Five Killer Tips for a Confident Presentation

iStock_000017439589XSmallBy Joshua M. Patton (Pittsburgh, PA)

Everyone has sat through at least one horrible presentation. Sometimes it’s bad because the subject matter is irrelevant or poorly researched. Other times, the presenter lacks a successful public-speaking presence. Just like in other aspects of business, your creativity and personality are yours to wield the best way you can. If you feel as if your presentation abilities need improvement, consider the below tips to change the way you approach the task.

1. Give credit to your audience’s knowledge.

Fryear faculty fellow and assistant professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Cait Poyntor Lamberton says that one big pitfall is when “people don’t give their audience credit for knowing something.” She suggests instead that you “prove your depth of knowledge by applying it,” to the specific purpose of the presentation. As a presenter, you may want to show off a little by explaining a concept or providing details that everyone already knows. If you choose to do so, keep it to a minimum.

Often this is used to fill (or kill) time, but no one has ever complained if a presentation ended sooner than expected, especially if it was fast-paced and focused on the new information and important conclusions brought forward by the presenter.

2. Use secondary materials to keep presentations concise and fast-moving.

This is another great way to avoid rehashing things everyone already knows, while still showing the depth of your research. If you want to involve a company’s history in your presentation, rather than show slides packed with text explaining it, pass out a packet of information with your research written out. If you need to include large chunks of quoted text, from manuals or relevant articles on your subject, include these in the packet of information as well.

Realistically, most of the audience will ignore the information and even throw it away when the presentation is over. If you do use secondary materials, make sure that you refer to them as often as is necessary. Know what you will need to say aloud and keep the visual element of your presentation uncluttered.

3. Don’t be overly infatuated with presentation software.

For years, Microsoft’s PowerPoint has owned the digital slideshow market. Although there are many other presentation software tools available, the successful ones follow PowerPoint’s model. At least, until 2009 when Adam Somlai-Fischer launched Prezi, a software he developed to examine architectural drawings. Prezi is notable for its Zooming User Interface (ZUI), which allows for a 2.5D experience by zooming in and out on the “Z-axis.” It is a unique new take on presentations, but its detractors say that the camera’s movements can cause nausea. “Prezi is useful for nonlinear relationships or ideas,” says Dr. Lamberton, “but people have to challenge themselves to make [their ideas] linear first.”

With PowerPoint, it can also be easy to fall into the trap of over-using new features, animations, and audio effects. While these might appeal to college students, in a professional setting they are at-best distracting and at-worst cause people to doubt your credibility. Rather than depend on those in-software features, try to be as visual as possible. Employing images and videos wherever appropriate will spice up your presentation in much more effective ways than creative fade-outs and text reveals.

4. Remember the basics.

The subject matter in your presentation is surely complex, and often all preparation time goes towards research. Don’t forget to make time to practice your presentation. Also, ensure that you have a well-structured introduction and a statement of purpose that isn’t unlike the “thesis statement,” from the old five-paragraph essay format taught to generations of bored-to-tears students. From this statement of purpose you can build in other familiar elements such as strong arguments, supporting information, and a well-crafted conclusion that will encourage questions and not a mass exodus of the audience.

As teachers have advised students for years, you have to practice the presentation. It is almost always obvious when a person is “winging it”, perhaps by merely following the information on the slides or stammering from one fact to the next. While you shouldn’t have a script in front of you, practicing the presentation allows you to develop a natural script, as you discover the perfect way to phrase the information you are delivering to the audience. Developing transitions to carry the audience from one slide to the next also improve the fluidity of your talk.

5. Involve your audience as much as possible.

To ensure that the audience isn’t focusing on everything other than your presentation, create an environment where they are encouraged to ask and answer questions throughout. The normal format is to drone on and on, then end with a final slide that simply asks, “Questions?”

Instead, ask your audience questions – easy ones at first to avoid putting them on-the-spot – and then the presentation becomes much more like a dialogue. Beware, it is easy to lose control of the room or track of time. It is imperative that the presenter is always in-charge. Still, with a little practice, your audience can be as much of a tool as PowerPoint.

However, you can’t control your audience’s reactions. In fact, there are myriad elements that are beyond your control when making a presentation. However, by using the above suggestions, you can always have control over these certain elements of it, and that could make all the difference.