If You’re Asked to Give a Presentation (and Can’t Wiggle Out of It)…

A successful presentation is a tricky task. Here are a few tips to help you make your presentations successful and memorable—and deliver the results you want.

The first time I had to give a speech, I was so terrified that, during my drive to the meeting hall, I considered slamming my car into a tree so I had a good excuse to miss the event. And after they sat through that speech, my audience probably wished I had.

A successful presentation is an extremely tricky task. You need to grab and keep your audience’s attention using only your words and visuals. You need to persuade them to see your topic your way. And you need to motivate them to take action.

Here are a few tips to help you make your presentations successful and memorable—and deliver the results you want.

1. Greet attendees as they arrive

Your presentation actually begins before the meeting starts, when the first attendee enters the room. So get there early and greet people as they walk in. You’ll feel more relaxed during your talk if you’ve had a nice exchange with each person in the room.

Also, if the meeting turns hostile but your attendees have talked with you beforehand, they’re less likely to throw food at you. (But just in case, bring boomerang-shaped pastries.)

Note:For conference-call presentations, this means greeting each new attendee as they dial in, before you begin the presentation.

2. Don’t use PowerPoint

This tip is hard to follow, I know. We’re expected to use PowerPoint. The problem is, PowerPoint drains the life out of a presentation. The presenter advances from one slide to the next, reading what’s on the screen—usually a title and a list of bulleted phrases.

And the audience leaps to its feet and cheers! No, wait—that never happens.

If you’re presenting your managers an idea for a new program, talk to them. Move around the room and let them see your enthusiasm for the topic. Show them images, tell them stories, play a video clip. Get them engaged emotionally—that’s how you make a presentation memorable and get results.

One exception: PowerPoint can be useful as a canvas to display images, short phrases or numbers that tell your story. In other words, use PowerPoint only as a visual backdrop for your talk—not as the talk itself.

If you have no choice but to use PowerPoint, I recommend you read the Garr Reynolds book Presentation Zen

, which has some great ideas about how to make presentations (even with PowerPoint) powerful and compelling.

3. If possible, don’t use PowerPoint

I know, but it bears repeating. 

4. Use concrete language

"We’re making great progress, and I think we’re about to take things to the next level." If you heard this in a meeting, would you have any idea what the speaker meant?

What does "we’re making great progress" mean? Are you halfway there? Three-quarters? Just starting but pleased with the early results? And exactly what level is "the next level?"

You’ll win your audience over to your side only when they completely understand you. That means you need to speak in concrete language, not abstractions.

Fill your presentation with specifics. Your audience will stay engaged and focused—and you’ll have a much better chance of convincing them to see things your way.

(And if you try to sneak vague statements past your audience, don’t be surprised if an attendee accidentally hits himself with one of your boomerang croissants.) 

5.Tell stories

Let’s say you’re giving a presentation to your team about improving their communication skills. And let’s say you want to make a point that they should use smaller words in conversation—especially in a professional setting, and especially if they’re considering a word they’re not absolutely certain how to use or pronounce.

You could simply tell them your suggestion, as I just did above. Or you could show them a memorable example of what can happen if they don’t follow your advice, as in the following story.

In a recent board meeting, a company president mistakenly said that an issue was "tangenital." He meant tangential, but he pronounced the word "tan-genital." This prompted a board member to respond: "Please, don’t tell us what color they are!"

Which method do you think your audience is more likely to remember and act on?

To be an effective presenter, you need to engage your audience intellectually, but also emotionally. Stories are often the best way to engage our emotions. Wherever possible, wrap your points in stories that directly target emotions in your audience—make them amusing, fascinating, heartbreaking, shocking, or laugh-out-loud funny. 

6. Make eye contact as often and with as many people as possible

A teacher gave my class the following advice before we had to stand up in front of the room and give a presentation: If you’re nervous, just imagine the class naked.

That suggestion was totally unnecessary because this was junior high. Everybody was already imagining everybody else naked!

But in addition to being completely redundant, this was actually terrible advice. The same goes for a similar public-speaking myth that it’s smart to look past your audience, to find someplace on the back wall, and stare at it while you talk.

The reason these are both bad suggestions is that they force you to avoid truly seeing the people you’re speaking to.

When you’re giving a presentation, your goal is to connect with the people in your audience. The best way to do that is to look them in the eye.

Make direct eye contact with random members of your audience for a few seconds each. (And do this truly randomly, looking at people in different areas of the room, rather than simply moving from one person to the next in each row.) This makes your audience feel like you’re talking directly to them, and it’ll help you feel less like you’re presenting to an entire room and more like you’re having a series of one-on-one conversations.

7. Don’t apologize

Apologizing for a mistake during your presentation only breaks up the momentum of your talk and calls more attention to the goof. So it’s best not to say things like, "I’m sorry—looks like I hit the button twice and skipped a slide." "I apologize for that typo I just noticed on the graph." "Excuse me—I’ve been having some stomach problems."

If you make a mistake, move on quickly. Your audience will forget quickly—if they notice at all—and you’ll soon regain your rhythm.

Oh, and if you have to give a presentation and you’re terrified of public speaking, here are a couple of pieces of advice that really help:

1) Yawn just before your talk; this creates a physiological change that relaxes you.

2) Smile before and throughout your talk; it’s hard to feel tension when you’re smiling, and your smile will also make the presentation more enjoyable for your audience.

Good luck!

About the Author

Robbie Hyman is a professional communications and public affairs writer. He has 15 years’ experience writing for nonprofits, small business and multibillion-dollar international organizations and is available as a freelance writer for federal agencies.

Robbie has written thousands of pages of content, including white papers, speeches, published articles, reports, manuals, newsletters, video scripts, advertisements, technical document and other materials. He is also co-founder of MoneySavvyTeen.com, an online course that teaches smart money habits to teenagers.