15 things you should do to prepare for your next presentation

Illustration for blog on 15 presentation tips
Illustration by Justin Tran

Everyone has a story to tell. But not everyone knows how to tell it. Some of us get so tongue tied by stage fright, we can’t get our best ideas out of our head and into the world. But public speaking doesn’t have to be a nerve-racking chore. In fact, it can be fun when you know how to get out of your own way and get into a creative flow. Today, we’ll show you 15 tips for chipping away at anxiety so you can bring your brilliant work to the people who need to hear it.

Establish your story

If the fear of public speaking has you seriously considering the advice of 1970s sitcom dads, don’t freak out. We’re gonna get through this. Don’t worry about wowing the crowd with charm and charisma. Instead, start by asking, “What message do I want them to remember?” Let that be the foundation of your presentation. Then, create content that flows from that foundation by following these five steps:

1. Set a clear goal: Why are you giving this presentation? Do you want to establish yourself as an expert on a particular topic? Expand your network of industry contacts? Even if you just want to improve your presentation skills, it helps to define your goal at the outset.
2. Determine your key takeaway. Once you’ve identified the most important point you want to make, don’t be shy about weaving it into your presentation several times as a sort of “tagline.” Studies show that “spaced repetition” can improve our ability to recall information later.
3. Choose a theme that ties your ideas together. Remember how Seinfeld used callbacks to thread a comedic theme throughout an entire episode? This technique has a way of making the audience feel more engaged as they begin to anticipate the recurring idea. Though your theme is typically a broad idea or a phrase, you could also use a recurring visual as a theme.
4. Focus on story. There’s no rule that says you have to follow a logical or chronological order. If using flashbacks or time jumps makes your story more impactful, feel free to follow that instinct. As long as you let your key takeaway be the lodestar that helps you steer your story, you’ll be heading in the right direction.
5. Create a framework for ideas. If you’re nervous about getting tongue tied, you might be tempted to write out a script you can lean on like a crutch. But that will bore the audience to sleep because you’re giving all your attention to your own words. Instead, focus on an outline of ideas that prompt you to stay present and conversational.

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Prepare your delivery

Next comes the fun part. After you’ve created your content, you get to dress it up and style it out. Play with visual ways to bring your message to life. Ask yourself, “How should I tell this story?

6. Use impactful imagery. Did you know your brain can identify images you’ve seen for only 13 milliseconds? Should that make you mull over the idea of subliminal slides with your Twitter handle on them? No, it should not. But images do make your message more powerful. If words are the roots of your presentation, let simple, conceptual images be the bloom.
7. Lean toward clean. Experts like David Phillips advise using only one message per slide. That gives your audience a chance to absorb the idea, and prevents the slide from becoming a distraction as you’re speaking.
8. Use slides as visual support. Be careful not to create slides that repeat the words of your speech. They should play a complementary role to the words you’re speaking.
9. Work on your stage presence. Though you might not think of yourself as a visual aid in your presentation, your body language and movement on stage add a lot to the way your message is received. So be sure to practice your presence by rehearsing in front of other people.
10. Remember that it’s a performance. Why doesn’t it feel natural to stand on a lighted stage and talk to a crowd of strangers? Because it’s not. It’s actually better that it doesn’t feel as comfortable as a conversation at home, because you can use nervous energy to your advantage. Use it to create an onstage persona: act like an extrovert, if only for 20 minutes.

Connect with your audience

Showtime! Ready to put those first 10 tips to the test? Though you’ve already created your content and prepared your delivery with your audience in mind, it’s time to face them for real. Let’s take a good, long look at the crowd. Who are these people and why are they here?

11. Focus on the needs of the audience. When the spotlight’s on you, it’s easy to forget the simple truth every presenter should remember: it’s not about you. You’re just the messenger. Remember that the message is what matters most to your audience.
12. Build the presentation with the whole audience in mind. If you’re speaking at a conference, chances are, some VIPs will be in attendance. Yes, they’re Very Important—but they’re not the most important. So play to the average person in the crowd, not the “bigwig” outliers.
13. Be conversational. Remember, you’re not there to read a script, and that includes the one you’re filing in your mind. Choose your words in the moment. Don’t memorize your speech.
14. Go deeper than data. Numbers are helpful for substantiating your claims. But if you want the data to be meaningful and memorable, studies show it helps to elicit emotion.
15. Invite participation. Close with a call to action. Let people know how to keep in touch with you. Ask them for feedback on which ideas resonated and which parts need improvement. Make accessibility and receptivity be part of your personal brand.

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