Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tips for Becoming a Confident Presenter

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somewhere along the way I became a public speaker. I never took a speech class or participated in debate in school. I never attended Toastmasters or any other organization that helps you become comfortable speaking in front of an audience. Nonetheless, I’ve delivered nearly 600 presentations in the past twenty years and enjoyed just about all of them. These were all training classes and shorter presentations (conferences, professional meetings, webinars, etc.) on software development and management. Somehow, I have become comfortable presenting to audiences ranging from just a few people up to more than a thousand.

Most consultants will be called upon to give a presentation or teach a class from time to time. Speaking in public is one of the most terrifying experiences for most people. That’s understandable. Everyone is staring right at you, awaiting your words of wisdom. You feel exposed and vulnerable. It’s one thing to say something that sounds foolish in a private conversation; it’s quite a different matter to say it to dozens or hundreds or thousands. The potential for embarrassment is enormous. However, so is the potential for sharing important information that can influence many people in a positive way.

Just in case you, like so many other people, are scared by the idea of giving a presentation, in this post I share Karl’s Safety Tips for Confident Public Speaking. I think you’ll find that keeping these ideas in mind as you prepare for a talk will give you a lot more confidence. Maybe you’ll even have fun the next time you’re on stage.

Presentation Tip #1: No one knows what you’re going to say, so don’t worry if the words that come out of your mouth don’t exactly match the way you scripted, planned, or practiced the talk. Just keep going. This is very different from giving, say, a piano recital of a well-known musical composition, where someone in the audience is certain to detect a C that should have been a B.

Presentation Tip #2: You’re in control. You’re the one with the podium, the microphone, the projector, and the laser pointer. You’re the one who can ask the audience if they have any questions. You can terminate the discussion and move on whenever you like. It’s your show.

Presentation Tip #3: Even if you aren’t the world’s expert on the topic you’re presenting, you almost certainly know more about it than anyone else in the room. Otherwise, one of them would be speaking and you’d be listening. Keep this truth in mind to give you confidence in your material.

Presentation Tip #4: You rarely face a hostile audience. Most of the time, people are there because they want to hear what you have to say. This isn’t necessarily true if you’re dealing with a controversial issue or if you’re speaking at a political or government meeting of some kind. But if you’re delivering a factual presentation to a group of people who are attending of their own volition, they usually start out with an open and receptive attitude toward the speaker. After that, it’s up to you to hold their interest.

Presentation Tip #5: If you’re using slides, as in a PowerPoint presentation, never say “and on the next slide….” Maybe you don’t remember exactly what’s on the next slide, or perhaps you changed the sequence from the last time you gave the presentation. If you’re surprised by the slide that pops up, you would have to backtrack a bit after the lead-in you presented. Instead, just display the next slide in the sequence and talk about whatever is on it. In other words, it’s okay to fake it a little bit.

Presentation Tip #6: It’s fine to say “I don’t know” in response to a question if you aren’t sure how best to respond. That’s better than standing there silently because you can’t think of the right answer. It’s also better than making up some answer on the fly that might turn out to be wildly erroneous. Even better than a simple “I don’t know” is “I don’t know, but I’ll find out,” or “I’m not sure off the top of my head, so let me think about your question and get back to you with a more considered response.”

Presentation Tip #7: Keep an eye on the clock. If you see that you might run out of time before you cover everything you wanted to say, that’s your problem, not the audience’s problem. You might have to skip some material. That’s much better than holding captive a fidgeting audience who would like to move on with their lives or get to the next presentation at the conference. It’s usually okay to run a couple of minutes over your allotted time, but that’s it. With practice, you’ll get better at selectively deleting or condensing your planned material to bring the talk to a smooth close without having to Rolodex through twenty slides in the last five minutes—nobody likes that.

Presentation Tip #8: Be sure to talk about what you said you were going to talk about. I firmly believe in “truth in advertising,” so I try to write descriptions of my presentations that are accurate as well as inviting. The audience members have a right to know what to expect, and the speaker has a responsibility to deliver. I’ve attended more than one presentation where the content delivered didn’t fulfill the expectation set by the title and description. Let’s say the title of the talk is “Conjugating Verbs in Swahili,” but the material presented misses the mark. At the end of the talk, the speaker invites questions, and one attendee asks, “Were you going to say anything about conjugating verbs in Swahili?” The speaker is dumbfounded. She doesn’t know how to respond. She thinks that’s what she just spent an hour talking about, but she really didn’t. That’s an embarrassing position for any speaker to be in. I’ve seen it happen.

I find that these eight tips help keep me confident, comfortable, and poised when I’m speaking in public. I’ll bet they’ll help you, too.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)


  1. Very good points Karl,

    If I may add a couple.

    1. Never go past your scheduled time allotment. In fact, it's better to close early and entertain questions. At Toastmaster contests, going past your time results in disqualification - no matter how good your speech was. This reflects the audience perspective whose attention starts to wane after a while.

    2. Ask yourself ' How do I blow away my audience with an opening ? ' The opening will capture your audience's attention and probably be remembered later more than anything else.

  2. Thanks for the new points, Bennett. Yes, leaving time for questions is a good idea. Whether or not you can run over your allotted time depends partly on how long your talk is. If it's a five-minute Toastmaster presentation, I can see why you'd better not run over at all. For a one-hour conference presentation or a half-day tutorial, it might be okay to run a minute or so late. The worst case is when you see conference speakers who are so determined to finish their talk that they disregard the need for audience members to move onto the next presentation, get lunch, or leave for the day.