I’m speaking at the IntraTeam event later this month, and I have started working on my presentation –  from scratch as it will be something totally new right down to the slide template. I got distracted thinking about how I present, and what makes a presentation successful. I happen to enjoy presenting – which helps, but there are definite steps to making sure your presentation is a success.

Presenting is an essential skill; whether it’s presenting your project to your team, convincing a management board to fund your project, or telling a conference audience about the fantastic results of your project/idea. Public speaking is still a common fear, and even the most experienced speakers feel some nervousness before a big speech. I’m find once I’m on the stage but I always want to cancel about an half an hour before I take the stage.

I don’t think anyone finds it easy, but by following these steps – especially practising – you’ll get better at it, and come to enjoy it.

1 Purpose

I once presented to new employees, all I wanted was for the people to know how to find my team and that we did digital projects. Every other presenter had slides crammed with text. I had four slides; projects we’re working on, who is in the team, where we are in the building, and where the sweet jar was kept in our team room. It was the only one people remembered.

I had a simple purpose – and threw some candy in to help people remember my presentation.

So before you start creating your presentation think about what outcome you want, what do you want people to recall afterwards. Are you informing, persuading or entertaining people?

And what “candy” are you adding to help people remember?

2 Audience

For the presentation I’m working on I’ve asked the conference organiser for a list of participants, I know they’ll also have some expertise in the field I’m speaking on, but I want to know more. There’s a good chance I’ve already met some of them, and a chance that they’ve heard me speak before.

I want to know these three things about my audience;

  • who they are, what industry they work in
  • level of expertise in this field
  • what they’re looking for in the presentation

The first two are pretty easy to figure out from public information, the third one is tougher to get specifics on – in this case I’m making an assumption that they’re at a conference to learn and if they come to my presentation it’s because they’re interested in social intranets.

You need to find a way to identify their needs, the “sweet spot” of your presentation is the overlap of your purpose and their needs.

3 Storyline

I did, what I thought, was a pretty good presentation. It happened to be videoed, so I asked someone who’s a prize-winning speaker to review the video and give me feedback. His advice was really good, he suggested that instead of telling the story in a chronological way I structure it into “lessons learnt”. That would force me to focus on what was really important, and I’d give my audience more content.

This step could also be called “building structure”, if that makes more sense to you. And sometimes chronological will be the right way to structure your presentation. But a list format such as the lessons learnt gets to the useful content in a structured way. If you’re presenting to a management team you can be more convincing with a problem – solution structure.

4 Building Content

Map out your main ideas, the order they will come in, add sub-headings, notes on resources.  I start with post-it notes, or pencil and paper. Something I can move around and play with – and remove.


There are two reasons for this, firstly it’s harder to see the whole overview of the presentation with just one slide on screen, secondly I think it locks you in to your first idea.

Think about the amount of time you’ve got to give your presentation, aim to speak for about 80% of the time alotted. Things regularly go wrong even at the best conferences; if you’ve left extra time you won’t become flustered when the computer goes into sleep mode, or the lights go out. And if nothing goes wrong you’ve got some time for your audience.

Take each idea in your presentation and work out what you want to say, there’s something magic about the number three, it reassures listeners and you can use it to structure  your presentation. “We found the most important things to do were a, b and c” or perhaps “we took a three phase approach; first a local test roll-out, then across Europe, now global”.

It’s at about this point that will be ready to start using powerpoint. I like to use single images and 1-4 keywords on my slides, by the time I present that’s enough for me to recall what I planned to say. My favourite resource for designing presentations is Presentation Zen, by Garr Reynolds. There’s also handy advice on creating effective graphics from Thomas Baekel.

Leave stuff out, there’s a temptation to tell everything you know as if this proves your expertise, it’s much better to present the key insights. People can only absorb so much listening to you.

Prepare for questions – some will be on the detail that you’ve left out, others will be on things you’ve never thought of. “I don’t know” is a good answer if it’s honest – if you can offer to find them the answer and get back to them, or perhaps refer to the audience to answer. It’s also OK to say “I’m sorry that information is not to be shared outside the company”.

Plan your conclusion; there’s an old rule about giving presentations “tell them what you’re going to say, tell them, tell them what you said”. Summarise what you’ve talked about and finish with the main point you were trying to make.

5 Tools

It’s not compulsory but it’s likely you will be using powerpoint, so here are a few tips;

  • presentation content is in what you say,  everything you use should support your words
  • fewer slides
  • aim for about two minutes per content slide, more if you have a lot to explain on the slide
  • few words per slide – don’t read from the slide
  • use images or simple graphics
  • everyone has seen a boring presentation, don’t be that guy, don’t contribute to  death by powerpoint.

Video is great, it can bring something lively to your presentation and it can make a point or set a mood better than one person on the stage. If you use video make sure it is part of the story you’re telling, make sure it’s new and keep it short. No more than 10% of your presentation time.

Live Demos are often used by sellers of software and they can be a great way to show how well something works, until it doesn’t. Create some screenshots to make your point as a back up.

6 Practice

When you think you’re at about final draft stage give your presentation in front of people; colleagues, friends, the office security guard it doesn’t matter who. This will help you get used to that nervous feeling. Ask for feedback.

Think about the trombone player’s first attempt to play a tune, then thing about his 500th. The 500th was better than the first. The first time you ask for feedback is tough – but it works.

If you’re really stuck finding someone to present to, just present in front of a mirror, watch yourself.

Time your speech, make sure you’re within the conference guidelines.

Say yes to speaking opportunities – it will get easier with practice.

7 On the day

Arrive on time, make sure you have a digital copy of your presentation accessible and a spare (just email it to a web-based email address).  Check with the conference organisers regarding the timing of the event, and what time you need to pick up your microphone.

When it’s your turn, begin by introducing yourself, smile, talk slowly (the nerves can make you rush).

Move. You should know your content well enough that you don’t need to refer to your notes constantly, so move across the stage.

Look at the audience, eye contact.

Never complain during your presentation, not about your project or about the conference. I saw a presentation where the speaker began by complaining about how he’d rushed to get there and spilt raspberry on his shirt and felt grubby and the organisers wouldn’t switch his time to later so he could get a clean shirt. You know what? I don’t remember anything else he spoke about.

Telling a joke can break the ice, it can help you connect to your audience. But make sure the joke is on you, it supports your presentation and it’s clean.

If something goes wrong, keep going. I gave a presentation last year and in the middle of it a login box came up screen. It wasn’t my computer and it was in a language I don’t speak. I looked at it said “I’ll ask Kristian to take care of that while I tell you…” Kristian lept onto the stage and sorted out his computer and the presentation went on. Other presenters have had it much worse, lights going out, falling off stages or a fire alarm. Keep going unless it’s a fire alarm.

To improve your speaking skills even more ask the conference for feedback, ask the audience, check the event’s twitter feed.

If you’re really serious about getting feedback join Toastmasters, it’s a global organisation of clubs run by members and for members. You’ll hear some really good speeches, get many opportunities to speak, and your speeches are evaluated.

Got any other tips for people giving speeches? Add them below.

microphone via pixabay
Candy Corn / BY-NC-ND 2.0
LT – Presentations – Audience Participation / CC BY-NC 2.0
“Story Road” / CC BY 2.0
Leave A Note On Me! Cosplay / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Trombone 1 / CC BY-NC 2.0
Tara on stage / CC BY 2.0

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