Donna Salter

Five tips for making better presentations

Dazzle the audience with preparation, presence, and a personal touch.

July 9, 2012
By Donna Salter

It’s that time. The audience is seated, the lights dim, and you hear your name announced as the next speaker. All of a sudden, panic strikes. You can barely walk, yet you know you need to make your way to the front of the room and do what you do best: provide your expert opinion on a subject you know like the back of your hand.

Whether it was presenting before an audience of 1,000 or to an informal gathering of close colleagues, all of us have experienced stage fright. It is estimated that about 75 percent of us experience some kind of anxiety when speaking in public. There’s even a medical term for it, glossophobia: the fear of public speaking.

Professional success brings opportunities to make presentations. It’s to your advantage to admit the fear and take steps to try to overcome it. The majority of the problem goes away once you clear your head—and the butterflies in your stomach—and are able maintain a positive outlook. In the meantime, here are five tips for making better presentations.

Tip 1: Realize you are the content expert

A good audience that really wants to learn is like a sponge, absorbing the speaker’s ideas with an intense focus. The first step to a better presentation is accepting the idea that they are in the room to listen to you. You are the content expert. Realize that you probably know more about the topic than almost everyone else there. Even if you are in a boardroom presenting the latest tax law change to your firm or department, you are still in the driver’s seat.

So, logically, if you know the topic, then you should be confident, composed, and calm. However, if you fall short and wing it, the audience will know right away that you were unprepared. The best advice is to know your topic inside and out, rehearse with a spouse or best friend, and be able to talk about the subject as if it’s second nature.

Tip 2: Keep it simple

We’ve all experienced death by PowerPoint: tiny charts, unreadable fonts, and too much content on 90 slides for a one-hour presentation. Worse than that, the presenter may read the slides to you. You either want to scream and run for the door, or take a much-deserved nap.

It’s time to lose the PowerPoint. Most of the time, slides are a crutch to make presenters more comfortable. Your audience will respect and admire you much more if you simply talk to them and make your session an interactive discussion.

If you must use slides, minimize the content with keywords and images. Keep it simple. Five words and one image say much more than five bullets and a chart. Fortunately, there’s lots of help online for this; check out Slideshare.net and look over the presentations. Decide what you like and what can be improved, then begin using these same techniques.

Tip 3: Body language counts

You can be the world’s best content expert, but if you do not convey authority through your body language, you won’t command the audience’s attention. Stand with authority and try these techniques:

  • Step away from the podium—You will connect much better with the audience if you are in front of them, not behind the podium. If you are in a business meeting and are the lead presenter, try standing up when you make your presentation. You’ll raise your energy level too.
  • Use gestures—It’s not in most of our DNA to use our hands and body to emphasize a point, but try it.
  • Maintain eye contact—Score a home run by looking your audience in the eye. In a large group, you can’t possibly see everyone eye-to-eye, but you can seem as if you do by varying your line of sight. This simple technique helps you connect with the audience and conveys trust. Focus on one part of the audience, then another.
  • Put a smile on your face and reflect that in your voice. Convey a positive tone.

Tip 4: Make it personal

Even if you’re discussing something as technical as business process outsourcing or a forensic audit, you have to find various ways to connect with your audience. We all love personal stories because they make us seem more human. Make a short list of ways you can tie a technical point to a story about a client or employer, a specific engagement, or even a spouse or child.

It’s amazing what this will do for you and your authenticity. Even better, the audience will remember your stories well after your presentation.

Tip 5: Close strong

The way you end your presentation is important. You want to give the audience something to think about once they leave the room.

You also want to always end on a positive note and avoid having too much material. Again, we’ve all sat through presentations where the speaker said, “So sorry but my time is up; I still have 30 minutes of material prepared.” What are you missing and what would have been crucial to hear that might influence your own work? Unfortunately, you’ll never know. Even if the slides and audio recording are available online, there will still be part of the presentation missing because the speaker didn’t finish.

Evaluate and learn

As in any endeavor in our personal and professional lives, if we do not measure how we’re doing, then we can’t begin to improve for next time. After a presentation, review audience evaluations, but also do a self-evaluation. Did you think you were effective? Did you feel comfortable? Can you present the same material again with some improvement?

You can get over your fear of public speaking through various techniques and actions, but like anything else that’s worth doing, it takes time, practice, and patience. Remain confident, have a glass-half-full attitude, and find ways to relate to your audience. You’ll forget about the butterflies and get high ratings each and every time. You’ll develop your skills over time and find that you enjoy presenting, and your audience will see that.

More Resources: The Edge newsletter for young CPAs recently featured two articles on presentations: “Presentation Tips and Tricks That Work” and “12 Tips to Better PowerPoint Presentations.”

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Donna Salter is the senior manager of young CPA initiatives for the AICPA, where she creates programs and content for the Young CPA Network. She will speak on “Swallowing Butterflies and Living to Tell About It: Conquering the Fear of Speaking in Public” during a preconference workshop Aug. 8 at the AICPA E.D.G.E. Conference in Orlando, Fla. The three-hour session will expand on the ideas presented in this article. Topics to be covered include building audience rapport; power gestures and speaking postures; how to handle questions, including hostile ones; when, and if, to interject jokes, and more.