Top 9 presentation tips

Nervous for an important client presentation? Not sure what the best way is to prepare? Unsatisfied with general tips like “know your audience”? Hereby my top 9 presentation tips that will give you the edge and will avoid the mistakes I made in the past!

1.       Rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal!

You already know your story, have done lots of reading and have spent evenings to get your PowerPoint slides as pretty as possible: why bother saying it aloud when you already know what you are about to share?!

The problem is that knowing the items in your head is quite different from sharing it with an audience. Although you might be perfectly knowledgeable, not rehearsing will lead to not having the faintest idea what the exact order of items is and how long you need per item. As a result this will all contribute to the audience feeling that you are not prepared or worse, are not bothered at all! And if you as the presenter can’t be bothered, why would they be?!

Everyone has been at a presentation where there were a billion slides, and halfway the presenter was forced to decide to skip most of them while the audience had to wait in discomfort. Rehearse your presentation 2-3 times and determine the time you will need per slide or section. Then ask a friend or relative to listen to your presentation and you will be surprised how many valuable tips they will be able to provide you.

Rehearsal will make you familiar with the key concepts you have to share with the audience, make you aware how much time each item requires, and, even if the overall structure makes sense and might reveal that it is better to remove some of the slides. Add some extra time for answering (unexpected) questions. When you then come to the conclusion that you are not able to cover all your work in the time you are given, be extremely bold! Either move the slides you are not able to cover to an appendix, send some additional information to your audience after the presentation, or decide to use this material for another presentation opportunity. Your presentation is like a painting: you only have a canvas of limited dimensions so you need to decide what you will draw and what you will postpone for another painting.

2.       Key cards are king

In this world of high-tech and politicians reading from teleprompters, holding little cards in your hand might seem outdated or a little silly so why use these stupid little cards?

Of course, when you have the option of teleprompters you should definitely seize the opportunity. However, most of us won’t have that option and hence key cards are a great

Keep key cards simple!

tool to use. They will prevent you from looking over your shoulders to the PowerPoint slides so you will be facing the audience and gaining their full attention. Also, when you have a black out/bad moment and are not sure what the next slide or item is, you can quickly look at your notes in the palm of your hand without people being aware of it. As long as you ensure key cards are small (7 by 4 centimetres) so they can fit in your palm, and they only contain the slide number and key concepts (don’t write entire stories on them which you are not able to read during the presentation!)  they are a great tool to use!

3.       Focus on your audience, not on your presentation

As your audience consists of very rational people they will be fully focused on the presentation… or not?!

Despite thousands of years of human evolution, we still haven’t been able to get rid of our ancestral ape manners: humans are easily distracted and will even seize every opportunity to do so! Every time you break eye contact with your audience you give them a moment to “sneak out” and do other things like reading emails, messages, or dreaming. Don’t give them that option by asking one of the organisers to do the slide flipping so you can stay fully focused on your audience. A “and now we move on to the next section/slide/topic” is a simple enough message for the organiser to get you to the next slide. I have witnessed too many interesting presentations having a slow death, due to the presenter having to walk back to his laptop for flipping to the next slide. Your audience might forgive you the first couple of times, but once they anticipate this behaviour they will use the moment of broken eye contact to do “more useful stuff”. Give them the chance to be in total flow of your ideas and demand their full attention!

4.       Keep it short stupid!

Most presentations last about one hour so why not use this wide time span you are given to share all your knowledge and experience with the audience?

Everyone that went to school in their younger days has noticed that it is hard to be fully concentrated for more than 20 to 30 minutes. My most successful school teachers understood this and switched from an introductory 20-30 minute overview, to a practical exercise session enabling students to implement the concepts they just absorbed.

Don’t disobey the laws of nature! Jesus could walk over water, you probably can’t! A 20-30 minute presentation with a 10 minute discussion at the end is the most you can expect from your audience, even when they are really into your topic. When you come to the conclusion that 20-30 minutes is not sufficient to convey your message, you need to seriously consider if a presentation is the right medium for sharing this topic. A publication/article or a workshop might be a better option or it maybe that the scope of your presentation is too wide.

5.       Limit the amount of information on your slides

Another non-obvious advice?! Surely your audience is a very interested bunch of people who have made great effort to be at your presentation, so why not serve them with lots of information  in a short time span (as they are surely very busy as well!).

Unless your audience consists of a selected bunch of professional experienced speed-

Face your audience

readers they won’t be able to both digest the huge amount of information on your slides and listen to what you say. More importantly, they will be focused on making sense of the slides, instead of the most important part of the presentation: you!

Giving lots of information is an excellent idea, however is a 20-30 minute time slot suitable for this? Think again to the presentations you have attended in the past week/month/year. What were the main key concepts in these talks? You will be surprised to find out that there will be few presentations of which you are able to remember more than 3 key concepts (their actually might be presentations you can’t remember any key concepts of at all!).  Hence, when you are able to make your audience remember 3 key concepts after your presentation you have done a pretty good job! Limit the amount of information during your presentation and provide your audience with options to know more about this topic afterwards instead (see point 9).

6.       Be very specific

So you decided to limit your presentation to only 20-30 minutes? This time won’t be sufficient to go in detail… or does it?

The world has changed dramatically in the past 20 years: in the past we relied on books, newspapers and any other written paper materials and knowledge was partially dependent on location, these days the internet has provided a medium anyone can apply everywhere. Therefore, as a presenter you cannot rely on generalisations or information that your audience is able to find out on the internet themselves. Instead, limit your scope to an in-depth analysis of a very specific topic. You can then focus during the preparation stage of your presentation on reading lots of articles or doing lots of data analysis on this topic and create something rather unique that cannot be easily found elsewhere.

Choosing a specific topic also shows that you respect your audience: you know that like you they are very busy and they don’t want to waste their time on stuff they can easily re-produce themselves or find on the internet. By being very specific you can ensure that people who aren’t interested can decide to skip your talk, so that the people who are coming are the ones that will be really interested: what more do you want from an audience!

7.       Provide your audience data, not opinions

The presentation is about you: what you think, feel, and what should be changed according to you. If you don’t convey your opinion to your audience, how are you going to convince them?

Think back to all those government campaigns against smoking, all the research showing that smoking has terrible effects on your body, and all the value-added-tax on cigarettes: has it really stopped people using a product almost everyone is now convinced is a non-sensible decision? No! We all have our beliefs, pitfalls and addictions (I for example drink way too much coffee!) and convincing your audience that your opinion is the right one, is a hell of a job!

When using data try to visualise it as much as possible so you are able to convince your audience. For example, you want to convince me that drinking coffee is bad for my health. Merely stating “coffee is bad for you” is not going to change my behaviour so you have decided to collect data on the relationship between coffee consumption and heart attacks.

Instead of stating

“Reducing coffee consumption by 50%, the probability of a heart attack in the coming year decreases from 0.08% to 0.02%”


“If you reduce your coffee consumption from 4 to 2 cups a day, the probability of you having a heart attack the coming year decreases by 75%”

Hence, respect your audience and do a thorough data search or literature reading before drawing any conclusions: they will not only respect your opinion more once they realise it is based on facts and figures but it will also provide them with an opportunity to use, verify or challenge the data you have been using! Data can be re-used again and is hence a tool, opinions can rarely be used again and like saving items in your basement which you probably never going to use again.

So why do so few people use data, and are newspapers full of opinions without any facts?

“Data! Data! Data!” he cried impatiently. “I can’t make bricks without clay.” The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

The reason is two-fold: firstly some people have had bad experiences with maths when they were younger and therefore believe that every graph, table or reference to numbers is difficult per definition. What they forget is that maths at schools is usually given at a theoretical level, without any obvious practical applications: as long as you as the presenter makes sure you can translate your data analysis to something your audience can relate to you don’t worry!

Secondly (and this is the underlying reason): data analysis is time consuming! When working at a newspaper you can hit the streets and ask all kinds of people about there opinions about anything. However, when analysing data you soon find out there are multiple pitfalls: data might not be available or only for a limited time-span, data transformation is required before it can be used, everything needs to be visualised in the end by graphs and tables: i.e. a lot of work! Don’t let this data struggle put you off! A conclusion based on facts is far more valuable than asking a couple of industry “experts” who most of the times rely purely on judgement which might well be outdated or irrelevant for the specific topic you are focussed on.

8.       Test the location

Having spent all your time on preparation you are fully prepared to deliver the excellent speech that will impress your audience. What could go wrong now?

Nothing is as embarrassing as a good presentation gone terribly wrong due to IT reasons. Everyone has been at a presentation that was delayed by 5-10 minutes because of a non-working microphone, issues with projecting the slides on the screen or other IT related issues. Your audience is a bunch of busy people who are easily distracted so don’t give them an excuse to do so!

When you are working with a professional organisation, the room, sound and connections will be fully tested and ready to go, however don’t assume this is the case: in the end the audience will remember you, not the IT guy who forgot to test if the microphone worked! Hence, don’t be lazy! Arrive in time, ask for your slides to be projected, check the sound system and become familiar with the room. You therefore won’t only be prepared, but will also show you are very serious about this, meaning you also take the organisers of this event very serious! Tell me; is there anything nicer in work than other people taking you serious?!

9.       Give your audience free information to take home

You have done it! You had a slick and short presentation followed by a discussion that provided you with extra ideas. The organisers congratulated you with your performance. Is this it?

Finish the icing on the cake: as with a great dinner, exchange recipes at the end so that people who truly enjoyed your food can make it themselves! Provide links, references and contact details at the end of your presentation so they are given the opportunity to learn more about the topic when they are interested.

Too many presentations are like going to restaurant: you are being served great food but at the end of the dinner have not a clue how to make it yourself! Don’t be selfish! Exchange information! What can be more beautiful than someone from the audience developing the same passion on a topic as you?!


Oh, and I almost forgot to provide you “free information for the way home”! The following is a must read book which I will discuss in a later blog:

Dale Carnegie, Public Speaking for Success, May 2006

Enough on presentations for now: time for some coffee!


About Servaas Houben

I am a Dutch actuary and worked in the Netherlands for the first 4 years of my career. Thereafter, I worked for 2 years in Dublin and 4 years in London. I am now heading the actuarial department of ENNIA in Curacao.
This entry was posted in "Soft skills" or whatever you want to call them!, English and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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