It’s common knowledge that the best way to nail a presentation is to practice. However, there will be times when circumstances prevent this. Here are three ways you can still impress your audience even if you don’t have time to prepare:
Messy transitions show the audience that you haven’t prepared. Even if you don’t have much preparation time, think about how you are going to transition between slides. I suggest writing down the first and last sentence for each slide. That way, even though you haven’t rehearsed the content, it still gives the illusion that you have. You can rest easy knowing that even if you get a bit off-track, you have a way to bring it back and transition flawlessly to the next idea.
When people don’t have time to practice, they try to cover it up by speaking very quickly and charging through their entire presentation. Instead, utilize the power of the pause. Breathe between slides. Give yourself a “reset” button. Pausing allows the audience’s ears to perk up and take extra note that you’ve said something important. Pausing also shows confidence. It tells the audience that you feel in control of the situation. Utilizing the pause allows you to work the room, even when you feel unprepared.
When people haven’t practiced, they spend most of their energy trying to remember what they want to cover. Instead, think about your presentation in a different way — as an opportunity to teach the audience about your idea. When you teach, the order naturally comes out in the most efficient way. Highlight the important parts. When you teach, you create a connection with the audience because you are focused on them, rather than on yourself.
Even without preparation, focusing on the transitions, pausing and teaching the audience about your ideas will create a powerful and successful presentation.
A lot of things go into making a presentation memorable. The slides have to be designed well, the content has to be engaging and the presenter has to seem confident in front of a crowd.
However, there is one main ingredient that many people overlook when putting together a captivating presentation — their personality.
I see it all the time. As a presentation coach I work with people from marketing to engineering to humanities. No matter their backgrounds, people want to seem professional. This is important, but that goal can often be taken too far. People will still take you seriously and see you as a professional if you bring your personality to a presentation. Personality adds flavor, it grabs the audience’s attention. It makes your speech more authentic, and therefore, more engaging.
If you and a colleague are given the same topic, the same script and same slides — there should be a noticeable difference in your presentation.
If you are having a hard time bringing your personality into a presentation, here are things to keep in mind:
Giving a speech can be nerve-wracking and many people physically tense up during a presentation. Try to relax. Breathe before you start. The audience can’t get a sense of you if you are too tense.
2. Add in Vocal Variety
In real life, when you are talking to people, your vocal tone naturally shifts. For example, when you really want to stress something, your pitch changes and you pause for effect. You might switch up the pace of your speech to add in momentum. However, many people lose this variety during speeches. Let your voice sound like it does in real life. Don’t fall into the “professional monotone” trap.
3. Have Fun
When you are having fun, your real personality comes out. Smile before you begin. Show the audience you want to be in front of them. Enjoy sharing your story with the audience. If you look like you are having fun, the audience will want to join you on your journey.
Remember, if you aren't memorable — your ideas won't be either. Let your personality shine throughout your presentation so your audience can feel connected to you and your ideas.
The best presentations are the ones where you feel the presenter is talking directly to you. Where ideas flow naturally and it feels like an easy discussion. However, many presenters have a hard time making their speeches sound like this. It’s probably because they don’t think about their presentations as conversations. Instead, they think of them as formal events where they talk, uninterrupted, in front of a large crowd. Normal interactions don’t happen under these conditions. Therefore, you must find a way to change things around so you can practice your presentation as a conversation.
Practice in an a different environment. Practice giving the full speech on your couch talking to your best friend. Practice in a coffee shop. Practice while you are taking a long walk with a coworker. When you practice, don’t just go through the “talking points” but fully explain each idea, as if you were giving your presentation. Figure out where your voice goes into “automatic” and you stop sounding genuine. Or have your friend point out when it no longer sounds like you are speaking to them, but at them. By changing up the environment, you will start to notice when your tone, pitch and delivery sound out of context. Then practice giving the talk, in that natural way, in the actual space where you will be presenting. Try to bring the “genuine” and conversational tone into the formal environment.
When you are having a conversation, you are normally telling a story. You are relying on your voice to paint a picture. In presentations, people rely on their slides to tell the story and explain the concept. Instead, practice telling your story without any visuals available. Notice what changes when you have to use your words to make the ideas come to life. Or, try using a whiteboard to draw the visuals as you tell them. By changing up the visuals you usually rely on, you will find more natural ways to convey the information.
In a conversation, people can interrupt you to clarify a point, ask a question or offer thoughts. In a presentation, the speaker is the only one talking and there is no give and take. It is just one voice that continues to speak for an extended period of time. To make the presentation more conversational, practice having a friend ask a question before each slide. Then, answer their question with the information on that slide. You can even put that question in the “presenter notes” section of your talk. That way, you continue to give the information in your talk as if you are having a dialogue with the audience.
Switch up your environment, change up your visuals and practice answering questions to make your presentations more conversational. That way the audience will feel more connected to you and your content.
Students are busy. Their schedules are packed and they are constantly struggling to meet deadlines. Due to this hectic lifestyle, many times job searches, professional development training and networking is put on the back burner. While this is understandable, it is also a mistake. Students need to realize that they can’t just be focused on their immediate projects — they have to focus on finding internships and jobs. Networking is a big part of this. It is critical in today's competitive job market. However, many people don't realize that it doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking.
Here are three easy ways students can start networking before they need a job:
1) Connect with Previous Mentors
Your mentors are already invested in your journey. They care about your career, your well-being and your goals. Far too often people only reach out to mentors when they need something. While asking a favor is perfectly fine, it shouldn’t be the only time your mentor hears from you. Instead you should:
2) Engage in Social Media
Interact with people who are invested in the same topics you are. Even if you aren’t looking for a job at the moment, you never know who you might meet and what opportunities will present themselves down the road. There are numerous ways to connect with others over social media:
3) Attend Events
While social media is incredibly useful, it isn’t a substitute for connecting with people in person. There are so many ways to meet people with similar interests. You can:
As a student it is easy to get overwhelmed and overlook opportunities. By taking some time to connect with mentors, engage on social media and attend events, you can easily expand your network. That way when you do need an internship or a job, opportunities will be much easier to find.
Soft skills are essential for success in any field and there are ample opportunities for people to improve their presentation skills. People can read books, take workshops, enroll in courses, and train individually with experts. However, there is another training opportunity, one that is easily accessible, that is often overlooked.
Next time you attend a meeting, go to a conference, or even watch a speech online, take extra care to tune in to the presentation. Analyze the speech. Take notes during and after it. Actively engage with the entire process.
Things to Consider During the Presentation:
1. When do I get pulled into their speech?
Note at what moment you become engaged with their presentation. Was it a phrase they said? Was it their body language? Was it an image they created? Write down what the presenter did to hook you in.
2. When do I tune out?
It is critical to notice when, instead of paying attention to the speech, you are focusing on your to-do list or thinking about some project on your plate. Once you realize your mind is wandering, try to tune back into the presentation and figure out why. Was it the way it was organized? Does the presenter sound engaged with the content? Is the information too technical? Figure out what is happening in front of you that made you tune out.
Things to Consider After the Presentation:
1. What do I remember?
After someone is done speaking, it is a good idea to take a moment and think about what stayed with you after the presentation ended. What phrases come to your mind? What images, either from the PowerPoint or from their stories, are still in your head? What did you learn from the presentation?
2. What questions do I have?
Instead of disengaging with the presentation after it is over, ask yourself what questions you have about the content. Is there a term or a concept that you aren’t clear on? Was there a statement or a claim that you didn’t understand fully? What follow up questions would you send the presenter if you had the chance to continue the conversation?
3. What notes would I give the presenter to help them improve?
This is the most important question to answer. How would you reorganize the presentation to make it clearer to the audience? How could the speaker sound more engaged with the content? Was there a slide that had too many graphics on it? Think about how you could help the presenter improve their speech and what steps you would take to make it happen.
After you do this with a few presentations, you will start to see patterns. For example, you might notice that you tend to tune out of a presentation during the overview slide. Therefore, when you give your own speech, take extra care to make sure that your overview slide is engaging. You can change up the graphics, infuse it with active statements instead of passive ones, or even get rid of the overview slide altogether.
Answer these questions and analyze your answers. Don't miss an opportunity to improve your own skills. Actively engage with every speech you hear and apply what you learn to your own presentations.
In the last two years I have coached hundreds of graduate students on their talks for conferences, thesis defenses and symposiums. While I am always impressed by their innovative, creative and noteworthy research, there are definitely ways to improve their presentations of it. There are three things in particular that I consistently advise graduate students to eliminate from their research talks.
1. Stop Reading Your Title Slide
What I see: During presentations, graduate students walk up and say, “Hello” and then immediately turn to their title slide to read what is on it. Many times they stumble over what they have written up there. Sometimes, they even read their own name.
Instead: Know your title. Your title slide is the audience’s introduction to you. This is the first time they hear your voice, get a sense of you and figure out if this is a talk worth listening to. If you walk up and have to read your own title, you are telling the audience that this is information you don’t know very well. How am I supposed to believe in your innovation if you can’t even remember what your presentation is on? You need to memorize your title. Don’t rush through it — take your time. This is your opportunity to get the audience excited about hearing your talk.
2. Stop Saying, “I'm going to talk about my research.”
What I see: After students say their name and title, they follow up with “And today I’m going to talk about my research.”
Instead: Get rid of that sentence or any variation of it. There is no need to state the obvious. The audience knows you will be talking about your research. It is a research presentation. In the first minute, you need to grab the audience’s attention. When students say this sentence, it takes away from getting to the point of the talk. It is an unnecessary statement and takes time away from convincing the audience that they should listen to your presentation.
3. Stop Transitioning With “So”
What I see: After the presentation has begun and a student clicks to a new slide, they begin explaining the slide by saying “So”. Then, as the presentation continues, each transition begins with “So”. In a five minute presentation, I hear “So” more times than I hear the subject of the talk.
Instead: Find other transitions to utilize. Otherwise, a five minute presentation can seem like a fifteen minute one. Instead of using “So” to propel the talk forward, drop it from the sentence.
“So we conducted three experiments…” becomes “We conducted three experiments…”
“So the next thing I did…” becomes “The next thing I did…”
“So this graph shows that…” becomes “This graph shows that…”
Doing this makes the presentation stronger and more direct. That way the audience can follow the logic, feel the momentum of the talk and stay engaged with you and the content.
Making these small changes will dramatically improve the introduction, the transitions and overall effect the presentation has on the audience.
When I’m giving workshops on presentation tips, I often get asked about the “proper way to speak at a podium.” I always answer with one sentence, “Unless you absolutely have to, never stand behind a podium.” This response normally gets met with looks of fear and alarm.
I then explain how speakers have a hard enough time creating a connection with their listeners without putting a tree in between themselves and their audience. It is very hard to appear as the authority on your subject when you hide behind a block of wood.
Many people feel the need to stand behind a podium because that is where the microphone is. If you ask ahead of time, normally there is another microphone option for speakers. There are lavaliere microphones, handheld ones and headsets. Or if the only microphone is on the podium, it is often adjustable. You can twist it to the side and stand beside the podium. That way the audience can see you and connect with you.
Other people want to stand behind the podium so they can see their notes. However, your slides are your notes. They are there to help illustrate your points. If you have practiced, the images and ideas on the slides should be sufficient to help you remember what you want to say. If you like to see what slide is coming up, and your laptop is on the podium, you can stand close enough to it to glance at the screen as needed.
Beyond logistics, people feel "safer" behind a podium. Nervous ticks are hidden from view. It gives people something stable to hold on to and ground themselves. However, you have to ask yourself what your ultimate goal is. If it is to feel safe, use the podium. But if your goal is to get people excited about your content, step out in front of people. It is worth feeling a little uncomfortable if it means people feel a connection to you and your ideas.
Experts know it is better to speak to an audience directly. During award shows, no one stands behind a podium. The microphone comes up from the floor, or if there is a “podium” it is clear so the audience can see through it. During TED Talks, people use headsets and walk around the stage. When CEOs like Elon Musk or Tim Cook launch a new product, they don’t stand behind anything. They are front and center.
A podium creates a physical barrier between you and your audience. Next time you give a speech and you see a podium, ditch it. Stand in clear view of your audience so they can connect with you and your content.
Once you go through the arduous process of applying for a job, you wait and hope for that glorious email or phone call informing you of one fact — you have an interview! Then, almost instantly, your excitement is replaced by sheer panic. Will they pick you? What if you get a question wrong? How are you going to get ready for this? Instead of feeling overwhelmed, take a moment and step outside of the powerless position that interviewees feel. In fact, the best way to prepare for an interview is to adopt the opposite role — become the interviewer.
Figure out where the interviewers are coming from. What are they looking for from each candidate? If the tables were turned and you were interviewing yourself for this position, what would you want to know? Go online and research questions companies ask people interviewing for this type of position. Take the time to brainstorm questions you would have for a future employee. Write them down.
Taking on the role of the interviewer answer the following:
Once you approach it from the interviewer side, you can then practice as an interviewee. Questions to help you prepare:
Practice answering them the way you would in the actual interview – say your responses out loud. Don’t just think about the answers, practice articulating your thoughts. Knowing the answers is not enough. You need to hear yourself saying them. Practice being succinct and to the point. Get comfortable answering questions in a clear and concise way.
Once you’ve come up with questions and practiced answering them, the next step is to let it all go. Don’t over-rehearse or become too obsessed with your preparation. As an interviewer, you want the person you are talking with to be genuine and honest. You don’t want to just listen to rehearsed statements. You want to get a sense of who that person is and if they will be a good fit with the team.
If you want to prepare for an interview, you have to think about the situation from the interviewer’s perspective. Put yourself in a position of power and think about the questions they will ask. Practice your answers and then let everything go. When you enter the interview, don’t think about the preparation. Pay attention to what is actually happening in front of you. Actively listen, be genuine and enjoy this opportunity to showcase what makes you stand out from the crowd.
Practice, practice, practice. We’ve heard it a million times and we will continue to. If you want to be good at something — to nail it — you have to work at it. However, when it comes to presentations, there will be times when you have practiced too much. When people have overly memorized a speech, or given it too many times, it can become robotic and lose the life it once had. It becomes like a song you hear on the radio, where every breath, pause and beat is preplanned. The audience won’t feel the need to listen if they can sense you are on autopilot.
In order to breathe life back into your presentation, you need to intentionally break up the pattern. Not only will it disrupt the routine you have settled into, but you might actually find a new and better way of saying a section of your presentation.
Here are five ways you can break up the routine:
Change up the pace on purpose. Say the entire thing as fast as you can. Or, say it as slow as you can. Then, speed up and slow down throughout the talk.
Switch the pitches you are using. Say the speech like you are going on a vocal rollercoaster. You can go from a high voice, to low voice, to medium and back again.
3. Movie Genres
Instead of giving your presentation in the normal professional style, imagine you are in a movie. You can pretend you are are in a western, horror film, comedy, musical, James Bond film, etc.
Change the volume. Start by saying your speech in a whisper and then gradually increase your volume as if you were telling it to someone across the parking lot.
We go into “presenter mode” when we rehearse. We settle into our professional persona as we see ourselves on a stage or in a conference room. To disrupt this pattern, imagine you are in a different environment. You can be underwater, at a concert or talking to kindergarteners. Imagine you are giving this speech in a different space.
With all of these techniques, your pitch, pace, intonation, key words and pauses will change. By doing your presentation wrong on purpose, you are giving yourself the freedom to play around again. You are letting yourself experience this presentation in a new and fun way. Whenever you have a routine, you can get bored with the predicability and start to tune out. By giving your presentation variety again, you are inviting spontaneity back in. This way you can reestablish your connection with the message and bring your presentation back to life.
Before giving a presentation, it is critical to check in with yourself and be realistic about your fears. No matter how confident you feel, there is always going to be that little voice in your head reminding you of the things you feel uneasy about. Instead of trying to quiet that voice — listen to it. Actively investigate what makes you feel nervous. Once you figure out why you are uneasy, you can take the necessary steps to overcome it.
BEFORE A PRESENTATION ASK YOURSELF:
1. What are you the most nervous about?
If you know what you fear the most, you can take time to prepare so it doesn’t happen. If you normally speak too quickly, practice taking extra pauses during certain slides to naturally slow you down. If you are afraid of going over time, practice the whole presentation and time yourself. If your timing stays consistent over a couple rounds, you won’t be nervous about it when you go on stage. Once you realize what you fear the most, you can figure out a game plan to combat it.
2. What parts in the presentation do you always forget?
It is an important clue if you always forget a certain key point. It means that your ideas don’t flow logically enough for you to connect your current idea to the next one. Notice if you have a pattern of “blanking” on a certain section. It means the logic behind those thoughts isn’t strong enough. Take the time to add in another transition sentence so that your ideas flow easily.
3. What parts of your presentation do you hate rehearsing?
There is normally a reason you hate rehearsing a specific section. You either don’t feel confident in the material, fear someone asking you a question about it, or you aren’t prepared enough to present the material. The part you want to avoid practicing the most is normally the part you need to spend the most time on.
4. What questions are you worried about people asking?
Your gut is normally correct — trust it. If you fear that someone will ask you a certain question or challenge a specific point, someone probably will. Take the time to write out the questions you hope people won’t ask. Go through the questions one by one and figure out your answers. However, you need to do more than just think about what you will say. You need to practice saying it. If you are a person who enjoys writing everything out, write out all the answers to the questions and then practice saying them out loud. Make sure you feel comfortable articulating your thoughts. If you don’t, your face and body language will show your insecurities. Instead, rehearse voicing your answers with clarity and ease.
5. What opposite views could derail your presentation?
Take time to play devil’s advocate. What comments or questions could undermine your arguments? Write them out. Then practice giving clear, efficient and powerful answers. That way, if someone in the audience brings that point up, you won’t be flooded with panic. Instead, you will already have a strategy in place.
When you give a presentation, you need to feel confident and prepared. The best way to do that is to take the time and investigate your fears. Face them ahead of time so you don’t bring them up on stage with you. This way your full focus can be on connecting with the audience and bringing your ideas to life.
Bri McWhorter is the Founder and CEO of Activate to Captivate.