Wake Up & Listen! 10 Tips for Giving Presentations That Won’t Put Your Audience to Sleep

Public speaking. Do your palms start to sweat at the mere mention of it?

If so, you are not alone. Often ranking near the top of various top ten fears lists, public speaking is a necessary evil for many of us. When else are you forced to get up in front of a group and have your every word scrutinized?

As a Controller, I have experienced a lot of anxiety around presentations throughout my career. In my job, I must deliver financial information, instructions on policies and procedures, and other important information to groups of varying sizes. Admittedly, these are not the most enthralling topics; I would guess we probably have all experienced MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over) syndrome while listening to accountants deliver dry presentations full of numbers and percentages.

In an effort to help others with similar qualms about public speaking, I wanted to share ten strategies I learned from taking the Fred Pryor seminar, “How to Deliver Presentations with Ease & Confidence,” that make presenting anxiety-free for me and engaging for my audience.

1. Know your purpose.

Begin with the end in mind. This concept was popularized by Stephen R. Covey in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and it has to do with first envisioning something, or going through a mental creation of it, and then doing that thing, or completing the physical creation of it. Though Covey mostly talks about using this approach in regards to a personal plan for success, your presentations need a similar plan to maximize your impact.

What do you hope to achieve? What do you want your audience to learn? Starting this way is like giving yourself a true north that you can reference as you build out your talk. And, while you think through all of the possible paths a presentation may take, comparing those to your core message can help you make tough decisions to reach your desired outcome.

2. Create the close first.

Once you define your purpose and the key takeaways for your audience, start by creating your ending. This approach will ensure that you have summarized your main points, emphasized the most significant details, created a strong conclusion and thanked your audience. All of these things can be forgotten if you save the close as the last thing you have to do. So, start there and work your way back.

3. Design the opening.

The next step is to create your beginning. Think about this section of your presentation as setting expectations for your audience. There are a number of approaches you can use—starting with a funny or personal story, using an interesting quote, citing a startling statistic or asking a provocative question. The key element of the opening, however, is to give the listener a WIIFM, or answer the question “What’s in it for me?” If you accomplish that, you are set up for a successful presentation, and you can move on to the meat of your talk.

4. Outline the body.

At this point, you have your point A and point B. The next thing you have to tackle is how you get from A to B using specific talking points. During this part of your preparation, things can go easily astray, so it’s important to always reference your purpose as you work through building out the presentation to maintain your focus.

As you plan your talk, consider different formats and determine which will work best for your case. Is the information time-based where chronological order is a factor? Let that be your guide. Are you presenting a new idea or updated process that may rock the boat? Set up your talking points to point out the problem you were looking to solve and what your solution is and how it will work.

You may also find that you get a case of presenter’s block. When that happens, look into your creative toolbox and try one or more of the following organizational tactics to get your creativity flowing:

  • Brainstorming – Clear your head of all distractions and start jotting down any ideas that come to mind. You can rule some of them out later, but for now, just let yourself be free to explore the thoughts that pop up.
  • Mind Mapping – Add an extra level to your brainstorming by including some structure with your notes. Write your main topic in the middle of your page and let your ideas radiate out. In the end, you will have a visual map to work from for the body of your presentation.
  • Storyboarding – Just like TV show writers do, take your thoughts and put them into the order you will use in your presentation. By doing this, you start to create a narrative from your ideas.
  • Outlining – Transform the plan for your talk into a formal outline, Roman numerals and all. Once you’ve put your ideas into this format, the structure that you end up with makes for an easy transition to PowerPoint slides.

5. Spice it up.

You now have all of the basics of your presentation defined, so the next step is to refine and embellish your content. Add in stories, humor, quotable quotes and analogies to make your talking points personal, relevant and compelling.

6. Tailor the material to your audience.

Throughout the presentation, you need to answer the burning question of why your audience should care. But, you also should consider the makeup of your audience. As James A. Baker states in his article on tailoring your talk to the people you need to influence, “Different types of people have different types of listening and decision-making styles.” Your success hinges on your ability to understand your listener’s needs and cater to them.

7. Plan visual aids.

Like it or not, your audience will rely more on their eyesight than on their hearing during your presentation. Research from Professor Albert Mehrabian showed that 62 percent of the information your audience takes in during a talk is visual—pictures, graphs, charts, props and text—with text being just 7 percent of that. You can give the most eloquent of speeches, but without impactful visual aids, your message may not be impactful at all.

When working on the visual elements of your presentation, here are a few tips:



  • Provide too much data
  • Provide complex information
  • Show text-heavy slides
  • Rely on the data to speak for itself

8. Evaluate the environment.

The last thing you want to do is build out an amazing presentation on, say, the best TED talks of the past year only to find out at the last minute that you are lacking internet access or some other similar catastrophe. So, do your homework on where you will be presenting, what the facilities are like and what equipment will or will not be available to use. Preparing for your physical environment minimizes surprises, ensuring you feel more confident come speech time.

9. Rehearse.

To this point, you have done a lot of preparation to get ready for your big talk. Don’t skimp here. Being rehearsed makes the difference between a well-meaning presentation and a successful one. Make sure you practice out loud, either in front of a mirror or by recording yourself, so you can evaluate what you are saying and how you are saying it. Use your visual aids while you rehearse, too, in order to simulate the live experience. The goal in this step is to get comfortable with all parts of the delivery to help you feel at ease when you take to the podium.

10. Check your nonverbals.

My final tip is to not underestimate the importance of body language in engaging presentations. Research indicates that a significant amount of your message is interpreted by the listener based on your body language as shown in the chart below.

As the final step in preparing your speech, watch for and correct any of the common body language mistakes people make.

Presentations are hard to avoid and can either boost your credibility and executive potential or be a detriment. The information that you are required to deliver can be presented in a way that gets and keeps your audience’s attention and effectively delivers the information they need, or it can lull them into a vegetative state that is wasting your time as a presenter and their time as a listener. Take steps to energize your audience and deliver valuable information that will help them wake up and listen!

Photo credit: o.tacke via VisualHunt.com / CC BY