first public speaking contest last Spring, I ended up nearly throwing up in my car outside the building because I hadn’t practiced. I had been arrogant. I had thought I’d delivered the speech once – who needs to do it again, so soon? When I got there, and tried doing it in the car, and couldn’t remember the words – oooh. I managed something, once I got up front – but that was a good lesson.

    My last public speaking contest was more fun. I’d delivered that speech 4 times, and rewrote it far more times than four. I was even dreaming the speech at night. I had a large and enthusiastic audience, and I’d used up my nervousness over some confusion about what time to be there. So when I walked up on the stage, I knew I had prepared, so I knew the words would be there when I needed them. I respected the audience, and they were there for me.

    In conclusion, when speaking in public, fear is normal and natural. There are ways to reduce your fear, such as by practicing with Toastmasters. The key, though is to respect your audience – respect the message that you are delivering, and respect that your audience will be human towards you.

    Be afraid. Let it motivate you, let it push you. But don’t let it stop you.

  76. Keith Matthews*

    As a fellow eccentric professor/geek, who happens to pastor a moderately-sized church, I have had to give a presentation (some call it preaching, some call it meddling) twice a week, for the past 26 years.

    My best advice is to embrace your inner geek. Treat him like Ava Gabor treated her little Pekanese on Green Acres (or was that Zha Zha? Whatever.) Believe it or not, it’s what makes you memorable; people know that when it’s you giving the presentation, it’s going to be quirky, geeky, a little off-center perhaps, but totally fun and, most important, memorable.

    Well, how do you do that? 1–Be intimately familiar with the material.
    2–Make sure the room is prepped in advance (slides in order, projector in place, etc).
    3–Then do something they don’t expect. For example, next gig, bring a flyswatter, a deck of cards, and a big bag of miniature candy bars….

    Yes, you heard me! A flyswatter, a bag of miniature candy bars, and a deck of cards! Geez!
    As I told you earlier, make your inner geek work for you! He’s a lot more interesting than you think….

    Huh? What about the flyswatter and the deck of cards? And the candy?

    Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. Put them in a prominent place, and begin your performa–er, I mean presentation. About a minute into it, inform your audience that you have a bad habit of going off on tangents–but you’ll make a deal with them. Hand the flyswatter to one member of the audience, and tell them when you go off, that person is to slap the table as loudly as (s)he can, and everyone is to yell, “Show us a card!”

    Whaddya do then?

    Show ’em a card! Duuuh!

    If the card is 2-10, the flyswatter holder gets a candy. If it’s a face card, everybody gets a candy bar.


    If it’s an ace, everybody has to give their candy bar back! Yaaay!

    A fun presentation, with controlled distractions, that no one will ever forget! Just remember, using your inner geek in conjunction with your imagination, combined with your intimate knowledge of the subject at hand, will make you “The Man” when it’s presentation time, trust me.

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