Great presentations

Great presentations

This is the second of two posts about basic work-life skills.  The first was about better English writing.  As with any creative activity, opinions differ on best practice.  How do we define what is a good work of art? Having defined it, we do not all like the same ‘great works of art’.  It is the same with writing English or giving presentations.  As with art too, there are some aspects that are always important.  In this post, we suggest how you can give more interesting, appealing and effective presentations.

What is it all about?

Why are you presenting and to whom?  What do they want to hear?  Think about your audience before you plan what you want to say.  

Remember that you are giving a performance.  You may be a university lecturer, a salesperson, explaining a new policy to employees, or pitching for a contract.  Whatever your task, your presentation must engage the audience.  This has little to do with the content of your presentation, far more on how you deliver it.  

You must be believable.   

One of the most famous studies found that 57% of believability is visual – how you look and move; 38% depends on your voice and how you use it. And yes, a mere 5% depends on the words you use. This is an over-simplification but the message it still true. You can be as accurate and precise as you like. You may have powerful messages to pass on. But if you cannot engage with the audience, they will forget almost everything you said.


by Akson
by Akson

There are simple ways to engage your audience.  Some speakers use them naturally, others need to practise:

  • Your eyes – keep a steady gaze.  Do not let your eyes flicker around.  Make sure you ‘touch’ every member of the audience at least once.  Even with a large audience moving your eyes along one row, for example, will touch other rows.  Look some people right in the eye.  And never forget those at the back or the sides of you; they will feel excluded and get bored, if you do not meet their eyes regularly;
  • Personalise.  Tell relevant stories about yourself.  Let the audience catch a glimpse of the real you.  
  • Movement – try to move as much as you can and not get tied to a microphone or lectern.  If the logistics do not allow this all the time, move out from the lectern from time to time to show your whole body.  Stand up straight and confidently and avoid the slouch.
  • Expression – do all you can to show you are human.  Smile; use powerful gestures; be animated and show emotion.

Your voice

Your voice provides around 40% of your credibility and appeal.  For many people, these techniques are hard to learn and harder still to apply:

  • Speak slowly – far more slowly than you ever thought you could or should.  Audiences have no chance of believing your messages if they cannot hear or understand them.  Your accent or words may be unfamiliar to them.  Speaking more slowly gives their brains a chance to interpret your words as you deliver them.  
  • Articulate clearly and separate your words.  Modern conversation, in any language, is rapid, colloquial and tends to join all the words together.  If someone does not understand you when you speak, they can say so and you can repeat it.  That cannot happen with an audience larger than four or five.   Make sure your words get heard and understood even if it seems to you to be strangely artificial.  It is!  You are a performer now after all.
  • Vary the tone of your voice.  Be sad when you need to be sad.  Be happy, be proud, be excited, show how much you care about and believe in what you are saying.  Nothing is more likely to send an audience to sleep than a monotonous voice.
  • Cut out the non-words, the ‘ums’, the ‘errs’, that we all use when we forget which word we want.   Instead of a non-word, simply pause for a fraction of a second while you choose your word.  The audience will not notice.
  • Pause regularly to allow your messages to sink in.  A pause helps break up the voice and adds emphasis to what you said.  It keeps the audience wanting to know what comes next.


Using slides to help you remember what you want to say is a common mistake.  Reading out what is written on the slides is far worse.  (Why show the slides at all?).  Slides should illustrate your words and provide an attractive background.  Sometimes a striking photograph will do.

by Teemu Paananen
by Teemu Paananen

There are some important rules for slides.  Break them if you must, but know why you do so:

  • Use art, photos or graphics in preference to words to make your points 
  • Put only one message on each slide.   
  • If using words put no more than five bullets on a slide.   Avoid sentences in capitals, they are hard to read 
  • Use the largest font you can fit in. (If they cannot read it, why write it?)
  • Use colours wisely.  Red, for example, is very hard to read.  You need high contrast between the background and the font
  • Make sure you use consistent fonts and colours across each slide.  Carefully proof-check your spelling and language.

Above all, use as few slides as possible.  You will not get through more than one slide a minute, whatever you may think in advance: if you have ten minutes to speak, you need less than ten slides.


The writer helps speakers of many nationalities to improve the way they present.  Coaching like this is the best and quickest way to learn.  But you can also work on your own, using your phone on a stand and making videos of yourself.  You will notice your mannerisms, what you do well, how your voice sounds.  You will get used to seeing yourself as other people see you: this will give you confidence.  Family and friends can critique your performance and give you feedback.


Everyone is different.  When we present to others, we display a small part of ourselves. Presenting well makes the best of our unique talents so we can deliver the messages we want to deliver.  

As with any talent we need to develop it to be most effective.

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