There are many different reasons or occasions when you might need to give an effective presentation, whether you’re a sales person trying to close your next deal, a manager hoping to inspire your team, or really any time you’re hoping to convince or influence a group of people on a topic.
But, as anyone who has sat through a terrible talk will attest, there’s a big difference between an effective presentation and one that wastes everybody’s time.
Effective presentation skills can be learned and need to address not just the part where you’re standing on stage in front of an audience, but also the preparation phase and the post-presentation period.
The following tips will help you hone your own effective presentation skills so that you can close more sales, inspire more audiences, win friends, and influence people — no matter what you're speaking about
Even if you suffer from the (extremely common) fear of public speaking, effective preparation can go a long way to helping you feel more confident.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you should write out your presentation like a script and practice until you know your lines by heart — although, that does work for some people.
Instead, preparation means that you do the work upfront to ensure that you’re saying the right things, in the right way, to the right people.
For effective presentations, be clear on your audience and your goal
Start by understanding your audience and your goal for any given presentation.
The audience will often determine a lot about the type of presentation you give. For example:
- Are they experts or novices in the topic?
- Do they want motivation or information?
- Are they friendly or hostile to you or your topic? (In other words, will you need to persuade them to your ideas or are you preaching to the choir?)
The other half of the equation is to consider your goal. What outcome do you want to affect by the end of your presentation? What do you want the audience to think, do, or feel when you finish?
- Do you want them to have an “aha!” moment?
- Do you want them to sign a contract or buy a product?
- Do you want to persuade them to your side?
- Do you want them to feel so motivated they’re ready to take on the world?
PRO TIP: If you want the audience to take a specific action at the end of the presentation (i.e. signing a contract or buying a product), make sure you have a simple, streamlined way for them to do so. In Showcase, for example, you can have contracts ready to sign, include order forms, link to calculators to help make decisions, and so on.
Stick to your core message; simpler is better
Too many presentations suffer from terminal bloat. The presenter wants to cram everything they know about the subject into one 20-minute slide deck, and the result is dense, boring, and ineffective.
So it’s a good idea to start by understanding exactly what your core message is for this particular presentation. Your core message will stem from your goal; that is, what you want your audience to think, do, or feel by the end of the presentation.
For sales presentations, the objective is usually for the audience to want to buy the product. For a motivational speech, the objective is for the audience to feel motivated. A speaker for a non-profit might want the audience to donate more money to the cause.
Get clear on your objective, and the core message should flow from there.
In a sales presentation, for example, if the objective is for the audience to become a customer, then the core message will be (simplistically), “We can solve your problem.”
Think about your audience’s strongest desire or pain point, and that will often be the key to your core message.
Some speaking experts recommend being able to distill your core message into a sort of “elevator pitch” — a statement that you can share in about 30 seconds. Other good tips are to make it something you could write on the back of a business card (do people still use those?) or say in 15 words or fewer.
Organize your information for an effective presentation
Once you have your core message, it’s vital to organize your ideas before you start to build your presentation.
You might decide to outline your presentation, use a mind map, or brainstorm ideas in a free-flowing way.
Once you have your ideas, organize them into three main sections:
- Main Content
It’s common for public speakers to follow this format:
- Tell the audience what you’re going to tell them (introduction).
- Give the details of what you’re telling them (main content).
- Tell them what you told them (conclusion).
While this could seem repetitive, the psychology is sound. People struggle to retain a lot of information from presentations, so repeating the main points is a good strategy to ensure that the audience remembers what you want them to remember.
Because you will be repeating your main points, work on the Main Content section first. Use your brainstorming notes to identify the most important points you want to convey.
- A 10–15 minute presentation should have three key points.
- A 30 minute presentation may have up to six key points.
- A 45–60 minute presentation may have up to eight key points.
Another common framework for presentations is the three questions, “What? Why? How?” In this case, What identifies your core message; Why is the next obvious question, addressing why the audience should care; and How often describes your solution and how the audience can take action.
Once you’ve identified your key points, arrange them in a logical order. There should be some sort of narrative flow to the discussion. For example, in writing this article, it wouldn’t make sense for the section on what to do after the presentation to come before this section on preparing for the presentation; we’ve organized the information in a way that flows logically from one point to the next.
Next, expand each key point with supporting materials:
- Emotional appeal
Think back to your goal; if you are trying to persuade your audience, it’s a good idea to consider their possible objections and address each one in a well balanced way.
PRO TIP: As you’re outlining and creating your presentation, make a note of the types of illustrations, photos, graphics, videos, or animations you might want to include. Showcase supports just about every file type you can think of, making it easy to include any design elements or supporting materials you might need to draw on during your presentation.
After you have your main points fleshed out, you can easily create the introduction and conclusion. The introduction should briefly introduce your main points so the audience knows what to expect, and the conclusion should remind them what you covered.
The conclusion should also include another important point: a call to action. Think back to the goal of your presentation, and include a statement that will help your audience take action.
Creating an Effective — and Beautiful — Presentation
Most presentations these days are given using some sort of slides created in programs like PowerPoint, Keynote, Google Slides, or Canva.
Slides can be a great way to spice up your presentation and keep your audience engaged, but it’s important to remember that they are a side dish; you, as the presenter, are the main course.
Guy Kawasaki of Apple fame suggests a 10-20-30 rule for presentations.
- Have no more than 10 slides;
- Last no more than 20 minutes;
- And use a font size no smaller than 30 point.
If you’re given a longer presentation time to fill, you can easily multiply these ratios out; a 45 minute presentation, then, might have 20 slides — but keep the font size the same!
The genius of this formula is that it guards against our tendency to put too much information on any one slide. You can only include so much text at a size 30 font!
Remember: you never want to list out all the information you plan to say on your slides; that gives the impression that you’re simply reading aloud, and people quickly lose interest.
Instead, pick out the most important point of what you’re saying, or choose an image or graphic that illustrates the point in a memorable way.
If you find yourself searching for an image to put on any given slide, you’re probably better off skipping that slide altogether. Images should be chosen mindfully to add to the presentation, not just so you have something up on the screen.
PRO TIP: If you need to include more information than comfortably fits in your presentation, create a follow-up document or handout that you can distribute to the audience. Showcase makes this easy, allowing you to share documents and presentations to any email address or even use a VIP Pass link for one-click access to your materials.
Tell stories for more effective presentations
One way to keep your audience engaged is to pepper your presentation liberally with stories. Stories might include case studies, testimonials, or metaphors.
Remember: People have stories but things, data, and statistics do not. Think about who is directly involved in your topic that can be the main character of your story. Is it the audience? The people in their lives? Your clients and customers?
Let’s use a car company as an example. If you sell cars, your presentation could focus on specific characters like the type of driver the car was built for (i.e. someone who likes speed and adventure or someone looking for luxury and prestige), the engineers who built the car, or the factory workers who assembled it.
In addition to characters, a story needs a change to take place along the way. Case studies are a perfect example of this. The character in a case study had a problem, tried to solve it, and succeeded — resulting in a change in their circumstances.
You can also think about the general problem you’re trying to solve. For example, a non-profit organization exists because there is a problem in the world that they want to alleviate. Likewise, every business solves a problem for its customers. Even a motivational speaker is solving a problem (a lack of motivation) and can talk about that journey toward change.
PRO TIP: Everyone in your organization should be sharing the same story to stay on brand. Having a centralized system like Showcase Workshop for storing and disseminating stories and their collateral (including photos, videos, and testimonials) makes this a lot easier.
Consider your physical location
As part of your preparation, be sure to find out everything you can about the physical location where you will be presenting.
These days, more and more presentations are given screen-to-screen, so you may not ever need to leave your home or office — but that doesn't make it any less important to consider.
If you will be presenting in a location that’s unfamiliar to you, it’s helpful to know:
- The size of the room (and how many people are expected to fill it)
- The seating configuration (theater-style, boardroom, round tables, etc.)
- Equipment available (microphone, projector, flip chart, etc.)
- Whether there is power available (to plug in your computer or projector)
- Lighting (windows, lighting controls, etc.)
- Location and parking facilities (will you have to carry your equipment a long distance, for example)
If you are presenting with someone else’s equipment, it is VITAL to know if your presentation materials will work with their equipment. We’ve all heard or experienced horror stories of not having the right “dongle” to connect a computer to the projector and so on. Check that information well in advance.
PRO TIP: Be device agnostic! One great advantage of using Showcase for presentations is that the app works on any device. If you arrive at an event and the projector won’t connect to your laptop, for example, you can access your presentation from any device that will connect — with all your images, colors, and fonts intact.
If you are presenting screen-to-screen, make it as easy as possible for your audience to connect. Send clear, concise instructions ahead of time about how they will access the presentation. Consider:
- Do they need to download an app to access the call?
- Do they need a password?
- Should they mute themselves or can it be done automatically?
- Do they need to be on video?
- Do they need a minimum internet connection to join?
Remember Murphy's Law and plan accordingly. If possible, have a backup solution in case of connectivity issues.
The length and time of day of your presentation are also important to consider.
- Mornings are generally best for presentations because people are fresh, alert, and ready to listen.
- After lunch is the least coveted speaking slot at conferences and large meetings because people are sleepy and lethargic. If you pull an after lunch time slot, consider including audience participation in some way: engage in a discussion or have them move around to get their energy back up.
- Late afternoon is also a time when people’s attention may wander. Try opening windows (if available) to bring in natural light and mix things up to engage attention.
- Evenings and weekends are often better if the audience is there by choice. The flip side is that they will be less tolerant of a long or boring presentation because you are wasting their free time (not their employer’s).
Effective presentation skills during the presentation
Presenting and public speaking are skills that you can only improve and master with practice — yet we act like it’s some sort of moral failing if someone isn’t immediately a pro. We’d never expect someone who’d never played the piano before to go onstage and perform a flawless concerto, and likewise we need to remember that presentations skills need to be honed and practiced.
If you want to practice your presentation skills, joining a local Toastmasters club or similar can provide you with the opportunity and venue to do so — but oftentimes it’s simply a matter of saying yes when the opportunity arises, even if that opportunity is just a small group of your colleagues.
Beyond the old adage to “practice, practice, practice,” here are some additional tips for developing effective presentation skills.
They say you only have seven seconds to make a first impression. Some research even suggests that people are forming an opinion about you within a tenth of a second! So the beginning of your presentation is crucial
You need to grab hold of your audience’s attention and not let go for the entire length of your presentation.
So, don’t waste your precious first few seconds explaining who you are or why you’re there.
Instead, grab their attention:
- Start by entertaining them; make a surprising or memorable entrance
- Share a shocking fact
- Tell a compelling story
- Show an attention-grabbing (but relevant) image on your first slide
- Ask a thought-provoking question.
This isn’t about resorting to clown-school tactics to get attention (though, if juggling is in your repertoire, it couldn’t hurt!). Instead, it’s about being mindful of the fact that you have limited time to entice your audience to listen — and then using that time wisely.
Writers talk about starting in media res, which refers to starting a story in the middle, at the most compelling point. It’s a great tactic to consider for your presentation as well. How can you start your presentation in the most powerful way?
Focus on your audience’s needs
It can happen to anyone: You’re in the middle of a presentation and start to get the distinct feeling that you’re losing the audience. You might see people on their phones, chatting, or even getting up to leave.
Novice presenters will stick to their prepared presentation come hell or high water, but a more expert presenter will read the room and change things up if they see that their planned presentation isn’t working.
Remember, you are the expert and you are in charge. If you’re losing attention or your message isn’t landing, you can always:
- Skip ahead to a section they might find more interesting
- Ask questions and get feedback from the audience
- Start a discussion or the Q&A session early
You can also begin your presentation by asking the audience about their expectations. This doesn’t work well for a theater-style room of hundreds, but in an intimate setting or even in an online screen-to-screen presentation with a chat box, you can get valuable feedback before you even start.
PRO TIP: Showcase makes it easy to navigate through your presentation so that you can navigate to any part you need to in order to make the best impression.
Use your voice and your body
Your voice and your body language — whether you’re standing on a stage or presenting screen-to-screen from a video conferencing app — has a huge impact on how your presentation will be perceived.
Even — and maybe especially — if you’re nervous, grounding yourself in your body and then using powerful body language and speaking will make you appear more confident.
- Consider standing up — even for a screen-to-screen presentation — to project more energy and confidence.
- Make eye contact with the audience, whether you’re in a room of hundreds or looking at people on a screen.
- Project. Even if you have a microphone, it’s a good idea to speak slowly and at a volume slightly louder than your normal speaking voice.
- Speak slowly and enunciate. If you tend to get nervous, be aware that nerves will make you speak faster. Consciously choose to slow yourself down.
- Pause for emphasis. If you ask a question, share a surprising fact, or come to a key point, pause for a beat to let it sink in.
Another important tip for voice and body language: Stay present in the room. If your thoughts are wandering, your audience will be able to tell. Take a few deep breaths before you start your presentation, and do your best to stay fully present in the moment.
Avoid tech problems
Nothing will derail a great presentation (and your confidence) faster than technology problems, and while we can’t prepare for every possible contingency or control the fact that Mercury might be in retrograde when you have to give your presentation, you can take steps ahead of time to help mitigate tech problems.
First, test everything. Twice. This is especially important if you’re using unfamiliar tech or are presenting in an unfamiliar location. A dress rehearsal of an important presentation will never be wasted.
Whenever possible, you should try not to rely on the Internet for your presentation, to avoid the inevitable headaches of a bad connection. If you’re presenting screen-to-screen, you may have no choice, but always have a backup way to connect (a phone conference line, for example).
Beyond that, when you’re selecting the technology you’ll be using, look for the easiest, friendliest programs and apps out there that can be accessed on any device and play well with different file types, operating systems, email clients, etc.
PRO TIP: Showcase Workshop is completely device agnostic; it works just as well on laptop as it does on a phone, and plays well with all the operating systems. Plus, presentations in Showcase will always work without an Internet connection, so you’re covered if the WiFi in the conference room is spotty. And if the Internet goes down while you’re presenting remotely via video conferencing, you can always send the presentation directly to the audience and then walk them through it over the phone. At Showcase, we’ve done as much as possible to eliminate tech issues for presenters.
Don’t overstay your welcome
Keeping to your allotted presentation time is important because it shows respect for your audience and their time. Keep these tips in mind to keep your audience and hosts happy and on schedule:
- Practice your presentation a couple of times and time yourself, then add or edit information accordingly. Nine times out of ten, your first attempt will be too long.
- If you’ll be onstage at an event, ask if there is a time clock or a method to give you a “two minute warning.” If not, or if you’re presenting in a less formal context, consider having your own inconspicuous clock or timer to keep yourself on pace.
- Will you need to leave time for discussion or Q&A? How much is appropriate? Decide ahead of your presentation.
- Remember that many of us have a tendency to go faster during a presentation because of adrenalin and plan accordingly.
Post-presentation: skills for nailing the follow-up
You may think that the presentation is over as soon as you’ve enjoyed your standing ovation and taken your bows, but for many presentations, that’s just the beginning.
Especially if your goal is for your audience to take an action, the post-presentation phase requires thoughtfulness and follow-up to ensure they actually take action.
Plus, it’s an excellent idea to get into the habit of assessing what worked (and what didn’t) after a presentation so that your next opportunity will be that much better
When was the last time you really paused to celebrate the fact that you gave a solid presentation? If you do it often, you may feel like presenting isn’t a big deal — but it is, and there’s no reason not to give yourself a pat on the back for doing a good job.
In fact, it’s a scientific fact that our brain more readily holds on to emotional memories — which is why you can remember every time you bombed on stage. But we can rewrite that script and remember positive emotions as well. Celebrating what went right with any given presentation can help you overcome your anxiety the next time you’re asked to present to a group.
So break out the bubbles! It’s for science!
Note what worked
As soon as possible after the presentation, take a few minutes to think about what worked well. Did your new joke get a big laugh? Laser pointer worked to draw people’s attention to the right parts of your graphs? New slide projector made the image look crisp? Even the setup of the room or conferencing software you’re using makes a big impact.
Make a note of what worked so that you can replicate it for next time.
PRO TIP: In Showcase Workshop you can easily share all or parts of your presentation, so if you have a particular slide, presentation, video — or opening joke — that works, you can easily share it with everyone in the room.
Note what didn’t work
At the same time, take a few minutes to make note of what didn’t work.
This can include everything from the batteries in your slide clicker dying to noticing that the crowd seemed less engaged during a particular session. Think about all the points from the preparation and delivery sections of this article when you’re running through what worked and what didn’t. Anything from seating arrangements to windows that couldn’t be closed can affect a good presentation — and might be able to be mitigated in the future.
In addition, think about the questions that were asked. Were you fully prepared to answer all of them? Make note of any for which you’d like to have a better answer next time. Or if you got a lot of questions about a particular part of your presentation, you might want to beef up your actual information the next time you present.
Even the best presentations will often have one or two little hiccoughs, and noting them now will help you avoid them going forward.
Whenever possible, it’s a good idea to ask for feedback, because our self-perceptions are almost always skewed in one direction or the other.
Depending on the size and type of presentation, you can solicit feedback from different sources:
- If you have a colleague or coworker attending the presentation you can send a quick email asking for their feedback.
- If you’re part of a sales team, you might get feedback from a manager or another salesperson.
- For larger events, you can ask the event hosts or organizers for their feedback.
- If you’re presenting at a large event or conference, check social media; follow the hashtag for the event and see what people have to say.
When asking for feedback, it’s always best to give the person you’re asking a little direction. Tailor your questions to the places you feel least confident, but you might ask:
- Did I have good eye contact during the presentation?
- Could you hear me well the entire time?
- Was any part confusing or boring?
- Did you feel engaged and interested throughout the presentation?
And try not to take it too personally! Look at this as building your effective presentation skills, and take the feedback as you might from a coach who wants to help you build muscles and improve.
After any sort of presentation, there will be people you want to follow up with.
Obviously, if you’re trying to make a sale, you’ll want to follow up with the prospective customers. If you’re soliciting donations for a cause, you’ll want to reach out to the potential donors who haven’t contributed yet. If you’re speaking at a conference, you’ll almost certainly collect a stack of business cards and contacts of people to follow up with.
Make time to do your follow up as soon as possible. In all these instances, you want to be sure to re-engage with the person while they’re still excited and interested in you and your topic.
And don’t forget to thank the person who invited you to present; being a good guest helps ensure you’re invited back again.
Send an email, pick up the phone, or drop a note in the mail, but definitely follow up.
PRO TIP: Showcase Workshop is designed to make it incredibly easy to follow up and provides tools that can give you insights into how people engage with your follow up materials. You can easily send your presentation materials, slide deck, additional content, contracts, and more through Showcase and it can be accessed with just the click of a link by the end user on any device. Even more exciting, you can track when they open the file and how they engage with it, making your follow-up efforts even more fruitful.
What to do when an presentation goes poorly
Let’s be honest: giving a presentation that bombs is a traumatic event. Ask any regular public speaker about their worst performance and they will almost certainly be able to recall it for you — in graphic, gristly detail.
But giving effective presentations, like any skill, is one we practice, and when we fall, we have to pick ourselves up and try again.
So the first thing to do is stop beating yourself up. Everyone has bad days and anyone putting in the practice to give great presentations will eventually have a dud.
Next, ask yourself some serious questions:
- Did you fully prepare for the presentation as outlined above? Or did you think you could wing it this time?
- Did you really understand the audience, their needs, and their objections?
- Were you really clear on the goal of the presentation?
- Were you prepared for the audience’s questions?
- Was your delivery the best it could be?
- Did you have tech problems, setup problems, or other issues with the location or mechanisms for giving the presentation?
Doing this kind of post-mortem — and being honest about the answers — is the best way to recover from a bad presentation experience.
The good news is that you will almost certainly have the opportunity to try again, and you can learn from your mistakes and get a better result.
Effective presentation skills take practice, but offer big ROI
As you can tell by now, there’s a lot that goes into creating and delivering an effective presentation. Being a great presenter often comes down to preparation and practice. But the rewards make your investment of time and energy well worth it.
An effective presentation can close big deals, change unjust policies or laws, inspire people to take action, and more.
Our goal at Showcase Workshop is to provide a tool that makes it easier for you to give amazing presentations so that you can go out and literally change the world.
Want a free demo to see how Showcase works? Click here to schedule a time and a real person will walk you through it.