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3 Strategies to Up-level Your Presentation Game

Everyone presents differently. By cultivating your ability to present well and infusing your talk with personal anecdotes, you and your content will become more memorable. I learned this the hard way.

Early in my career, I was an over-confident intern at a design agency and made the big mistake of not preparing for a company-wide presentation. As my turn to present came, all eyes fixed on me; ears perked up anticipating my words. As I spoke, the air was tense as my voice cracked, sputtering incoherent sentences against my will. I thought I could hold my own, but in reality, I had no idea what I was saying. With my face red-hot, my voice petered out as another designer picked up the ball and finished presenting. As I sat, self-reflecting, I vowed to always be prepared.

Here are 3 strategies that I think work well if you want to take your presentations to the next level: Prepare, Present, Perfect.

1. Prepare

Set a goal
First things first, what’s the goal of your presentation? It could look like any of the following:

  • Acquire investors
  • Energize a sales force
  • Select a creative direction
  • Sell products or services
  • Educate your audience

Defining the goal of your presentation is paramount, which will allow you to tailor your content to your specific audience. It will also help bring a sense of clarity as to why you’re presenting.

Did you know that sleeping triggers changes in the brain that solidify memories? Practicing well in advance of your presentation — days if possible — will help you absorb your content more thoroughly. You’ll find that you can speak more naturally and confidently than you could at the onset.

Vocal exercises
Don’t forget your voice. It acts as a muscle and needs a good stretch to perform at its peak. Vocal exercises will help you with articulation and projection. At a minimum, warming up your voice the day of the presentation will help you feel more confident and have more control over your delivery. There’s a multitude of online resources for vocal exercises. And if you need a quick fix, there’s always Ron Burgundy’s tongue twisters: “How now brown cow” and “unique New York.”

Dress to impress. Dressing well for your presentation exudes confidence, so go dust off that tie or that statement necklace and bring your A-game. Just be sure to understand the setting and dress appropriately.

Travel / arrival
A personal mentor once told me, “to be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, and to be late is to not care”. There’s nothing worse than arriving frazzled and late. Plan any necessary travel and give yourself ample room to arrive early and calm your nerves.

Feeling nervous?
That’s normal. Help yourself by preparing as well as you can and maybe skip the coffee before you present as that will add fuel to the fire.

Technical hurdles
Depending on your presentation, there may be technical hurdles that should be addressed before arriving. Will they have a system to present? If so, which operating system? Keynote vs. PowerPoint? Make sure to have your files at the ready on your desktop. In some cases, you’ll need a plan B if there is no internet. Preparing can help you avoid any hazards.

Quick tip
If you’re presenting from your laptop, charge it before arriving and always clean up your desktop, it’s more professional. A personal pet peeve is to glimpse the jumble of files and apps cluttering a presenter’s desktop.

Perils of Preparing
Don’t memorize your presentation word for word but learn your key messages. You need to be nimble and memorizing a presentation removes much-needed flexibility. Your success is measured by knowing your content, not memorizing it.

2. Present

Tell it three times
Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you’ve told them. You’ve probably heard this before because, well it works. It works on the premise of reinforcement and repetition. It creates a structure for your presentation, which parallels traditional storytelling: Beginning, middle, and end. The ultimate goal is for your audience to walk away, recalling your main points.

Body language
Your stance says a lot about your confidence. Make sure you’re standing straight up, shoulders back, and that your body is open. Crossing your arms, slouching, and looking at the ground removes a sense of confidence. Gesticulating is something most of us do when presenting, but how much is too much? Gesticulating can help reinforce points, bring attention to a specific segment, and recapture the attention of your audience, but use it sparingly. Not sure what to do with your hands? Interlace your fingers or try fingertip to fingertip, these are good practices.

Tone / volume
Use it to your advantage. Our voices live on a spectrum of sound, and it’s one of your best tools. If you’ve ever been in the audience of a monotone presenter, I’m sure you don’t recall much. Let’s face it, speaking in one tone is boring and forgettable. Bring some excitement to the stage and use your voice to its maximum potential. Speak softly and controlled to create an intimate moment or bring passionate, loud energy to excite your audience.

Silence / filler words
Um, like, um. Ah, the dreaded filler words. You don’t need them, and you won’t use them if you’re prepared. Typically, they’re used when your searching for your next word, but when you know your content inside and um out, you’ll use them less.

If you find that these filler words have become common in the way you speak, you can bring a more conscious level to your language. The next time you’re looking for what to say, pause and give your brain a moment to find the right word. You’d be surprised how a well-placed pause in a presentation can add a beat of drama. However, be warned, too long of a pause could reduce your impact.

Don’t read the slides
I repeat, don’t read the slides, unless it’s a quote.

This is a helpful skill if your presentation is held in an intimate setting. The ability to improvise during a presentation is rooted in your ability to read the room and adjust on-the-fly. Maybe you’ll need to skip an entire segment or jump into Q&A sooner than expected. The ability to approach a presentation in a non-linear fashion can be engaging and effective, as long as it supports your goals. Remember, not all presentations are presentations; sometimes they’re conversations.

At times presentation content can be tedious, but it doesn’t have to be. Include audience engagement, an anecdote, and media such as audio or video. You’d be surprised at the level of attention you receive. In smaller settings, making eye contact will keep your audience engaged, but remember to scan the entire room and don’t hold eye contact too long.

Less is more
Exactly. It’s best to be succinct. Continuously searching for audience engagement or acknowledgment that they understand what you’ve said may artificially lengthen your presentation. It’s best to keep your momentum and wait until the end for any questions your audience may have.

Perils of presenting
Speaking too fast will deflate your presentation. A rule of thumb, if you think you’re talking too slowly in your head, then you’re speaking at the perfect speed for your audience to listen and comprehend.

3. Perfect

Ask for a critique
If you want to up your game, ask a colleague for a critique of your presentation both as you prepare and after you’ve given it. Feedback from a trusted peer or manager can help you grow as a speaker.

Attend an event
Watching someone present in real-time is an excellent way to learn first-hand what to do and what to avoid. You’ll pick up both big and small adjustments along the way that can help up-level your presentation game even more.

Record your presentation
When possible, video record your presentation. You’ll learn your strengths and weaknesses, and perfect your style.

Presentation resources
Looking for some examples of brilliant presentations, check out TED and these specific examples we’ve highlighted in a previous post.

Listen to or attend The Moth
The Moth is storytelling told in front of a live audience. You’ll learn a lot about humor, drama, authentic emotions, style, word choice, and structure from thousands of storytellers.

Perils of perfection

  • Try not to compare yourself to others; there’s always room for improvement and growth.
  • You’ll have unexpected hiccups regardless of your preparedness; over time, your ability to improvise will help you roll with the punches.
  • Let your natural style come through. Be authentic and speak in a way that works for you, but don’t be afraid to take yourself out of your comfort zone.

Presenting in any setting to any audience can be daunting. To stay on your toes, make sure to prepare, present, and perfect for each occasion.

If you’re looking for more inspiration to up-level your presentations, here are some custom-tailored decks we created for our clients.

Brent Rutter
Brent Rutter