Tips to Improve Your Oral Presentation Skills
After years’ of delivering oral presentations, I still find myself stumbling over my words. Some people naturally ooze personality and are born with flare, but the majority of us find public speaking daunting.
In her book Communicating for Results, Cheryl Hamilton estimates that as much as 75% of the population struggles with a fear of public speaking. That means, for example, some 238 million people in the United States feel nervous about talking to others.
Throughout my time delivering speeches and presentations I have discovered that the key aspect to a successful performance is being both genuine and unique. You need to have your own style and personality. I can recognise that I am not the most eloquent speaker out there, so I try to make up for this shortfall by being totally genuine in what I say. I also aim for my presentations to be full of enthusiasm. Moreover, I like to include unique/proprietary data and tons of useful content. Most importantly, I also add a degree of humour to keep people interested.
Here is my guide on how to give a killer oral presentation by beating your nerves and keeping your audience interested. We will have you absolutely killing your public speaking in no time!
Before the Oral Presentation
One way I ensure that I’m confident in what I’m doing is by practising. After all, practice makes perfect. If I’m speaking about a subject that I’m not confident in or a topic that I haven’t prepared, you will notice in my voice that I just don’t sound right. This results in stumbling over words as well as umming and ahing (no audience wants to hear this!) I prefer to rehearse my speeches over and over until I know it off by heart. Although, it really depends on you as to how much you would like to practice. I would recommend rehearsing until you can give your speech without reading from your notes. However, don’t forget to take a prompt sheet just in case you struggle a little on the day.
It may not always be possible, but I feel more comfortable when I have had the chance to practice at the venue where I’m doing the talk, a kind of dress rehearsal. I try to practice what I am going to say by writing it down, saying it over and over and listening to myself. Going over recordings of speech is helpful for me because it brings to my attention some of my bad habits. For instance, saying ‘so’ and ‘brill’ over and over. It’s also a good idea to practice in front of other people and have them critique your speech too. It can sometimes be the case that I believe something sounds great but in fact, to others, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Attend Other Presentations
If the talk is part of a larger conference, I find it reassuring watching some of the earlier oral presentations. Not only does this show support for your fellow presenters (fingers crossed they watch yours too) but you can gauge the mood of the audience and get some last-minute pointers for what you are going to do in your talk. One example from a few years ago was in Brisbane, Australia at a digital marketing seminar. I was talking about the effect landing page experience has on quality scores and Ad rank. I attended the talk before my own in which the presenter made a joke that was not appreciated by the crowd. Consequently, I decided to review my presentation. I adjusted my tone and delivery to give a slightly different approach to the subject. One that was more suited to the audience.
Meet Your Audience
It’s always beneficial to arrive early, aiming to meet and get to know your audience before the speech. This might just be me, but I find it helpful to talk to some of the audience and personally introduce myself. As a speaker, this can make you seem more approachable and likeable and hopefully the audience will go easier with any questions! Just be yourself, be friendly and be honest. If you are asked a question and you’re not sure of the answer, don’t bluff. Explain to that you will get back to them and they will likely appreciate your response.
During the Oral Presentation
Take Deep Breaths
When I’m nervous, my muscles tighten, and I sometimes even catch myself holding my breath. I find that taking long deep breaths helps me to stay calm. By doing this it also helps to slow down the pace that you are talking, making your delivery crisp and clear.
Like I mentioned above, deep breaths are great for slowing down how fast you’re talking. Pauses are vitally important because they give you time to think about what you’re going to say next. They also give the audience time to digest what you’ve said and engage with you.
Don’t Waffle on
It’s easy to empathise with the audience on this pointer. Don’t speak for ages and ages or people might lose interest. I have even seen people in the audience fall asleep during presentations! Yes, your talks should be full of useful and insightful content, but don’t turn what should be a short topic into a vast epic. This works both ways. You should also avoid condensing a complex topic into a 10-minute presentation that, therefore, misses important details.
Knowing exactly what to put in your oral presentation can be difficult. Is this too much, too little? I suggest a rigorous editing process. If it feels too off-topic, or is only marginally relevant to your primary focus, leave it out. Always seek someone else’s opinion too. Did they understand your point? Do they think you needed to explain more?
Even if your presentation is packed full of useful and relevant information, if you deliver it in a boring way, your audience will just switch off. I’d like to consider myself to be a naturally entertaining person but even if you aren’t, try and include some jokes and light-hearted slides. Of course, it’s important to maintain a balance. After all, you’re not performing a stand-up routine. People didn’t come to your presentation with the sole intention of being entertained. It’s vital to gauge your audience and what they are after from the presentation to understand just how entertaining your delivery should be.
Another fundamental factor to consider is how one-sided the presentation is. Yes – most effective presentations ask for questions at the end, but I find the best oral presentations are those that actively ask the audience questions throughout the speech.
Audience participation can also help to boost engagement and make attendees feel like a part of a conversation. I personally start my presentations with a show of hands or a general question and then at the end I ask the same question to see if I have changed the audience’s perception.
I believe that this is possibly one of the most important factors for any oral presentation. If you feel passionate and confident with your subject matter, you will give off more energy and enthusiasm.
Don’t Forget to Smile
Smiling increases endorphins and will help control anxiety and nerves. It will also make you feel good about what you’re saying and make you enjoy presenting more. Smiling will also show confidence and enthusiasm to the audience.
According to Antonio Damasio in his book Descartes’ Error, there is a clear distinction between a real smile and a false smile. A genuine, or “Duchenne” smile (named after the French physician who pioneered the study of facial expressions), contracts muscles around the corners of the mouth and the cheeks, whereas a false smile only contracts muscles around the mouth. This is a cue that will likely be picked up by the audience. So, make sure to speak passionately about a subject you enjoy!
After the Presentation
Ask for Questions
At the end of your oral presentation, thank the audience for listening and ask if there are any questions relating to your topic. Some people may try and ask difficult questions but don’t let this throw you off. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t lie, people respect honesty so just tell the truth.
Don’t Rush Off
After a presentation, I have been tempted to just get out of there as fast as I can, especially if I feel that it hasn’t gone too well. Just like you should do before your presentation, make sure that you spend time getting to know your audience after your talk. Use this time to answer further questions, building trust and making the most of networking opportunities.
How did it go? What went well and what could you improve on? It is always a useful idea to get constructive feedback on how your presentation went and how useful/engaging the audience thought it was. Don’t take it personally, use what people say to improve. Let’s face it, nobody is perfect.
Simon Sinek is one of my favourite public speakers…why? I’m not entirely sure, but there is something about the way that he talks and delivers his presentations that just keeps the audience engaged and wanting to hear more.
Simon is a British-American author and motivational speaker. He has given talks at The UN Global Compact Leaders Summit and at the TEDx conference, among many others.
Simon is extremely optimistic who believes in a bright future and our ability to build it together. Simon’s speaks about various topics for making our world a better place.
Watch Simon Sinek demonstrating his excellent oral presentation skills in the TED Talk below:
Simon’s presentations aim to change the culture in business, the way that teams work, and leaders lead. I personally think he is great at what he does because it doesn’t matter what he is speaking about, he is able to get the audience hooked and so engaged. When his presentations end, I find myself wanting to hear more.
The key aspect that makes his presentations so great is the fact that he is so passionate about his subject. He really believes in what he is saying and just oozes enthusiasm. His presentations are obviously well-practised but it doesn’t appear that he’s practised it word for word. It comes across like he is having a conversation, making you want to listen and hear what he has to say.
Sinek…if you’re reading this, I think that your oral presentations are killer. If you are reading this and want to be as good as Simon Sinek then definitely follow the advice that I have given in this article.
Reflecting on Skill Development
In conclusion, I’d say that these are the aspects that have helped me develop my oral presentation skills. They do not work for everyone, but these are my top pointers. If you have any personal experience or different ways to beat the nerves and keep your audience engaged then please leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you. No matter what anyone says, do not picture your audience naked! That definitely doesn’t work!