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Presentation Skills

When you are going before customers, executives, or team members, how you present can be almost as important as what you say. Some executives speaking to groups come across as unfocused when they are supposed to be inspiring. They may be capable leaders in other respects, but their stature is diminished when they present their ideas. There are many executives who do inspire people with their presentations. They do it in their own style, but they come across as sincere, thoughtful, and prepared. Here are several tips for getting ready to do a presentation.


The more important the presentation, the more you want to overprepare. When you are prepared, you will be confident. You will know the key points you want to make, why you want to make them, and how you will make them. You will be prepared for contingencies, such as when you need to trim some time from your presentation. You will be better equipped to answer tough questions, rather than hesitating to find suitable answers. You will be better able to anticipate and address concerns that the audience will have.

Gil Eagles, CSP, CPAE, a professional speaker, once told me that there are two questions you must answer to do an effective presentation: What do you have to say, and why should your audience listen? As a presenter, you need to be clear about the message you want to leave with your audience and convey it in a way that makes it memorable. Gil also said that audiences typically want one of two things: to be educated or to be entertained. If they expect to learn something new, they won't be happy just being entertained. Giving them both—information and inspiration—will encourage them to listen and act on your advice.

Know your audience. This is critical. Find out who is going to be in the audience. What is their present level of knowledge? What are their interests and concerns? Who are the experts and the influencers? How do they like to receive information (bottom-line, quick, to the point; or more detailed, thorough, and precise)? Find out about the current issues and trends affecting their business and their industry. Be ready to address a significant recent or pending event.

To touch your audience at an emotional level, provide not only facts and data but examples or stories that illustrate the points you are making. People remember stories and the principles they illustrate long after they forget the facts.

Let me offer a couple of thoughts on using computer visuals. Many people have seen so many computer presentations that they have lost their impact. Often these visuals don't even add much to the presentation, and in fact may detract from it. However, because some customers prefer that you present information using the computer, you should know how to make them effective. The following guidelines will help.

  • Keep the visual information to a minimum. The first error that many presenters make is to load up the visual with a lot of information. This applies for both written and graphic information.

  • Don't just read what's on the overhead. If you're just going to read it, why does the audience need you? Instead, comment on the importance, relevance, applicability, or other factors concerning the points you have on the visual. Tie the points together.

  • I tend not to use visuals that contain nothing more than a list of points that are already in a handout. I might make an exception if I don't have a handout and I would like to use the visual as a reminder of what I want to say, or to give the people in the audience who have a preference for receiving information visually something to look at. Use visuals that add color or graphics, or that can be built up as part of a slide show.

  • If you eliminate some visuals, it gives the others greater impact. It is also easier to keep track of them, and you won't need to spend much time looking at notes about them. You will also have less of a tendency to sound as if you are reading. Have a printout of the visuals you are using.

  • Personalize the visuals for your audience. If you are giving a proposal or recommendation to a customer, use their logo (get it from their Web site or have them E-mail you a copy), speak their language, and address their issues.

Some people debate whether you should distribute handouts before or after your presentation. My recommendation is generally to give the handout ahead of your presentation, rather than afterward, with this caveat: if you're concerned that people might be looking ahead in the handout while you are on a page, ask them not to. I sometimes ask people to raise their hand and repeat after me: "I do solemnly pledge not to move ahead in the handout until instructed to do so." Most people chuckle about this, and they even sometimes join in by reminding me later when I ask them to look ahead to another page. I sometimes joke that I will pay careful attention to those people whose lips were moving but weren't saying anything.


At one time, I felt that practicing my presentation might take away the spontaneity. It doesn't. When you practice, you become more comfortable with what you are going to say. This allows you to concentrate on the audience and their responses when you are doing your presentation, rather than concentrating on what you are going to say next.

Practicing doesn't mean memorizing. You may want to memorize your opening and closing words, but even when you do that, you don't want to sound as if you are reading from a prepared text. You want it to sound natural. You don't need to memorize each point. If you have a handout or electronic presentation, that will give you an easy way to remember key points. Your detailed knowledge of the subject and your preparation will allow you to fill in the details. Practice how you emphasize the important words, your tone of voice, and your body language. Don't exaggerate or be melodramatic, but don't be boring.

There are several ways to practice. You can practice by yourself. If you do, it's a good idea to record yourself using either audio or video. That way you will know how you come across. You can practice in front of others in order to gauge their reactions and get their suggestions. For a critical presentation, practice at least three times.


When you get to the presentation, you will be prepared. Arrive early, make sure everything is set up as you requested, and be prepared to make changes if it isn't. Greet people and speak with people who will be in the audience—people you know or, even better, people you don't know—to build rapport, gain a couple of new friends and allies, and do some last-minute research or validation of your examples or points.

When you begin your presentation, begin by taking a breath and pausing. Don't rush. You want to be in control and give that appearance to your audience. Begin your presentation with a compelling fact, a startling observation, or a question—something that grabs the audience's attention right away. Then quickly give the audience useful information. Get to the heart of the matter right away. What I have found is that early impressions shape the perception of the remainder of the presentation. You want people to know that what you are presenting is valuable and will be worth their time. Use your time judiciously.

Look at the individuals in the audience. Make eye contact with someone for a complete thought or a complete sentence. This is one of the things you should practice. Most of us are comfortable speaking with people one on one. To be more comfortable and in control when you are in front of an audience, regardless of how big that audience is, just think of it as speaking with people one on one. If you make eye contact with an individual, people in the audience will feel as if you are speaking directly to them. Be sure not to overlook people. The person you overlook may feel insulted and later, when you are looking for support, may undermine that support. This person may be a decision influencer.

If you are a little nervous when you begin your presentation, that nervousness will soon subside if you have prepared and practiced. A bit of anxiety is normal. It gets your adrenaline flowing and gives you energy. That's why it is so important to practice, especially the beginning of your presentation. Be yourself. Don't try to be someone else.

Be sure to make your presentation interactive. You can do this by asking questions, asking for examples, or even asking people to raise their hands in response to a question about how many of them have ever experienced a certain phenomenon (such as saving a little on a purchase but ultimately spending a lot more). When you prepare, consider how to keep the audience engaged.

Be sure to have a strong closing. Take questions before you finish, and then end with a quick story or summary.

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