Giving presentations is a chore that many employees need to handle in their lives, yet few are trained in it.

Share story

Doug Carter likens public speaking to cake. All of your knowledge and experience help create the message you’re giving, or the cake’s inner layers. Your ability to deliver that message is the icing.

“If you have a really good cake, but the icing tastes lousy, you’re never going to eat the cake,” said Carter, a presentation expert. “But if the icing looks and tastes good, then the cake doesn’t have to be nearly as good because you got really good icing on it.”

It’s the same when giving presentations: To earn an interested and engaged audience, brush up on the subtle skills inherent in any quality presentation. A business presentation is key to getting your message across, whether you’re in an interview, speaking to a large group or making a sales pitch.

Giving presentations is a chore that many employees need to handle in their lives, even if they don’t want to be the next Tony Robbins or Tim Cook. Yet few are trained in it, and the rest of us have to suffer through their bad presentations. According to some estimates, more than 30 million PowerPoint presentations are given every day worldwide. That’s about 15 billion total human hours spent watching presentations daily.

Sally Chopping, a speech coach for the Pittsburgh-area training company Acting for Business, along with Eric English, a communication lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh, and Carter, founder of Toronto-based presentation skills training company Presentations Etc., offer advice to better get the message across.

Channeling nervousness

For years, Chopping had feared the day she would draw a blank when presenting. Then one day during a 45-minute speech, it happened: She forgot what she was going to say.

She wasn’t using slides and, because she had forgotten her glasses, she couldn’t read the handout she had given to the audience. To get back on track, she asked the audience to look at the handout and tell her what topic came next. At the end of her presentation, audience members gave her top marks for organization.

“What that taught me is the audience doesn’t care if you mess up,” Chopping said. “What they care about is, what are you going to do about it?

“My nervousness went away when I concentrated not on myself and how I look, but instead just thought, ‘How is my speech going to help the audience?’ Once you do that, it gets rid of the fear and you construct your speech from the audience’s point of view, not yours. Every single step of the way, ask yourself, ‘What’s in it for them?’”

Carter tells his clients the more they say “you” and “your,” the more the audience relates to the message. This, too, can take the pressure off the speaker.

But even CEOs face nervousness, said Carter, who has worked extensively with executives. He advises many of his clients, chief executives or not, to keep the message simple and not to fret about wording sentences perfectly. People drift in and out all of the time and usually remember only three points, he said.

“The only person who hears every word you say is you,” he said. “Don’t get hung up in your words. What are you trying to say? The key is to have them remember the three things that you want them to remember.”

English has taught public speaking for 15 years, yet he still gets “painfully” nervous before speaking to large groups. To lessen the nerves, he meditates, spending a few moments to be alone in his thoughts. He thinks of each speech as an opportunity to share something cool with his friends. Lowering the stakes makes the occasion more manageable.

Preparation pays off

A snowstorm taught Carter that staying at a hotel near where you’ll present is worth it, even if you have to spend some extra bucks. He once thought it would be OK to make a long drive the morning of a presentation. But heavy snow fell on the drive. Although he made it on time, he wasn’t in a good frame of mind to present. “I thought, ‘Screw that,’” he said.

Now he stays as close as he can to ensure he has an easy commute. When he arrives, he catches his breath and visualizes positively. “I can’t do all that in the middle of a snowstorm.”

When possible, Carter gets to the location of his presentation the day before to make sure all the technology works. He’s usually required to take the equipment back to his hotel after trying it out, but he still wants to ensure the screen, lighting and inputs work properly. “Most of the time it works, but the one time it doesn’t, you’re screwed.”

Before you present, build in an emergency exit plan. Having a point from which you know you can conclude your main idea helps when approaching the end of your allotted time, or if an event organizer gives you an unexpected five-minute warning.

Engage the audience

Whether you’ve got a one-on-one talk or a speech in front of 400 people, think storytelling. Stories are powerful because they combine data and information with emotion. “The way to a person’s head is through their heart,” Carter said. “People buy into emotion.”

Stories paint even the most complex of topics in a new light. They can portray something new and enhance the message. Sometimes all it takes is a few seconds to connect an audience member with a story, English said.

Similarly, English teaches his students the Aristotle enthymeme concept, which means intentionally leaving something unsaid so audience members have to imply it themselves. As Carter puts it, “Assume they have a brain. Ask questions.”

One CEO with whom Chopping has worked read aloud her company’s mission statement, which was displayed on a screen. Later, Chopping asked why the executive couldn’t just pause and have the audience members read it to themselves.

“She didn’t read it (the next time), but it was very hard for her,” Chopping said. “The hardest thing for people to do is say nothing. But that’s much more effective. If you’ve got something people should read, pause and let them read it.”

Said English: “One thing that shocks people back into attention is to leave an almost uncomfortably long pause. They’ve been used to hearing this voice and all of the suddenly it’s, ‘Oh, no, what did I miss?’ That jolts them and brings them back to the speaker.”