20 Tips For Giving a Stellar Presentation

For most people, it isn’t easy to go in front of a crowd of people and give a stellar speech. But for some, presenting in front of a large a
March 25, 2010

For most people, it isn’t easy to go in front of a crowd of people and give a stellar speech. But for some, presenting in front of a large audience is a piece of cake. I spoke with the latter about how to not only dazzle a crowd, but also leave a crowd with something they can work with and apply to their own lives. Here are 20 tips for giving a great presentation once you’ve pushed past the heart palpitations and sweaty palms.  


1. Breathe!

Its is the most basic and easy thing to do, yet somehow you can forget to do it calmly. Joy Baldridge, an author and speaker with expertise in sales presentation and professional development, is a big fan of her “four-four-six breathing technique.” The technique helps center you so that you don’t risk a false start or trip up on your message.   

“Inhale for four seconds, hold it for four and then exhale for six seconds over and over again,” says Baldridge. “Do it as soon as you wake up, when you’re driving to the presentation, and just before the presentation as you are walking up to the podium. It calms you, and then your voice resonates better.”

2. Rehearse.

That might also sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people decide to wing it, and never actually recite their speech aloud before giving it.

3. Time it.

When you’re given 15 minutes to talk, make sure you hit all your points in under 15 minutes. Sparks suggests preparing 25 minutes for a 30 minute speech and 12 minutes for a 15 minute speech.

“People always go long. You have to rehearse to get with the right time. Even the best of us need to go through it. Steve Jobs rehearses and rehearses!” says David Spark, a presenter and former comedian with a social media-publishing firm. “If they say you have a certain amount of time, you should always prepare for under the amount given; never the exact amount. Leave time for those questions that pop in the beginning, middle and end.”

4. Script your first 30 seconds and your last 30 seconds.

Those are your first and last impressions for your audience so it’s OK to write them out.

“People say after the first minute or two they feel good and in their groove,” says Baldridge. “You want to hit it right from the first note.”

5. Be prepared for the tough crowds.

It’s easy to talk about what you should have done, but the skill is being in the moment and knowing how to deal when shit hits the fan.

"You have to know how to cope if you're doing poorly, " say Spark. "Stay in charge no matter how bad things are."

6. Welcome everyone.

Think of your presentation as your very own party. Thank everyone for coming, make them feel welcome, and tell them you appreciate their listening.

7. Avoid fidgeting.

Baldridge suggests doing a toe press to anchor you and combat the nervous energy like fidgeting, pacing and arm flailing. When you feel any anxiety, stand with feet shoulder width apart and press your toes hard into the ground  – just don’t tighten your calves! (Charlie horses aren’t the kind of entertainment you want to give your crowd.)

8. Make eye contact.

Look directly at people in the audience to make personal contact.

“That eye contact adds an extra connectivity. You feel it and the audience feels it," says Spark.

9. Keep empty pockets.

Jingling pockets are a huge distraction. The slightest pat of the leg can suddenly sound incredibly loud when you’re up the all alone. If you put your hands in your pockets you want them to be empty.

10. Talk quietly – at key moments.

If the audience gets noisy, lower your voice vs. raising it. "The common response is to get louder on the mic or yell," says Spark. "Start talking quieter and people will start saying "Shhh! I can't hear him!” Spark also suggests choosing an individual in the audience to address vs. the whole group when things get out of hand. "Speak to one individual to represent the greater whole,” says Sparks.

11. Videotape yourself.

It’s painful to watch your nervous habits, but that’s the best way to see what you might like to correct.

12. Give structure to your presentation.

Baldridge encourages simple statements like starting with: “I’m here to X.”

“Those are three words that get to the point without trying too hard to be deep or funny. I recommend a paraphrased story and not a joke.”

Remember: The longer the build up, the better the punch line should be.

13. Vary your transitions.

“If you have PowerPoint slides and your transition phrase is ‘Next’ every time, that is not effective,” says Baldridge. “It’s best if you have a variety of words: ‘And now…’ ‘Logically, that would follow…’ You want to transition with more of a flow.”

14. Use presentation sources.

Spark likes PresentationZen, which gives good advice on physically making presentations. The author helped Al Gore with his presentations. Another Spark favorite is a book by Carmine Gallo "The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs.”

15. Amplify vs. repeat.

That’s a Spark mantra when it comes to doing a slide show. Slides shouldn’t be overloaded with text.

“No one will pay attention to you if they are reading what you’ve packed onto a slide and aren’t listing to you. They are there to amplify what you are doing, not duplicate it.” Slide should be a picture or a handful of words, or, some combination of both.

16. Give a call to action.

You’re the expert up there and you want people to turn to you and come up to you after the presentation for future business.

“I’ll make statements like: ‘If you're looking to do X,Y, Z then come talk to me.’  ‘If you want to do this, follow me on Twitter and check out my website.’”

17. Give examples.

Not the usual ones that you could Google and see quoted a thousand times over, but rather original, personal examples that people can relate to. 

“Examples that have already been globally exposed should be avoided,” says Spark. “Why go to a presentation where the presenter is saying the same things you already read in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal? Referencing a big, known story is fun, but you need to tell smaller stories that haven’t been exposed at all or told a million times over.”

18. Be online accessible and available.

People often ask about whether the slides will be online after the presentation. If you followed #14 then those slides only amplify. Create other material to be available online. For some, it is a full version of the presentation including audio and slides, for others it can be a summary of your presentation that also gives additional information to your audience.

19. Take care of technical details.

Being prepared isn’t just rehearsing things out loud, it’s also rehearsing things physically. Make sure projectors, videos and computers are working and synced up. Get to the location early to set up and do a test run. “Remember to download those funky fonts and save them as PDFs. Don’t forget to upload them too!” says Sparks.

20. Own your Q&A!

There’s always going to be that guy whose questions are actually a long, self-important statement. A quick recovery before moving on from the show off is: “Excellent point!”

Patience is everything. Don’t be so quick to end your time if questions don’t come right away.

“I summarize and tell them I will be opening things up to questions soon,” says Baldridge. “It gives them time to think before I say: ‘Now I am opening it up to questions.’”

Baldridge then asks: ‘Who has the first questions?’ vs. ‘Who has a question?’ “I count six seconds and if no one asks anything I will say: ‘One commonly asked questions is X.’”

If you voice the first question, then the audience has a model. Hopefully an audience member will pipe in with the next question but if not, at least one questions was asked and answered -- even if both were by you.

“End with style and dignity,” says Baldridge. “Don’t run on or off. End at your own pace.”