In a recent article from INC.com, Jeff Haden offers ‘16 Ways to Dramatically Improve Your Presentation Skills From 16 Powerful TED Talks’. There’s some great ideas in here and I wanted to take the opportunity to elaborate on some of these points and offer my two cents on the ways in which you can significantly improve your presentation skills. I will however, limit this advice to that which is relevant to a business/boardroom context.

1. Using Emotion

I’ve previously discussed the use of Aristotle’s rhetoric techniques, and harnessing “genuine emotion”- also known as Pathos. Pathos is about creating an emotional connection between you and the audience. The obvious, recent example is the US election and ‘The Donald’. Donald Trump was able to create such a strong emotionally fuelled bond with the American people that he secured a win over what many considered to be the better, more prepared, logical choice.

Trump is just a recent example, but emotion – be it a shared empathy, your own passion, public anger, community pride, shared objectives, or a common goal, is one of the most significant arrows in your quiver when you’re wanting to create and maintain engagement with your audience. The human connection is critical as it separates being spoken to from having a conversation with.

2. The Audience needs something to take away

Green frog looking out of cast iron pot

In a business context, the takeaway is generally focused towards action. Your audience needs to come away from the meeting room/the boardroom/the conference room either:

  • Thinking about something in a new way
  • Feeling differently about something
  • Committing to doing something

One effective way to convey your thoughts and inspire action is to choose an example or an analogy/metaphor that is relevant to most of the people in the audience. This makes that idea easily relatable, which gives the participants a more concrete understanding of the points you’re trying to put across. It’s the difference between knowing that single example, and understanding how to apply the concept to their business.

The boiling frog anecdote is a common example. If you’ve not heard it before, it describes how a frog can unwittingly get boiled alive due to it jumping into cold water that then becomes slowly heated up. If it had jumped directly into boiling hot water, then it would have instantly realised and jumped out immediately.

In a business sense, this analogy illustrates the lack of perception towards small changes. For example, say you wanted to decrease public transport pollution. A small change could be fitting start/stop systems to all buses, while a ‘boiling water’ option would be more dramatic like making all buses electric.

3. Answer questions when they’re asked, not just at the end!

All too often, I witness presenters that insist questions be left to the end. That’s crazy! If people are getting involved and asking questions, they’re clearly engaged and interested in what you’re saying and you should converse with them in the moment.

While many can find it distracting, it’s important to realise that the most valuable presentations feel like a chat between friends. Including questions when they arrive adds value to that participant’s views and will no doubt endear them to you for the remainder of that presentation and future ones.

Waiting until the end of a business presentation can be fatiguing to some participants, and any in-the-moment fire they had has likely quelled. So while it’s important to stay on track with your message, don’t avoid the people trying to get the most out of it.

4. Managing nerves & anxiety

Nervous woman during interview presentation

Let’s be real – everyone gets nervous, and that’s not always a bad thing. Use your nerves to motivate you to present. Those nerves show you’re emotionally invested in what you’re doing and that investment pays off as your audience witnesses your passion.

There’s a near endless amount of resources with ideas on managing your nerves, but there’s some critical points to focus on that don’t rely on imaginary x-ray glasses.

  • Preparation – If you’re under prepared for your presentation, you don’t need Sherlock and the Doc to figure out why you’re nervous. Knowing that you’ve prepared and have thought deeply about the presentation you’re about to give reinforces confidence in your abilities and will actively reduce your nerves.
  • The persistent pursuit of the perfectionist – Talk about self imposed pressure! Perfectionism creeps into the consciousness of many presenters, and you need to keep a bigger picture focus with realistic thinking. You’re not infallible, you’re human and unless it’s mathematics, your topic isn’t black and white. Aiming high is fine, aiming for the unattainable is just setting yourself up to fall short of your own expectations.
  • The audience isn’t there to tear you down – Assuming your audience are judging you is like taking a bullet train into your own head. Don’t attempt to live up to the expectations of people that aren’t necessarily expecting something from you. You’re there to impart your knowledge, deliver results, recommend an action or pose an idea. Generally speaking, your audience want you to do well, so use that energy and they’ll pay it back tenfold, relieving your nerves quickly.

5. Answer the “so what?” question

Displaying charts, and making basic statements like “sales are down this quarter” isn’t going to empower your engagement skills. Before making broad or general statements, make sure you’ve prepared the answer to the inevitable “so what?” question.

See, the thing is that those statements don’t have any weight or value without reasons and solutions. Instead of just “sales are down this quarter”, follow it with the reasons why and what you’re suggesting in order to fix it. This adds value, because it demonstrates that you’ve thought beyond the obvious and are providing information your colleagues didn’t have before your presentation. In this example, you’re also setting a goal and working with them to achieve it.

6. No excuses

We’ve all been in a presentation where the first words that leave the speaker’s mouth are:

  • sorry, I don’t do this very often
  • This was all a bit last minute
  • I’m not great at public speaking…

This is a top notch way to derail your message and lose your audience all in one fell swoop. Implying you’re underprepared, or don’t do this often is like telling everyone that you’re not worth listening to.

Recent historical events have proven that confidence in a presentation Trumps value of content. That’s not to say prepare nothing and gabble on about anything, but it is to say that if you feel like you’re underprepared or lacking in some speaking talents, then try to promote a confident image as this will help your audience engage with you from the start and allow you to find your feet.

7. Stop reading the slides!

If all your presentation consists of is reading your slide presentation, ask yourself what the point of giving that presentation is, and what’s the point of YOU being there! Your audience could just read your slides and be just as well off without having to be in a meeting.

While it may be important to have detailed slides that you can reference (actually, why not consider handouts too), the audience is your primary focus. Your slideshow is your auxiliary tool to display the information you’re presenting on, be that graphs, spreadsheets or artwork. Use it to show what you can’t put into words easily.

That way, you can stay on track and your audience doesn’t have to stare at the same slide forever while you make your way through the 15 dot points you’ve jotted down!

8. The power of reinforcement

Ever heard the statistic that only 20% of the information you hear gets retained? While this statistic is debatable, it’s safe to assume that not everything you say goes in one ear and nests safely in the comfort of remembrance. So instead of assuming that everyone is absorbing your information in full, use the power of repetition to enforce the critical points you’re trying to get across.


Tying everything back to your main point is a brilliant and effective way to repeat information in a non-irritating manner. In other words, you’ll have frequent opportunities to hammer your points home and let it sink into the audience without boring them to tears!

9. Keep to the time limit

Man wearing a dark suit and brown shows checking the time on his wrist watch

There’s nothing worse than expecting something to end only to have it drag on for a seemingly indefinite amount of time. If you have an hour to complete your presentation, prepare for that time limit and keep to it, remembering to allow some contingency during the presentation for questions, if applicable.

It’s not an extra credit situation, more does not equal better. The most prepared professional presenters will have structured their talk to fit within the time allocated.