Six simple steps to nailing a presentation


1. Know your style and play to your strengths

Just like everyone has their own personality, everyone also has their own presenting style. Some people are relaxed and causal, some are formal and tempered. Neither is better than the other. The key is in the delivery. One thing is certain, there is nothing worse than a laidback person pretending to be officious, or a serious person awkwardly forcing their way through a shaky punch-line. It’s important to find a style that suits you and don’t try to mimic other people, work with what you have got. That’s not to say that your presentation style won’t evolve over time, but you need to respect your own strengths and weaknesses first before thinking about honing your skills further.

2. Assess your audience

It is not enough to only think about yourself and your strengths, you also need to put your social psychologist hat on, in order to understand the context. Being aware of your audience’s level of knowledge, interest and questions will be key to grasping their attention and delivering a speech which will be engaging and personal to them. UQ’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) presentation is a good example of this. Each presenter gets just three minutes to convey their research project, which will have taken months and possibly years to complete, in language that the everyday person can understand. You must be careful not to use any jargon that the audience will not understand, even one unfamiliar word will lose their attention. Communication and connection is what it is all about, therefore you must adjust your content accordingly for each audience. This does not mean dumbing down for your audience. In fact, being able to express your topic in layman’s terms, however complex or revolutionary your research may be, is a real test of its worth.


3. Plan your preparation wisely

Fact: You will not prepare the best presentation overnight in some sleep-deprived flash of inspiration. Like every other creative process, preparing a speech takes time, and progresses in stages. Start preparing as early as possible – make a plan, draw a mind map and brainstorm the key messages you would like to convey. Next, write your first draft. Then forget about it for a while. Go and do something else and come back to it a day or two later. It’s amazing how time, like a good halogen spotlight, can reveal the cracks and inconsistencies in all our creations. Don’t be frightened to ditch the first draft and start again if you are not convinced with your own work. This editing process can go on for a while, and your final version will end up being a well-honed compilation of all your drafts and edits. A note of caution to the perfectionists out there – set yourself a clear end point. You cannot go on fine-tuning forever. At some point you will have to make the decision to just go with it. Even Obama, who has a personal speechwriter, edits his speeches to send the right messages. Below is a snippet of his speech notes for the anniversary of the Selma marches.


4. Practice, practice, practice

10,000 hours. In his infamous book Outliers this is what Malcom Gladwell recommends as the minimum requirement for anyone to reach a point of expertise. This amount of time may not necessarily be required for your history presentation, but bear in mind that many of the world’s most famous orators would take hour upon hour to prepare and practise. It is very rare for someone to be born naturally gifted at public speaking. It is a skill which we learn as we go, and develop the more we do it. Winston Churchill, one of the most famous orators of modern times, took years to reach his peak. One early critic commented, “Mr Churchill and oratory are not neighbours yet. Nor do I think it likely they ever will be.” Be pragmatic – you are practising for a speech in public, so practise in public. Ask to practise in front of friends, family, office mates…anyone who’ll listen. You can also make good use of technology by recording yourself on your phone or ipad – each rendition will allow you to get more comfortable with your material, and you will pick up on areas you can improve.


5. A skill like any other

Because talking is something we do everyday, we can sometimes be fooled into thinking that giving a public presentation is just a louder version. It’s not. Some surveys reveal that we fear public speaking more than death, and this is evident when we look at the pharmaceutical industry, who are doing a fine trade in anxiety-reducing performance drugs. Why can public speaking be so profoundly scary? Well, humans are highly social creatures. Standing up to be judged in front of our peers leaves us very vulnerable and with associated risks of rejection and abandonment. Psychologist Kipp Williams, who studies ostracism, comments, “To my knowledge, in the animal kingdom, ostracism is not only a form of social death, it also results in death. The animal is unable to protect itself against predators, cannot garner enough food, and usually dies within a short period of time.” (Psychology Today) When we are standing in front of an audience, heart racing, palms sweating and feeling like we have the Eye of Sauron on us, these ancestral fears are tangibly real. But, like any other aspect of life in which we may feel uncomfortable or lost, all we need is a good plan and the right guidance. If you continue to find public speaking just too challenging, no matter what techniques and planning you try, there are many other sources of help and guidance you can turn to, including; psychologists, mentors, vocal coaches and local acting groups. You wouldn’t expect an untrained mechanic to be able to fix your brakes, so why would you expect to be a good public speaker without the necessary training? 

6. You are only as good as your next presentation

At university, you may have to give a big presentation for a number of reasons. It could be a compulsory assessment piece, but more often than not, it is because you are ambitious and want to get your research/study/work out there and into the public eye. Presenting can sometimes be the only way of spreading the word about all your hard work. All it takes it the right person to be sitting in the audience and your idea could be the next big thing. Being ambitious is great – it pushes you to reach new goals you never dreamed possible, but on the other hand, a good dose of humility and self-care will prepare you for the inevitable peaks and troughs of the presentation game. Remember, we only learn through making mistakes and being vulnerable, accepting less than perfection is what being human is all about.

Some of the best public presentations in the world can be viewed on TED. Chris Anderson, TED’s curator, shares the secret ingredient that all the best speeches have in common.

Last updated:
7 June 2017