How to give a great presentation: 10 tips




By Caitlin Kelly

Attention is now probably the scantest resource on the planet. We’re all overwhelmed and distracted, so how can you get a room filled with (mostly) strangers to sit still and really listen to your speech or talk?

It’s do-able, but it’s also work.

I’ve given  many public presentations over the years: to retail students at the University of Minnesota, to retail executives at the annual Retail Customer Experience conference, and many times at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

Do I get nervous beforehand?

Of course!

Unlike most speakers, I never use slides or any other visuals like PowerPoint. If I’m not compelling, slides aren’t going to help. (I get that, with lots of specific scientific or numeric data, these can be essential. They also make taking a cellphone image of them easy and quick for the audience.)




Some people in my audience had done conflict zone work, humanitarian work, newspaper work…


Know your audience and what they need most from your remarks

The single most important element. Until you know who’s going to be listening (or potentially, because at any conference — unless you’re the keynote — your session is competing head-to-head with others in the same time slot) you can’t begin to prepare your remarks.

At my recent presentation at the Northern Short Course, an annual meeting of photojournalists, I was told the audience would be mostly mid-career — yet a high school student and a college senior came up afterward. The ages ranged from 17 to 60s.


Prepare and practice

Never ever ever try to “wing it.” The best presentations may feel spontaneous and casual to the audience — but they are absolutely not. Write out your speech or your talking points, in order, and make sure there’s a logical flow to them. The more you practice, the more you’ll edit and refine. The voice can be casual and conversational but there’s a lot of structure behind it.




Time your remarks


To the minute! Nothing is worse than a speaker who rushes and talks waytoofast or loses track of their allotted time. Listening is tiring!


How do you want your audience to feel when you’re done?

I always want people to leave the room inspired, not tired. I’m not perky or saccharine, but our work is difficult and, even when I acknowledge that, I want to offer practical help.


Breathe deeply, slooooow down and bring a glass of water (no ice)


Take a few deep breaths before you begin, to calm down. Always have a glass of water handy for dry mouth — and no ice! Nothing’s more embarrassing than a pile of ice suddenly shooting down your face and neck in front of everyone. I also think swigging from a plastic bottle is inelegant. It is a performance.


Share some personal stuff


Not confessional, of course, but choose carefully a few anecdotes fully relevant to the theme of your speech that the audience will be able to relate to. Being stiff and pompous is a huge turn-off.






Make sure to leave plenty of time for questions and comments


My most recent presentation was (whew!) 75 minutes…so I timed my remarks for 45 (which is long!) and allowed a full 30 for questions. I still had a dozen people lined up afterward to ask more. If you’ve been engaging, people will want to contribute their thoughts as well.


Don’t rush off afterward


If people want to chat with you one-on-one (a compliment, I think) listen to each one carefully (although keep it moving if the line is long!) and be sure to get their business card; offer yours to them as well if you want to follow up. I think being asked to address an audience is a real honor, so I always looks forward to the new connections we can forge as a result.


Watch other speakers to see how they hold and capture attention


There’s no shortage of inspiring material out there! Celebrities giving commencement speeches, people on YouTube and sooooo many TED talks. Watch how others do it well and get some good ideas for yourself. At the last conference, I watched other solo presenters to see how they engaged their audiences.


14 thoughts on “How to give a great presentation: 10 tips

  1. I love that you shun the use of power point! I do too, but I was beginning to think I was the only one! I agree, if I can’t keep the attention of the audience, I haven’t done my job. Thanks for sharing your tips!

  2. Before I retired, I had to do a lot of training in a very technical field, and Powerpoints were a necessity for a lot of the training. The Powerpoints I used were more visual than text-based, the less text the better. There was nothing worse to me than when I attended a presentation and the presenter just stood there and read the Powerpoint word for word. There was no engagement of the audience at all. I was very fortunate in that a lot of my training that I did was to smaller groups, and I could employ a lot of hands-on, which was always the most successful in my opinion. I’ve enjoyed this and another recent post of yours where you discussed your speaking engagements, and your tips here are excellent.

    1. Thanks!

      I will say that I really valued — as an audience member — being able to snap a photo with my phone of useful slides and not having to take notes in the dark that I’ll never read again.

      I know that in many settings — corporate, for sure — people can feel nervous and naked without using PowerPoint, because everyone else does. My fields (photo/writing) are an odd mix of business and creative, so I have a lot more freedom to do it “my way” I think. Most of the speakers at our annual writing conference just talk — they don’t use slides.

      When I speak, I do make sure to pause, repeat a few things and include some humor and some relevant anecdotes. The more human you are (while also polished!), the more relatable. I always have a line-up of people wanting to talk to me afterward, which I think reflects an ability to connect emotionally (not just intellectually.)

      It’s not easy —- you’re there to be an authoritative expert AND highly engaging.

      Listening to someone speak is tiring! I know that myself, so I really try to project energy and enthusiasm (which I feel or I wouldn’t speak on that topic.)

      I’ve also had some glacial rooms — and that is instructive.

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