Preparation and practice can make a big difference whether you’re a fearful or confident public speaker.
Earlier in my career, my VP asked me to prepare and deliver a presentation to our board of directors on a project we were leading. I had very little experience speaking in front of people, and I was terrified. I remember filling each PowerPoint slide with information, hoping to wow my audience with detailed data and lots of bullet points. My face flushed and my voice shook as I delivered my presentation and answered questions.
Once I was done, I was certain I didn’t want to ever present again, but my manager encouraged me to find opportunities to speak more so I could increase my leadership presence. With continued practice, presenting became easier and more natural.
According to a 2001 Gallup News Service report, glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, affects 40% of the population. Yet developing your presentation and influence skills will increase your leadership effectiveness. And in our post-COVID world, leaders now have to be prepared to present virtually as well as in person.
Delivering a successful presentation involves connecting with your audience and providing concise and valuable information. Whether you are presenting to the board of directors or your departmental team, the following six best practices will ensure you design and deliver an impactful presentation.
1. Determine the type of presentation you are giving.
Are you giving a motivational speech to your employees? Sharing the vision for the next year with the entire staff? Providing a project update to the board? Each of these presentations requires a different approach. If you are painting a vision or giving a motivational speech, you may want to rethink the PowerPoint (unless you use only one word per slide or use pictures to illustrate your points). If you are giving a more formal presentation, keep your slides simple and don’t overload them with too much data. The delivery format of your presentation is also important to consider. Will you be in person or virtual? With a virtual format, make sure you incorporate pauses to check in with your audience and allow them to ask questions. It can be harder to gauge the energy of the audience virtually.
2. Begin with the end in mind.
What do you want your audience to walk away with? What is the goal of your presentation? Are you aiming to persuade the board to support a new project? Do you want to get employees excited about the vision and three-year plan of the credit union? Start with your main idea and work backwards. Most people start with a topic and then pull up PowerPoint and begin filling in the slides. By doing this, you usually get bogged down in the details and lose the overall “frame” for the presentation. Think about the result or outcome you want from the presentation, and then brainstorm and write down the main points you want to cover.
3. Prepare your outline.
Giving an effective speech or presentation typically takes a lot of preparation. For your presentation to be truly persuasive or impactful, you should develop an outline of the main points you want to cover. You want to make sure your speech or presentation has a clear structure. A structure is most important for you, the speaker, to make sure you are not going off on tangents or missing key points. I recommend having three to five main points with a clear transition between each. Using numbers gives your audience a framework with which to follow your ideas, recommendations or data. It’s also much easier to remember a presentation that has clear main points. After developing your main outline, flesh out each of the points by using stories, statistics or examples.
4. Prepare your visuals.
I have learned to be more concise and persuasive over the years, but one of my biggest challenges as a speaker is to keep it simple and not overload my audience with too much information. If you are using PowerPoint or another slideshow program, less is more. Too much text on your slides distracts your audience from your message. While the audience is focused on reading your slides, they are not listening to you. Try using cartoons, pictures or even just a single word to illustrate your point. Then elaborate and explain, but be concise. In most cases, your slides should not be the main focus; they should supplement your message. For example, having a graph on your slide to illustrate your point is fine, but having paragraphs of text is a distraction.
And never read your slides. This is a sign of lack of preparation. A best practice is to write your main points in the “Notes” section at the bottom of the PowerPoint. Once I have finalized my presentation, I print the Notes pages and use it to practice my speech and make additional notes. This helps me to commit my ideas to memory. If you want your audience to walk away with some written information, consider preparing a report or one-page summary of your main points to hand out after your presentation is complete.
5. Practice, practice, practice.
If there is one action you can take to make speaking more comfortable, persuasive and impactful, it’s practicing your presentation. People are often surprised when I tell them I spend an average of 30-40 hours preparing for a one-hour speech (between creating the topic, outline, visuals and practicing). I’m not suggesting you need to prepare that many hours for a presentation to the executive team, but winging it will not make your presentation as influential and could come across as unprofessional. Taking time to practice will make you a more confident, persuasive and polished speaker!
When I prepare for a one-hour speech, I do a full run-through every day for a week before the presentation. I don’t memorize the speech—that will make it less authentic and can really backfire if you get so caught up in remembering your lines that you lose your place. Instead, I make sure I am comfortable with the main points, the examples and stories I’m using. Practicing the entire presentation allows me to get very comfortable with the material so I can engage with the audience and not be “in my head.” You will be amazed to see how much more comfortable you will feel speaking in front of people when you practice, practice, practice.
6. Engage your audience.
Most people don’t love sitting in a room while someone talks to (or at) them for an hour. And with many of our meetings now on Zoom, it can be even harder to keep the attention of your audience. Start by sharing a quick overview to set the stage of what you will cover during your presentation. For example, “Today I will share the three financial areas that I recommend we focus on in 2023 to increase profitability.” Then, whenever possible, engage the audience in your presentation. Ask a question, ask for examples and check in with audience members occasionally by asking for their reflections or feedback. If you are presenting virtually, ask the audience to share their own examples or ideas in the chat feature. If your presentation is a project update, ask one or two of your team members to elaborate on one of the points to keep the presentation interesting. Other ways to engage your audience is to make eye contact, smile, and change your tone at times to have variety in your delivery.
Implement these six strategies in your next in-person or online presentation and your audience will be grateful to not have to sit through an elaborate, boring presentation. With proper preparation and continued practice, you will become more comfortable, confident and influential as a leader and speaker.
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CSP, CPCC, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of CUES Supplier member Envision Excellence LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or firstname.lastname@example.org.