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Keep it simple on blackboard


I know there must be people out there who are naturally gifted at presenting to an audience, people who ooze confidence and effortlessly show their subject matter expertise; but, I for one get nervous before each and every presentation I give and I'm not as naturally gifted as others.


I've learned over the years to bring those nerves down by making sure I'm as prepared as possible, regardless of the subject, audience size and type of people staring back with interest (hopefully!).


I've written this article to share my own experiences and how I manage my own nerves. I don't claim to be the world's best presenter, but I hope these tips help you in some way to improve your presentation skills.


Do's and Don'ts



  • Know your subject, be sincere and be passionate!
  • Prepare, prepare, prepare - Plenty of Practice Prevents Poor Performance
  • KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid!
  • Use an ice breaker if possible and appropriate
  • Test any PowerPoint slides in full screen mode to make sure they are legible
  • Speak clearly and loud enough for those at the back to hear. You may think you are shouting, but people appreciate the clarity of voice
  • Reduce your talking speed, then reduce it again! People sense nervous talking and it can be uncomfortable to watch at times
  • Be upbeat, happy and vary your voice tone / pitch
  • Take off your glasses if you can. People like to see your eyes, it helps build trust
  • Use thought provoking props to help stimulate the mind and conversations, Lego, building blocks and pipe cleaners are great. Some of the creations from props some people come up with are astounding
  • Engage, interact and link with the audience if you can and draw people back in using their earlier comments and/or experiences
  • Relate your experiences with individuals in the audience or the audience as a whole
  • Keep a backup of your presentation...or two...or three...or different places but easily retrievable in a hurry
  • Avoid jargon, use short words and short sentences
  • Be creative
  • Relax




  • Bluff your way through
  • Waffle
  • Read directly from your notes
  • Turn away from the audience and read directly from the main screen. People can't hear or read your lips/expressions
  • Jangle your keys or loose change in your pockets (this goes for any situation in life, it drives me nuts!)
  • Play with your tie
  • Click your pen constantly (this also drives me nuts!)
  • Stand in front of windows or bright lights if you can help it. Glare from windows or light behind you will restrict people from seeing your face. A sense of trust can be achieved if your face is clearly visible. Also, people with visual impairments may find it difficult or uncomfortable to see you with background lighting
  • Say sorry for any mistakes you make. Often, people don't notice in the first place and if you say sorry, people will notice



These things sound obvious, but I've been at the wrong end of these in the past...

  • Identify the subject and be clear that you understand what is being asked of you. There's nothing worse than standing there talking about something 'off-topic' to what is expected
  • Identify what the purpose of the presentation is and what you want to achieve, i.e. is it to raise awareness on a particular topic or range of topics, provide training, deliver a formal message to VIPs or to present your case for funding for a major project etc?
  • Find out what time you have available and make sure you turn up early or on time
  • Find out what facilities you have available and go there beforehand if you can to check out the layout of the audience seating plan and where you will be presenting from. Sit down in an audience seat or two and see how it feels for yourself
  • Double check: the cd player works in the PC / laptop; sound systems work; USB connections work; your USB sticks actually work with the computer; any pointing devices work; you know which buttons to press to make the presentation go full screen; any videos you have actually work with the software available
  • Think about the attitude of your audience and their knowledge level


The Basics

Structure – News at Ten works well.


Have you ever noticed how news is broadcast? News headlines are given first, then the story in more depth, then a recap of the headlines again. Human beings take things on board through repetition.


  • Introduction - tell the audience what you are going to tell them
  • Use a single slide if using PowerPoint to list the key topics using nice big text, evenly spaced, small words and short sentences
  • Main content – deliver the main presentation
  • Be creative. You don't always need to use PowerPoint, in fact, make that your first goal...get rid of PowerPoint!


People are able to recall:


  • 10% of what they read
  • 20% of what they hear
  • 30% of what they see
  • 50% of what they see and hear
  • 60% of what they do
  • 90% of what they see, hear, say and do


Conclusion – recap what you have already told them


  • Review and highlight your key points and overall message
  • Draw conclusions and make your expectations clear, i.e. what does this mean for does this affect the can you should now be aware of...etc.


End of Presentation Questions & Answers


  • Prepare, prepare, prepare!
  • Pre-empt questions you may be asked and research your answers if possible
  • If you don't know what the question means, ask the person to clarify, or clarify it with the person yourself to ensure you understand
  • Be honest
  • Don't be afraid to say you don't know
  • Involve the audience if you can. There may be other subject matter experts in the room you can draw from
  • Be succinct and don't waffle for the sake of it or to attempt to show you know what you are talking about


Refine your Technique

The first few moments of your presentation will be the first impression your audience has of you. They will either see a confident individual who knows what they are talking about and will be keen to listen, or they will see a gibbering wreck and will have little confidence in what you are about to tell them.


"The human brain is a wonderful thing. It starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public." Sir George Jessel.


Your introductory comments should last for a few seconds only. Depending on the situation, introduce yourself, why you are there and thank your host for the opportunity to share your presentation.


Practice, practice, practice – learn your introduction word-for-word without reading from a prompt card. Practice in front of colleagues, friends or family. Ask them to time you and to let you know if you have any subconscious habits. For example, ask them to count how many times you are hesitating, saying 'em', 'eh', 'um', or fidgeting. You could even record yourself with video or audio and see if you can spot these idiosyncrasies.


Comfort notes – if you need to make notes to guide you, use really big writing you can read from the desk or lectern without picking up the notes.


If you lose your place or train of thought, don't panic. Take a pause, drink of water or throw in an engaging question if you can. A pause for a few seconds may feel like an hour to the presenter. Most people won't even notice an extra pause or two, in fact, it will likely help them digest what you are saying.


Ground rules – set the rules for your presentation from the start, i.e. switch your mobile phones off, ask questions throughout or at the end or whatever else you feel. One thing I aim to do is ask people to turn their chairs to face me, otherwise they could end up going home with a crook neck.


Your voice – speak clearly and louder than normal to help people at the back hear everything you say. Watch your pace, it's very easy to get caught up in the nerves and the moment and speak too fast. This is also important if you have a strong accent or members of your audience don't speak your language as fluently as you do.


Keep your voice up at the end of sentences or you risk sending people to sleep.


Your presence – attention is on you, make your presence felt. Stand proud and in full view of everybody if you can. If not, move around and be seen by everybody as often as you can. I'm personally never sure of whether to move around during presentations or to stay rooted to the spot; I guess this is just your own preference and how you feel on the day. I tend to go for a mixture of both.


Body language – avoid body language that gives off negative vibes, for example folding arms when being asked questions or when being challenged. This tends to show defensiveness and just doesn't do any favours for the perception your audience holds for you.


Make eye contact with people, this helps build and maintain trust.


Humour – some people are just funny and can throw in funny one-liners or great stories with confidence, but others aren't so fortunate. If your strengths aren't in delivering heart felt humour, just stick to what you are good at and comfortable with.


Never patronise any of your audience or make individuals feel awkward, stupid or the butt of a joke.


More often than not, it's just so much easier just being you.


Getting your point across – think out of the box and use as many techniques as you can to help make it stick, for example:


  • Anecdotes
  • Humour
  • Thought provoking questions
  • Rhetorical questions
  • Shocking statements
  • Quotations
  • Props
  • Games
  • Subliminal messages, printed buzz words spread around the desks and walls
  • Positive, uplifting music if you can get away with it


Using Slides

Less is more – less words, less slides, more pictures if you can. I try to keep to no more than four bullet points per slide, evenly spaced with as little words per line as possible. After all, you should be able to expand on each point during your presentation.


When reviewing your presentation, be honest with yourself and ask if you really need that slide. Have you already made your point elsewhere?


Colours – give a thought to those who have colour deficient eyesight. Lots of colour combinations can clash making text difficult to read for some. I prefer simple contrasting colours such as black on white.


Graphs, diagrams, data – these should be easy to read and understand, if not people will just switch off.


Special effects – these are ok if used sparingly or if there is consistency throughout. Don't try to amaze people with your PowerPoint skills using animation, clip art, SmartArt and weird colours. I tend to find this just annoys people.


"All the technology in the world will never hide a poor presentation." John Beaumont, MD, Energis Squared.


This is just my take on things after the years I've been giving presentations, I hope it helps you in some way or another.


John Johnston