Presentation Skills

One of the talents leaders are often asked to draw upon are their presentation skills.  This can range from the relatively informal expression of an idea, through formal presentations given to large audiences.  Effectively communicating a vision, goals, strategies, ideas, or even results, allows the leader to gain agreement and alignment within an organization.

In this article, we're going to cover the topic of presentation skills.  As part of that discussion, we're going to start with a primer on preparing for a meeting.  Next, we'll talk about ways to present materials that will keep the meeting attendees engaged.  Then we'll finish this topic by talking about the skills used to effectively communicate with an audience.

Effective Presentations

The ultimate goal of any presentation should be the effective communication of an idea or concept to an audience.  The best presenters make the process seem effortless.  This perception sharply contrasts with the planning, preparation, and practice that typically occur well ahead of the meeting.

The entire process is usually broken down into the following three components:

  • Preparation:  includes gathering resources, room logistics, as well as developing back up plans.
  • Materials:  preparing the visuals as well as organizing the flow of those materials.
  • Delivery:  effective presentations don't stop with visual aids; perhaps the single most important part of the process is how those materials are communicated to the audience.

In the following subsections, we're going to revisit each of the above components in greater detail.

Preparing for a Presentation

Skilled presenters don't leave things to chance; they make sure they've covered all of the bases well ahead of the meeting.  Adequately preparing for a meeting includes the following:

  • Length:  all presentations have a time limit. The rule of thumb is to spend two to three minutes per slide.  If someone needs to give a 30 minute presentation, they should have no more than 10 to 15 slides.
  • Room Logistics:  know the time of the meeting, room location and layout, size of audience, and audio / visual technology beforehand.  Determine if a certain slide template is required, acceptable file formats (PowerPoint versions), and whether or not hardcopies of the materials are required.
  • Backup Plan:  make sure there is a backup plan to deal with the unexpected.  Projector bulbs burn out, electronic files are lost.  Even if the file is sent ahead of time, it's always a good idea to bring a copy on a USB or thumb drive.

Presentation Materials

One of the challenges presenters face is keeping the audience engaged during the meeting.  The easiest way to approach the organization and content is by using an outline.  The basics of organizing the materials include:

  • Objectives:  understand the purpose of the meeting.  This can include the "selling" of a new concept, or even the sharing of information.  Think about what a successful presentation would look like, and make sure the outline is structured to meet that objective.
  • Outline:  a good presentation tells a story.  Well-constructed materials will first introduce the topic, then flow through the ideas and concepts, and finish with a conclusion.  Preparing an outline will help to establish the correct flow as well as ensure all of the important points are covered during the meeting.
  • Speak to the Audience:  a good presenter will tailor their speech to the audience.  They will use terms the audience readily understands and provide examples to clarify points.  It's important to challenge the audience's intelligence.  Don't insult them by oversimplifying the work, or baffle them by introducing too many new and complex concepts.
  • Templates:  when it comes to slide templates, keep them simple.  Unless the presentation is for a graphic arts company, keep the color scheme simple and make sure the text is easily visible. If a slide looks too chaotic, break it down into smaller sections.

Delivery Skills and Techniques

Up to this point, we've discussed some of the pre-planning steps as well as the preparation of presentation materials.  With those two topics behind us, it's time to start a discussion of presentation skills and techniques.

  • Attire / Dress:  unfortunately, books are often judged by their covers.  To command the respect from the audience a speaker deserves, it's better to be over-dressed than dressed too casually.
  • Body Language:  the right movements can be used to express feelings on a topic as well as emphasize points.  Anyone that's not familiar with this particular topic, should do some research on the basics of body language.
  • Speaking Skills:  it's important to speak clearly and engage the audience.  This can be done by speaking to the audience, not the slides.  If someone asks a question, answer them directly.  When trying to emphasize a point, don't be afraid to use hand gestures to help the audience understand a position.
  • Reading Slides:  one of the mistakes novices often make when presenting information is they read the slides (word by word) or from a script.  While it's acceptable to use index cards to remember important points, the best presenters do not require "cheat sheets."
  • Agendas:  use the outline prepared earlier to introduce the materials.  Begin the presentation by telling the audience the purpose and flow of the slides they will see.
  • Visual Examples:  graphs and charts not only provide the audience with a visual break from slides full of text, but can also allow for clearer insights into the data.
  • Avoid Repetitive Motion:  while working the stage is desirable, avoid pacing, jingling pocket change or keys, and other repetitive gestures.
  • Practice:  this starts with examining each slide to ensure familiarity with the information.  This can progress to rehearsing, in one's mind, the important points to cover on each slide.  Finally, it's sometimes helpful to rehearse the speech with some trusted colleagues or even in front of a mirror.

The best presenters know they are experts, and the confidence they display comes from knowing the materials they're reviewing.  They are also enthusiastic about the topic they are presenting because they enjoy sharing their knowledge.  That's a skill that cannot be learned.  It has to come from within.


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