How To Ace Your Next Presentation

obama change back

As the common pop culture factoid goes, most individuals would rather choose death over presenting in front of an audience.

And yet, the ability to give a great presentation is a powerful tool in business, and in life.

As Tom Peters would put it, referencing Barack Obama’s historic speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, “17 minutes [of presenting] can change the world!”

Don’t let the fear of public speaking hold you back.

We spoke to a few presentation experts to find out how the greatest speakers captivate their audiences.

Click here to learn how to ace your next presentation >

It's true: practicing is the best preparation possible

Winging your presentation is almost always a recipe for disaster. Even the best public speakers don't do it -- it takes lots of practice to appear so effortless.

Gary Schmidt, International President of Toastmasters International, heeds the old adage of 'one hour of practice for every minute that you're speaking.' It's not an exact recipe, he says, but it shows you how important practicing is.

If your prep time is limited, practice the first three minutes more than the rest, presentation guru Garr Reynolds recommends.

And 'practicing' doesn't mean running through it under your breath.

As Jerry Weissman, founder of Power Presentations and the presentation coach behind such business presentation leaders as Cisco and Netflix, would put it: 'Verbalize.' Actually speaking out loud will help you refine your ideas and structure your presentation better, all while making you more comfortable.

And perform it several times through in front of an audience of people who you can trust to give you honest feedback.

Remember: you're speaking for the audience, not yourself!

The greatest public speakers in the world all share one trait: their ability to engage and captivate their viewers.

How do they do it? They present only what the audience wants to know.

'Far too many presentations are all about the presenter,' Weissman says. Instead, he tells all of his clients to constantly ask, 'What's in it for you?' (where 'you' is the viewer), and tailor their presentation around what their audience is going to care about.

It's even better if you periodically verbalize that question to your audience in the real presentation, then tell them out loud why the information you just presented matters to them.

Research your audience and custom-fit for them

Weissman says that the only way you can tailor your presentation to your audience is by doing research beforehand. You should always have a good image of who you're speaking to before you start preparing.

Find out your audience's demographics and the issues that are pressing to them. When you know the names of specific people who will be in attendance, learn more about their individual backgrounds, and speak directly to them during your presentation.

The most engaging presenters are those who make people in a crowd feel like they're being spoken to directly -- this is one way to do just that.

Start off strong

Start off by immediately pulling your audience in.

Weissman has seven approaches to the 'opening gambit,' two of which are:

1) Tell a story. One with a human interest theme, in the style of Ronald Reagan, is usually a sure bet

2) Use an analogy. Using imagery to describe an abstract idea is more interesting.

All of our sources fervently cautioned against starting off with humour -- there's no guaranteeing how your audience will receive it, and it will likely just distract from your real message.

Give your presentation structure

Your presentation should have a defined structure so that your audience can easily grasp the train of your thoughts, and so that you can get into a natural rhythm.

Weissman suggests three examples:

  • Chronological: frame it in terms of past, present, and future
  • Numerical: lay out your 'x' number of major points, then discuss each one
  • Issues and actions: present the issues that are facing the audience, then how you will address them

Kawasaki advises following his 10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint:

  • 10 slides is optimal 'because a normal human being cannot comprehend more than 10 concepts in a meeting.'
  • 20 minutes is an ideal time frame, and if you're slot is longer it leaves time for the important audience-engaging Q&A.
  • 30-point font is the smallest size you should use. More talk, less text!

A good PowerPoint...

'PowerPoint is a powerful communications tool, but like any tool, it can be used to do good or do harm,' Vanessa Gallo, of presentation coaching company Gallo Communications, comments. And, unfortunately, bad PowerPoints have become standard in the presentation world.

So what makes a good PowerPoint? Minimal text, interesting graphics, and video clips when useful. Your slides should serve only to complement to what you're actually saying.

Weissman offers this analogy: Use your slides the way news channels do. They put up slides with a few words and an image, and the anchorperson delivers the message. The graphics just add value to the spoken words.

Your PowerPoint is not a crutch, it's an illustration for your great speech. Weissman advises first sketching out the ideas you want to present, then preparing your slides second. Don't think about your presentation like it's a document! Think of it as a performance, instead.

Your PowerPoint is NOT a crutch

A great PowerPoint

THIRST View more presentations from Jeff Brenman.This presentation won first place in the Slideshare World's Best Presentation Contest 2008. On his blog, Guy Kawasaki says, 'Notice the use of pictures and graphics, big fonts, and minimal text.'

Check out other great presentations from the contest here.

Tell a story

'Great presenters do not deliver information. They tell memorable stories,' says Gallo.

All great speeches tell a good story. Your audience will remember that information better than anything else.

Be yourself

Schmidt says that one of the best things you can do is 'be yourself. Whatever your skill set is already, embrace it.'

That means if you're funny, be funny. If you're serious, be serious. Don't try to be something you're not -- you won't be comfortable.

The worst mistake you can make?

Our sources were clear: the worst mistake you can make is not connecting with your audience.

Your presentation will be DOA if you don't practice, read from your slides, and don't think foremost about what your audience wants to know.

The best presenters in the world hold their audience in rapt attention by sounding like experts and making individuals feel like they're talking right to them. The only ways to do that are by practicing for many hours, knowing your stuff, and considering your audience's needs and wants above all.

A few other resources for building your next presentation:

Jerry Weissman, Garr Reynolds, and Nancy Duarte are often considered the leaders in the presentation world in terms of coaching and design. Here are a few places to get their advice for your next presentation:

  • The Duarte Design blog
  • OPEN Forum interview with Nancy Duarte: How to Captivate and Audience
  • Jerry Weissman's Power Presentations blog
  • Garr Reynold's PresentationZen blog

Are you an entrepreneur presenting to a potential investor? Then don't miss...

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.