Whatever you’re presenting - a business pitch, a company-wide message, a training course - you’ll want to make the maximum impact. We’ve got tips from the experts on delivering presentations that pack a punch.
There’s a lot of theory around presentation styles. Which is unsurprising given they're still such a critical part of business communication. So whether you're using multiple, quick-fire slides to data-driven presentations packed with facts and figures, or taking a storytelling approach using anecdotes to capture your audience - there are all kinds of techniques you can use to present.
But while it’s helpful to know about different presentation methods, most of us will have the same questions about how to make presenting work for us. How can we achieve what we want to with our presentations? How can we connect with people? And how can we make sure we’re engaging - not boring - our audience? Here’s what the experts think.
Know why you’re presenting
Before you get into creating beautiful slides and rehearsing your script in front of the mirror, it’s worth stepping back and thinking about what you want your presentation to do.
A person who knows plenty about this is Jesse Evans, self-described Customer Education and Training Geek at Workplace. “Whether you're presenting or you're teaching, you're always in the position of persuading people,” he says. “You're trying to change a behavior. That's always the goal. There's something you want somebody to do differently, or to think differently afterwards.”
David Bliss, founder of training and coaching company Brunel Harper, agrees. “You need to know your story journey,” he says. “What is it you want to achieve? What do you want your audience to feel? What do you want them to do at the end of this, and how will you know they’re going to do it?”
Once you know the answers to these questions, you can start shaping your presentation.
Presenting is not about you
Every presenter worries about them - how should they introduce themselves? How are they coming across? What presentation technique should they use? But getting too hung up on these things is a mistake, according to the experts.
Long intros, for example, are a no-no. People just aren’t interested. “Establish just enough about yourself that you seem credible, that you’re worth listening to - and then convince them with the things you say and the way you say them, that you are, in fact, credible,” says Jesse.
“A presentation is only about the audience,” David agrees. “Too often, presentations become about that person's experience or that company's experience and knowledge. But, in fact, if you're presenting to a group of people, they're only interested in what they need to understand. It is a given that you have the expertise and the skill.”
Presenting techniques: Question. Listen. Respond
“‘Never tell somebody something that they can tell you’ is the most important rule you’ll ever learn,” Jesse says. To get people to tell you things, you need to ask questions, but you first need to create a safe space for people to participate. Encourage people to speak and be brave enough to wait for responses. “Follow the seven-second rule,” Jesse instructs. “Ask a question, always repeat it, but give them at least seven seconds to respond. And don't respond to the first thing that comes in out of sheer relief.”
If people are very reluctant and you’re presenting virtually, private chat can be your friend - talking about questions you see there (even if there aren’t any yet) can encourage people to join in.
Once they start talking, validate what people say. "Always answer and acknowledge by name,” Jesse tells us. “Build up enough of this and people will feel pretty good and be willing to take risks.”
Also, think about how you respond. “Heighten your listening skills, but, most importantly, only use the language that your audience uses,” says David. “Don't reinterpret it. When you use their language it informs the person who’s asked the question that you’ve listened to them fully.”
Be flexible when presenting
It’s the day of the big pitch. Your team collaboration has been slick and put in hours of rehearsals. But just when you think things are running smoothly, the prospective client throws a curveball of a question. Problem? Not necessarily, says David. Dealing with changes of direction can be crucial to success.
“I always say get interaction very early on and your audience will tell you what they really want to know, and it might not be what you've prepared,” he says.
“The teams who actually listen out for any kind of verbal cue from people, where they think, ‘Actually, they're also asking about this. How do we adapt in the moment?’ are often the ones that get the work because they're deemed to be flexible. They listen. They're all about what they're hearing rather than about what their agenda is.”
PowerPoint is not your presentation podium
At some point, all presenters will think - a lot - about their slides. So how do you make sure they work to make your presentation better rather than bog it down?
“PowerPoint is there to give you some visuals and help people remember core concepts. It's not there to be your script.” Jesse insists. “PowerPoints are like podiums. Having one - if you use it well, can be great - but many people end up hanging on it, and they’re static. That means you’re not using your space, and you’re not really engaging. But PowerPoint’s not really the problem, it’s the way people use it.”
The key is not to overload people with super-complicated slides.
“Use slides to punctuate points in time and tee up questions,” Jesse explains. “Visual clutter is obviously a legitimate problem, so for visuals, have just a few, especially when it comes to words - only a few words on a slide, and a relatively clean space so that the brain only has to focus on the important stuff.”
Think presentation techniques
Whatever your overall approach, there are a few tried and trusted techniques for getting your messages across.
For demonstrating decision-making, for example, Jesse advocates the ‘I do, we do, you do’ format. Demonstrate the process and the line of thinking, then work on an applied situation together that mirrors the decision making process. Finally, you give the audience a chance to figure out a second scenario on their own and then use questions make sure they came to the right conclusion for the right reasons.
Or try problem-solution:
- Think of the things you want people to do differently
- Encourage audiences to tell you about the problem they're trying to solve
- Position what you want them to do as the solution
Jesse explains: “For example, in my presentation skills class, I'll say, ‘What makes a presentation boring?' Think about virtual presentations you've joined before, and consider the things speakers did that made it a bad experience."
“They’ve told you that these things are problems, so everyone's on the same page. Now when you give them this new behavior change, you position it as a solution to a problem that they've decided is a legitimate problem.”
Virtual works for presentations
The pandemic has transformed how we do presentations. Suddenly, we’re in front of a screen rather than a training or conference room. And that’s not just different - it can be better.
“Everybody can talk,” says Jesse. “You have a chatbox. Everybody can jump in and ask a question to get help. That gives you more ability to engage people, but it means that you have to do it differently.
“I think the biggest sin that you could ever commit in virtual - and everybody does it - is to say that you're going to have an open Q and A at the end, and ask viewers to hold their questions until then."
To stop this happening, you need help - someone to pick up questions in chat. “You want one volunteer per 50 people,” says Jesse. “I've presented to thousands of people, and had a small army of specialists who take questions as they come in - you can still make sure everyone's got this amazing experience even though there are literally thousands of them.”
When you’re presenting virtually, you’re the Director - so get the staging right. “Your eye levels and head levels should match the audience,” says David. “You should be able to look directly into the camera. It’s very important that you’re lit from two directions so there are no shadows. And your background should be neutral so people aren’t wondering what the book in the background is or thinking that your plant needs watering."
“Raise your gestures slightly higher than you normally would. Use them to create emphasis and be aware that they need to be clearly seen.”
Be yourself when you present
Whatever techniques you use, success will partly hinge on how real and credible you seem as a person. So how do you find your unique presentation style?
“One of the key things about presentations is that we need to trust the person speaking to us,” says David. “If we see someone with all their foibles, we trust it more than if we feel someone's trying to perform something.
“Communicating and presenting is not rocket science,” he continues. “You can do technical things that enable you to get better and more fluid - but they're just disciplines, and it's not too different from driving a car.
“The key is not the technical ability - to move and to gesture and to have a strong voice. What you have to overcome first is, ‘Do I believe I should be there?’ If you don't, or if there's any element of imposter syndrome or insecurity, you have to tackle that first.”
“I think there's always this weird tension between the things that you know are effective and the things that are authentic to you,” says Jesse. “If you're really lucky, it turns out they're very similar things. Before you can develop your style - and it's important because audiences can smell a lack of authenticity - you have to learn what does, in fact, work.
“Too often we say, ‘All options are equally valid.’ They're actually not. There are some things that work, there are some things that don't work, some things that will work for you that might not work for someone else, but there is actually a mechanical series of things to learn.
“So first you have to figure out what actually works, then you figure out how you can put your personality into it.”