Public speaking is an activity that may see things wrong. Let’s recall Murphy’s Law: „Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.“ Some time ago, I made a related poll on my website, the results of which I’ll present both in the present and the following post.
This post will highlight 33 main presentation skills you should know and use in the future. Probably you will see that most of them are very simple to implement right away and don’t require elaborate action plans.
So, keep reading.
How to improve your presentation skills?
I asked my readers to answer two questions in free form:
- Bring out three main things that characterise a good public speaker
- Bring out three common mistakes usually made during presentation
Ca. 490 people answered and brought up a lot of interesting food for thought. First, I divided the replies into six categories, then, I grouped similar replies and added to this blog post with my own comments.
#1: Choice of topic
The easiest way is to talk about something that interests you, something you could talk passionately about for hours… which is hardly ever possible.
1. Choose a topic that interests the audience
If possible, when agreeing on the details of your presentation, try to find out what the purpose of your presentation is and what the topics that interest people are.
However, sometimes you may need to talk about something that is as boring as watching grass grow. In this case, think about memorable examples, stories, parallels, etc., which will help you bring life into a boring topic. I’ve been to several presentations on a seemingly boring topic, but the speaker was able to present it brilliantly, memorably, with exciting stories.
It’s even better if you’re genuinely interested in the topic.
2. Do your homework on the topic
If you need to present a topic that you don’t really know, do your homework as much as possible. Otherwise, it’s like milking the bull: you think you can handle it, but the result surprises you unpleasantly.
If the topic is complicated for you, check if it’s possible to adjust the topic to make it more appropriate. This means that you should focus on the aspects of the topic you know better or understand better. It will be easier for you to explain the topic and answer the questions.
3. Word your topic and objective clearly
I personally think that if you can’t sum up the objective of your speech in two to three sentences, the purpose of your presentation is a bit confusing for you. The clearer you formulate the objective, the greater the probability that the listeners will understand you.
A beginner public speaker has only one objective – „I have to do it somehow“. The emphasis here is on the word „somehow“. However, ask yourself, „What do I want the listeners to think or do differently after I finish my presentation?“
If you find an answer to this question, you’ll be a lot closer to making a really good speech.
#2: Audience analysis
Presentation skills include gathering information about your audience. Who are they? What do they want to learn? What are their expectations? In other words – do a proper audience analysis.
4. Taking into account the interests, needs, and epectations of the audience
Try to find out what the interests, needs, and expectations of your listeners are. In particular, you should be interested in the question every listener is thinking about – „How can I benefit from it?“ If you’re able to offer something useful to your listeners, your presentation is undoubtedly good.
At this point, note that „benefit“ is not always measurable with new knowledge. It can also be a good emotion or inspiration that the listeners get from you.
5. Taking into account the knowledge of the audience
If possible, try to find out how much your listeners know about the subject. Based on this information, you can decide how difficult (or easy) your presentation should be. In this context, it’s also important to find out if there are any experts in the audience.
Why is it important? If you find out that there are experts in the audience, this means that you need to review the content of your speech more thoroughly. Otherwise, it may happen that in the middle of your presentation, an expert raises their hand and points out your mistakes.
However, it may also happen that if an expert recognises an expert in you, they will support you. For example, „I’ve been involved in this field for 15 years, and I know from experience that Janek is right. However, I’d like to add one good point…“ What can be better than hearing someone in the audience say you’re right…
6. Taking into account the cultural background of the audience
In the 1950s, Richard Nixon went on a state visit to Brazil and welcomed the crowd with his hand in the A-O.K position. For the locals, however, this sign literally means „screw you“. You can imagine how stunned the Brazilians were.
Cultural background is like walking on thin ice that sometimes cracks in a most unexpected way. Therefore, you should take into account the background of your listeners.
Once you’ve selected the topic and become familiar with the background of the audience, it’s time to prepare for your presentation.
7. Think through the entire presentation
Think about what you can do to draw attention. How to make an introduction, answer questions, explain one or another complex topic, etc. Also, think about arriving earlier and adjusting everything. Will you need any devices? Find out how you can get them.
8. Have a plan B
This means thinking through what you will do in unexpected situations or what you do if everything doesn’t go as planned.
The main problems that may occur are:
- What do I do if I’m out of time?
- What do I do if I have time left?
- What do I do if the equipment doesn’t work?
- What do I do if I can’t answer a question?
The more answers to potential questions you think through, the more difficult it will be to catch you off guard. Read more about it here.
9. Rehearse your presentation several times in a row
Presentation skills include continuous rehearsing. The more you practice, the more confident you become. If you have a long presentation ahead of you, and you can’t rehearse it entirely, practice the part you find most uncomfortable. For example, introduction.
If possible, reherase in front of a camera. At first, watching yourself on video may be embarrassing, but I promise you that it’s the best feedback you can hope for.
#4: Establishing and keeping contact
You could be the world’s fastest man (like Usain Bolt), but if you don’t start off at the right moment, you won’t win the medal. This is exactly what happened to Usain Bolt in 2011.
10. Start only when you’ve established contact with the listeners
It doesn’t make sense to start talking if nobody’s listening. Thus, when preparing for your presentation, think about attention getters (video, audio, sound, question to the audience, silence, coughing, etc.) that you can use in different situations.
12. Keeping eye contact helps you deliver the message
By keeping eye contact, you let the audience know that the message is for them and them only. It’s like talking to a friend, i.e., if they’re looking around talking to you, you don’t focus on their story.
Keeping eye contact with the audience, watch how the audience are responding to your story, and react accordingly. Among other things, sometimes you have to tweak your presentation reading the non-verbal messages coming from your listeners.
13. Use your body language
The duller your presentation, the sleepier your listeners. A good public speaker can use their body to deliver the message. Gestures, facial expressions, and voice tones are your main weapons. Remember, if your words and body language don’t match, the listeners are more likely to believe your body language.
Read ore about “16 secret ways how to speak to a bored audience“
14. Show how passionate you are about your topic
„If the congregation members are feeling sleepy, there’s only one thing left to do – give the concierge a sharp stick to poke the preacher!“ Henry Ward.
There are many public speakers who could just stop wasting our time. Doing a presentation, show that what you’re talking about is really interesting. It also enlightens others and makes them ponder.
In order to persuade your listeners, you must first show that what you’re talking about is also true for yourself. If your story is as dull as a train ride, don’t be surprised if the audience start falling asleep during your presentation.
#5: Making a presentation and what’s happening in the process
14. Forget the I’ll-kill-you-with-PowerPoint presentation style
This means, in particular, not to gawk at the slides on the wall (or your computer). The listeners are not on the computer or on the wall, but they are right there in the room with you, and your task is to deliver the message of your presentation. If you’re reading your presentation aloud in a monotone, the main speaker is your slideshow, not you.
Make your presentation freely, be open, and stay cool. This way, the audience will readily forgive you for many blips, and that’s what the “Death-byPowerPoint” speakers can only dream of!
15. Speak calmly
Our writing speed is 13 words per minute. We are able to produce up to 100-200 words a minute when speaking and up to 200-400 words a minute when writing. So, when talking, you have at least 10x less time to come up with content than when writing.
When talking, you have to remember that the audience won’t be able to scroll anything back, they should be able to understand what you’re talking about at once. That’s why you have to structure your speech. If you talk too fast, it’ll be more like „sounds like English, but unfortunately, your tempo is too fast for my understanding“.
However, if your tempo is too slow, the listeners can’t wait for you to finish your thought.
Read more about “How to Use Your Voice Effectively in a Presentation?“
16. Don’t forget to make pauses
“Speak clearly to be heard. Stand straight to be seen. Be quiet to be enjoyable.” A public speaker from Ancient Greece
The last thought clearly means that you don’t have to talk during the entire presentation. It’s necessary to make pauses from time to time.
Here is a thorough article about 13 Effective Ways How to Make Speech Pauses.
17. Be friendly and positive
Even if you think something went wrong. When it does, make a joke about yourself, and your listeners will laugh with you. Positive emotions always create a good environment and friendly attitude. And if you can make a joke about your blip, even more so.
18. Make a proper introduction and a brilliant wrap-up
The best introduction to the speech is the one that hooks the audience to listen to you. It is essential to work hard on making a good introduction. If a listener is thinking „meh“ at the end of your introduction, you obviously made a poor one.
Your presentation, in turn, must end with a summary that briefly and clearly outlines what the listeners should remember. If your presentation makes the listeners go „wow“ and want to give you a round of applause, you did a good job.
Here is an article about 13 Powerful Ways How to End a Presentation
19. Give your listeners an opportunity to have a dialogue with you
Be interested in what they think about the topic. Encourage them to express their thoughts and tell stories, and you’ll see the environment warming up.
Making a presentation doesn’t have to be a one-way street, where you’re talking and your listeners’re trying to survive. So encourage your listeners to ask, talk, and discuss. In addition to the fact that this approach helps your listeners better enjoy a long presentation, it’ll also be much more fun. It’s good to learn from other stories.
20. Be yourself
The more you try to be someone else, the faker you will appear to the listeners.
21. Do not exceed the scheduled time
The speakers who finish shortly before their scheduled time will always score big time. You’ll hardly ever be forgiven for exceeding your time. Even if you are the world’s best speaker, the audience won’t just sit there and think „Of course, please talk for another hour, I have time!“ Especially, if you started with a foolish promise – „I’ll be brief!“
So, stick to the rule „shorter is better“!
#6: Illustrating your speech
22. Use real-life examples
Someone once said „Make a point, tell a story“. People love personal and relevant stories. They work much better than a dozen common stories or a bunch of data (statistics, surveys, etc.).
If you use vague examples that don’t relate to the listeners, it’ll be difficult for you to deliver the message. So, when preparing for your presentation, think about the relevant stories or examples you can bring to confirm your ideas.
If possible, tell personal stories, they are so much better than any other examples. Keep in mind that a good speaker must also be a good storyteller. It has been mentioned above that your presentation shouldn’t be dull.
23. Good presentation skills = Don’t forget about humour
A good public speaker is able to tell their story wisely and humorously. A relevant joke will awaken the sleepy listeners and draw their attention. And remember that the best jokes are the ones you tell about yourself.
„Your speech must be dry and official,“ said no-one ever. Think about it – a few on-point jokes are totally acceptable even during funeral speeches, so why can’t you make some during your presentation?
24. Use all the senses of your listeners
Think about the fact that some people perceive information primarily via the eye. Others, via the ear or by means of touching or doing something practical. You need to think about your illustration tools and how you can use different tools (slides, videos, stories, questions, etc.) to engage all the senses of your listeners.
25. Use comprehensive language
The audience may not understand complex foreign words and specialised language, so you can appear snobbish. Using slang, you’re on a slippery road as in addition to the fact that it may be incomprehensible, the use of slang in an official presentation is also inappropriate.
In addition to specialised language, try to avoid using abbreviations. There are dozens of them in every field, but the problem usually is that your listeners have no clue about what they mean, and your message becomes partly incomprehensible.
#7: How to prepare yourself for presentation?
26. Remember that the audience wouldn’t understand if you’re nervous
Think about the symptoms that may occur during presentation, and you’ll see that they actually come from within. In other words, if you feel that your body’s going crazy inside, the audience wouldn’t realise that for the most part.
So, there’s no point worrying about whether your listeners realise that you’re nervous, trembling, etc. – they won’t. Even if they do, nobody will think much of it. For all this, please don’t start your presentation with excusing yourself for being nervous.
Here is an article about 6 great methods to improve public speaking skills
27. Believe that the audience wants to listen to you
Of course, they do. Why would they otherwise bother to come? The better you’re doing on stage, the more fun your listeners’ll be having. No-one comes to listen to you thinking, „I hope I’ll be bored! I hope the speaker fails“. Why would they do it? If you fail, they’ll be waiting their time. And that’s the main reason why your listeners are your allies.
There are exceptions when people are forced to attend events, but even then remember that you have a good reason for making a presentation. More than that, the audience is there not to see you fail.
28. Trust yourself, your knowledge, your experience, and your memory
Making a presentation is no different from other areas of your life. If you at least bother to prepare properly, there’s no reason for you to fail.
29. Remember that there’s no such thing as a perfect presentation
At least, not for the speaker. At my trainings, the most typical answer to the question „How was it?“ is „Very bad“.
The speaker is the one to notice all the mistakes they presumably make, e.g., you remember what you left unsaid. If I ask the audience the exact same question, they’d reply, „What are you talking about? It was great!“
The moral of the story? Don’t focus on doing a perfect presentation – you’re better than you think!
Also, take a look at the article about How to speak with confidence in public?
#8: Presentation against all stage fright odds
Stage fright is, to a greater or lesser extent, a problem for all of us. The level of stage fright is also believed to damage your behaviour and prevent you from delivering your message, so that the end result is failure. However, I argue that there is no reason for you to fail. Why?
30. Treat your audience as old acquaintances
Communicate with them even before you start your presentation – do small talk. If you turn your listeners into enemies, you will make your presentation much more difficult. The cooler you are on stage, the more your listeners will be ready to forgive if something goes wrong.
31. Take control of your breathing
When we talk about stage fright, breathing is a big part of it. When you hold your breath, you create extra strain in your body, stop oxygen access, make speaking difficult, and, as a result, thought movement is disturbed. Usually, people tend to hold their breath when they forget the words – at the same time, shoulders are raised, which, in turn, creates more tension.
So, don’t push your head forward when talking, don’t clench your teeth, don’t hold your hands in fists, etc. This all causes unnecessary muscle tension, which is damaging to your presentation.
When you finish a sentence, stop breathing out. If there’s too much air left, it will create excessive tension in the body. As I mentioned earlier, don’t hold your breath during pauses, breathe freely and calmly.
If you notice your breathing’s going out of hand, don’t be afraid to make a pause.
32. Believe that you can do it
Well, think about it… if you don’t believe in yourself, why should your listeners? Keep in mind that the symptoms you feel come from within and can hardly be noticed. All this, in turn, should inject you with self-confidence.
Thus, you’re a much better public speaker than you actually think you are.
33. Wear comfortable clothes
Clothes deliver a large part of your message – they can give a more positive image to your message, but they can also divert attention.
Talk to the organiser about the expectations or requirements to your clothes. Then, pick the most comfortable clothes that meet the requirements. Wear these clothes already at home, preparing for your presentation. This way, you’ll know if they fit or need to be replaced.
If you need to appear on television, find out what colour you should be wearing.
Final Words: How to improve your presentation skills?
These were 33 main tips on how to improve your presentation skills. As you can see, most of them are very simple to implement right away and don’t require elaborate action plans. The more tips you use, the better your presentation skills will become.
Did you like these tips? Is there anything you’d like to add? What kind of presentation skills you have in mind? Comment in the section below!
What is stage fright? Stage fright is a specific communication-based anxiety resulting in a person experiencing physiological excitement, negative feelings, or certain behavioural responses to the actual or expected act of public speaking (full article here)
What is social anxiety disorder? Social anxiety disorder is a condition in which the fear of a situation where one has to make a presentation or where others are watching is very strong. Sometimes, the fear is so strong that such situations are avoided completely. (full article here)
What is a persuasive speech? The main objective of a persuasive speech is to make your listeners do what you want them to do. For example, „buy my product“, „vote for me“, „believe what I’m talking about“, and so on. (full article here)
What is an impromptu speech? An impromptu speech is a speech which given without any thorough preparation. It is five- to eight-minute speech with a characteristically short preparation time of couple of minutes. (full article here)
What is elevator pitch? An elevator pitch is a well-thought, meaningful, and repeatedly practiced brief (about 30-60 seconds long) overview of who you are, what you offer, and how your partner can benefit from it (full article here).