how to give presentations that won’t put people to sleep – even if you’re shy

If you seize up with fear at the thought of giving a presentation to a group of people, you have plenty of company. And if you’re shy or otherwise not a “natural public speaker,” the prospect of having to command a room might feel especially daunting. But many before you have conquered those fears and even gone on to become engaging speakers, and you can too.

At Intuit QuickBase’s Fast Track blog today, I talk about how to do it — including not sacrificing authenticity in favor of polish, which was a realization I found hugely helpful. You can read it here.

{ 48 comments… read them below }

  1. Victoria Nonprofit*

    By far the best guidance I’ve ever gotten on giving presentations comes from Andy Goodman (www.thegoodmancenter.com).

  2. kdizzle*

    Amen to #8. I’m a wildly awkward and shy public speaker and any attempt to be truly polished makes me look and feel even more awkward.

    So I just own the awkward. Before a lot of my presentations, I might tell my husband (very straight-laced and extremely polished public speaker) what I plan to do. His response is always, “that is so wildly unprofessional, that I can’t even imagine someone doing that in the work place.” That’s how I know I’m on the right track. …And they keep asking me to me to be a speaker at professional development classes on public speaking, so I can’t be all bad. It’s all about finding your personal style.

    Also, if you’re not a frequent public speaker, I might suggest changing up the boring Powerpoint lecture with a different type of presentation software. I’ve always like Prezi. Sure, it can be gimmicky, but I feel like it’s a bit more interactive than Powerpoint slides, and if done well, can make you look like some kind of risk-taking rockstar with your finger on the pulse of technology.

    1. kdizzle*

      Oh…And not that I think that Prezi is ground-breaking technology, but there are almost always a few boomers in the group who have never seen it and say, “WOW! It’s magic! She must be a witch!”

      1. A Jane*

        I like Prezi, but sometimes it gives me a little vertigo. * sigh * technology is too cool for me.

        1. Tasha*

          I’ve tried Prezi, and the structure detracts from the content for the type of (highly technical) presentations I give. My general approach is to use minimalist slide design with one or two very informative graphics and the key takeaway summed up in a sentence/bullet point. Even though I used to be very shy in front of an audience, knowing a lot about what I do helps me with the confidence aspect, as does revising the presentation’s structure with someone more experienced.

      1. kdizzle*

        Different strokes for different folks, obv.

        Sure, it’s not all about the tool, it’s how effectively you use it.

        I find the prezi does a better job at helping to relate concepts and explain complex graphics that would otherwise just be static blobs on a slide.

  3. MR*

    Toastmasters. Don’t forget to join a local Toastmasters group. If you have never spoken in public before or are a professional speaker, or somewhere in-between, everyone can get something out of joining Toastmasters!

    1. KrisL*

      I’ve been in Toastmasters for a few years, and it’s really helped! One of the big things is how encouraging the people are.

  4. Sascha*

    About the practicing part – make sure your tech works! Include set up in the practice. Make sure you know what kind of computer/projector/etc you are going to be working with beforehand. Having technical problems can really kill your confidence and ruin an otherwise good presentation. Sometimes they can’t be avoided, but practice and research beforehand will greatly reduce the chances of issues. I have been to so many conferences (IT conferences, mind you) where it was clear the presenters didn’t bother to figure out what kind of technology they would be using and just thought they could just pop in the flash drive and have it all be wonderful. A little bit of effort to prepare for this goes a long way.

    1. Mimmy*

      Oh my goodness YES!!! I can’t even begin to describe how annoyed I get when I attend a workshop or presentation, and the monitor/projector/speakers don’t work, especially when they easily could’ve taken the time beforehand to test everything to make sure it’s all functioning properly.

    2. Laufey*

      Even as simple as knowing what version of software you need to run – I designed a powerpoint in the 2010 version, but the computers at the site ran an earlier, which didn’t have some of the same color/transition/formatting support. Good thing I got there early to salvage my formatting.

    3. Chinook*

      Part of ensuring your tech works is having it in different fromats. I have been know to a) put it on a USB b)email it to the person setting up the equipment/save it in the folder where all the presentations are suppose to be and c) email myself a copy so I can access it via my webmail account. I also ensure, if using powerpoint, that I save it as a presentation , in the newer version of PP and the older version. I swear paranoia is my middle name!

  5. NEP*

    Great tips. I am not a natural at public speaking at all. This is perhaps stating the obvious, but just to note — I have learned by experience that when I really feel strongly about a particular point I want to make, a public talk goes far more smoothly. Find yourself in the topic — what do you care about and want to convey? And yes — interaction makes a huge difference for both the speaker and the audience.

  6. Lora*

    +1000 to MR and Sascha.

    I carry my own tech–which is expensive, but I was able to get my employer to pay for most of it. Mini projector, laptop, portable speaker. All of it fits in a backpack. If I don’t need it, great. If I do need it, I have it…and I need it ALL THE TIME! I can count the number of times I’ve seen a PowerPoint go smoothly on the company system without taking off my shoes.

    In the event that you can’t do that, however, Toastmasters will get you to the point where you can pick up a dry-erase marker and chalk-talk. In my field, being able to chalk-talk a long presentation without losing the audience is considered the pinnacle of presentation skills and the ultimate demonstration that you absolutely know what you are talking about.

    Edward Tufte books on how to present data in a visual, easy-to-understand manner are also fantastic.

    The WORST is when the company is so chock-full of terrible presenters who not only put everything in 4-point Comic Sans in blue on a blue background and show all their data in 50-row x 10 column tables, that they make it official policy to make terrible presentations. And when you try to buck the trend and demonstrate how much nicer things are when we aren’t bored silly or having a PowerPoint-induced existential crisis, they get this sulky look on their faces and insist that you do it their way.

    1. The Wall of Creativity*

      +10^6 to the last para.

      Those firms are also the ones that want to see and approve your slides before you give the presentation. They don’t understand that 90% of the presentation is what you say and the slides obnly count for 10%. Probably because when they do presentations the % split is the other way around.

      1. Lora*

        And the explanation is, “so people who can’t make the meeting can still read your slides.”

        And if you say, “maybe we should re-schedule the meeting so critical people can attend,” or “I can write up a memo/report/minutes to go with the slides that will be much more readable if they can’t make the presentation” or “perhaps we should have a computer-based training rather than a meeting to convey this information, if many people will be unable to attend or need to refer to the slides later”, somehow YOU are the idiot.

        If you point out that some of the best presentations, such as TED talks, are not presented in their *cough* style *cough*, you get a big eyeroll and “this is NOT a TED talk!” (yes, I noticed–we ALL noticed) because obviously you, you peasant, should never fancy yourself as brilliant as a TED speaker who has purchased the right to do presentations however they please.

        And that is when I am sorely tempted to say, “oh look, the AV equipment is broken, I’ll just give a chalk talk!”

        1. Chinook*

          Hey, if someone misses the meeting and needs to see the slides, I point out that reading just the slies wopn’t work. they need to view it along with the notes because that is where all the real information is.

  7. Bea W*

    Knowing your audience is very important. As a technical databasey computer person, I can’t walk into a room full of CRAs or Study Coordinators and give them they same presentation I would give to someone in my role. Not only would they not have the background to easily understand the material or have any context for how that information applies to them, they would be dropping like flies from the heavy oppression of boredom. I may not think my job is boring, but not everyone agrees.

    If there was one piece of advice I could give to my co-workers about presenting to other groups – that would be it.

  8. Transformer*

    For big presentations I practice at least once on a friend/mentor who has NO knowledge of industry or my company but does work in a professional setting. They point out where I get too techy, use slang, use acronyms, or am not understandable to a lay person. They also ask really, really good questions and help me adjust the flow. I am a very abstract person so they better help me nail down the big picture in linear fashion.

  9. Adam*

    My advice to add: don’t try to be funny unless you can really pull it off. This includes knowing your audience. The right lines with the right crowd can turn a good presentation into a memorable one, but the right lines with the wrong crowd can also turn it into a memorable one, for all the wrong reasons.

    1. Lora*

      +1 internet

      I took improv classes, which helped immensely. Lots of it is timing.

      Also have had a couple of bosses/project leads who liked to throw slides in that they prepared for me to present. Improv helped with that, too.

    2. Miss C*

      YES! I’m not funny – but I am a good public speaker – and for my most recent presentation, my boss (who was going to be in the audience) simply INSISTED that I add a joke as an opening. I wonder if it was as miserable for the audience as it was for me. Thankfully the rest of the presentation (in my own voice) went great.

  10. cuppa*

    I’ve totally been practicing Amy Cuddy’s power-posing lately, and I really think it works! Her TED talk is great!

  11. Apple22Over7*

    Related to #7 – know your subject. Anyone can memorise a presentation, but being able to answer questions is a big part of presenting and one and many people don’t think about. A polished presentation, but fluffed answers in the Q&A is worse, imo, than a nervous presentation by someone who knows what they’re talking about.

    Similarly (and somehow contradictory) – don’t be afraid say you don’t know something. If you’re asked a question you don’t have the answer to, don’t panic. An honest “I don’t have the figures in front of me, but I’ll make it a priority to find out and let you know” is a million times better than a pie-in-the-sky guess which is wildly inaccurate. The key though is following up – you need to find the answer and get back to the asker quickly

    I also agree with practice practice practice. I hate public speaking, but at old!job a weekly presentation project was thrown my way that I had no choice but to accept. Same presentation each week, but a different group of clients. My first one was awful, reading off powerpoint slides, being so nervous I almost threw up. By the 4th week I’d got it down, and 3 months in, the Monday presentation was as natural as waking up in the morning.

    1. NEP*

      Agree completely about being OK with saying “I don’t know”. Great point. In my view, a person who’s comfortable with saying “I don’t know” gains respect and credibility.

  12. Annie O*

    “There’s no such thing as preparing too much in this context, only preparing too little.”

    Maybe I’m weird, but too much practice makes my presentations sound too rehearsed. If I practice it over and over, I end up memorizing it word-by-word and the delivery feels unnatural. For some reason, I do way better when I know the material really well and have practiced 2-3 times with an outline only. I feel most comfortable when my public speaking is more conversational.

    1. The Wall of Creativity*

      Each to their own. And in my case I’m with Annie. I only rehearse presentations in my head. No dress rehearsals.

    2. Mints*

      Me too. I end up sounding memorized, if I practice too much. I wonder why we’re weird :)

    3. batmom*

      I’m with you. I agree on knowing the bullet points pretty well, but I don’t like to sound like I’m reading a script so I don’t give myself a script.

      But I’m also quite comfortable up in front of people and winging it when I have to (I’m in consulting so spinning gold out of lame presentations is why they pay me the $$. Also, I generally know my subject matter pretty well before I even set keyboard to powerpoint.)

      1. EvaR*

        This is important, but I’ve found that it’s important to give myself notes to work from. I make an outline, I go over it in my head to make sure it hits all the relevant points and contains any quotes or statistics and numbers I might use.

        This really helps keep the dreaded “I’m reading you powerpoint slides” beast away.

  13. Jillociraptor*

    Great advice. Another important thing to keep in mind is that talking at people for an extended period of time is not a great way for them to learn things. Adults can listen to information for about 15 minutes before their comprehension and recall start to decrease. So build in multiple modes for learning. The other modes depend on your topic, venue, and audience, but: you can have the audience discuss a question at their table, or write down one time something similar happened to them (or didn’t!), or practice some part of the skill you’re teaching, or do a “take a stand” (walk to the left side of the room if you believe X, or the right side if you believe Y).

  14. Veteran presenter*

    I’ve given industry-wide talks all across the USA and in Europe. Here’s just a few tips that others may not have mentioned. I’m stating these from the point of view of giving a talk in a hotel/large venue to an industry as opposed to an internal talk in a single company.

    (1) Practice to a captive audience at your company and require them to write at least 3-5 things that can be improved in your presentation and set up in your ground rules that the 3-5 items cannot be fluff items. Items can be style, content, consistency, slides, etc. Later do the same for them.

    (2) The night before, practice the acoustics in the room where you will present so you will know how to make your voice bounce off the back wall. If you will have a mic, practice with that by going to the A/V people ahead of time. Since they usually set up the night before, call them via the hotel operator and they will be thrilled to assist you when they are doing their setup.

    (3) Know your audience. Mingle with people in the common area before your presentation and ask what they are hoping to learn from the presentation and tailor it to those needs. Depending on the interest/topic you may need to go to a quiet place to figure out how best to work it in. You just gained some friends in the audience and can talk directly to those people, wherever they sit.

    (4) As you mingle, learn what questions people might have. Even if you answer them during your mingling, ask at least one person to ask their question to you during the Q&A part of your talk. The hardest part after a talk is to get the first question. Once this is done the rest of the audience opens up, so if you have a legitimate “planted” question then the rest of your audience will be engaged.

    There’s more but I need to run now. I hope this helps.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I have done presentations with a group and used an audience plant. This is a person who does not mind in the least- matter of fact they are kind of having fun. We told our plant what we needed. In our case we need her to find something she liked and tell why. Then ask a question. Know your plant. Ours had no problem finding things to say for both requests. But if you use a plant make sure they have ideas before the presentation begins.

      In our case, the plant did a terrific job and the audience was very involved in our presentation.

  15. Veteran presenter*

    Oh one more before my top of the hour meeting…Raise and lower your voice during the presentation so you can raise and lower people’s emotions and alertness. Watch Disney’s Lion King to see how they work it so that you can only hit high joy emotion points after you drag people down. Otherwise the delta between normalcy and high just doesn’t provide the “pop.” Practice this.

  16. Ed*

    It amazes me how few people know the golden rule of PowerPoint that you never read the slides word-for-word. Your slides should be either charts, graphs, etc. or a brief summary in bullet points of what you will cover. And the fewer slides, the better.

    1. Enid*

      I definitely agree with not just reading the slides word for word, but I have a related pitfall to add on. I’ve been to some presentations recently where the slides have had, say, a list of bullet points, and instead of reading them word for word, the speaker has instead just picked a couple of them to discuss briefly, and then moved on, with the result being that we haven’t even had time to read and digest all the info on the slide!

    2. EvaR*

      My company runs on this. Seriously, every training or orientation or meeting is someone reading a powerpoint verbatim, sometimes while cracking a joke. Nothing is more awkward than watching your boss’s boss trying desperately to make a powerpoint cue up properly when the animations aren’t working.

  17. Mimmy*

    Not sure if it fits in this specific topic, but one piece of advice I got when I was in school: Bring water! When you talk for an extended period, especially when nervous, your mouth will get dry and you may even start needing to clear your throat a lot. Very uncomfortable for you and annoying to your audience. I made the mistake of not having water on hand during a class presentation during grad school and I think I had to ask for someone to get me a cup…oh how embarrassing!!

  18. Simonthegrey*

    It isn’t public speaking, but I give “presentations” most days as a teacher. I used to rely very heavily on powerpoint, and I still think that I sometimes do, but I also took a short class on powerpoint to make mine more effective, to learn what should and shouldn’t be on a slide, and so forth. It should be intuitive but it isn’t necessarily.

  19. Feed Fido*

    I can’t help but crack jokes, well I couldn’t – I learned my most current audience is DEADLY SERIOUS, so I stick to script. Lesson learned.

  20. Enid*

    The organization I work for has monthly presentations on topics related to our business, which I usually attend but honestly don’t get much out of. The presenters are usually not people who do this regularly, and you can tell.

    After the last one, I walked out thinking that my #1 request for future presenters would be to PLEASE not rely on input from the audience. These presenters will ask something like “Does anyone have an example of X?” and maybe it’s just my organization but there’s almost never anyone who wants to answer, and everybody just sits there in awkward silence for what seems like forever and it’s awful. Go ahead and ask the audience, but don’t DEPEND on us; be prepared to move forward.

    My other advice would be to plan out what you’re going to say and practice it (yes, that should be obvious); and focus your presentation on the actual meat of the topic. A lot of these presentations spend too much time on background and tertiary details. This last one, about Process X, was complete death because the presenter spent forever discussing stuff like how Process X is reflected in various reporting systems (which I don’t think is useful info to anyone in the audience), and then they had to almost completely skip over the guidance for actually performing Process X (which I suspect is what the audience came to hear) because they ran out of time.

  21. hildi*

    Early on when I started training I tried too much to be like the other trainer in our organization. I scheduled classes in the same venues, I tried to structure the pace and flow of classes the same way, and I introduced the activities and interactions the same way she did. And I sucked. It was only until I decided to just do it the way that felt most natural for me did I finally find my groove and started really being comfortable and being good at what I do.

    I understand a training workshop is different from a keynote presentation (and that’s another point, I guess – not all presenations/public speaking events are created equal – they all require a slightly different approach and feel), but no matter where you are tasked to speak, I think you have to find your own style in order to be most successful. It takes some trial and error but if you keep paying attention to what works and what doesn’t, you’ll figure it out. I echo all of the suggestions above – especially the tech.

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